Manchester Ship Canal

From Wikishire
Jump to: navigation, search
The Stolt Kittiwake heading toward the Mersey Estuary

The Manchester Ship Canal is a river navigation 36 miles long in the very south of Lancashire and its border with Cheshire, built broad to take sea-going ships from the River Mersey inland to Manchester and Salford.

The canal starts at the Mersey Estuary above Liverpool. It generally follows the original routes of the rivers Mersey and Irwell through Cheshire and Lancashire. Several sets of locks lift vessels about 60 feet 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). By the late 19th century the Mersey and Irwell Navigation had fallen into disrepair and was often unusable, and Manchester's business community viewed Liverpool's dock and the railway companies' charges as excessive. A ship canal was 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, which was set to lose trade to Manchester were a canal built, 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 about £15 million. When the ship canal opened in January 1894 it was the largest river navigation canal in the world.

Although it enabled the newly created Port of Manchester to become Britain's third busiest port, despite the city's being about 40 miles inland, the canal never achieved the commercial success its sponsors had hoped for. Ships often returned to sea loaded with ballast rather than goods for export, and gradually the balance of traffic moved to the west, resulting in the closure of the terminal docks at Salford. Although able to accommodate a range of vessels from coastal ships to inter-continental cargo liners, the canal is not large enough for all modern vessels. As of 2011, traffic had decreased from its peak in 1958 of 18 million tons of freight each year to about 7 million tons. The canal is now privately owned by Peel Ports, whose plans include redevelopment, expansion, and an increase in shipping from 8000 containers a year to 100,000 by 2030, as part of their Atlantic Gateway project.


Early history

A Punch cartoon in 1882, ridiculing the idea of Manchester as a seaport

A proposal to made the rivers Mersey and Irwell navigable from the Mersey Estuary to Manchester was first proposed in 1660, and revived in 1712 by Thomas Steers.[1] The Mersey & Irwell Navigation Company obtained a private Act of Parliament in 1721 and construction began in 1724.[1] By 1734 boats "of moderate size" were able to make the journey from quays near Water Street in Manchester to the Irish Sea,[2] 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.[3] The Bridgewater Canal's Runcorn extension was completed in 1776 and in 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened. In 1844 the Bridgewater Trustees acquired the Mersey & Irwell Navigation and in 1872 it was sold to The Bridgewater Navigation Company for £1.112 million,[4] by which time it had fallen into disrepair: in 1882 the navigation was described as being "hopelessly choked with silt and filth",[4] and was closed to all but the smaller boats for 264 out of 311 working days.[4]

In the 1870s, the start of the Long Depression shipowners sought ways to avoid the port dues charged by the Port of Liverpool and the railway charges from there to Manchester, so a ship canal was proposed to bypass dock and town dues at Liverpool and the Liverpool to Manchester railways, by giving Manchester direct access to the sea. Its proponents argued that reduced transport costs would make local industry more competitive, and that the scheme would help create new jobs.[5]

The winning plan was that of Edward Leader Williams, 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.[6]


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

The 36-mile route was divided into eight sections, with one engineer responsible for each. Walker died on 25 November 1889, two years in, causing a delay. Work was also 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 took new steps to move the work forward

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 new port was a success which encouraged shipping companies to look at the advantages an inland port.[7] The ship canal was completely filled with water in November 1893. The Manchester Ship 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.[8]

The ship canal took six years to complete at a cost of just over £15 million, It is still the longest river navigation canal and remains the world's eighth-longest ship canal, only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America. More than 54 million cubic yards of material were excavated; about half as much as was removed during the building of the Suez Canal. An average of 12,000 workers were employed during construction, peaking at 17,000. Regular navvies were paid £4 1s 2d an hour for a 10-hour working day. In terms of machinery, the project made use of more than 200 miles of temporary rail track, 180 locomotives, more than 6,000 trucks and wagons, 124 steam-powered cranes, 192 other steam engines, and 97 steam excavators. Major engineering landmarks of the scheme included the Barton Swing Aqueduct, the first swing aqueduct in the world,[9] and a neighbouring swing bridge for road traffic at Barton, both of which are now Grade II* listed structures.[10] In 1909 the canal's depth was increased by 2 feet to 28 feet, equalling that of the Suez Canal.

