The Manchester Ship Canal.


The construction of the Manchester Ship Canal has been described as the greatest engineering achievement of Victorian times, whether this is true or not, it is certainly an immense achievement and transformed an inland city into a major port.

Construction commenced in1887 when the first sod was cut by Lord Edgerton at Eastham, and continued until 1893, with the full length of the canal being opened for commercial traffic on New Year's day 1894. The official opening ceremony was performed by Queen Victoria on the 21st of May of the same year.

Numerous plans and proposals for bringing ships into Manchester had been made over the years, the earliest being made in 1660 when it was proposed that the rivers Mersey and Irwell be made navigable to allow vessels to reach Manchester from the estuary, but it was not until 1885 that The Manchester Ship Canal Act finally received Royal Assent and so cleared the way for the construction of the canal.

Prior to the canal the only way for vessels to reach Manchester was by using either the Mersey and Irwell Navigation (begun in 1724 and allowing ships of up to 50 tons to reach the city by 1734) or later, via the Bridgewater canal which was connected to the Mersey at Runcorn. Neither of  these two routes was totally satisfactory, or fast, and it was impossible for large vessels to attempt the trip. The two routes did however improve, and attempts to straighten, dredge, and improve the river route were constantly made although the unpredictability of the water levels, and the twisting nature of the rivers, together with many sand and mud banks made the task extremely difficult so that by 1860 the river, which had once been capable of accomodating vessels of over 5 feet draught had difficulty in accomodating those of only 3 feet.   By the late 1800's the immense dock tolls being levied on all Manchester cargos by Liverpool merchants were also having a great effect on the industry and prosperity of Manchester, with workers being laid off, and living standards in rapid decline, clearly something had to be done to alleviate this and proposals for a new waterway were again raised.      The construction of the Suez canal offered encouragement and it was decided that a canal of similar depth and width should be constructed, if at all possible, so that Liverpool could be avoided and cargos brought directly to and from the city by ocean going vessels.

Despite the obvious advantages of a deep and wide canal to link Manchester with the sea opposition by the railway companies and the city of  Liverpool made financing such an undertaking almost impossible. Even so, enthusiasm continued, and a scheme for a canal was passed by the House of Commons in 1883, unfortunately opposition in the Lords meant that the plans were rejected.   A further scheme was submitted the following year but this time it was defeated in the Commons. The plans were further revised, this time extending the canal along the southern shore of the Mersey to Eastham before joining the estuary, and these were  passed by both houses on August 5th 1885 so enabling the Manchester Ship Canal Act to receive Royal Assent the following day, although with certain stipulations attached.  The conditions stated, amongst other things, that the canal was to be brought onto dry land at Eastham in order to protect the river estuary, that 5 million must be raised before construction commenced and that the Bridgewater Canal and the Mersey and Irwell Navigation were to be purchased within two years of the bill receiving Royal Assent.

The cost of submitting the three bills to Parliament had cost the supporters and objectors something in the region of 300,000 in total, but the delight in Manchester and the surrounding areas when the third bill was passed knew no bounds. Church bells were rung in celebration and an ox roast in Eccles on August 31st  attracted 30,000 people, similar celebrations were held throughout the area and Daniel Adamson, the prime mover of the bills, was met by bands and cheering crowds when he returned from London.

Today it is evident that the opposition forcing the extension of the canal to Eastham was fortunate and resulted in a much better canal, with the ports of Runcorn, Weston, Ellesmere Port and the oil docks at Stanlow  all flourishing as a result of their position on the canal.


The final route of the canal, note that Mode Wheel Locks are not shown:-

MSC.jpg (198728 bytes)


With the bill finally passed  Adamson tried desperately to raise the first 5 million but resigned from the company when it was evident that he would not succeed. He was replaced by  Lord Edgerton who raised a total of 3M by the May of 1887 and persuaded the bankers Baring and Rothschild to underwrite a further 4 million, so allowing construction to start. 

Thomas Andrew Walker was engaged as sole contractor in charge of  the construction and he divided the thirty six mile route into nine (soon reduced to eight) sections and appointed an engineer to take charge of each. Walker was known to be an excellent employer, looking after the needs of his workforce as best as he could and provided accommodation, meeting halls and hospital facilities. 

Walker was a great believer in mechanisation and assembled the greatest number of locomotives, steam shovels and railway lines ever used up to then on a civil engineering project anywhere in the world, and by the middle of 1889 hundreds of miles of railway lines had been laid to carry away the 20 million cubic yards of mud, silt and rock already excavated. See machinery.htm  for details of machinery used.

