Manchester Ship Canal

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The Manchester Ship Canal


The Proposal for a Canal to Manchester

By the latter half of the 19th century, Manchester had become a major industrial city. It was a fast growing city; the population of the Manchester region had risen from an estimated 322,00 in 1801 to over 1 million by 1850, and would rise to over 2 million people by 1901. Not only was the Lancashire cotton industry (in which many of these people worked) expanding, but the city had developed a leading technology in the engineering and manufacture of machinery for textile production. Its growing population also needed feeding and servicing. Yet, because it was a landlocked city, all goods had to be transported by road or rail to Liverpool docks in order to be exported abroad, and incoming goods were delivered by the same route.

The Manchester Ship Canal - Thomas Walker Manchester Ship Canal - Lord Egerton of Tatton Ship Canal  - Daniel Adamson
Daniel Adamson, Lord Egerton of Tatton and Thomas Walker

Liverpool tolls and harbour dues were prohibitive and significantly reduced profitability. Mancunian businessmen had long objected to Liverpool's commercial monopolies, and of the stranglehold which that city's port authorities held on Manchester trade.
Oldham merchants were quoted as saying that it was cheaper to send their goods the 100 miles by road to the port of Hull on the east coast than to transport them the 35 miles to Liverpool and have to pay exorbitant harbour dues and levies.

Manchester Ship Canal
Manchester Ship Canal Aerial Photo Courtesy of www.webbaviation.co.uk © 2008

Construction of the Manchester Ship Canal

Although some goods were still transported by narrowboats on the Bridgewater Canal, the railways had largely taken over this function by the 1850s. In the 1890s, however, Manchester was to come up with a radical new proposal to connect it directly to the sea by a new man-made canal - the Manchester Ship Canal. After the depression of the late 1870s and mid-1880s it's construction would be seen as a sign of the city's long overdue economic revival. The depression had been as a result of Union blockades on cotton supplies in from the southern states in the American Civil War, and the resultant cotton-starvation experienced by the cotton mills of the Manchester region.
The first moves to make the idea a reality were made when Daniel Adamson , a leading local industrialist, called a meeting to form the Manchester Ship Canal Company on 1st January 1882 at his home at "The Towers" in Didsbury. As a result, a committee was formed to obtain parliamentary permission for the project. It was to take three attempts over the next few years to secure the passage of the Manchester Ship Canal Bill through parliament, and this was followed by a great celebration in the city, with a huge procession to Belle Vue and an ox-roasting at Eccles. A great deal of civic pride rested on the success of the project.
The company needed to raise �5million before work could begin, and this was raised by floating a share issue. Construction began in November 1887, when the first turf was ceremonially cut at Eastham by the new chairman, Lord Egerton of Tatton. Earlier that year, Adamson had resigned as chairman, and was to die shortly afterwards. The project contractor was Thomas Walker, an experienced and celebrated civil engineer who had already been involved in the building of the Severn Tunnel for the Great Western Railway Company. He estimated it would take 4� years to complete at a cost of �5�million. His estimates were to be far from realistic, however, and the canal would eventually cost over �15million by the time of its opening in 1894. Navvies' wages alone accounted for over �1,000,000.
Walker's death before its completion also caused a severe loss of confidence in the company and the withdrawal of many financial backers, so that the Manchester City Council had to step in with another �5million, and take over 51% of the Ship Canal Company shares. The construction of the canal was fraught with many other problems - particularly with the boggy ground and the bad weather, which halted work on numerous occasions through flooding.
But construction methods were to be state of the art, with new machines and devices employed alongside the army of "navvies" (an abbreviation of "navigators" - the men and boys who dug the canal). Equipment included over 100 steam excavators, 7 earth dredgers, 6,300 railway wagons, 173 locomotives, 124 steam cranes and a workforce of 16,000 men and boys. Several major engineering feats were accomplished to deal with the several railway lines which crossed the canal - many bridges had to be reconstructed or raised to allow headroom for large ships to pass beneath. At Salford, the Barton Swing Aqueduct was built to allow the Bridgewater Canal to pass over it, as was the Swing Road Bridge at Salford Quays.