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 inland.[11] Since its opening in 1894 the canal has handled a wide range of ships and cargos, from coastal vessels to intra-European shipping and inter-continental 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

In 1974 the canal handled 2.9 million tons of dry cargo, 27% of which was carried by Manchester Liners. 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.[16]

Tonnage handled by the Manchester Ship Canal ports[17]
1895 1905 1915 1925 1935 1945
1,337,414 tons 3,012,180 tons 5,348,224 tons 5,788,799 tons 6,038,110 tons 6,428,801 tons
1955 1965 1975 1985 1995 2005
18,270,196 tons 15,467,208 tons 14,582,123 tons 9,613,119 tons 8,613,715 tons 7,147,228 tons

The amount of freight carried by the canal peaked in 1958 at 18 million 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.[18] Total freight movements on the ship canal were down to 7.56 million tons by 2000, and further reduced to 6.60 million tons for the year ending September 2009.[19]

The maximum length of vessel currently accepted is 530 feet with a beam of 63.5 feet and a maximum draft of 24 feet.[15] By contrast the similarly sized Panama Canal completed a few years after the Manchester Ship Canal, is able to accept ships of up to 950 feet in length with a beam of 106 feet. Ships passing under the Runcorn Bridge have a height restriction of 70 feet above normal water levels.[20]

The canal today

The Snowdrop at Irlam Locks

The canal was completed just as the Long Depression was coming to an end,[21] but it was never the commercial success its sponsors had hoped for. Many ship owners were reluctant to dispatch ocean-going vessels along a "locked cul-de-sac" at a maximum speed of 6 knots. The Ship Canal Company found it difficult to attract a diversified export trade, which meant that ships not uncommonly had to return down the canal loaded with ballast rather than freight. The only staple imports attracted to the Port of Manchester were lamp oil and bananas, the latter from 1902 until 1911. As the import trade in oil began to grow during the 20th century the balance of canal traffic switched to the west, from Salford to Stanlow, eventually culminating in the closure of the docks at Salford. Historian Thomas Stuart Willan has observed that "What may seem to require explanation is not the comparative failure of the Ship Canal but the unquenchable vitality of the myth of its success".[22]

Unlike most other British canals, the Manchester Ship Canal escaped nationalisation. In 1984 Salford City Council used a derelict land grant to purchase the docks at Salford from the Ship Canal Company,[23] rebranding the area as Salford Quays. Principal developers Urban Waterside began redevelopment work the following year,[24] by which time traffic on the canal's upper reaches had declined to such an extent that its owners considered closing it above Runcorn.[25] In 1993 the Ship Canal Company was acquired by Peel Holdings;[26] as of 2011 it is owned and operated by Peel Ports, which also owns the Port of Liverpool.[27] The company announced a £50 billion Atlantic Gateway plan in 2011 to develop the Port of Liverpool and the Manchester Ship Canal as a way of combating increasing road congestion. Their scheme involves the construction of a large distribution centre to be named Port Salford and an additional six sites along the canal for the loading and unloading of freight. Peel Ports predict that the number of containers transported along the canal could increase from the 8000 carried in 2010 to 100,000 by 2030.[28]


Route of the Manchester Ship Canal

From Eastham the canal runs parallel to, and along the south side of the Mersey estuary, past Ellesmere Port. Between Rixton, east of the M6 motorway's Thelwall Viaduct and Irlam, the canal joins the Mersey; thereafter it roughly follows the route the river used to take. At the confluence of the Mersey and Irwell near Irlam, the canal follows the old course of the River Irwell into Manchester.[29]

Locks, sluices and weirs

Vessels travelling to and from the terminal docks, which are 60 feet above sea level, must pass through several locks. Each set has a large lock for ocean-going ships and a smaller, narrower lock for vessels such as tugs and coasters.[30] The entrance locks at Eastham on the Wirral side of the Mersey, which seal off the tidal estuary, are the largest on the canal. The larger lock is 600 feet long by 80 feet wide; the smaller lock is 350 feet by 50 feet. Four additional sets of locks lie further inland, 600 feet long and 65 feet wide and 350 feet by 45 feet for the smaller lock;[31] each has a rise of approximately 15 feet.[30] The locks are at Eastham; Latchford, near Warrington; Irlam; Barton near Eccles and Mode Wheel, Salford.[30]

