The Manchester Ship Canal

by Ben Johnson

The Lancashire hills that surround Manchester are coloured vivid green for a reason, and it was this ever so slightly damp climate that provided the area with the optimum conditions for the processing of cotton. The moist conditions prevented the cotton fibres from splitting and the resulting streams and rivers powered the water mills that ran the factories.

Raw cotton was imported into the country, mainly from the American cotton fields. Factories in the south of Lancashire spun the threads and the weaving of vast cloths occurred in the towns to the north.

Water power alone however was no longer proving sufficient to keep the wheels of the Industrial Revolution turning. When in 1761 the Duke of Bridgewater opened his now famous canal, coal from the Duke’s mines at the Worsley Collieries could be transported much more easily to Manchester, thus providing a cheap source of power to feed the new-fangled steam engines.

The Bridgewater Canal was quickly extended, and by 1776 it had reached the River Mersey, thereby providing easier access to the port of Liverpool. The cost of transporting raw cotton from the port to Manchester halved almost overnight, as did the cost of shipping out the finished cloth.

Before Richard Arkwright built his first cotton mill in 1780, Manchester was barely keeping pace with the needs of the expanding British Empire, particularly the enormous demand of the Indian population for the “dhootie”, a cheap cotton loincloth which clothed the nation. The increased levels of production achieved by the new mills earned Lancashire the title of the “Workshop of the World”, with Manchester becoming known as “Cottonopolis”.

Proposed docks at Manchester HUK
Proposed docks at Manchester

Manchester was expanding at a phenomenal rate and by the mid 1830’s it was widely recognised as the greatest industrial city in the world. In addition to making the machines required for the cotton mills, Manchester’s engineering firms diversified into general manufacturing. The bleaches and dyes required by the cotton industry spawned a substantial chemical industry that would gradually spread across the entire region. Industry requires financing, and so banks and insurance companies flocked to the city to provide the necessary services.

Despite the opening of the world’s first inter-city railway (the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) in 1830), by the mid 1870’s Manchester’s supply lines were being stretched to their limits. In addition, the dues being charged by their ‘friends’ at the Port of Liverpool were considered by Manchester’s business community as being a tad excessive …they pointed out that goods could often be imported and bought from the Port of Hull, on other side of country, at a cheaper rate than via Liverpool!

Whilst the idea of linking Manchester with the sea by a navigable canal and river route can be traced back as early as 1660, it was not until 1882 that Manchester manufacturer Daniel Adamson brought together the men who could actually make it happen. In June of that year, he met with several other leaders from the Manchester business community, representatives and politicians from local Lancashire towns and two civil engineers to form the basis of a bill that would be submitted to Parliament later that year for approval.

A meticulously organised campaign was launched in order to gain public support for the venture, which pointed out that reduced transport costs to the city and surrounding region would make local industries more competitive and thus help to create new jobs.

Surprisingly, the bill failed to gain any support at all from those ‘friends’ in the Port of Liverpool and as a consequence, was rejected by Parliament on two separate occasions thanks to their objections. The bill was finally passed in May 1885, becoming The Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885. Conditions of the act stipulated that the Manchester Ship Canal Company needed to raise £8 million in share capital to cover the estimated cost of construction of just over £5 million.

With Thomas Walker appointed as lead contractor and Edward Leader Williams as chief engineer, the first sod was cut on 11th November 1887 by Lord Egerton of Tatton, who had taken over the role of chairman of the company following Daniel Adamson’s resignation earlier that year. Adamson had wanted to encourage the widest possible share ownership of the company by raising the necessary funds from ordinary working folk, but resigned after failing to gain support for his plans.

Construction works on the Manchester Ship Canal HUK
Construction works on the Manchester Ship Canal

The 36 mile route of the canal was subdivided into eight separate sections, with a civil engineer being made responsible for each stretch. Initially the construction work went well and all schedules were met, but in November 1889 Walker died and after this, further delays due to bad weather and repeated flooding caused serious setbacks.

By early 1891, the canal company had run out of money and with only half the construction work completed, they were forced to seek financial help from the Manchester Corporation in order to avoid bankruptcy. The required funds were approved and released by the Corporation in March that year, in order to ‘preserve the city’s prestige’.

The ship canal was finally flooded in November 1893, and opened for traffic from 1st January 1894. After six years in the making, with an average workforce of 12,000 navvies and almost 200 steam trains hauling 6,000 wagons, the final cost of the project totalled more than £15 million, equivalent today to approximately £1½ billion. Queen Victoria officially opened the canal on 21st May 1894.

Map of the Manchester Ship Canal HUK

Despite being some 40 miles from the sea, the Manchester Ship Canal allowed the newly-founded Port of Manchester to establish itself as the third busiest port in Britain. At its peak in 1958, the amount of freight carried by the canal was almost 20,000,000 tons.

Since then, the traffic on the canal has slowly decreased year on year as the size of modern ocean-going ships has increased. Plans are now afoot however, to revive the fortunes of both the canal and the port, ironically in conjunction with the now ‘old friends’ at the Port of Liverpool through the Atlantic Gateway scheme.

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