Talbot Wharf: An historic boatyard.

Our canal was the last to be engineered by Thomas Telford — indeed, it was one of the last canals to be built.  Its name, the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, expressed its purpose: a direct route between the industries of the West Midlands and the port of Liverpool.  The Act of Parliament was passed in 1826; construction started from Nantwich and reached Market Drayton in 1829.

However, problems with embankments and cuttings in the Norbury area meant that the canal was not completed for another six years.

The canal company had intended to establish a public wharf at Drayton but a shortage of money meant that it left such developments to local landowners.  The site on the east of the canal, between Newcastle Road and Betton Road, was owned by the Corbet Trustees, and they made the square basin and built a wharf here in time for the canal’s opening on 2 March 1835.

The Corbet name is still seen all over Market Drayton, we have The Corbet Arms hotel, Corbet Court flats, and the crow on the buttercross is from the Corbet family coat of arms. The Corbets were baronets from Moreton Corbet and Stoke on Tern.

Through most of its life, the wharf was known as the ‘Old Wharf’, though Market Drayton’s other wharf, Victoria Wharf, is only three years younger.  From the start, the wharf was divided into two. 

Market Drayton wharf, 1845

A map of 1845 shows the wharf and many of the adjacent buildings, including the stables still standing by Bridge 62 (just below the number 87 on the plan), and the Talbot Pub, a favourite with boaters until its closure several years ago (number 88 on the plan). The name of Talbot suggests an association with the Earls of Shrewsbury.

The southern section, adjacent to Newcastle Road, was a coal merchant’s for the next hundred years.  The first tenant was William Hazledine, an entrepreneur with many interests, including coal mines at Wombridge (near Oakengates).  He was a long-standing friend of Thomas Telford, having supplied the ironwork for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and many of Telford’s bridges, including his suspension bridge over the Menai Straits. 

Hazledine died in 1840 but his successors continued as coal merchants here.  In 1863, when Market Drayton was at last connected to the railway network, the canal company insisted that the Hazledine Company signed an undertaking that they would not set up business at the station. 

In 1890 the Hazledines sold out to the Lilleshall Company.  There had always been a resident agent at the wharf; when the Lilleshall Company took over the then agent, George Lewis, transferred to the new firm.  The Lilleshall Company ceased retail sales of coal in about 1915.  William Skitt then traded as a coal merchant from the wharf until the 1940s.

The northern section of the wharf, adjacent to Betton Road, was a general wharf, receiving and dispatching a wide range of goods.  The first wharfinger was William Tomkinson.  He also traded in guano, corn and salt on his own account.

To start with, many carrying companies used this wharf: Pickford’s (the largest national canal carriers), Crowley Hicklin & Co (based at Wolverhampton, and Pickford’s main rival), Shipton’s (also Wolverhampton), Thomas Sturland (Birmingham) and Tunley & Co (Burton-on-Trent). One wonders whether the last-named brought the supplies for the Talbot Inn which had opened shortly after the canal. 

Unlike the later railways, until 1845 canal companies had no legal powers to carry goods themselves.  However, this did not prevent the Ellesmere & Chester Canal, closely allied to the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, from buying a carrier, Tilston & Co, and continuing to operate it under its old name. 

Following the merger of several canal companies to form the Shropshire Union, the carrying subsidiary was renamed the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Carrying Company.  During the 1840s many of the canal carriers transferred to railway work or ceased trading, so by 1850 Shropshire Union was almost the only carrier on this canal.

It is not clear whether the canal company controlled the wharf from when it opened.  My guess is that whilst there were several carrying firms operating, Tomkinson was an independent trader, but some time between 1845 and 1850 the Shropshire Union took over the lease of the wharf and Tomkinson became their employee.  However, they dismissed him in 1857 and appointed George Wilkinson at an annual salary of £85.

In 1877, the Corbet Trustees auctioned the freehold of the wharf.  The Shropshire Union bid, but the price went above the amount the person bidding on their behalf was authorised to pay.  The following year it transpired that the purchaser was George Wilkinson!  He then offered to sell the property to the Shropshire Union but they decided to rent for 30 years at £115 a year with power to sublet. 

Hazledine became a subtenant at £60 a year for 14 years; this period was later extended to 21 years.  George Wilkinson remained as the company’s agent as well as its landlord.  He died in 1881; in 1886 his executors offered to sell the wharf to the Shropshire Union for £3,100; they refused, but finally in 1899 the deal was done for £2,750.  

