River Irwell

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The Irwell at Salford
Map of the river

The River Irwell is a river in in Lancashire, 39 miles long from source to its outlet into the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. In its course, the river forms the Irwell Valley.

Its source is at Irwell Springs on Deerplay Moor, approximately a mile and a half north of Bacup. It forms the boundary between Manchester and Salford and empties into the River Mersey near Irlam.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the Irwell's lower reaches were a trading route that became part of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. In the 19th century the river's course downstream of Manchester was permanently altered by the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, which opened in 1896. The canal turned Manchester and Salford into a major sea port and led to the development of Trafford Park, which became the largest industrial estate in Europe. Further changes were made in the 20th and 21st centuries to prevent localised flooding in Manchester and Salford, such as the Anaconda Cut and the River Irwell Flood Defence Scheme.

During the Industrial Revolution the river became severely polluted by industrial waste but in the second half of the 20th century, a number of initiatives were implemented to improve its water quality, restock it with fish and create a diverse environment for wildlife. Consequently, stretches of the river flowing through Manchester and Salford have attracted large-scale investment in business and residential developments such as Salford Quays, and other parts of the river have become nationally important wildlife havens. The Irwell is used for recreational activities, such as pleasure cruising, rowing, racing and fishing.


From its source until it empties into the River Mersey, the Irwell is about 39 miles long.[1] Rising on the moors above Cliviger,[2] it flows south through Bacup, Rawtenstall, Ramsbottom and Bury before merging with the River Roch near Radcliffe. Turning west, it joins the River Croal near Farnworth before turning southeast through Kearsley, Clifton and Agecroft.

Below Agecroft, the Irwell meanders around Lower Kersal and Lower Broughton. It divides Salford from Manchester, wjhere it is join by the rivers Irk and Medlock, and then turns west toward Irlam, as part of the Manchester Ship Canal. Its course ends just east of Irlam, where it empties into the Mersey.


Grey heron wading in the Irwell near Bury.

Until the early 19th century the Irwell was well stocked with fish and other wildlife, and the folk of Manchester used its water for drinking and other domestic purposes.

During the Industrial Revolution, the Irwell became an industrial river, into which factories and homes discharged their waste; it became a heavily polluted river and fish stocks disappeared completely by about 1850.[3] During the 20th century came a slow improvement in water quality leading to fresh populations of roach, bream and chub, and sightings of brown trout have become increasingly common.[4]

Problems with water quality in some of the former Manchester Docks basins became apparent with the redevelopment of Salford Quays. Years of runoff from sewers and roads had accumulated in the slow running waters of this area and decomposition of organic matter was causing oxygen depletion. In 2001, a compressed air injection system was introduced. This raised the oxygen levels in the water by up to 300 per cent, improving the water quality to such an extent that the number of invertebrate species present, like freshwater shrimp, increased by more than 30. Spawning and growth rates of fish species such as roach and perch have also increased, and are now amongst the highest in England.[5]

Two “Sites of Special Scientific Interest” are designated close to the banks of the Irwell, near its meeting with the River Croal at Moses Gate Country Park near Bolton, at:

  • Nob End, a 21.7 acre site of flora typical of limestone grassland including some nationally rare herbs and orchids. Nob End is also designated as a Local Nature Reserve.
  • Ashclough, of geological interest.

In Salford the river flows through Clifton Country Park and Kersal Dale Country Park, both of which have been designated as Local Nature Reserves.[6]

Herons, cormorants, mute swans, kingfishers and many species of geese and ducks are regularly sighted on the river.[7][8][9] The Manchester Ship Canal near Salford Quays is one of the top ten sites in Britain for diving ducks, providing a winter home to approximately 3,000 common pochard and 2,000 tufted ducks.[10][11]


The River Irwell dividing the cities of Salford (left) and Manchester

The origins of the name "Irwell" are uncertain but many accept the Anglo-Saxon origin, ere-well, meaning "hoar or white spring".[12] There have been isolated finds of Stone Age artefacts along the Irwell valley, and a possible hunting site was excavated at Prestwich Golf Course in 1982, which produced a quantity of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age flints. Neolithic tools have also been found in the River Roch near Bury and in Radcliffe, and Bronze Age burial sites have been found in Bury and Shuttleworth.[13]

In 79 AD the Romans built forts at the confluences of the Irwell and the rivers Irk and Medlock and naming the town ‘’Mamucium’’; Manchester.[14] They also built a ford with rectangular stone blocks at Cornbrook, which is thought to be the first man-made structure to span the river.[15]