Five sets of sluices and two weirs are used to control the canal's depth. The sluices, located at Mode Wheel Locks, Barton Locks, Irlam Locks, Latchford Locks and Weaver Sluices, are designed to allow water entering the canal to flow along its length in a controlled manner. Each consists of a set of mechanically driven vertical steel roller gates, supported by masonry piers. Originally, manually operated Stoney Sluices were used; these were replaced in the 1950s by electrically driven units, with automation technology introduced from the late 1980s. The sluices are protected against damage from drifting vessels by large concrete barriers. Stop logs can be inserted by roving cranes, installed upstream of each sluice; at Weaver Sluices, accessed by boat, this task is performed by a floating crane.[32]

Woolston Siphon Weir, built in 1994 to replace an earlier structure and located on an extant section of the Mersey near Latchford, controls the amount of water in the Latchford Pond by emptying canal water into the Mersey. Howley Weir controls water levels downstream of Woolston Weir. Further upstream, Woolston Guard Weir enables maintenance to be carried out on both.[32]

Docks and wharves

Seven terminal docks were constructed for the opening of the canal. Four small docks were located on the south side of the canal near Cornbrook, within the Borough of Stretford: Pomona Docks No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. The three main docks, built primarily for large ocean-going vessels, were in Salford, to the west of Trafford Road on the north bank of the canal, docks No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8. In 1905, No. 9 Dock was completed on the same site.[33] Dock No. 5, known as Ordsall Dock, was part of Pomona Docks, but was dug on the Salford side of the river; it was never completed and was filled in around 1905.[34]

Pomona Docks have also been filled in except for the still intact No. 3 Dock, and are largely derelict. A lock at No. 3 Dock connects it to the nearby Bridgewater Canal at the point where the two canals run in parallel. The western four docks have been converted into the Salford Quays development; ships using the Manchester Ship Canal now dock at various places along the canal side such as Mode Wheel (Salford), Trafford Park, and Ellesmere Port.[35] Most ships have to terminate at Salford Quays, although vessels capable of passing under Trafford Road swing bridge (permanently closed in 1992) can continue up the River Irwell to Hunts Bank, near Manchester Cathedral.[36][37]

In 1893 the Ship Canal Company sold a parcel of land just east of the Mode Wheel Locks to the newly established Manchester Dry Docks Company. The graving docks were constructed adjacent to the south bank of the canal, and a floating pontoon dock was built nearby.[38] Each of the three graving docks could accommodate ocean-going ships of up to 535 feet in length and 64 feet in beam,[39] equivalent to vessels of 8,000 gross tons. Manchester Liners acquired control of the company in 1974, to ensure the availability of facilities for the repair of its fleet of ships.[40]

Trafford Park

Two years after the opening of the ship canal, financier Ernest Terah Hooley bought the 1,183-acre[41] country estate belonging to Sir Humphrey Francis de Trafford for £360,000. Hooley intended to develop the site, which was close to Manchester and at the end of the canal, as an exclusive housing estate, screened by woods from industrial units[42] constructed along the 1½-mile frontage onto the canal.[43]

With the predicted traffic for the canal slow to materialise, Hooley and Marshall Stevens (the general manager of the Ship Canal Company) came to see the benefits that the industrial development of Trafford Park could offer to both the ship canal and the estate. In January 1897 Stevens became the managing director of Trafford Park Estates,[42] where he remained until 1930, latterly as its joint chairman and managing director.[44]

Within five years Trafford Park, Europe's largest industrial estate, was home to forty firms. The earliest structures on the canal side were grain silos; the grain was used for flour and as ballast for ships carrying raw cotton. The wooden silo built opposite No.9 Dock in 1898 (destroyed in the Manchester Blitz in 1940) was Europe's largest grain elevator. The CWS bought land on Trafford Wharf in 1903, where it opened a bacon factory and a flour mill. In 1906 it bought the Sun Mill, which it extended in 1913 to create the UK's largest flour mill, with its own wharf, elevators and silos.[45]

