The Manchester Ship Canal Malcolm Borrowdale Before the Ship Canal

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The Manchester Ship Canal

Malcolm Borrowdale
Before the Ship Canal

The Rivers Mersey and Irwell were made properly navigable from Warrington to Manchester by the Mersey & Irwell Navigation Company and was available for use by barges about 66 feet long by 16 feet wide in 1734. Downstream of Warrington barges had to brave the tidal Mersey estuary with its shifting channels and sandbars. The barges used were Mersey "flats". Later the navigation was gradually improved by the construction of short sections of canal to cut off some of the more difficult winds of the rivers and, at the end of the 18th Century, the dangerous passage of the estuary was improved by the construction of the Runcorn and Latchford Canal (sometimes known as the Black Bear Canal) that runs from above Howley Lock (the western end of the M&IN) east of Warrington to just above Runcorn where it opened into the Mersey by a lock more or less opposite the entrance to the St Helens Canal at Widnes. The river in the middle of Manchester became more canal than river.

First competition for the M&IN (often referred to as the Old Quay Company) was the Bridgewater Canal. This company first constructed a canal from the coal mines in Worsley to Manchester in 1760 and then extended from a junction near Stretford to Runcorn where there was a flight of 10 locks down to docks and a lock out into the Mersey. This was the first "modern" canal in Britain ie planned entirely as a canal not a river navigation scheme but was, of course, predated by canals in France and by the Fossdyke connecting the River Trent to the River Witham in Lincoln - built originally by the Romans for supply of their fort at Lindum Colonia and still in use (though widened and deepened).

New competition came with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 that took away just about all the longer distance passenger traffic and a lot of the goods from the canals although, for a while, traffic to Warrington was still healthy - until opening of the Warrington & Newton Railway connecting to the Liverpool & Manchester at Earlestown in 1837.
Why the Ship Canal was necessary

By the late 19th Century the businessmen of Manchester and other south Lancashire towns were aggrieved by the high port charges in Liverpool and the high price of rail transport to Liverpool and felt that too much money that belonged to the Manchester textile industry was actually going into the pockets of Liverpool gentlemen (Note that Liverpool was regarded as more civilised than Manchester so you have a Liverpool gentleman, a Manchester man, a feller from Rochdale, an Oldham chap and a Salford lad! I suppose the inhabitants of Liverpool probably genuinely think that it is civilised.) This was not a new feeling. Even in the 1830s and 1840s it was noted that it cost nearly as much to transport goods between Liverpool and Manchester (including cargo handling costs and port charges) as it did to transport them between Liverpool and America.

To avoid the heavy charges a company was formed to construct a ship canal and docks in Manchester and also to develop Trafford Park into the world’s first industrial estate. One of the driving forces behind the scheme and, more particularly, behind the industrial development of Trafford Park was Marshall Stevens and the Engineer for the project was Daniel Adamson.

There had been an earlier scheme to build a smaller ship canal from Manchester to the Dee estuary near Chester. It was just as well that nothing came of that scheme as it would only have been able to handle small ships and would have been more or less useless by about 1910.

The Manchester Ship Canal

Building the canal was a massive project but was made possible by mechanisation including the use of what, at the time, were gigantic steam shovels (or steam navvies) rather than the armies of human navvies used in earlier canal and railway construction. It was all very hi-tech for the 1890s. The canal was built sufficiently large to enable ships capable of travelling anywhere in the world to reach Manchester. The locks are about 600 feet long. The Manchester Ship Canal (MSC) Company constructed its own railway system paralleling the canal on one side or the other along most of its length and serving all the main wharfs and the docks and, most significantly, connecting to the Trafford Park railway system.

The canal opened on 1 January 1894 when a flotilla of boats sailed the full length from Eastham to Manchester. There was a formal opening on 21 May 1894 when Queen Victoria travelled along the canal on the yacht Enchantress.

Trafford Park was once the estate of Trafford Hall and became the first industrial estate. Its success was due to the ease with which raw materials or finished goods could be transported from a rail connection to every factory directly to the and from the dockside or the main line railways at a fairly low fixed cost. At the Manchester end the MSC railways connected to the main line railway system at three points: to the London & North Western Railway at Eccles, to the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway in Salford and to the Cheshire Lines Railway at Trafford Park. There were also connections at Cadishead (Irlam), Warrington and Ellesmere Port.

