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125 years on: A historic snapshot of the Manchester Ship Canal

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Manchester Ship Canal is an approximately 36-mile waterway, linking docks in Manchester with the sea via the Mersey Estuary.  It was built between 1887 and 1893 and this year marks 125 years since it officially opened.  It provided Manchester with links to ports all over the world.  The construction of the MSC was one of the greatest engineering projects of the Victorian era and was primarily to serve the inland Port of Manchester.

The idea of the canal was revived in the 19th century and eventually found momentum behind the leadership of Daniel Adamson, a Manchester manufacturer, with support from the mayors of Manchester and surrounding towns and business leaders.

There was much scepticism around the project, not least because of the cost and the immensity of the engineering challenge.  Two engineers were asked to prepare schemes for the project.  The first was the London-based engineer Hamilton Fulton, who proposed a tidal ship canal at sea level without the need for locks.  The second engineer was Edward Leader Williams who had previously worked on the Weaver Navigation and the Bridgewater Canal.  Leader Williams’ proposal was for a canal with several levels to be maintained by a series of locks.  It was this plan that was chosen to be put before Parliament.

Building a canal from Manchester to the sea required an Act of Parliament, but it would take three attempts to get the bill accepted and the necessary powers to proceed.  This was because the bill was fought against by Liverpool Corporation and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, which operated the Port of Liverpool, the various railway companies which held the monopoly on transporting goods around the region and the Bridgewater Navigation Company, which owned and operated the Bridgewater Canal.  One of the arguments against the canal was that it’s proposed route which was the start at Runcorn would cause the Mersey Estuary to silt up.  The bill was rejected in 1882 and 1883, but by the time the third bill was submitted in 1884, the course of the canal was extended to Eastham avoiding the need to train the walls of the Mersey estuary.

It took three years to obtain the Act of Parliament to enable the canal to be built.  But next the promoters had to raise £5 million for 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.  After many difficulties, the promoters finally succeeded in raising the money and on 11 November 1887, the first sod was cut and the ‘Big Ditch’ as the Bridgewater Canal became known was underway.

The contractor appointed to construct the canal was Thomas Andrew Walker.  Walker had wide experience, having previously worked on the construction of the London Underground and had built the Severn Tunnel.  Work began by building miles of temporary railway track for the distribution of materials and the dispersal of excavated rock and soil.  Approximately £1M of plant and equipment was used.

By November 1893, the canal was completely navigable from Manchester to Eastham and on the 7 December 1893, the directors of the canal company made the full passage, setting the seal on the construction of miles of docks and quays, five sets of massive locks, seven swing bridges, the famous swing aqueduct at Barton and five high-level railway viaducts.

On 1 January 1894, the entire length of the canal was opened to commercial traffic, and then on 21 May 1894, the canal was formally opened by Queen Victoria from the Royal Yacht The Enchantress.

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