Inland from the canal the British Westinghouse Electric Company bought 11% of the estate. Westinghouse's American architect Charles Heathcote was responsible for much of the planning and design of their factory, which built steam turbines and turbo generators. By 1899 Heathcote had also designed fifteen warehouses for the Manchester Ship Canal Company.[45]

Manchester Ship Canal Railway

Trafford Park was linked to the canal's docks by the standard gauge Manchester Ship Canal Railway, built to service freight to and from the canal's docks and nearby industrial estates, and which connected to the various railway companies that had track near the canal. Unlike most other railway companies in the United Kingdom it was not nationalised in 1948, and grew to become the largest private railway system in the country; at its peak it had 790 employees,[46] 75 locomotives, 2,700 wagons and more than 200 miles of track.[47]

The MSC Railway was able to receive and despatch goods trains to and from all the UK's main line railway systems, using connecting junctions at three points in the terminal docks. Two were to the north of the canal, operated by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the London and North Western Railway, and one was to the south, operated by the Cheshire Lines Committee.[46]

The MSC's steam locomotives were designed to negotiate the tight-radius curves of the tracks on which they ran; the middle wheels of the 0-6-0 arrangement were flangeless, and the coupling rods had a hinged central section that permitted several inches of lateral play. A fleet of diesel locomotives was purchased between 1959 and 1966, but it was eventually run down and the remaining engines stationed at Ellesmere Port and Stanlow.[48] The last operational section of the MSC Railway, at Trafford Park, was closed on 30 April 2009.

Other features on the banks

At Ellesmere Port the canal is joined by the Shropshire Union Canal, at a site now occupied by the National Waterways Museum. The area formerly consisted of a 7-acre canal port linking the Shropshire Union Canal to the River Mersey. Designed by Thomas Telford, it remained operational until the 1950s. It was a "marvellously self-contained world" with locks, docks, warehouses, a blacksmith's forge, stables, and cottages for the workers.[49] Its Island Warehouse was built in 1871 to store grain.[50] A few miles from Ellesmere Port, at Weston, near Runcorn, the ship canal also connects with the Weaver Navigation.[51]


Woolston Eyes nature reserve, near Thelwall

The quality of water in the ship canal remains adversely affected by several factors. The high population density of the Mersey Basin has, historically, placed heavy demands on sewage treatment and disposal. Industrial and agricultural discharges into the Irwell, Medlock and Irk rivers are responsible for a number of industrial contaminents found in the canal. Matters have improved since 1990, when the National Rivers Authority found the area between Trafford Road Bridge and Mode Wheel Locks to be "grossly polluted". The water was depleted of dissolved oxygen, which in the latter half of the 20th century often resulted in toxic sediments normally present at the bottom of the turning basin in what is now Salford Quays rising to the surface during the summer months, giving the impression of solid ground.[52] Previously, only roach and sticklebacks could be found in the canal's upper levels, and then only during the colder parts of the year, but an oxygenation project implemented at Salford Quays from 2001, together with the gradual reduction of industrial pollutants from the Mersey's tributaries, has encouraged the migration into the canal of fish populations from further upstream. The canal's water quality remains low, with mercury and cadmium in particular present at "extremely high levels".[53] Episodic pollution and a lack of habitat remain problems for wildlife, although in 2005, for the first time in living memory, salmon were observed breeding in the River Goyt (a part of the Mersey's catchment). In 2010 the Environment Agency issued a report concluding that the canal "does not pose a significant barrier to salmon movement or impact on migratory behaviours".[54][55][56]