The canal construction began in 1887 and was complete by 1894. At that time the biggest of the Manchester Docks (No. 9 Dock) did not exist; it was constructed later when trade built up so much that the smaller docks had insufficient capacity. Although Docks 6 to 9, that is the main large docks, were in Salford they are always referred to as Manchester Docks.

Construction of the canal obliterated much of the course of the Rivers Irwell and Mersey between Manchester and Lymm. The Mersey flows into the canal on its south side at Irlam and out again on the north side at Rixton (east of Warrington). Much of the old course of the river is completely untraceable – you would never guess that Eccles was once on the river. Modern maps do reveal some of the history of the rivers because the old course forms some parish boundaries. There are some visible bits of the old river and of the works of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. At Warburton there is a high level bridge over the canal but the toll bridge on the road is not the big one over the MSC but the much lower one over the old course of the river and there is a quiet little bit of more or less stagnant old river at Irlam Ferry.

Where there were old crossings of the river that were not replaced by bridges over the canal and river the MSC company was required to provide a free ferry. Irlam ferry (I assume it is still there) can carry vehicles (probably only one at a time) but more interesting is Barton Ferry which is for people only and is a small boat powered by a single oar over the stern – the ferryman usually waits on the Flixton side and if you want to travel from the Barton side and he doesn’t see you there is a gong or a bell to ring to summon him.

From Rixton the MSC goes more or less straight to Runcorn where it comes alongside the Mersey again. There are docks at Runcorn and the junction with the River Weaver which is navigable for small coastal vessels as far as Northwich. On the Weaver there was an impressive boat lift to enable narrowboats from the inland canals to gain access to the river; it has been out of use for many years but there are hopes that it may soon be restored. At Runcorn there used to be a lock allowing barges to get from the docks at the foot of the locks from the Bridgewater Canal into the tidal Mersey to get to Warrington or Widnes. The lock into the Mersey may be still there but has not been used for a very long time; the locks up to the Bridgewater Canal are long gone.

From Runcorn to the western end of the canal at Eastham the MSC is separated from the estuary only by the canal bank. The canal opens into the Mersey by a lock at Eastham just above which was a very important piece of equipment – the masting crane. This removed the masts from ships going up to Manchester so that they could pass under the fixed bridges that are high but not that high. Masts were stored there and refitted when the ship was outward bound. Most of the fixed bridges over the canal are railway bridges (all paid for by the MSCCo. Along with the high embankments needed to raise the railways from their original low levels up to the height needed to give enough clearance for ships.)

There are five fixed road bridges over the MSC. Two are rather spindly-looking structures carrying minor roads at Latchford and Warburton and were built at the same time as the canal. Two of the others are modern motorway bridges at Thelwall (M6) and Barton (M60) built in the 1960s and widened in the 1980s/1990s. The last is the very impressive Runcorn Bridge (similar in shape to Sydney Harbour Bridge) which replaced the old transporter bridge in the 1960s; that, in turn, had replaced Runcorn Ferry and crosses the MSC and the Mersey Estuary. All the other road bridges are substantial steel swing bridges with little clearance over the canal. When the canal was busy opening of the bridges for ships caused huge traffic jams especially at the bridge carrying the A50 south of Warrington. (Before the M6 motorway was built the A50 was part of the main route from Scotland and Northwest England to the West Midlands and London.) At Barton, there is the world’s first and only movable aqueduct carrying a canal over another canal. Barton swing aqueduct is essentially a steel tank of water with waterproof gates at each end to seal it when it is opened for MSC traffic. It replaced the original stone aqueduct engineered by James Brindley to carry the Bridgewater Canal over the River Irwell (MSC at this point is on the original line of the river.)

A Journey to Manchester

A passage to Manchester involved first the tricky entrance to the Mersey then passage up the main Mersey channel (some parts quite narrow between revetments at low tide) past Liverpool on the left and Birkenhead on the right. Liverpool and Birkenhead docks are now much reduced in size and traffic but are still in use though there is not much traffic to Birkenhead now. As a sightseer on this voyage, you will note the tall towers of the ventilation shafts for the Mersey Tunnels on the Birkenhead side and be interested by the fine buildings on the Liverpool side, the Custom House, Liver Building and Cunard Building with the two cathedarls behind them a little way up the hill. You will also notice the two ferries plying between the floating landing stage in Liverpool and Seacombe and Woodside in Birkenhead – they used to goto Wallasey and New Brighton as well. The landing stage was once much longer than it is now and was the passenger pick-up point for ocean liners or their tenders and is still used by car-ferries to the Isle of Man and Ireland. 40 or 50 years ago you would also be able to see the electric trains on the Liverpool Overhead Railway that ran the length of the docks from Litherland in the North to Dingle in the South where it’s terminus was underground (!).

