Arguably the first truly man made canal, the Bridgewater Canal was the first canal in Britain which did not follow the path of an existing river or tributary when it opened on 17th July 1761. More notably perhaps, the canal’s impact on the price of coal sparked a raft of imitators in a period of frenetic canal building between the 1790s and 1810s which would become known as ‘canal mania’.
Named after Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (21 May 1736 – 8 March 1803), the canal was the Duke’s solution to the transportation issues he faced when moving coal from his mines at the Worsley Collieries to warm the hearths of the hundreds of cotton workers recently arrived in the rapidly expanding industrial town of Manchester.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the only options for transporting coal in the North West region of Lancashire were via the Mersey and Irwell Navigation or by packhorse. Neither option was particularly efficient or cost effective. There was only so much coal a packhorse could successfully transport and the navigation only allowed passage to small vessels, and even then this was only possible during a drought, at low tide and with easterly winds strong enough to support the passage of a fully loaded ship.
Having travelled throughout Europe during his youth, the duke had been impressed by the continental canal systems such as the Canal du Midi in Southern France, running between Toulouse and the port town of Sète. Following the construction of the nearby Sankey Canal in 1757 – a river navigation which followed the course of the River Mersey along the Sankey Brook – The Duke and his land agent and engineer, John Gilbert, drew up plans for an underground canal at Worsley which would link to a surface canal between Worsley and Salford.
This would not only provide a solution to the transportation issues, it would also provide drainage, thus alleviating the regular flooding in the mines (caused by the layer of porous sandstone which sat above the coal seam); provide a permanent source of water for the surface canal and perhaps most importantly, meant it was no longer necessary to bring the coal to the surface, which had always been a tricky and costly undertaking.
Only one horse would be needed to pull a canal boat which could carry the equivalent of 30 tonnes, more than ten times the maximum amount which a horse and cart could carry. This supported the duke’s pledge to reduce the price of a delivery of coal to a maximum of 4 old pence per centum weight (112 pounds) and won him the support of Lancashire’s tradesmen.
At the tender age of just twenty-three, the duke presented his first bill to Parliament proposing the implementation of the Bridgewater Canal. The Duke’s Bill was given Royal Assent on 23 March 1759, and an Act of Parliament was granted approving the construction of the canal.
The Packet House in Worsley, a Grade II listed building, dates from the eighteenth century. It was from the steps at the front of the house, in the left corner of the photograph above, that those wishing to travel on the Bridgewater Canal would board their vessel, after buying their ticket at the Packet House. Passenger services started on the Canal in 1769 and by 1781 there was a daily service between Manchester and Worsley.
The Duke’s Bill had originally proposed that the canal would take two separate routes from Worlsey, one to Salford via Patricroft and the other past Warrington to join the River Mersey at Hollins Ferry. However, a combination of problematic peat deposits and the input of the newly instated James Brindley as a consulting engineer led the Duke to abandon the route to Hollins Ferry. Instead, Brindley proposed that they focus on the Patricroft route, altering it to cross the River Irwell in the direction of Manchester rather than Salford. This meant that it could be more easily connected to any future canals but would also provide competition for the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company.
A self-taught engineer who was highly regarded in the mining and waterworks industries, Brindley had actually been involved in planning a canal between the River Trent and the River Mersey as a means of transporting pottery for the duke’s brother in law, Earl Gower, before he was invited by the duke to consult on the Bridgewater Canal. Indeed it was Brindley who travelled to London in January 1760 to discuss a new Act with the Parliamentary Committee which would incorporate the amended route. Brindley’s new route called for the construction of the first stone aqueduct as a means of traversing the River Irwell at Barton-upon-Irwell, which he confidently recreated for his audience in a model made of cheese! However, two months later the second Act was agreed and work commenced on the canal.
The aqueduct itself was completed in record time, with work beginning in September 1760 and the first boat crossing over the Irwell on 17 July 1761. A remarkable structure, the aqueduct carried the canal over the Irwell at a height of 13 metres and remained in full working order until the introduction of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1893, when it was replaced by the Barton Swing Aqueduct to allow for the passage of larger vessels.
The Barton Swing Aqueduct near Eccles which carries the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal.
The construction of the original 39-mile stretch of canal from Worsley to Manchester cost the Duke an estimated £168,000 (approximately £23,997,480 in today’s money). However, as a result of the canal the price of coal in Manchester had fallen fifty per cent by 1762.
The completion of this first canal was just the beginning for the Duke. In March 1762 a third Act was passed for the duke which allowed for an expansion from Manchester to the River Mersey at Runcorn, and so access to the Port of Liverpool. Despite nearly bankrupting the Duke and in the face of much opposition from local landowners, this link between Manchester and Liverpool was completed in 1776, when the Duke was only thirty-six years old. Despite struggling financially at times during the numerous expansions and additions to the original canal the duke had made a very healthy profit by the time of his death in March 1803.
As for the Bridgewater Canal, as a feat of engineering achievement and a commercially successful enterprise it excelled on both counts. At the height of its popularity the canal was transporting more than 3 million tonnes of cargo between the rapidly expanding towns and cities of the industrial revolution.
However, with the advent of the railway in the nineteenth century, the Bridgewater Canal faced stiff competition from the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and gradually its commercial popularity, along with that of other British canal networks dwindled. However, unlike many of its contemporaries which were drained and filled in, the Bridgewater Canal continues to flourish as a popular destination for pleasure craft and fishing having remained privately owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Company, to whom it has belonged since 1885, and the Bridgewater Canal Trust, which was established in 1975 to allow the local authorities to take an active interest and financial responsibility for the maintenance of this national landmark.