The Big Ditch...

Manchester's Ship Canal

An expanded version of the History Press (formally Tempus Publishing) Book by Cyril J Wood in eBook format


"The Big Ditch - Manchester's Ship Canal" front cover



eBook and Website Version Preface


When I was commissioned to write a book about the Manchester Ship Canal the publisher's brief limited the number of photographs and maps that could be included. I found this quite frustrating especially in later years when additional photographs should have been included to illustrate various developments along the canal's length. There were many photographs and layout features that could not be included in the original version but when transposing for the website I am freed from this constraint and afforded the luxury of it being exactly as I would want it to be. Subsequently, I have included quite a few additional photographs, up-dated the maps and expanded the original manuscript. The down-side to this is that I had to split the site into two... the first part covers the canal's history and the second deals with the geography of the canal and the navigational information. Even so, there can still be a wait whilst the photographs and maps are downloaded (dependant upon the reader's download speed). I hope that this is not too much of a hindrance to the reader's enjoyment.




Following the success of my first book... "The Duke's Cut - The Bridgewater Canal it seemed logical to produce a companion book on its sister waterway... the Manchester Ship Canal or, as it is more fondly referred to “The Big Ditch”. The histories of the two waterways are linked in many ways as is the geography and the sharing of their ultimate destination; the City of Manchester. "The Big Ditch - Manchester's Ship Canal" documents the history and geography of one of the most successful of our inland waterways. The completion of this waterway lead to the City of Manchester becoming the largest inland port in this country and contributed to the prosperity of not only the city but the country as well.



"The Duke's Cut - The Bridgewater Canal" front cover


If you look at any map of the MSC’s route you will see the remains of the many waterways that were connected with it in some way (both in the physical and historical sense). The area around Warrington is especially rich in disused cuts, meanders in the River Mersey no longer used and canals that either pre-empted the MSC or connected with it. This book is split-up into three chapters; the History, the Geography and Navigational Information and provides both historical and contemporary portraits of the MSC in text and photographs. There have been many publications on the MSC and it would be very pretentious of me to say that this is the definitive publication on the canal, as each book has its own individuality and focuses on different aspects of the subject. As far as I am aware, this is the first book that documents the canal with the afore mentioned text and photographs as well as up to date and accurate maps. I have tried to produce a book that concentrates on the “mechanics” of the canal’s history and geography concisely and without the encumbrance of facts that the reader usually skips. It was written by a canal enthusiast for canal enthusiasts as well as local historians, industrial archaeologists and other interested parties.



The route of the MSC and adjoining waterways


I hope that you, the reader, find this book a readable, informative and entertaining piece of work that relates the MSC’s history, describes its route, gives invaluable information to those wishing to use it and cruise it. Many of the features and locations that were once familiar have disappeared or have changed beyond recognition. Some of these features have been described and photographed for future generations. I also hope that the book refreshes forgotten memories for older readers that knew the MSC as it was in its heyday and gives a new perspective to the younger readers who have never visited it or only know these features as they are today.


I apologize beforehand for any inaccuracies that may have crept in to the text or maps. No doubt, I will have omitted some details, incidents or happenings that would have been worthy of inclusion, for this I also apologise but you can always contact me via email and I’ll try to include the corrections or additional information in future versions. Throughout the text the "Manchester Ship Canal" is referred to as the "MSC".


Cyril J Wood


Return to Contents


Chapter 1 - The History of the Canal

The history of the MSC can be traced back many thousands of years to the Stone Age. When the MSC was being constructed in the 1890’s dug out canoes were discovered at two locations throughout its length where a river previously existed. Whilst the owners of these canoes could not have had any direct bearing on the canal as it is today, their discovery may indicate that the importance of the Rivers Mersey and Irwell was recognised when mankind was in its infancy.