Liverpool docks spread along the whole waterfront of Bootle and Liverpool a distance of 7 or 8 miles. Somewhere around Liverpool most ships before the advent of bowthrust for steering would take on tugs. All ships except for small coasters with bowthrust units would have at least one tug ahead and one astern for going up the MSC to assist steering. The journey up the canal was necessarily slow for big ships in a narrow waterway. After the southern end of Liverpool docks (Lancashire side) and Cammell-Laird shipbuilders and Tranmere oil terminal (Cheshire side) the channel splits into three. The left channel is for Garston Dock, the middle one for Widnes (and formerly Warrington) and the right hand channel is for Eastham and the Ship Canal.

There might be a delay before going through the sea-lock at Eastham then a stop for dismasting and, I believe in the case of some of the bigger ships, removal of the top sections of funnels. The first few miles of the canal are somewhat unlovely with the grey Mersey (at high water) or mudflats (at low water) on the left and oil refineries and chemical works almost all the way on the right. This is relieved a little at Ellesmere Port where there are the 18th and eraly 19th Century warehouses of the Chester Canal Company where than canal opens into the MSC and once into the Mersey. The canal port is now the Ellesmere Port Canal Museum. There were several hours of uninterrupted travel before the first lock at Latchford then the locks at Irlam, Barton and Mode Wheel. Between Warrington and Barton the canal passes through rural scenery with field on both sides most of the way.

Mode Wheel is immediately downstream of the dry docks on the Trafford Park side which are, in turn, just downstream of No.9 Dock on the Salford side. Having passed through Mode Wheel Lock you would find the Manchester Dry Dock Company on the right then the huge No.9 Dock on the left with the massive concrete grain elevator at its far end. Then followed a large number of railway sidings on the land between No. 9 and the next dock, No.8, then No.7 and No.6 Docks also on the left. Opposite these docks was the long quay of Trafford Wharf with its oil storage tanks and flour mill.

Immediately ahead then was the railway swing bridge carrying the MSC railway connection from the north side to the south side and Trafford Park and, a few yards further on, Trafford Road swing bridge (now fixed and twice as wide as it was). The docks and railway were busy enough and the traffic important enough that in 1942, in the middle of the second world war, the old single track railway swing bridge was replaced by a much heavier double track bridge. After the bridges, on the right, were Pomona Docks, Nos. 4, 3, 2 and 1 with the Colgate/Palmolive soap works on the left.

That’s as far as seagoing vessels of any size could reach but barges and other smaller craft could continue ahead under Woden Street footbridge (Mark Addy’s Bridge) towards the middle of Manchester and connections to the smaller inland canals. First was Hulme lock, reached by a short stretch of the River Medlock, on the right connecting to the Bridgewater Canal. This was originally 3 locks later converted into one very deep one and now closed but replaced by a new connection through Trafford Park. Then come Regent Road bridge, the railway bridges carrying the lines of the Manchester South Junction Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (immediately outside Liverpool Road station) and Prince’s Bridge before the now almost invisible entrances to the Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal on the left and to the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal on the right. The Old Quay Company’s warehouses were on the right then, with the city centre of Manchester on your right, there are the bridges under Quay Street and Irwell Street/Bridge Street then Blackfriars, Victoria Bridge, Exchange Station Approach Bridge and Salford Bridge before the hole in the right hand wall where the culverted River Irk flows in almost under the bridge that carries the railway over the river. This bridge is between Victoria station (right) and Exchange station , closed, on the left – these two stations were once connected by Platform 11 of Victoria and Platform 5 of Exchange which, together, were the longest railway platform in the world. Broughton weir is not far beyond the railway bridge and that is the absolute limit of navigation for any boats at all.

