Manchester Ship Canal

Manchester Ship Canal
Tanker ship canal.jpg
Stolt Kittiwake heading toward the Mersey Estuary, 2005
Length36 miles (58 km)
Maximum boat length600 ft 0 in (182.9 m)
(Regularly limited to 530 feet (160 m))
Maximum boat beam65 ft 6 in (20.0 m)
(Regularly limited to 53 feet 6 inches (16.31 m))
Navigation authorityManchester Ship Canal Company
Original ownerPeel Holdings
Principal engineerEdward Leader Williams
Date of act5 August 1885
Construction began1887
Date of first use1 January 1894
Date completed7 December 1893
Start pointEastham Locks
End pointSalford Quays
Connects toRiver Bollin, Glaze Brook, River Mersey, River Irwell, Bridgewater Canal, Shropshire Union Canal, Weaver Navigation

The Manchester Ship Canal is a 36-mile-long (58 km) inland waterway in the North West of England linking Manchester to the Irish Sea. Starting at the Mersey Estuary near Liverpool, it generally follows the original routes of the rivers Mersey and Irwell through the historic counties of Cheshire and Lancashire. Several sets of locks lift vessels about 60 feet (18 m) up to Manchester, where the canal's terminus was built. Major landmarks along its route include the Barton Swing Aqueduct, the only swing aqueduct in the world, and Trafford Park, the world's first planned industrial estate and still the largest in Europe.

The rivers Mersey and Irwell were first made navigable in the early 18th century. Goods were also transported on the Runcorn extension of the Bridgewater Canal (from 1776) and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (from 1830), but by the late 19th century the Mersey and Irwell Navigation had fallen into disrepair and was often unusable. In addition, Manchester's business community viewed the charges imposed by Liverpool's docks and the railway companies as excessive. A ship canal was therefore proposed as a way of giving ocean-going vessels direct access to Manchester. The region was suffering from the effects of the Long Depression, and for the canal's proponents, who argued that the scheme would boost competition and create jobs, the idea of a ship canal made sound economic sense. They initiated a public campaign to enlist support for the scheme, which was first presented to Parliament as a bill in 1882. Faced with stiff opposition from Liverpool, the canal's supporters were unable to gain the necessary Act of Parliament to allow the scheme to go ahead until 1885.

Construction began in 1887; it took six years and cost £15 million (equivalent to about £1.65 billion in 2011[a]). When the ship canal opened in January 1894 it was the largest river navigation canal in the world, and enabled the newly created Port of Manchester to become Britain's third busiest port despite the city being about 40 miles (64 km) inland. Changes to shipping methods and the growth of containerisation during the 1970s and 80s meant that many ships were now too big to use the canal and traffic declined, resulting in the closure of the terminal docks at Salford. Although able to accommodate a range of vessels from coastal ships to intercontinental cargo liners, the canal is not large enough for most modern vessels. By 2011 traffic had decreased from its peak in 1958 of 18 million long tons (20 million short tons) of freight each year to about 7 million long tons (7.8 million short tons). The canal is now privately owned by Peel Holdings, whose plans include redevelopment, expansion, and an increase in shipping from 8,000 containers a year to 100,000 by 2030 as part of their Atlantic Gateway project.


Early history

The idea that the rivers Mersey and Irwell should be made navigable from the Mersey Estuary in the west to Manchester in the east was first proposed in 1660, and revived in 1712 by the English civil engineer Thomas Steers.[2] The necessary legislation was proposed in 1720, and the Act of Parliament[3] for the navigation passed into law in 1721.[4][5] Construction began in 1724, undertaken by the Mersey & Irwell Navigation Company.[2] By 1734 boats "of moderate size" were able to make the journey from quays near Water Street in Manchester to the Irish Sea,[6] but the navigation was only suitable for small ships; during periods of low rainfall or when strong easterly winds held back the tide in the estuary, there was not always sufficient depth of water for a fully laden boat.[7] The completion in 1776 of the Runcorn extension of the Bridgewater Canal, followed in 1830 by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, intensified competition for the carriage of goods. In 1825 an application had been made to Parliament for an Act to allow the construction of a ship canal between the mouth of the River Dee and Manchester at a cost of £1 million, but "the necessary forms not having been observed", it did not become law.[8] In 1844 ownership of the Mersey & Irwell Navigation was transferred to the Bridgewater Trustees, and in 1872 it was sold to The Bridgewater Navigation Company for £1.112 million.[9] The navigation had by then fallen into disrepair, its owners preferring instead to maintain the more profitable canal;[10] in 1882 the navigation was described as being "hopelessly choked with silt and filth",[9] and was closed to all but the smaller boats for 264 out of 311 working days.[9]