Two photographs of dug-out canoes discovered at Latchford and Barton in 1889 when the MSC was being built


The first purpose-built inland navigations in England can be attributed to the Romans. They constructed navigable cuts known as “fosses” or “dykes” on some of our rivers to bypass navigational hazards.  Three of the better known of these cuts are the Caer Dyke, the Fosse Dyke and the Itchen Dyke. The Carr (or Caer) Dyke ran from the River Witham at Lincoln to Peterborough and the Fosse Dyke also ran from the Witham at Lincoln but connected the town with the River Trent. The Itchen Dyke ran from Winchester to the sea.  No doubt, these artificial waterways were monumental in the development of the Lincoln area as a Roman stronghold.



Caer (or Carr) Dyke near Lincoln


(Photograph - Richard Croft)



The Itchen Dyke near Winchester


Over successive centuries, there have been other attempts to produce workable navigations, some of which became successful and still survive today. The erroneously named Exeter Ship Canal (which could only accommodate barges not ships) constructed in 1566 by John Trew ran alongside the River Exe. It was originally constructed to by-pass a section of the River Exe notorious for shoals and scours, connecting Exeter to the sea. This navigation features the first pound locks (as against flash locks) in England. The invention of the pound lock is often attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci but there have been locks of this type in Holland since the fourteenth century and  previously, the Grand Canal in China, well before Da Vinci’s birth.



The Exeter Ship Canal


One of the busiest natural inland waterways in the country was the River Severn. It is not surprising that it should figure somewhere in the development of the Inland Waterways system. Two notable navigations connected to the Severn are the Dick Brook and the (Worcestershire) River Stour Navigation, both built by Andrew Yarrington. These navigations provided transport of raw materials and finished articles to and from the industrial areas that sprouted along the banks of the Severn.  The Dick Brook is notable as being a small stream near Stourport that was made navigable to access Yarrington’s foundry and workshops and possessed some of the earliest pound locks constructed in this country.



Andrew Yarrington's canalisation of the Dick Brook runs into the River Seven


(Photograph - Philip Halling)


The River Thames was also a river that had been modified with flash locks at first and pound locks in later years. A waterway connecting with the River Thames; the River Lee, now part of the Lee and Stort Navigation, has the distinction of being the first waterway in England to apply for an Act of Parliament in 1424 to allow improvements made for navigation. Although not directly concerned with inland navigation, the last addition to the Thames was the Thames Barrier, a movable tidal and surge flood barrier constructed at  Woolwich in 1982 and is the largest movable flood barrier in the world, spanning 520 metres (one third of a mile).



The Thames Flood Barrier


It is interesting to note that a tidal barrier or barrage, complete with sea locks, hydro-electric power plants and a dual carriageway road across the top, has been proposed on many occasions to span the River Mersey estuary between Wallasey and Liverpool.  Unfortunately, the scheme has never progressed past the planning stage due to a number of reasons, the main ones being cost, damage to the river’s scouring (self-dredging) effect and ecological concerns regarding the wildlife on the river’s marshes and mudflats upstream from Eastham where the MSC starts.


There has always been a natural water connection between Manchester and the Irish Sea via the rivers Irwell, Irk, Medlock and Mersey.  Although this connection was not necessarily always a navigable one, over the years it has been modified by subsequent generations to provide passage for the craft of that time.


The Romans were the first to realise the importance of river navigation in the area and must have experienced considerable difficulty navigating the River Mersey, especially between Warrington and Manchester where successive loops or meanders in the river almost doubled back on themselves. They concentrated on the building of roads to aid communication in the area and their input into making the river more easily navigable was centred around the Castlefield area of Manchester, so called because of the vicinity of the fort that they had established there. In 84 AD, they constructed a fosse or navigable cut to connect the rivers Irk and Irwell, upstream from where the River Medlock joins the Irwell.