Bill of sale for the auction of Talbot Wharf in Market Drayton


The wharf was sold by the trustees of the Corbet estate, and eventually purchased by the Shropshire Union Canal Co.

A warehouse had been built about 1870.  In 1903 this was replaced at a cost estimated at £1,000 by the canopied building which is still there.  The patterns for making the moulds for the iron castings survive in a storeroom at British Waterways’ Ellesmere Depot.  A couple of years earlier the cottage had been built by direct labour at a cost of £254.

In 1905 George Lewis, a cheese factor, took a 99 year lease of the awkwardly shaped plot between the warehouse and Betton Road, and the following year he erected a brick-built warehouse there.  (It’s not known whether this was the same George Lewis who had been the Lilleshall company’s agent — if it was, he would have been aged 77 at the time of the lease.) 

A few years later James Henry Jones, a corn merchant, took over the warehouse.  He installed a diesel engine in an extension at the eastern end of the building and started milling.

The Shropshire Union ceased its carrying business in 1922 and Jones leased their warehouse.  Just before the Second World War Wollerton Mills Ltd were the occupiers, then Staffordshire Farmers Ltd took it over.

The canal and wharf was nationalised in 1948.  Staffordshire Farmers continued to occupy the brick warehouse, now known as ‘Betton Mill’ for several years but later it was lay empty for a couple of decades.  In the late 1990s British Waterways sold it for conversion into apartments and offices.

The former Shropshire Union warehouse has had a succession of tenants, one of whom demolished the southernmost bay of the building in order to increase the amount of clear space by the basin.  As of June 2016 the warehouse has lain empty for some years. 

Tubrace in the canal basin Market Drayton early 20th c


Probably around the turn of the 19th/20th century. The cottages at the back is where the current workshop stands, and all that remains of the large house on the left is the outhouse, presently used to store Calor gas.

William Skitt’s coal business at the Newcastle Road end of the wharf had closed by 1948.  The British Waterways Board then occupied the eastern part of the wharf in the 1950s as their regional base.  In 1957 they started mass production of concrete products here, including piles with maximum dimensions of 8ft 6in by 12in by 4in and the containers for stop planks seen by most locks and many bridge holes in this area.  However, in the 1960s they leased the buildings and concrete-making plant to a local building firm.  The cottage was sold in about 2004.

The canalside part of the wharf, south of the basin, was taken over by Messrs Adams and Littler in 1949 as a boat hire base — they were one of the first firms in the country to market canal holidays.  Their first boats were converted WW2 bridge pontoons, with bodies made of ply, with either two or four berths, and were equipped with both gas and electricity. The week’s hiring fee ranged from £10 to £13.10s.0d.  By this time the company was owned by John Haines, and named ‘Holidays Afloat’ in 1951; further boats were added and the firm also offered a number of moored houseboats.

 Harry Machin  bought ‘Holidays Afloat’ in 1962, and established the firm as a partnership with his father, Harry Machin senior.  The hire fleet expanded to twelve boats.  Harry had bought some boats from David Wain at Welsh Canal Holiday Craft and for a short while you could hire a boat for a one-way holiday, starting at Market Drayton and finishing at Llangollen, or vice versa. Harry and David also joined forces to establish the Canal Museum at Llangollen Wharf and to run the horse drawn trip boats.

 The canals were transformed by the time the 1980s came along and most of ‘Holidays Afloat’ hire fleet were retired.  By then too the firm had taken over the site formerly used for making concrete products. The steel fabrication business had expanded and what had originally been an offshoot to keep the workshops busy out of season became the major part of what was done. Talbot Wharf today continues to be a busy wharf boatyard servicing the passing canal trade alongside offering private moorings. Active urban wharves like this are becoming rare but are an essential part of the canal scene.

The Machin family has now been at Talbot Wharf for three generations.  However, their connection with the wharf goes back much further. The census of 1841 lists a George Holland as living at the Wharf. Later that year he marries and puts his occupation as blacksmith. It’s tempting to think that he worked in the wharf itself, where his great great great grandson Tim Machin is following the same trade almost 250 years later. Are there any other families with longer associations with the canals? 

 This information is taken from Machin family history, Holidays Afloat archives, local memories and also from the work done by local historian Peter Brown for the U3A.