Refer to caption
A cartoon published in the satirical magazine Punch in 1882, ridiculing the idea that Manchester could become a major seaport

Along with deteriorating economic conditions in the 1870s[11] and the start of a period known as the Long Depression, the dues charged by the Port of Liverpool and the railway charges from there to Manchester were perceived to be excessive by Manchester's business community; it was often cheaper to import goods from Hull, on the opposite side of the country, than it was from Liverpool.[12] A ship canal was proposed as a way to reduce carriage charges, avoid payment of dock and town dues at Liverpool, and bypass the Liverpool to Manchester railways by giving Manchester direct access to the sea for its imports and its exports of manufactured goods.[13] Historian Ian Harford suggested that the canal may also have been conceived as an "imaginative response to [the] problems of depression and unemployment"[14] that Manchester was experiencing during the early 1880s. Its proponents argued that reduced transport costs would make local industry more competitive, and that the scheme would help create new jobs.[15]

The idea was championed by Manchester manufacturer Daniel Adamson, who arranged a meeting at his home, The Towers in Didsbury, on 27 June 1882. He invited the representatives of several Lancashire towns, local businessmen and politicians, and two civil engineers: Hamilton Fulton and Edward Leader Williams. Fulton's design was for a tidal canal, with no locks and a deepened channel into Manchester. With the city about 60 feet (18 m) above sea level, the docks and quays would have been well below the surrounding surface. Williams' plan was to dredge a channel between a set of retaining walls, and build a series of locks and sluices to lift incoming vessels up to Manchester.[16] Both engineers were invited to submit their proposals, and Williams' plans were selected to form the basis of a bill to be submitted to Parliament later that year.[17]

Public campaign

To generate support for the scheme, the provisional committee initiated a public campaign led by Joseph Lawrence, who had worked for the Hull and Barnsley Railway. His task was to set up committees in every ward in Manchester and throughout Lancashire, to raise subscriptions and sell the idea to the local public. The first meeting was held on 4 October in Manchester's Oxford Ward, followed by another on 17 October in the St. James Ward. Within a few weeks meetings had been held throughout Manchester and Salford, culminating in a conference on 3 November attended by the provisional committee and members of the various Ward Committees. A large meeting of the working classes, attended by several local notables including the general secretaries of several trade unions, was held on 13 November at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.[18]

Regular night-time meetings were held across the region, headed by speakers from a range of professions. Harford suggests that the organisers' choice of orators represents their "canny ability"[19] to choose speakers who might move their audiences to support their cause. By adopting techniques used by the Anti-Corn Law League, their strategy was ultimately successful: local offices were acquired, secretaries hired and further meetings organised. The weekly Ship Canal Gazette, priced at one penny,[20] was by the end of the year being sold at newsagents in towns across Lancashire.[21] The Gazette was part of a prolonged print campaign organised by the committee, to circulate leaflets and pamphlets, and write supportive letters to the local press, often signed with pseudonyms.[22] One of the few surviving leaflets, "The Manchester Ship Canal. Reasons why it Should be Made", argued against dock and railway rates, which were apparently levied "with the object of protecting the interests of Railway kings, [so that] trade is handicapped, and wages kept low".[23] By the end of 1882 the provisional committee comprised members from several of Manchester's large industries, but notably few of the city's wealthier inhabitants. The sympathetic Manchester City News reported that "the rich men of South and East Lancashire, with a few notable exceptions, have not rivalled the enthusiasm of the general public".[19]


refer to caption
Cheque dated 3 August 1887, in the amount of £1,710,000, for the purchase of the Bridgewater Navigation Company. At the time it was the largest cheque ever presented.[24]

