Bridgewater Canal (1761)

The Bridgewater Canal connects Runcorn, Warrington, Manchester and Leigh. It was commissioned by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, to transport coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. It was opened in 1761 from Worsley to Manchester, and later extended from Manchester to Runcorn, and then from Worsley to Leigh.

The Bridgewater Canal is entirely on one level and has no locks. Cranes are located at intervals along the canal’s length to allow boards to be dropped into slots in the canal banks. This allows sections of the canal to be isolated in the event of a leak.

The original section of the canal runs from Castlefield Basin in Manchester city centre. This is where the canal terminates, and joins to the Rochdale Canal, and where boats used to unload their cargoes. The canal runs west from Manchester for about four miles (7 km) to a point where it splits into two parts at “Waters Meeting” junction; en route it passes Hulme Lock, now disused, which provided a connection to the River Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal, and a new lock at Pomona giving access to the Manchester Ship Canal.

This was the only time I saw a coal barge. It was taken near Grappenhall when some friends and I hired a motorboat from Marine Engineering at Stockton Heath in the early 1960s. Photo and caption © P Spilsbury

From Waters Meeting, the original part of the canal travels north west for about 10 miles (16 km) until it reaches the village of Worsley and the entrance to the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater’s coal mines via the Worsley Navigable Levels. These are an extensive series of coal mines worked largely by the use of underground canals (the navigable levels) and boats. The iron ore deposits in the rock faces the tunnels pass through are responsible for the deep orange colour of the canal at Worsley.

On the way to Worsley it passes over the River Irwell/Manchester Ship Canal on the Barton Swing Aqueduct at Salford, the world’s first commercially driven aqueduct, which was completed in 1893 with the novel idea of “opening” by rotating 90 degrees to allow ships to pass.

The Packet House at Worsley, right, must be one of the most photographed buildings in the North west. To the right is the branch to the mine entrance and the Leigh Branch is to the left.

This overcame the problem of crossing the Irwell Valley. The original bridge was built in 1767 by James Brindley and consisted of three arches, and measured 12 metres high, 200 metres long and 11 metres wide. Upon its opening in 1761 it earned the nickname of “the Castle in the Air” and proved hugely successful in the industry of the area. The stone bridge was replaced by the swing bridge of today, which carries 800 tonnes of water and has a total weight of 1,200 tonnes. This section of the canal was later extended a further 5 miles (8 km) to Leigh where it makes an end-on connection with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

The other part of the canal travels about 20 miles south-west to Runcorn, passing through the town of Sale and village of Lymm, and to the south of Warrington. At Preston Brook the canal connects with the Trent and Mersey Canal and at Runcorn, beyond the present terminus, a set of locks used to lower the canal to the River Mersey and later to the Manchester Ship Canal. These locks are now disused; if a new road crossing of the Mersey is built, changes to the road system in Runcorn could allow restoration of these locks.

In this view, of the Bridgewater Canal at Worsley, a starvation boat can be seen on the left. They got their name because the ribs were exposed. James Brindley was the engineer and he also planned a canal system from the Mersey to the Trent. Text and photo P. Spilsbury.

Here is Brindley’s aqueduct, replaced late in the 19th century.

Brindley aqueduct pictured behind a lock on the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. Picture source:

The Bridgewater canal is described as the first great achievement of the canal age, although the Sankey Canal opened earlier. Bridgewater captured the public imagination because of its engineering feats; it required the construction of an aqueduct to cross the River Irwell, and a tunnel at Worsley. Its success helped inspire a period of intense canal building in Britain, known as Canal Mania.

It later faced intense competition from the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and the Macclesfield Canal. Navigable throughout its history, it is one of the few canals in Britain not to have been nationalised, and remains privately owned. Pleasure craft now use the canal which forms part of the Cheshire Ring network of canals.

Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, owned some of the coal mines dug to supply North West England with fuel for the steam engines instrumental in powering England’s Industrial Revolution. The duke transported his coal along the Mersey and Irwell Navigation and also by packhorse, but each method was inefficient and expensive; river transport was subject to the vagaries of river navigation, and the amount of coal packhorses could carry was limited by its relative weight. The duke’s underground mines also suffered from persistent flooding, caused by the geology of the Middle Coal Measures, where the coal seam lies beneath a layer of permeable sandstone.

Having visited the Canal du Midi in France and watched the construction of the Sankey Canal in England, the duke’s solution to these problems was to build an underground canal at Worsley, connected to a surface canal between Worsley and Salford. In addition to easing overland transport difficulties and providing drainage for his mines, an underground canal would provide a reliable source of water for the surface canal, and also eliminate the need to lift the coal to the surface (an expensive and difficult proposition).

A portrait of the Third Duke of Bridgewater. The Duke’s Canal was a catalyst for a canal boom, with many more canals being built after the success of the his ‘cut’. Image source: via Wikipedia.

The Act of Parliament allowing the building of the Bridgewater Canal was passed in 1759. The Duke commissioned James Brindley as canal engineer and it opened in 1761. 

The construction of the canal had already started when James Brindley became involved. Brindley took charge of the canal’s construction. Several changes were made to the canal’s course under Brindley’s control and the canal was completed in 1764.

Before and during the construction of the Bridgewater Canal the navigable level was begun and tunnelling progressed. A tunnel 8 feet high was cut northwards into the rock from the canal level at Worsley providing 4 feet of headroom and four feet of water. The first workable seam (the Four Feet seam) was reached in 1761, 770 yards from the tunnel’s portal. The tunnel was not straight, it changed course in order to avoid trespassing under the land of neighbouring landlords.

As new coal seams were intercepted branch levels into the seams were dug and extended as the coals were mined. The branch level along the Four Feet seam itself reached a length of 1.75 miles.

Mine shafts were sunk and coal mined ahead of the intended line of the main navigable level, which was continually extended for many years to reach a length of 4 miles. In order to ease the congestion resulting from the large number of boats using the level, a second entrance tunnel was dug, 500 yards long, and a one way system introduced.

At the time it was considered a major engineering achievement, as the canal contained a large aqueduct over the River Irwell, and it greatly enhanced Brindley’s career. The Worsley part of the canal was later extended to Leigh, in 1799. The Duke had invested a huge sum of his own money into constructing the canal, and it was a great financial success.

Due to the greatly increased supply of coal which the canal had enabled, the price of coal in Manchester fell by nearly three quarters within a year of the canal opening. A few years later construction began of the route to Runcorn, which opened in 1772.

Inside the mines 46 miles of underground canal on four levels linked by inclined planes were constructed. They were served by specially-built M-boats (also known as starvationers), the largest of which could carry 12 tons of coal. Mining ceased in 1887.

The canal carried commercial freight traffic until 1975; the last regular traffic being grain from Liverpool to Manchester for BOCM, and is now mainly used by pleasure craft. The canal also hosts two rowing clubs – Trafford Rowing Club and Manchester University Boat Club.

Bridgewater Canal at Thelwall

James Brindley (Canal Engineer)

James Brindley (1716 – 30 September 1772) was born into a farming family in Tunstead, Derbyshire, which in those days was extremely isolated. He received little formal education.

At age 17, encouraged by his mother, he was apprenticed to a millwright in Sutton, Macclesfield. Having completed his apprenticeship he set up business for himself as a wheelwright in Leek.

He soon established a reputation for ingenuity and skill at repairing many different kinds of machinery. In 1752 he designed and built an engine for draining a coal mine. Three years later he built a machine for a silk-mill at Congleton.

His reputation brought him to the attention of the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater who was looking for a way to improve the transport of coal from his coal mines at Worsley in Manchester. In 1761 the Bridgewater canal was the result.

Some information from Wikipedia