Manchester Ship Canal (1894)

The Manchester Ship Canal is a 36-mile-long (58 km) inland waterway linking Manchester to the Irish Sea. The idea for a shipping lane to the inland town of Manchester came about because traders didn’t wish to continue paying Liverpool Docks and the railway companies to transport their goods to the city. 

The rivers Mersey and Irwell were first made navigable in the early 18th century. Goods were also transported on the Runcorn extension of the Bridgewater Canal (from 1776) and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (from 1830), but by the late 19th century the Mersey and Irwell Navigation had fallen into disrepair and was often unusable. In addition, Manchester’s business community viewed the charges imposed by Liverpool’s docks and the railway companies as excessive. A ship canal was therefore proposed to give ocean-going vessels direct access to Manchester. The region was suffering from the Long Depression; the canal’s proponents argued that the scheme would boost competition and create jobs. They built public support for the scheme, which was first presented to Parliament as a bill in 1882. Faced with stiff opposition from Liverpool, the canal’s supporters were unable to gain the necessary Act of Parliament to allow the scheme to go ahead until 1885.

Manchester Ship Canal at Latchford

The idea that the rivers Mersey and Irwell should be made navigable from the Mersey Estuary in the west to Manchester in the east was first proposed in 1660 and revived in 1712 by the English civil engineer Thomas Steers. The necessary legislation was proposed in 1720, and the Act of Parliament for the navigation passed into law in 1721.

Construction began in 1724, undertaken by the Mersey & Irwell Navigation Company. By 1734 boats “of moderate size” were able to make the journey from quays near Water Street in Manchester to the Irish Sea, but the navigation was only suitable for small ships; during periods of low rainfall or when strong easterly winds held back the tide in the estuary, there was not always sufficient depth of water for a fully laden boat. The completion in 1776 of the Runcorn extension of the Bridgewater Canal, followed in 1830 by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, intensified competition for the carriage of goods.

In 1844 ownership of the Mersey & Irwell Navigation was transferred to the Bridgewater Trustees, and in 1872 it was sold to The Bridgewater Navigation Company for £1.112 million. The navigation had by then fallen into disrepair, its owners preferring instead to maintain the more profitable canal; in 1882 the navigation was described as being “hopelessly choked with silt and filth”, and was closed to all but the smaller boats for 264 out of 311 working days.

A cartoon in the satirical magazine Punch ridiculing the idea that Manchester could become a seaport to rival other major British cities such as Liverpool. A woman, representing Manchester, is dipping her toes into the proposed ship canal. The children playing around her represent the local waterways: the Irwell, Irk, Medlock, and Cornbrook. Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910). This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

Rixton & Warburton bridge built c1894. There was a stone bridge over the old course of the River Mersey here. When the river was diverted to form part of the Manchester Ship Canal a steel bridge was built.  It carries the B5159 from the A57 Manchester Road into Warburton village. The bridge still operates a toll, unless you are a pedestrian when it costs nothing. The old river bed can still be seen alongside (image, right).

Construction of the Manchester Ship Canal began in 1887. It took six years and cost £15 million (equivalent to about £1.65 billion in 2011).

Thomas Walker was appointed as a contractor, with Edward Leader Williams as chief engineer and designer and general manager. The 36-mile (58 km) route was divided into eight sections, with one engineer responsible for each. The first reached from Eastham to Ellesmere Port. Mount Manisty, a large mound of earth on a narrow stretch between the canal and the Mersey northwest of Ellesmere Port, was constructed from soil taken from the excavations. It and the adjacent Manisty Cutting were named after the engineer in charge. The last section built was the passage from Weston Point through the Runcorn Gap to Norton; the existing docks at Runcorn and Weston had to be kept operational until they could be connected to the completed western sections of the ship canal.