The Mersey Docks Board opposed the committee's first bill, presented late in 1882, and it was rejected by Parliament in January 1883 for breaching Standing Orders. Within six weeks the committee organised hundreds of petitions from a range of bodies across the country: one representing Manchester was signed by almost 200,000 people. The requirement for Standing Orders was dispensed with, and the represented bill allowed to proceed. Some witnesses against the scheme, worried that a canal would cause the entrance to the Mersey estuary to silt up, blocking traffic, cited the case of Chester harbour. This had silted up due to a man-made cut through the Dee estuary. Faced with conflicting evidence, Parliament rejected the bill.[25] Later mass meetings were held, including a large demonstration at Pomona Gardens on 24 June 1884. Strong opposition from Liverpool led the House of Commons Committee to reject the committee's second bill on 1 August 1884.[26]

The unresolved question of what would happen to the Mersey estuary if the canal was built had remained a sticking point. During questioning, an engineer for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board was asked how he would avoid such a problem. His reply, "I should enter at Eastham and carry the canal along the shore until I reached Runcorn, and then I would strike inland",[27] prompted Williams to change his design to include this suggestion.[25] Despite continued opposition, the committee's third bill, presented in November 1884, was passed by Parliament on 2 May 1885, and received royal assent on 6 August,[28] becoming the Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885.[29] Certain conditions were attached; £5 million had to be raised, and the ship canal company was legally obliged to buy both the Bridgewater Canal and the Mersey & Irwell Navigation within two years.[30] The estimated cost of construction was £5.16 million, and the work was expected to take four years to complete.[17]


The enabling Act of Parliament stipulated that the ship canal company's £8 million share capital had to be issued within two years, otherwise the act would lapse.[31] Adamson wanted to encourage the widest possible share ownership, and believed the funds should be raised largely from the working population. Richard Peacock, vice-chairman of the Provisional Manchester Ship Canal Committee, said in 1882:

No few individuals should be expected to subscribe and form a company for mere gain; it should be taken on by the public; and if it is not ... I for one should say drop the scheme ... unless I see the public coming forward in a hearty manner.[32]

Company chairman Daniel Adamson (left) resigned early in 1887. He was replaced by Wilbraham Egerton, 1st Earl Egerton (right).

The act forbade the company from issuing shares below £10 so, to make them easier for ordinary people to buy, they issued shilling coupons in books of ten so they could be paid for in instalments.[33] The construction costs and expected competition from the Port of Liverpool put off potential investors; by May 1887 only £3 million had been raised. As a temporary solution Thomas Walker, the contractor selected to construct the canal, agreed to accept £500,000 of the contract price in shares, but raising the remainder required another Act of Parliament to allow the company's share capital to be restructured as £3 million of ordinary shares and £4 million of preference shares.[31] Adamson was convinced that the money should be raised from members of the public and opposed the debt restructuring, resigning as chairman of the Ship Canal Committee on 1 February 1887. Barings and Rothschild jointly issued a prospectus for the sale of the preference shares on 15 July, and by 21 July the issue had been fully underwritten, allowing construction to begin.[31][34] The first sod was cut on 11 November 1887, by Lord Egerton of Tatton, who had taken over the chairmanship of the Manchester Ship Canal Company from Adamson.[35]