Roman Fort remains at Castlefield

The confluence between the Rivers Irk and Irwell in Manchester

Little is known or documented about the craft that navigated the Irwell and Mersey at this time or the type of cargo carried but I think that it is safe to assume that Roman Galleys never made it as far upstream as Castlefield. Little did the Romans know that, in the construction of this fosse, they were laying the foundation stones for future generations of waterways, navigations, and canals in this area. The development of these waterways was to have a profound effect on transport in this country at the start of the Industrial Revolution and would eventually create the largest inland port in Great Britain.  Unfortunately, no remains of the Castlefield Fosse survive although the remains of the castle have been rebuilt into a tourist attraction. The Roman fort was inhabited for three hundred years before the Romans moved on and their place taken by the Anglo-Saxons. The Romans had quite an influence on the area, including the construction of a ford at Stretford.  The ford was used by the trains of packhorses that provided the mainstay for the transportation of goods at that time.  The ford was well used and remained in existence until, in 1226 it was replaced by a bridge.


An early photograph of a Mersey and Irwell Navigation lock at Mode Wheel on the outskirts of Manchester

Note the gas lamp to aid night-time navigation

From Medieval times navigation on the River Mersey was controlled by millers who had constructed dams across the river to maintain a sufficient head of water to turn the water wheels that powered their mills and fishermen who also constructed weirs across the river to retain fish for ease of capture. If craft wished to pass one of these dams they had to navigate through temporary gaps in these weirs known as flash locks. The passage of the flash lock was a dangerous procedure and very wasteful of water. When navigating a flash lock, a gate would be opened and if navigating downstream, the water passing through the gap in the dam would “flush” the craft through. When navigating upstream, craft had to be towed or winched through the gap against the flow of water. Both manoeuvres were dangerous, especially when the river was in flood and consequently, many sailors were injured or even killed as well as craft being lost or damaged. Accordingly, passage was not actively encouraged in order to maintain a sufficient head of water in the millraces to ensure operation of the water wheels and the retention of fish stocks retained by the dam.

Photograph of a flash lock reproduced from an old postcard

The first reference to the possibility of making a more direct water route between Liverpool and Manchester came in 1697 when Thomas Patten of Bank Hall, Warrington, remarked in a letter to another businessman, Richard Norris of Speke near Liverpool, about how beneficial it would be to remove all the weirs on the River Mersey upstream of Warrington, install locks and allow consistent and safe navigation to Manchester. Patten is reputed to have made a start on the project below Warrington allowing two thousand tons of merchandise a year to be transported to Warrington by water. Most rivers and navigations have their own type of craft that is peculiar to the area. The Thames had its Lighters, the Severn had its Trows, the Humber had its Keels. The Mersey was not exempt from this trend and the craft indigenous to the river were called Flats. They were capable of navigating the tidal waters of the Mersey and Dee estuaries as well as coastal journeys and occasionally ventured as far as the Isle of Man and even over to Ireland. The usual set-up was for a gaff rig fore and aft although this design varied. Sail was also used on inland waterways when conditions allowed, although their masts had to be dropped to allow passage beneath bridges. When sails were not practical either due to weather or other conditions, the flats were usually towed by teams of men or, in later years, horses or tugs.