In the Middle Ages Manchester grew and prospered, and trading vessels plied along the river.[16] The hamlet of Kersal, which now forms part of the City of Salford, was gifted to the Cluniac Priory of Lenton, near Nottingham, in 1142. The most important part of the gift was the fishing rights on the River Irwell, and even in the 18th century, the salmon rights on the rivers of Lancashire were let every year for many hundreds of pounds.[17]

19th century

During the Industrial Revolution factories, mills and terraced hovels grew up along the river banks. Edward Corbett, the Borough Engineer of Salford, wrote in his 1907 book The River Irwell of his father's experiences around 1819, of seeing "large shoals of fish, chiefly gudgeon but also other fish, rising to the flies" from a vantage point on New Bailey bridge, (now Albert Bridge) in Manchester. Local industry dumped toxic chemicals into the river, such as gas-tar, gas-lime and ammonia water, and by 1850 fish stocks had all but disappeared. In 1860 the Irwell was described as "almost proverbial for the foulness of its waters; receiving the refuse of cotton factories, coal mines, print works, bleach works, dye works, chemical works, paper works, almost every kind of industry."[3] In 1862 the Scottish geologist Hugh Miller wrote about the Irwell, in his book First Impressions: The English People, describing it as:

The hapless river—a pretty enough stream a few miles higher up, with trees overhanging its banks, and fringes of green sedge set thick along its edges—loses caste as it gets among the mills and the printworks. There are myriads of dirty things given it to wash, and whole waggon-loads of poisons from dye-houses and bleachyards thrown into it to carry away; steam-boilers discharge into it their seething contents, and drains and sewers their fetid impurities; till at length it rolls on—here between tall dingy walls, there under precipices of red sandstone—considerably less a river than a flood of liquid manure, in which all life dies, whether animal or vegetable, and which resembles nothing in nature, except, perhaps, the stream thrown out in eruption by some mud-volcano.[18][19]
The Irwell at Waterfoot

In the Victorian era passenger boat trips were popular but cut-short by the foul smells from the river.[20] In 1862 the Corporation of Salford promoted an Act of Parliament enabling them to establish a River Conservancy Committee; they appointed a river inspector, and had to power to take action against anyone polluting the river.[21] The Rivers Pollution Prevention Act 1876 was largely ineffective but it more followed and in 1891 the Mersey and Irwell Joint Committee was formed and ordered local authorities to provide sewage treatment facilities, and industrial concerns were told to use the best practical means of preventing pollution. Salford was one of the first authorities in the Irwell watershed to install intercepting sewers and sewage treatment works at Mode Wheel Sewage works.[22]

A famous character associated with the river during this time was Mark Addy, who was born in a tenement on The Parsonage near Blackfriars Bridge in Manchester in 1838. Whenever anyone was in difficulty in the river, the cry would go up "Bring Mark Addy!" and he would race to the rescue. He was awarded a number of medals including the gold and silver medals from the Humane Society for the Hundred of Salford, and the Royal Humane Society's bronze medal. In 1878 he became the only civilian ever to be awarded the Albert Medal (first class),[23] His final rescue was on Whit Monday in 1889, when he saved a young boy from a particularly sewage-laden section of the river. After this he became ill, and died of tuberculosis in 1890 aged 51. He had rescued over 50 people from the river during his lifetime.[23]

Early 20th century

Radcliffe, 1902

In 1939 the Mersey and Irwell Joint Committee was superseded by the Lancashire Rivers Board, but wartime conditions brought about further deterioration of the river. In 1951, the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act was passed and this board disappeared to be replaced by the Mersey River Board, which was replaced in turn by the Mersey and Weaver River Authority in 1965.[24]

In 1946, there was serious flooding in Salford, caused by a bottleneck at a bend in the river at Strangeways, on the border with Manchester. Flooding had been a problem for hundreds of years,[21] and, in 1946, the decision was made to straighten and widen the river to increase its capacity. Work started in 1951 but it was not until September 1970 that water first flowed through the Anaconda Cut. The total cost of the project was £2m.[25]

In a question to the House of Commons in 1950 the Member of Parliament for Rossendale, Mr. Anthony Greenwood, highlighted the lamentable condition of the Irwell and one of its main tributaries, the River Roch:

Today I am afraid that fish in most of those rivers are virtually extinct. Anybody who stands today in the City of Manchester outside the Exchange Station and looks down at the noisome black water which flows beneath him would find it difficult to believe that any fish, or any other living creature, could ever have lived in what the Manchester Guardian has so rightly called that "melancholy stream"... I have had my differences with the British Field Sports Society, but I have nothing but admiration for the excellent series of reports on river pollution which have been prepared for that Society... and ventured to suggest that they should make a similar survey of the Rivers Irwell and Roach. These two rivers were covered by the third report; and very sorry reading it made. There are two passages in that report which I should like to read. The first says: "The banks are lined with factories, large and small, many of which take their water from the drainage of the hills forming the slopes of the river's valley, and discharge it as a polluted effluent, either into the small feeders, or the main river itself, so it may be said that no natural water normally enters the river from its cradle in the moors to its grave in the Manchester Ship Canal." The second quotation is one which I find still more appalling than the first. It is: "There are no fish in these rivers (apart from a very occasional tributary), no insects, no weeds, no life of any kind except sewage fungus, nothing but chemicals and any dirt which cannot be put to profitable use. Sewage effluents (and, being usually very good, they are the most encouraging feature of the appalling situation) are hailed with delight as being the purest water which the rivers hold." The full importance of that statement will be realised when I remind hon. Members of the frequency with which residents in Bacup, Ramsbottom, Manchester and Salford are subjected to flooding from the waters of the Irwell.[17]

In 1951, it was announced that flood defence works were to be carried out on the stretch of the river passing through Lower Broughton between Cromwell Bridge and Gerald Road Bridge, although local property owners and shopkeepers were outraged at being asked to bear part of the cost.[26] Work on the 8-ft-thick concrete wall did not get underway until June 1952[27] and was still only nearing completion when, in August 1957, nearby homes were threatened by flooding during heavy rain.[28]


Iron oxide pollution near the river's source

A report in the Manchester Evening News in 1971 stated that Bury Angling Society had signed an agreement with Bury Corporation giving them fishing rights along four miles of the river between Summerseat and Radcliffe. The secretary of the society was quoted as saying:

Extensive tests have been carried out on fish we put in the river and we are satisfied that the water will support fish life. Roach and perch have already been caught and we have had no reports of any ill-effects. There is no doubt the pollution is clearing. It will be a long job, but we are sure there is a future for angling in the river.

The report went on to state that the society "intends to carry out stocking operations soon".[29] In 1972 the newspaper reported that "tiddlers" (small fish) had been seen swimming in the "notorious inky Irwell" near Peel Park, Salford. The Deputy chief water quality officer for Salford, Mr. Eric Harper, said:

Ten years ago, any fish getting as far down as Salford would have been killed almost immediately by the pollution in the water. Although the river there is now a great deal better than it has been for 100 years, fish will probably not be able to live long. These had probably got into the main river from small streams flowing into the Irwell. But I think it is real progress.

Mr Harper went on to say that the Irwell had been well stocked with fish along its whole length 100 years ago but refused to guess when it would reach the same state again.[30] In 1974 the annual report of the North West Water Authority said that the river "once internationally famous, or infamous as the epitome of river pollution, is now in a much better state as compared with its condition at the time of a special survey carried out nine years ago."[31] This was reported in an article in The Manchester Evening News on 26 October of that year which stated that:

During nine years of pollution control work reviewed by the North West Water Authority, the biggest improvement had been in the Bolton District, where effluent from five dilapidated sewage plants and two paper mills were now being treated at the Ringley Fold Works [but] there has been little reduction in pollution from the river Roch. At Bacup the headwater of the Irwell is discoloured by ochre deposits from a disused mine but work is being done to stop the ochre seepage. Fish do exist in the stretch between Rossendale and Bury and fish are to be introduced in stretches between Radcliffe and Manchester. However, it is feared that it will be many years before fish will be able to breed freely in the river. [32]


In 1980, a scheme was published for improving a section of the river between Littleton Road and Adelphi Weir in Salford for boating purposes, though the river was described by one member as "quite revolting and horrible", a claim disproved by the North West Water Authority. The proposals were welcomed by both Salford University and Agecroft Rowing Club; the university said that they wished to use that section for their boat race.[33] Later that year it was reported that hundreds of trees and shrubs were to be planted along the banks of the Irwell between Broughton and Pomona Dock in a £650,000 "green finger" scheme to "bring the countryside into the heart of industrial Salford".[34] The dossier outlining the scheme, prepared by Salford's Technical Services Officer, emphasised the "bleak character" of the Irwell Valley with "many constructions by the river that are decaying and rotting" and said "the main problems are caused by an excess of ammonia and a high organic content from sewage effluents which discharge into the water upstream." The report recommended that "even more support should be given to the NWWA in their pollution control of the River Irwell."[35]

The fish began to return throughout the 1980s; in February 1981 the Manchester Evening News reported that "ten jacksharps [sticklebacks], about two inches long" had been spotted by a site manager working on the Mark Addy public house on the border of Manchester and Salford.[36] Plans for developing the river for recreational use were also coming to fruition as it was reported in 1982 that, over the May bank holiday, the first pleasure cruise on the river in the 20th century would leave from the Mark Addy as part of a three-day experiment to see whether river cruises could be a success.[37] In 1983 over 100 canal and river boats rode the flooded river for the Greater Manchester Waterways Festival, an event aimed at demonstrating how pleasure boating could "transform the bleak waterway in the heart of Manchester".[38] By 1984 two local men felt the waters were clean enough for them to brave a ten-mile charity fund-raising swim from Clifton to Manchester, although they were warned by a spokesman for the North West Water Authority that the cocktail of effluent and occasional untreated sewage meant that the Irwell was still "a class 4 river – top of the pollution chart".[39]