The canal company exhausted its capital of £8 million in 4 years, when only half the construction work was completed.[36] To avoid bankruptcy they appealed for funds to Manchester Corporation, which set up a Ship Canal Committee. On 9 March 1891 the corporation decided, on the committee's recommendation, to lend the necessary £3 million, to preserve the city's prestige. In return the corporation was allowed to appoint five of the fifteen members of the board of directors. The company subsequently raised its estimates of the cost of completion in September 1891 and again in June 1892. An executive committee was appointed as an emergency measure in December 1891, and on 14 October 1892 the Ship Canal Committee resolved to lend a further £1.5 million on condition that Manchester Corporation had an absolute majority on the canal company's board of directors and its various sub-committees.[36] The corporation subsequently appointed 11 of the 21 seats,[37] nominated Alderman Sir John Harwood as deputy director of the company, and secured majorities on five of the board's six sub-committees. The cost to Manchester Corporation of financing the Ship Canal Company had a significant impact on local taxpayers. Manchester's municipal debt rose by 67 per cent, resulting in a 26 per cent increase in rates between 1892 and 1895.[38]

A 1924 map of Manchester Docks

However well this arrangement served the corporation, by the mid-1980s it had become "meaningless". Most of the company's shares were controlled by the property developer John Whittaker, and in 1986 the council agreed to give up all but one of its seats in return for a payment of £10 million. The deal extricated Manchester Council from a politically difficult conflict of interest, as Whittaker was proposing to develop a large out of town shopping centre on land owned by the Ship Canal Company at Dumplington, the present-day Trafford Centre. The council opposed the scheme, believing that it would damage the city centre economy, but accepted that it was "obviously in the interests of the shareholders".[39][b]


The Excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal: Eastham Cutting with Mount Manisty in the Distance (1891), by Benjamin Williams Leader, brother of the canal's engineer

Thomas Walker was appointed as contractor, with Edward Leader Williams as chief engineer and designer and general manager. The 36-mile (58 km) route was divided into eight sections, with one engineer responsible for each. The first reached from Eastham to Ellesmere Port. Mount Manisty, a large mound of earth on a narrow stretch between the canal and the Mersey northwest of Ellesmere Port, was constructed from soil taken from the excavations. It and the adjacent Manisty Cutting were named after the engineer in charge. The last section built was the passage from Weston Point through the Runcorn gap to Norton; the existing docks at Runcorn and Weston had to be kept operational until they could be connected to the completed western sections of the ship canal.[41]

For the first two years construction went according to plan, but Walker died on 25 November 1889. While the work was continued by his executors, the project suffered a number of setbacks and was hampered by harsh weather and several serious floods. In January 1891, when the project had been expected to have been completed, a severe winter added to the difficulties; the Bridgewater Canal, the company's only source of income, was closed after a fall of ice. The company decided to take over the contracting work and bought all the on site equipment for £400,000.[42] Some railway companies, whose bridges had to be modified to cross the canal, demanded compensation. The London and North Western Railway and Great Western Railway refused to cooperate, and between them they demanded about £533,000 for inconvenience. The Ship Canal Company was unable to demolish the older, low railway bridges until August 1893, when the matter went to arbitration. The railway companies were awarded just over £100,000, a fraction of their combined claims.[43]

The yacht Norseman headed a convoy of vessels at the canal's opening in January 1894. Seen passing the Barton Swing Aqueduct, it carried the company's directors.[44]

By the end of 1891, the ship canal was open to shipping as far as Saltport, the name given to wharves built at the entrance to the Weaver Navigation. The success of the new port was a source of consternation to merchants in Liverpool, who suddenly found themselves cut out of the trade in goods such as timber, and a source of encouragement to shipping companies, who began to realise the advantages an inland port would offer.[45] Saltport was rendered useless when the ship canal was completely filled with water in November 1893. The Manchester Ship Canal Police were formed the following month,[46] and the canal opened to its first traffic on 1 January 1894. On 21 May, Queen Victoria performed the official opening, the last of three royal visits she made to Manchester. During the ceremony she knighted the Mayor of Salford, William Henry Bailey, and the Lord Mayor of Manchester, Anthony Marshall; Edward Leader Williams was knighted on 2 July by letters patent.[47]