A Mersey Flat on the Weaver Navigation at Weston Point

 The design of the Mersey Flat was shared with the Weaver Flat, the craft most commonly seen on that waterway. At first, the flats could accommodate up to twenty tons of cargo but over the years as the depth of water was increased, their draft and capacity was increased to one hundred tons. The River Weaver, having a greater depth, would allow deep drafted flats of up to two hundred tons capacity. Even though the tonnage carried by the flats varied, their physical dimensions (disregarding draft) remained the same at 14 ft. by 60 ft. It was this size that was to define the dimensions of subsequent locks built not only on the Mersey and Irwell Navigation but on most of the waterways that were eventually constructed and connected to it such as the St Helens Canal, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Rochdale Canal. In later years, it was not uncommon for flats to cross the Pennines to reach destinations as far away as Leeds, Rochdale and Sowerby Bridge. Other waterways such as the River Douglas, The Lancaster Canal, the Chester Canal and the Wirral Line of the Ellesmere Canal were also capable of passing flats. The Bridgewater Canal only had locks at Runcorn and at Hulme in Manchester, so for general navigation, length was not a problem except for access to the canal. James Brindley had the foresight to build locks with a length of 72 ft. on canals that he constructed allowing the passage of the 70 ft. narrow boats that were to arrive on the scene a little later. There is quite a lot of conjecture concerning the dimensions of the narrow boat but the generally accepted reasoning behind the 6ft 10ins beam by 70ft length is that the 10 to 1 length to beam ratio produced less wash, especially when the craft was fully laden. The locks to accommodate narrow boats were also less expensive to construct (as were other canal features such as bridges, aqueducts, tunnels, etc) in addition, in the case of locks, to using less water. The average 14 ft by 72 ft lock requires approximately 28,000 gallons to fill it whereas a narrow lock, being half the width, requires half that volume of water.

Narrow and broad locks beside each other at the Boat Museum, Ellesmere Port

As we have seen, Thomas Patten is accredited for the first steps towards making the Mersey navigable.  However, in 1712, Thomas Steers, who was responsible for the construction of the Newry Canal in Ireland, Liverpool’s first docks and improvements to the River Weaver, made a survey of the Rivers Mersey and Irwell that would allow unimpeded navigation for craft to Manchester.  Following his suggestions, a group of businessmen referred to as the “Undertakers” formed the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company (unofficially known as the “Old Quay Company” due to its location at Old Quay in Warrington).  In 1721 they applied to Parliament for an Act to allow the navigation’s construction.  The Act was passed and construction commenced but the project was hampered due to lack of finance.


Brindley’s original Barton Aqueduct carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the Mersey and Irwell Navigation

Note the Mersey Flat negotiating the left hand arch which lead to Barton Lock

The raising of the River Irwell’s water levels caused difficulties associated with crossing the river. Bridges had to be replaced with new ones featuring arches possessing greater headroom, which would allow the passage of boats larger than previously encountered on the river.  Similarly, fords had to be replaced.  Notably, Trafford Ford had to be replaced with a free ferry.  These problems plus the lack of finance prolonged construction and the navigation was not completed until 1736 when craft could navigate as far as Blackfriars Bridge in Manchester.  Four years later in 1740, the navigation was extended to Hunt’s Bank which is still the head of navigation today.



Hunts Bank - the head of navigation on the River Irwell

In 1757 Francis Egerton proposed the building of a canal from his coal mines at Worsley near Manchester. Along with John Gilbert, the mine’s agent and engineer, he wanted to solve the two main problems associated with the mine. They were of transportation of the coal and mine drainage. At that time, the coal was carried by cart or packhorse to the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, where exorbitant charges were made to transport the coal to Manchester, its main market. Together, he and Gilbert resurrected Scroop Egerton’s earlier idea for a canal, expanded upon it to incorporate an elaborate drainage system for the mines and started to survey the route. The proposed canal would not only provide transportation for the coal and solve the problem of the mine’s drainage, it would bring down the price of Worsley coal in Manchester, thus, making it a more competitive and affordable commodity for the less affluent members of Manchester’s population. Brindley soon completed the survey and in 1759, an Act of Parliament was passed enabling the canal to be built.  The proposed route was to run from the mines at Worsley to the Mersey and Irwell Navigation at Salford Quay with a branch to Hollins Ferry also on the Mersey and Irwell, 9.6 km (6 miles) below Barton Bridge. On 1st July 1759, work on the canal commenced, but in November of that year the Salford Quay terminus was dropped in favour of Dolefield and an additional Act of Parliament obtained. Later, in 1763, the proposed terminus was changed, yet again to Castlefield at the end of Deansgate in Manchester and even today the canal terminates there close to the junction with the later Rochdale Canal.

