Manchester Ship Canal adventure
Was it the greatest Victorian engineering feat of them
On 1 January, 1894, the massive gates of Eastham Locks on
the Mersey estuary swung open for the first ships to sail the full
36 miles of the Ship Canal through to Manchester. Later that year,
on 21 May, amidst scenes of great jubilation and with the world’s
press on hand to record the event, Queen Victoria came to Manchester
to declare the Canal open formally.
As early as 1660, suggestions had been made that the Rivers Mersey
and Irwell should be improved and dredged to make them more easily
navigable. The estuary of the Mersey had been used by ships from
early times, but never further than Warrington.
In the 1760’s the Duke of Bridgewater built a barge canal
from his collieries at Worsley to Manchester, which was later extended
to Runcorn with access into the Mersey. This canal made engineering
history; it was the first to be thrown across a river by aqueduct
– at Barton – and contributed greatly to the prosperity
of the district.
However, although of great benefit to trade, the size of craft that
could sail it was, of course, limited and, whilst none came to fruition,
various proposals were made for a deep water passage, not least
one made in 1825 for a ‘ship canal’ 45 miles long from
the Dee estuary through to south Manchester by way of Lymm and Altrincham.
By the second half of the last century Manchester was a city in
decline, with its trade and manufacturing throttled by the crippling
transport charges exacted by the railway companies and the Liverpool
Dock Board. No less than four-fifth’s of Manchester’s
overseas trade had to pass through Liverpool, and the Board exploited
its monopoly to the full.
To revitalize trade, the proposal to bring in deep sea shipping
directly to Manchester was revived, but the difficulties were daunting
and there was much skepticism because as well as cost and the immensity
of the engineering challenge there was the implacable opposition
of Liverpool and the railways, and even in Manchester there were
some who doubted that such a scheme could ever be successful.
For a time resolution wavered, but then Daniel Adamson, a Manchester
manufacturer of vision and boldness, seized the reins with determined
energy. In June, 1882, he called a meeting of prominent civic leaders
and businessmen from the city and surrounding area and by the end
of that year a bill was before Parliament seeking the necessary
powers to proceed.
Meanwhile, ship canal fever had spread throughout the region. Enthusiastic
meetings were held and popular support for the notion grew rapidly.
Liverpool and the railways fought the proposal bitterly and twice
the bill was rejected. But in 1885, after a three year struggle,
it was passed and on his return from London Daniel Adamson was by
a jubilant crowd which presented him with an address, took the horses
from his carriage, and dragged him home. Cannons were fired, church
bells rang out, bands paraded the streets and up to 150,000 people
attended the ‘Victory’ demonstration at Belle Vue.
So far so good, but next the promoters had to raise £5 million
(£300) million in today’s money) as the first part of
the construction costs. They were also required to buy the Bridgewater
Canal, all within a two year deadline set by Parliament.
The promoters, after many difficulties, finally succeeded in raising
the money – just – and on 11 November, 1887, the first
sod was cut and the ‘Big Dutch’, as the Canal was affectionately
known, was underway.
Contractors, were appointed and work began by building miles of
temporary railway track for the distribution of materials and dispersal
of the excavated rock and soil. A line all thirty six miles from
Eastham to Manchester was completed very quickly and carried a supply
train the full length each day.
Mechanical excavators were soon were soon in use along the length
of the workings, but could not entirely replace the spade and wheelbarrow.
An army of navvies (16,000 at the peak) were employed, together
with stonemasons, carpenters, bricklayers and all the other crafts
necessary for such an immense undertaking.
Then came more difficulties: the contractor died suddenly; violent
floods broke through the earthworks destroying months of toil and,
in some places, submerging equipment to a depth of 40 feet; and
in the winter of 1891 the Bridgewater Canal, at that time the fledgling
company’s only profit-making asset, froze over and was impassable
for months. Money ran desperately short, and the day was only saved
when Manchester City Council stepped in with loans to keep the project
By November, 1893, however, the Canal was at last completely navigable,
and on 7 December of that year the directors made the first full
passage, setting the seal on the construction of miles of docks
and quays, five sets of massive locks, seven swing road bridges,
the famous swing aqueduct at Barton and five high-level railway
viaducts. Then, on New Year’s Day 1894, to mark the commercial
opening, Samuel Platt’s steam yacht
The Norseman led a procession of 71 ships from Latchford to the
terminal docks at Salford, with The Pioneer, a steamer owned by
the Co-operative Wholesale Society, having the honour of unloading
the first cargo.
Later in 1894, on 21 May, Queen Victoria came to open the Canal
formally from aboard the Royal Yacht Enchantress. The weather was
uncertain, but even so vast crowds gathered to greet Her Majesty
and celebrate the occasion, for the Canal was indeed a momentous
Contemporary accounts fittingly described it as ‘One of the
greatest pieces of engineering known’ and ‘One of the
world’s great victories of the noblest sort’.
The rapid growth in the volume of trade handled quickly justified
the faith of the promoters and further, the Canal was the spur for
the development of Trafford Park as the first purpose-built industrial
estate in the country, with the attraction not only of direct deep
water access but of a railway system connected both to the national
main lines and also to the Ship Canal Company’s own extensive
network – which eventually grew to be the largest private
railway in Britain.
To accommodate the increase in shipping, a new dock, over half-a-mile
long and formally opened by King Edward VII in 1905, was built on
a site that once formed part of the old Manchester Racecourse. Then,
in 1909, to cater for deeper draught vessels, the water level of
the Canal was raised to give a new depth of 28 feet, with a deepening
some 20 years later to 30 feet of the stretch between Eastham and
Stanlow to allow the passage of oil tankers to purpose-built oil
docks at Stanlow.
Another notable landmark was the opening of the Queen Elizabeth
II Dock in 1954. Built alongside the estuary locks to the Mersey,
it covers 19 acres and was built specifically to handle petroleum
products, chemicals and edible oils in bulk.
The construction of the Ship Canal was arguably the greatest engineering
project of Victorian times; it succeeded in making Manchester one
of the major ports of the world and contributed immeasurably to
the renewed prosperity of the area.