The ship canal took six years to complete at a cost of just over £15 million,[48] equivalent to about £1.65 billion in 2011.[a] It is still the longest river navigation canal[49] and remains the world's eighth-longest ship canal, only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America.[50] More than 54 million cubic yards (41,000,000 m³) of material were excavated, about half as much as was removed during the building of the Suez Canal.[51] An average of 12,000 workers were employed during construction, peaking at 17,000.[52] Regular navvies were paid  12d per hour for a 10-hour working day, equivalent to about £16 per day in 2010.[53][54][c] In terms of machinery, the project made use of more than 200 miles (320 km) of temporary rail track, 180 locomotives, more than 6000 trucks and wagons, 124 steam-powered cranes, 192 other steam engines, and 97 steam excavators.[55][56] Major engineering landmarks of the scheme included the Barton Swing Aqueduct, the first swing aqueduct in the world,[57] and a neighbouring swing bridge for road traffic at Barton, both of which are now Grade II* listed structures.[58] In 1909 the canal's depth was increased by 2 feet (0.61 m) to 28 feet (8.5 m), equalling that of the Suez Canal.[59]

Operational history

The ship canal alongside the Mersey between Stanlow and Runcorn, looking east

The Manchester Ship Canal enabled the newly created Port of Manchester to become Britain's third-busiest port, despite the city being about 40 miles (64 km) inland.[50] Since its opening in 1894 the canal has handled a wide range of ships and cargos, from coastal vessels to intra-European shipping and intercontinental cargo liners. The first vessel to unload its cargo on the opening day was the Pioneer, belonging to the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), which was also the first vessel registered at Manchester; the CWS operated a weekly service to Rouen.[60]

Manchester Liners established regular sailings by large ocean-going vessels. In late 1898 the Manchester City, at 7,698 gross tons, became the largest vessel to reach the terminal docks. Carrying cattle and general cargo, it was met by the Lord Mayor of Manchester and a large welcoming crowd.[61] In 1968 Manchester Liners converted its fleet to container vessels only. To service them it built two dedicated container terminals next to No. 9 Dock.[62] The four container vessels commissioned that year, each of 11,898 gross tons, were the largest ever to make regular use of the terminal docks at Salford.[63] In 1974 the canal handled 2.9 million long tons (3.25 million short tons) of dry cargo, 27 per cent of which was carried by Manchester Liners.[64] The dry tonnage was, and is still, greatly supplemented by crude and refined oil products transported in large tanker ships to and from the Queen Elizabeth II Dock at Eastham and the Stanlow Refinery just east of Ellesmere Port, and also in smaller tankers to Runcorn. The limitations imposed by the canal on the maximum size of container vessel meant that by the mid-1970s Manchester Liners was becoming uncompetitive; the company sold its last ship in 1985.[65]

Tonnage handled by the Manchester Ship Canal ports[66][d]
1895 1905 1915 1925 1935 1945
1,358,875 3,060,516 5,434,046 5,881,691 6,135,003 6,531,963
1955 1965 1975 1985 1995 2005
18,563,376 15,715,409 14,816,121 9,767,380 8,751,938 7,261,919
Aerial view of the Manchester Ship Canal running through Trafford Park

The amount of freight carried by the canal peaked in 1958 at 18 million long tons (20 million short tons), but the increasing size of ocean-going ships and the port's failure to introduce modern freight-handling methods resulted in that headline figure dropping steadily, and the closure of the docks in Salford in 1984.[67] Total freight movements on the ship canal were down to 7.56 million long tons (8.47 million short tons) by 2000, and further reduced to 6.60 million long tons (7.39 million short tons) for the year ending September 2009.[68]

The maximum length of vessel currently accepted is 530 feet (161.5 m) with a beam of 63.5 feet (19.35 m)[69] and a maximum draft of 24 feet (7.3 m).[63] By contrast the similarly sized Panama Canal, completed a few years after the Manchester Ship Canal, was able to accept ships of up to 950 feet (289.6 m) in length with a beam of 106 feet (32.31 m).[70] Since June 2016, the Panama Canal has been able to handle vessels of 1,201 feet (366 m) in length with a beam of 161 feet (49 m) and a draft of 50 feet (15.2 m),[71] and cargo capacity up to 14,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).[72] Ships passing under the Runcorn Bridge have a height restriction of 70 feet (21 m) above normal water levels.[73]

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