The Expansion and Success of the Ship Canal

Barton Road Bridge and Trafford Road Bridge were closest to Manchester, and were originally swung by means of hydraulic power. In recent times three new bridges have been built across the Ship Canal : Barton High Level which carries the M60 Motorway, the Thelwall Viaduct, carrying the M6 and the Widnes-Runcorn Link Bridge.
East of Warrington, the canal joins the River Irwell, and the two become one waterway from there to the Mersey estuary. Dock facilities needed to be constructed at various points along the canal, and some of these are still operational, though the ones nearer to Manchester have long since ceased to be used.
The lower reaches of the canal are still quite busy today, particularly around the huge Queen Elizabeth II Dock at Eastham, which handles ships delivering at its large oil tanker terminal. From the outset, it had been decided to dig the canal deep enough to allow passage of large ocean liners, on the same principle as the Suez Canal, and that its depth could be increased when necessary by dredging. It was said that up unto the Second World War there were only six ships in the world too big to use the Ship Canal.
Six locks were installed to raise ships some 60 feet 6 inches over its 35.5 miles - at Port Sunlight-Eastham, Latchford, Irlam, Barton and Mode Wheel at Salford. Port Sunlight Lock connected the Ship Canal to the tidal channel of the River Mersey, and acted as a control stop lock, so that vessels moored above the lock could remain afloat even when the tide was out.
It was also the home of the Lever Brothers factory where soap and detergent products were manufactured. The factory exported some 1600 tons of Sunlight Soap a week through the Ship Canal. Before the construction of the Ship Canal, Eastham had been a popular day trip venue for the people of Liverpool, and it was known for its beautiful gardens - the canal in some ways made it more accessible, particularly after the construction of the pier in 1874 and the running of regular services from Liverpool.

Map of  Manchester Ship Canal

In other ways, the canal sounded the death knell of Eastham as a tourist resort, as it became the focus of large commercial seagoing traffic, and its character of "the Richmond of the Mersey" was lost. Besides export goods, Manchester had become a major centre for the distribution of imported food and raw materials - hence its Corn Exchange and its Coal Exchange. While the Ship Canal had been primarily intended as a means of reviving the ailing cotton trade, it actually promoted Manchester engineering, and became a major attraction to food and raw material importers.
Most of Britain's grain and corn imports came via the Manchester Ship Canal. By 1914 the Canal had secured 5% of all UK imports, and over 4% of domestic exports. The city had also built many large warehouses to store these goods in transit, and a great deal of employment and commerce had been created in the storage trade. The 20th century has seen the Manchester Ship Canal fare well and worse. One major factor in its success was Trafford Park Industrial Estate. This large park through which the canal passes directly, is so strategically placed on the south-western approaches to the Cities of Salford and Manchester, that it has seen many companies locating, or relocating their industries in Trafford, due in no small part to the canal, its direct accessibility to the sea, and thereafter to the whole world. Apart from the predictable textile companies, Trafford Park saw the arrival of food production, vehicle manufacture, electronics and brewing companies.
The British Westinghouse Electric Company bought up a huge tract of the park to establish the largest engineering works in the UK; the Co-operative Wholesale Society (the CWS) located its distribution warehouses in the estate; a Ford Motor Car factory was situated there from 1910 and for many years before relocating to Dagenham; Kelloggs (of Corn Flakes fame) still have a major processing plant in Trafford; Hovis Bread and Brook Bond Tea is still produced there. Engineering works included the manufacture of the Manchester Bomber, and later over 1000 Lancaster Bombers in World War Two, as well as the Rolls Royce Merlin engines which powered fighter planes like the Spitfire. The Ship Canal and the Manchester Docks had become vital components in the success of Manchester commerce and industry.

The 20th Century Decline of the Manchester Ship Canal

When the canal reaches Manchester (or more properly Salford) it enters a web of quays and jetties. The old Salford-Manchester Docks disappeared in the early 1970s, in the wake of improved road, air and rail freight systems, and over the past few decades, as Manchester has ceased to be the strong centre of manufacturing that it used to be, the canal has fallen largely into disuse. The docks were redeveloped as Salford Quays, a large, prestigious inner city regenerative project of quality waterside housing, enterprise zone, entertainment and recreational complexes, and light industry. Ironically, it had been the Ship Canal which had made possible the boom in exports of Manchester-made textile machinery, and it was this in itself which was to be responsible for its own decline. The importation of cheaper foreign textiles in the 1950s and 60s, often made on machines which originated in Manchester, was to render local production uneconomic, and as the mills began to shut down around Lancashire, the need for the canal declined with it. In the 1960s, the gradual opening of more fast through-route motorways made road transportation easier and cost effective, and the development of the World Air Freight Terminal at Manchester Airport was to be a tough competitor. The last nail in the coffin of the Manchester Ship Canal was the introduction of containerised freight transportation. New container systems were introduced in British coastal ports and docks, and Manchester lost out in this modernisation - it did not have the space to store large numbers of containerised goods at the waterside, which the system demanded - the Ship Canal had simply outlived its usefulness. It remains today as a tribute to Victorian Manchester's engineering ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, and the farsightedness which inspired its native industrialists.

Sources: See Bibliography - Books about Manchester

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This page last updated 16 Nov 12.