All through the middle of Manchester the river is trapped between vertical walls and is nothing at all like the attractive rivers that run through cities like Worcester and does not even have the attraction of being wide with impressive bridges like London or Newcastle. Under Exchange railway bridge is the last point at which you can turn a narrowboat or a barge (the boats used on inland canals and generally 60-70 feet long). The high wall on the right immediately upstream of Victoria Bridge (Manchester Cathedral is just across the road) once had steps down to the river and the landing stage for passenger boats to Pomona Gardens, Lymm, Latchford, Warrington and Runcorn. There were also arches built into the wall just below the top and these held a copper works and the culverted River Dene must flow into the Irwell here.

Decline of the Ship Canal

When I first moved to the Manchester area in 1967, the canal and the docks were still busy. Manchester Liners, Ben Line, Clan Line and Ellerman’s City Line all operated regularly liner services to North and South America. Although these were freight services carrying a maximum of 12 passengers, Manchester Liners had the reputation of being a very good and comfortable way of crossing the Atlantic. The ships of Manchester Liners were specially constructed to make maximum use of the dimensions of the MSC and were of over 20000 tons. That sounds small now when cross-channel and Irish Sea car-ferries are commonly over 30000 tons but the way of expressing ship sizes in tons has altered but, in the 1960s most car-ferries were rated around 3000-5000 tons – the modern ones are bigger but not 10 times bigger.

It was not uncommon to find a dozen ships in No.9 Dock with others in the other Salford Docks, maybe three or four ships carrying grain or oil at Trafford Wharf, perhaps a heavy lift ship in Pomona Docks to collect a huge generator set from the GEC/AEI works in Trafford Park and probably a shipload of imported sulphur at Eccles Wharf delivering to the sulphuric acid works. There would always be the little tug “Appleton” pottering about between the grain elevator at the end of No.9 Dock and Hulme lock – it used to take barges of grain between the elevator and the Kelloggs works in Barton Dock Estate by way of the Bridgewater Canal. There was also a glass-topped passenger boat (“Silver Arrrow” I think) for educational and sightseeing trips round the docks.

There was a fleet of sludge boats carrying sewage sludge to be dumped at sea off the mouth of the Mersey. Salford City (its name commonly mispronounced!) and Mancunian worked from Weaste sewage works and there were four (I think) including Charles Fowler working from the Manchester sewage works at Davyhulme. Further down the canal there was a lot of chemical traffic to Irlam, Cadishead, Carrington, Warrington and Runcorn as well as some smaller ships of special shallow-draught design that went up to Anderton and Northwich on the River Weaver. Iron and manganese ore were brought in to Irlam steelworks.

By the late 1960s, though, the MSC was in decline and traffic to Manchester slumped in the 1970s. Ships were getting bigger and many were too big to go up the canal but more importantly cargo handling was undergoing a revolution. When cargo was all in crates, barrels and sacks handled in small lifts by many cranes, it took days to unload and reload a ship. The use of containers meant that a ship could be unloaded in a few hours. The 24 hours or so to go to Manchester rather than Liverpool became much more significant in turn-round time. At the same time road and rail transport of containers became much faster and more efficient. Big container ships making liner voyages between the US or Canada and Europe began to make a British port a call on the way to Rotterdam or Hamburg so even Liverpool lost out to an extent because it was quicker to make the call at Southampton or Felixstowe rather than Liverpool, Glasgow or London. These latter two also lost a lot/most of their traffic while Felixstowe in Suffolk grew from a little local port into one of the busiest container ports in the country.

Although the MSC is still open, big ships no longer come to Manchester and there are only occasional calls by smaller ships at Eccles (sulphur) and further downstream. Indeed, big ships like the Manchester Liners and Clan Liners could probably still get to Manchester but there are no docks for them any more. The whole docks area in Salford has been redeveloped with hotels, cinemas, restaurants and relatively high priced residential blocks as well as the theatres, exhibition hall and art gallery of the Lowry Centre. The northern branch of the Imperial War Museum is being built on the Trafford Wharf site on the opposite side of the canal. The docks themselves are reduced to being recreational water features and small boat marinas. The old railway swing bridge has been moved and is now a fixed road bridge across the mouth of No.9 dock. The grain elevator has disappeared completely.

What was the docks is now known as Salford Quays and there are other new commercial developments close by. No.9 dock is now split into North Bay, Huron Basin and Erie Basin; No. 8 is Central Bay and Ontario Basin; No. 7 is three completely cut off sections, St. Francis Basin, St. Louis Basin and St. Peter Basin and No. 6 is South Bay. It’s still a very busy place but in a different way and almost totally unrecognisable from what was there 30 years ago.

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