Coastal Deniz, built 1991, seen on 31 Oct 2013

It is still the longest river navigation canal and remains the world’s eighth-longest ship canal, only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America. More than 54 million cubic yards (41,000,000 m³) of material were excavated, about half as much as was removed during the building of the Suez Canal. An average of 12,000 workers were employed during construction, peaking at 17,000. Regular navvies were paid 4+1⁄2d per hour for a 10-hour working day, equivalent to about £16 per day in 2010. In terms of machinery, the project made use of more than 200 miles (320 km) of temporary rail track, 180 locomotives, more than 6000 trucks and wagons, 124 steam-powered cranes, 192 other steam engines, and 97 steam excavators. Major engineering landmarks of the scheme included the Barton Swing Aqueduct, the first swing aqueduct in the world, and a neighbouring swing bridge for road traffic at Barton, both of which are now Grade II* listed structures. In 1909 the canal’s depth was increased by 2 feet (0.61 m) to 28 feet (8.5 m), equalling that of the Suez Canal.

The Manchester Ship Canal enabled the newly created Port of Manchester to become Britain’s third-busiest port, despite the city being about 40 miles (64 km) inland. Since its opening in 1894, the canal has handled a wide range of ships and cargos, from coastal vessels to intra-European shipping and intercontinental cargo liners. The first vessel to unload its cargo on the opening day was the Pioneer, belonging to the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), which was also the first vessel registered at Manchester; the CWS operated a weekly service to Rouen.

The Queen at Manchester, Her Majesty, in the Admiralty Yacht Enchantress, opening the Ship Canal, by William Heysham Overend. The author died in 1898, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

THE MSC Railway

To service the large amount of freight being landed at the canal’s docks, the MSC Railway was created to carry goods and connect to the various railway companies near the canal. The MSC Railway, unlike other railway companies in the UK, was not nationalised and became the largest private railway in the UK during the British Railways era. The MSC Railway operated a large fleet of steam locomotives, many of which were 0-6-0 tank engines.

The image, right, shows the preserved Manchester Ship Canal Railway 0-6-0T locomotive, number 686 The Lady Armaghdale, now on display at The Engine House in Highley. Author: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Swing bridge in action.

The amount of freight carried by the canal peaked in 1958 at 18 million long tons (20 million short tons), but the increasing size of ocean-going ships and the port’s failure to introduce modern freight-handling methods resulted in that headline figure dropping steadily, and the closure of the docks in Salford in 1984.

In 1984 Salford City Council used a derelict land grant to purchase the docks at Salford from the Ship Canal Company, rebranding the area as Salford Quays. Principal developers Urban Waterside began redevelopment work the following year, by which time traffic on the canal’s upper reaches had declined to such an extent that its owners considered closing it above Runcorn. In 1993 the Ship Canal Company was acquired by Peel Holdings.

Pleasure boat at Salford Quays on 15 Dec 2016

Unlike most British canals, the MSC and the Bridgewater Canal were never nationalised, and remain in the ownership of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, a subsidiary of Peel Holdings.

To conclude my story, here are a series of photos from along the Manchester Ship Canal.

We’ll start with three images by Peter Spilsbury show scenes at Latchford Locks.

Thelwall Ferry

Because the route of the Manchester Ship Canal cut through an ancient right of way, the Manchester Ship Canal Company is bound by an Act of Parliament to provide the ferry service. This is in the form of a ferry, as seen in the photos below. The wooden rowing boat has since been replaced by a stainless steel version. The final photo of the set shows The Royal Iris passes by Thelwall Ferry on 2 August 1984 in a photo by Peter Spilsbury.

Warrington Dock

Warrington Dock entrance is an area linking the Ship Canal with the Mersey via Walton Lock, which is now disused and dried up.

The remains of the dock today.

More images taken by Peter Spilsbury

Manchester’s sewage was treated at Barton and shipped out to the Mersey Bar by a number of vessels over the years until a new treatment plant was constructed at Waterloo Dock, Liverpool by North West Water (later United Utilities). Salford City is seen here at Latchford Locks with Richmonds factory behind. Photo © P Spilsbury

HMS Shetland is an Island class patrol vehicle seen here at Latchford Locks with
Richmonds cooker factory behind (later New World before it closed) Photo 24 Jun 1981

And finally…

The replica Golden Hind passes through Latchford on a visit to Salford Quays on 25 October 1991. The original was the ship in which (Sir) Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577-80. Originally called the Pelican, it was renamed by Drake in mid-voyage in 1577, as he prepared to enter the straits of Magellan. It was renamed in honour of his patron, Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-91), whose armorial crest was a golden hind (the heraldic term for a female deer). Photo Copyright © P Spilsbury

Some information from Wikipedia