Despite the canal's poor water quality there are several nature reserves along its banks. Wigg Island, a former brownfield site east of Runcorn, contains a network of public footpaths through newly planted woodlands and meadows. Among the wildlife species found there are butterflies, dragonflies, kestrels, swallows and house martins.[57] Further upstream the 200-acre Moore Nature Reserve, which is bisected by the de-watered Runcorn to Latchford Canal, comprises lakes, woodland and meadows. The reserve is open to the public and contains a number of bird hides, from which native owls and woodpeckers may be viewed.[58] Near Thelwall, Woolston Eyes is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is used as a deposit for canal dredgings and is a habitat for many species of bird, including Black-necked Grebes, Grasshopper Warblers, Blackcaps and Common Whitethroats. Great Crested Newts and Adders are present, and local flora includes orchids and Broad-leaved Helleborines.[59] Diving ducks are regular visitors to Salford Quays, where species such as Pochard and Tufted Ducks feed on winter nights.[60]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Manchester Ship Canal)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gray 1997, p. 5
  2. Owen, 1983, pp 3–4
  3. Owen, 1983, p 7
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Owen 1983, p. 16
  5. Harford, 1994, p 11
  6. Winter, 2002 pp 121–122
  7. Owen, 1983, pages 59–60
  8. [Shaw, William A: The Knights of England, 1906 (Sherratt and Hughes)
  9. Northwest firsts - facts and figures (2009)
  10. Barton-upon-Irwell Conservation Area - Salford Council
  11. Gray 1997, p. 6
  12. Gray, 1997, p 25
  13. Haws 2000, p. 19
  14. Stoker, 1985 p 55
  15. 15.0 15.1 Haws 2000, p. 43
  16. Gray, 1993 p 118
  17. Mersey Ports Marketing: Manchester Ship Canal History
  18. Kirkwood, 2004 p 83
  19. Port Statistics , Port Statistics
  20. Wood 2005, p. 157
  21. Chaloner, 1990 p 188
  22. Willan 1977, pp. 179–190
  23. Salford Quays Milestones: The Story of Salford Quays,, p. 3,, retrieved 21 August 2009 
  24. National Monuments Record: No. 516326 – Salford Quays
  25. Mersey Ports Master Plan
  26. Stevenson, Tom (15 July 1994), Slow net asset growth hits Peel,,, retrieved 22 September 2011 
  27. Peel Holdings - History
  28. citation Peel Ports to create 3,000 jobs in ship canal revival 8 June 2011;
  29. Rennison, 1996 p 264
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Gray 1997, p. 69
  31. Farnie 1980, pp. 132–133
  32. 32.0 32.1 (PDF) Manchester Ship Canal Company Water Level Control – Operational Protocol,, January 2011, pp. 4–14,, retrieved 15 September 2011 
  33. Gray, 1997 p 31
  34. Owen 1983, pp. 80–82
  35. Gray 1997, p. 56
  36. Owen 1983, pp. 124
  37. "Bridge swings tram link savings", Manchester Evening News, 9 April 1996 
  38. Gray, 1997 p 82
  39. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission, 1976 p 37
  40. Stoker, 1985 pp 57–58
  41. Woodroofe, Fletcher A. (1899), "Manchester Ship Canal: The Economic Results of the Ship Canal on Manchester and the Surrounding District", LSE Selected Pamphlets (LSE Selected Pamphlets, hosted at 37 
  42. 42.0 42.1 Nicholls 1996, p. 24
  43. Farnie 1980, p. 114
  44. Nicholls 1996, p. 112
  45. 45.0 45.1 Parkinson-Bailey 2000, p. 128
  46. 46.0 46.1 Gray 1997, p. 101
  47. Gray, 1993 p 57
  48. Gray, 1997 p 108
  49. Explore the Museum,,, retrieved 29 November 2008 
  50. Island Warehouse,,, retrieved 29 November 2008 
  51. Owen 1983, pp. 122–123
  52. Williams, Waterfall, White, Hendry, 2010 pp 278–283
  53. Williams, Waterfall, White, Hendry, 2010 p 282
  54. Billington, Sam (2010), Salmon behaviour in the Mersey Catchment,, p. 10,, retrieved 18 September 2011 
  55. Hendry, Keith (August 2005), Moving the Mersey,, pp. 5, 27,, retrieved 18 September 2011 
  56. Manchester Ship Canal, Strategic Review of Fish Populations,, September 2007, p. 9,, retrieved 15 September 2011 
  57. Wigg Island,,, retrieved 18 September 2011 
  58. Moore Nature Reserve,,, retrieved 17 September 2011 
  59. Kindersley, 2009 p 77
  60. Marsen, S. J. and Bellamy, G. S.: 'Microhabitat characteristics of feeding sites used by diving duck Aythya wintering on the grossly polluted Manchester Ship Canal, UK' (2000) - Environmental Conservation 27 (3), pages 278–283 (University of New England, NSW)