The first two years proceeded well with almost half of the estimated 44M cubic yards of waste excavated and removed. The Randles sluices had been completed and a jetty built at Eastham to receive the cornish granite used in the building of the locks. Further supplies were being brought by ship to Ince as a result of the refusal of one landowner to grant permission for them to be carried over his land. Numerous archeological finds had been made whilst the excavations were in progress, including a prehistoric dugout canoe  found some 25 feet beneath the surface at Barton, a further one at Partington being found some 20 feet down, a Roman causeway some found 15 feet below ground at Pool Hall, and a Runic cross was found at Eccles - the dugout canoe from Barton can be seen in Manchester Museum..

Things had progressed  well up until the end of 1889 but now started to go wrong. In November Walker died and although the engineers continued the task it was soon realised that none posessed the experience and ability that he had. In addition the weather, good up to now, took a turn for the worse, with severe frosts in January holding up the concreteing, and with torrential rains coinciding with the thaw at the end of the month causing flooding in the workings and dams to be washed away. Near Mode Wheel, equipment and wagons were entirely submerged and it was not until April that the chaos was cleared. Further floods occured at Norton in February and in March it was the turn of the Thelwall workings. 

During rhe summer of 1890 a new dredger was built and started to deepen the channel leading from ehe estuary to the entrance locks at Eastham and two further ones built on the canal workings commenced deepening the river sections of the canal from the junction of the Rivers Bollin and Mersey up to the River Irwell sections at Salford. The pomona_docks.htm (docks 1 to 4) had been built and the Ordsall dock (number 5 dock) was almost completed - although this was never opened and was eventually filled in. In September it was reported that the whole undertaking was nearing completion.

In November disaster struck again and after torrential rains in the surrounding hills the river levels rose rapidly, breaching the dams and flooding the whole length from Trafford Park to Latchford, stopping work for many weeks. Fortunately the western end was unaffected allowing work to continue. January 1891 was no better for the company with frost setting in and stopping most work for weeks on end, furthermore, ice closed the Bridgewater canal, which at that time was their ownly source of income. Also At this time  problems between the company and Walker's trustees, who were not considered to have either the ability or drive of their predecessor, came to a head and the company decided to take over all the work themselves, leaving them with an unexpected bill of 400,000 for the cost of all the equipment being used.

Despite the setbacks, work continued and it was not long before some sections of the canal were completed, with the Weston Marsh lock linking the canal with the Weaver  being open by the end of April 1891. The new swing bridge at Moore Lane was also ready by this time and the locks at Eastham were completed the following month. On June 18th water was allowed to enter the canal and the whole section from Eastham to Ellesmere Port was now almost ready. The river_gowy.htm   was  turned into its syphon and by early June the approach channel to Eastham had been sufficiently dredged to allow the steamer Norseman to enter the canal. Work continued and despite further mishaps traffic was able to reach Ellesmere Port via the Eastham Locks by 16th July, so enabling the port to be reached at any state of the tide.

Attention now turned to the section between Ellesmere Port and the river Weaver at weston_marsh_lock.htm and this was completed by mid September, bringing the total completed length of the canal to eleven miles. The problems were not over however and in December heavy rains caused flooding at Irlam and caused the Bollin to break into the cutting at Latchford and flooding it for nearly two miles. January 1892 brought more severe weather with frost and snow holding up the work on the unfinished sections. Despite the problems work continued on the recently started Weston to Runcorn section. This section was to include the building of three locks into the Mersey, one opposite the Bridgewater docks, one opposite the old_quay.htm docks and one at Weston Point. Of the three, the bridgewater_lock.htm was of particular importance as without it there would be no access to the Mersey from the Bridgewater canal and this would cut off a large part of the Ship Canal Company's income, but despite a disaster on the 2nd February in which the lock was effectively demolished by an exceptionally high tide, the lock was soon ready for use.

April 1892 saw the Irwell being diverted through the new locks and sluices at Mode Wheel, and a new wharf was opened at Ellesmere Port, the first ship to use it berthing in May. Around this time the short lived dock known as saltport.htm grew up at the junction of the Weaver. This small wharf grew tremendously through 1893 and it's meteoric rise convinced many shippers of the value of transporting goods so far inland. Saltport vanished however as quickly as it appeared once the other docks appeared along the canal and today no trace of it remains.

By December 1893 the canal was essentially complete and on the 7th of that month the company directors cruised the whole length of the canal on the steamer Snowdrop, the trip taking seven and a half hours. The canal was opened officially by Queen Victoria on 21st May 1894, some five months after its opening for general traffic.

A bill to increase the canal depth was approved in August 1904 allowing the canal depth to be increased to 28 feet, and this was achieved in 1909 by allowing the water level to rise by the required two feet, obviating the need for dredging and expensive work on each of the locks. The canal was now able to accommodate vessels of up to 12,500 tons. The canal was to be deepened again some 20 years later, taking the depth to 30 feet between Eastham and Stanlow,  and allowing 15,000 ton vessels to use this section.