During 1985 the Croal–Irwell Valley local plan was launched, listing 187 proposals for the improvement of the valley.[40] By the end of the 1980s ambitious plans had been announced to turn Manchester into a top international tourist centre "mainly based on the derelict areas around the waterways of Manchester, Salford and Trafford – the Irwell, the Irk, the ship canal and the Bridgewater Canal...bringing £500m of investment and 13,000 new jobs over the next 10 years". The Manchester Ship Canal Company also announced a £70 million redevelopment scheme for Pomona Docks in Salford, to include a marina, homes, offices and other commercial developments.[41]


Trinity Bridge

In 1990, the newly formed Mersey and Irwell Packet Company launched regular tourist trips along the river from a landing stage opposite the Granada Studios Tour entrance in Quay Street, taking in the stretch from Castlefield to Salford Quays.[42] This was not universally welcomed as, by September of that year, a retired chemical engineer claimed that the pleasure boat was "leaving clouds of methane in its wake as it disturbed sediment on the river bed".[43] However, in 1991 a feature article appeared in the magazine Lancashire Life extolling the virtues of the cruise, and stating that the Irwell "once thought a liability is in fact a major asset to urban regeneration ... now the twin cities compete to befriend her, to dress her in finery and proudly introduce her back into society. And the public are cordially invited back onto her waters."[44] During 1994, construction work began on a new £1.3M footbridge to link Manchester and Salford, to be known as Trinity Bridge. The box-girder and steel cable construction was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to represent a ship in full sail[45] as the centrepiece of the £50M Chapel Wharf Regeneration Scheme, which was expected to breathe new life into a run-down area of Salford and to create up to 8,000 new jobs.[46]

Sport on the Irwell

Rowing has existed along the river in Manchester and Salford since 1823. A regatta was inaugurated on 12 September 1842 on a straight course from Throstle's Nest Weir to Regent Road Bridge. Racing continued in Manchester with events such as Agecroft Regatta and Warburton Regatta. At the turn of the 20th century, rowing was very popular in the area with many local clubs such as Nemesis, Prince of Wales, Minerva, Didsbury and Agecroft all competing regularly. With the decline in the condition of the water, by the Second World War only Agecroft and Broughton rowing clubs were still active.[47]

Agecroft Rowing Club was formed in 1861, making it one of the oldest open membership rowing clubs in the world.[48] The club was originally based in the grounds of Agecroft Hall and then a short distance downstream at Littleton Road. However, the river became impossible for eight's and fours to pass due to the encroachment of weeds and river life following the clean up of the environment.[49] The club now operates from a boat house next to the Salford Watersports Centre at Salford Quays, which it has shared with the University of Salford Boat Club since 2004. The boat house, which the sport's governing body, the Amateur Rowing Association, has nominated as the North West Centre of Excellence, also hosts the Two Cities Boat Race, which has been held on the river since 1972.[50]

This river is home to the Salford Friendly Anglers' Society, the oldest angling society in the world, founded in 1817.[51]


The Roch enters the Irwell at Bury

Following downstream from the source to the Mersey, the tributaries of the Irwell include the following brooks and tributary rivers:

  • Scar End Brook
  • Whittaker Brook
  • Greave Brook
  • Britannia Brook
  • Greens Brook
  • Sow Brook
  • Cowpe Brook
  • Whitewell Brook
  • Limy Water
  • Langwood Brook
  • Balladen Brook
  • River Ogden
  • Kenyon Brook
  • Hodge Brook
  • Great Hey Brook
  • Chatterton Hey Brook
  • Dearden Brook
  • Cross Bank Brook
  • Park Brook
  • Sunny Brook
  • Holcombe Brook
  • Walmersley Brook
  • Pigs Lee Brook
  • Seedfield Brook
  • Woodhill Brook
  • Elton Brook
  • River Roch
  • Bealey's Goit
  • Hutchinson's Goit
  • River Croal
  • Horridge Brook
  • Unity Brook
  • Bradley Brook
  • Slack Brook
  • Singleton Brook
  • River Irk
  • River Medlock
  • Corn Brook
  • Gilda Brook
  • Salteye Brook
  • Bent Lanes Brook
  • Platts Brook

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about River Irwell)


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Further reading