The port of Manchester had by 1904 become to be rated as on of the top five ports of the United Kingdom and the crowding and conjestion in the terminal docks, with ships being moored two abreast, indicated a need for expansion. An ideal area for the construction of another dock presented itself when the Manchester racecourse, situated adjacent to  No. 8 dock,  closed in 1901.  The land was purchased by the company and work started immediately on the new dock with it opening on 13th July 1905. Number 9 dock is the largest of all the docks and was half a mile in length, although plans did exist for the construction of a further and larger dock they never came to fruition.

Further docks were to be opened along the canal as time went on and traffic increased, and the increase in the quantity of petroleum products and oil which were passing along the canal encouraged the company to build a specialist oil terminal on the isolated Frodsham marshes at stanlow.htm. The first of the two docks here was opened in 1922 but it soon  became apparent that further capacity was required and a second, larger, dock was built alongside the first.

Other facilities were built on the canal for handling oil products, the first was at Mode Wheel where a storage depot was built in1896, further facilities were to be built later between here and Barton.

One further specialist facility must also be mentioned, the waste disposal wharf at davyhulme.htm sewage works was opened at the same time as the canal and continued in use until 1987, with sludge boats making regular trips into Liverpool Bay.

Many shipping companies came to use the canal but the most famous, and the one which did so much for the development of  the Manchester docks, was Manchester Liners who used the canal almost from the beginning until the very last years of   activity in the terminal docks. Manchester Liners were pioneers in the field of containerisation and were to build a container facility on No. 9 dock in the late 1960's in an attempt to reduce costs, although shipping developments were eventually to defeat them.

Unfortunately, as the shipping market changed with bigger and bigger ships coming into service, and handling problems caused by strikes and labour disputes, the traffic on the upper reaches of the canal began to fall. Problems had started in the 1960's and continued into the early '70's with shippers beginning to lose confidence. The last shipment of maize for the Kellogs plant in nearby Trafford Park, shipped via the Bridgewater canal, left the terminal docks in 1974 and became the last regular commercial cargo to be carried  along the Bridgewater.

By the late 1970's traffic on the upper reaches of the canal had declined so much that the complete closure of the section above Runcorn was contemplated, however this was not to be and the upper reaches still attract regular traffic, although the Manchester and Salford docks are now closed and demolished.

Today traffic on the canal is still very busy on the lower reaches up to Ellesmere Port with over 5,000 vessels still using the canal each year. The traffic on the upper reaches is still there although with the main docks now demolished it is no longer the same as it was. Regular traffic has  continued as far as the privately owned Cerestar Wharf, just downstream of the Centenary Bridge, since the 1970's,  and one of the green painted Arklow ships can frequently be seen here unloading maize. The weaste_wharf.htm was completely refurbished in 2000 and now handles cement exports from the Blue Circle Company in a trade that they estimate as being in the region of 200,000 tons anually. New facilities have also been built at irlam_wharf.htm  and vessels still use the wharf at Partington to discharge chemical cargos for the nearby plants at Carrington. One further facility which is still bringing traffic above Mode Wheel locks is the manchester_dry_docks.htm located on the southern side of the canal between the old No. 9 dock and the locks. Rather surprisingly  No. 3 dry dock is being used to handle grain for Rank Hovis, with 60,000 tons being handled in 1999. The grain is shipped from Liverpool in barges and takes 7,500 vehicle movements per year off the regions roads.


The terminal docks are no longer a wasteland however with massive redevelopment taking place since the docks closed and the whole area is now known as Salford Quays. The redevelopment which has taken place has transferred the whole dock complex into a mixture of quality housing, commercial and leisure  businesses, with numerous hotels, restaurants and pubs springing up.  The old number 9 dock is now known as Erie Basin and number 7 dock as Ontario Basin. Many of the residential walks are also known by names which connect the area with it's old transatlantic trade. Perhaps one of the most amazing things to anyone who knew the docks of old is the change in water quality, with fish now stocking the old number 7 dock and watersports taking place in the area. The  railway bridge (see  railway_swing_bridge.htm ) which used to span the canal at trafford wharf has been moved to provide a pedestrian walkway accross Erie Basin so preserving something else from the old docks.

Further development has, or is taking place in the area and the new   Lowry Centre containing an art gallery and theatre has recently opened between numbers 8 and 9 docks together with a high quality hotel. A commercial centre containing shops and a cinema complex is under construction at the same place. On the opposite bank of the canal is the new Imperial War Museum, currently under construction, and with the permanently berthed minesweeper hms_bronington.htm alongside. Although there is no regular traffic into the Quays area any more vessels can still enter the area by passing under the newly completed lowry_bridge.htm . Frequently berthed in this area is the brightly painted floating theatre vessel Fitzcaraldo.



Click on the maps for more information.

 lowmsc2.jpg (285611 bytes)



upmsc2.jpg (251956 bytes)


See also a_trip_along_the_canal.htm , viewing_the_canal.htm and the msc_links.htm  page.


Return to Maritime home page:- Maritime_Page.htm