A contemporary photograph of the Bridgewater Canal's Terminus at Castlefield, Manchester

Several engineering hurdles had been crossed and the canal had reached a major obstacle, the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. Initially, a flight of locks were planned to lower the canal down to the Irwell with another flight to raise it up on the other side. This would have used too much of the canal’s water resources so Brindley planned to bridge the river using a masonry aqueduct (the stone being waste obtained from the Worsley Mines) lined with puddled clay (wet clay kneaded like dough) to make it waterproof. An Act of Parliament enabling the aqueduct’s construction was passed and on 17th July 1761, water was admitted to the completed Barton Aqueduct, which opened the Bridgewater Canal from Worsley to Stretford on the outskirts of Manchester. Barton Aqueduct was a three arched masonry structure, 183 mtrs (600 ft) long, 11 mtrs (36 ft) wide and 12 mtrs (39 ft) high. Scepticism was rife prior to it’s opening. It was given the nickname “Castle in the Air” and many people thought that it would surely collapse when water was admitted. Needless to say, Brindley proved the sceptics wrong although there was a problem when one of the arches started to bulge. This necessitated the drainage of the aqueduct after the opening ceremonies but was soon rectified and the canal was open to through traffic. The Bridgewater Canal was a great success and it’s route was later continued to Runcorn where it connected to the River Mersey by locks. The Bridgewater Canal’s story is documented in “The Duke’s Cut - The Bridgewater Canal” published by The History Press.

Runcorn Locks which once connected the Bridgewater Canal to the River Mersey and later the Manchester Ship Canal

Another canal that started in the Runcorn locality was the Runcorn and Latchford Canal, which was opened in 1804. As its name suggests it ran from Runcorn, two kilometres upstream from where the Bridgewater Canal connected with the River Mersey to Latchford Lock at Warrington on the Mersey and Irwell Navigation.

Remains of the Runcorn and Latchford Canal near Old Quay - Runcorn


The tidal River Mersey at Warrington circa 1985 with Walton Lock on the Mersey and Irwell Navigation (later connecting to the MSC) in the distance

A closer view reveals the lock details, an abandoned boat and Mersey Flats


An in-filled lock on what was the Mersey and Irwell Navigation in Warrington


A photograph from the 1920s showing barges on the “Black Bear Canal”... part of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation in Warrington

The lower reaches of the canal can still be traced in the marshland at Runcorn between the Ship Canal and the Mersey opposite to Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station and in the area around Moore, close to the Crossfield's Chemical Complex.  The upper reaches were either absorbed into the Ship Canal’s route or obliterated during its construction. The original Woolston Cut near Lymm was built to by-pass one of the many meanders in the River Mersey in the Warrington area. In 1821 it was supplemented with Woolston New Cut, which cut-off even more of the meander and made the route to Manchester more direct by eliminating about two kilometres of the original route. Traces of the original Woolston Cut and the meander that it replaced can still be seen, but parts of it have silted up over the years.

This modern aerial photograph shows the MSC in the foreground, Woolston New Cut at the top and the meander in the centre

1822 saw a proposal for a railway from Manchester to Liverpool. Right from the outset, the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company and the Bridgewater Canal Company both opposed its development, seeing the far-reaching repercussions it would have on their waterway. In an effort to make its route more comprehensive, two extension plans to the Bridgewater Canal were drawn up. The first in 1823 proposed an extension from Sale to Stockport but was thwarted due to oppositions from the Ashton and Peak Forest Canals. The second plan, two years later, was far more ambitious. It was to be a canal, possibly of ship canal dimensions, to link Runcorn on the Mersey with West Kirby on the River Dee coast of the Wirral Peninsula. This plan was thrown out for many reasons, the major one being cost. It is possible that the latter plan was to have been executed by Thomas Telford who, coincidentally, later carried out a survey to construct a ship canal from Wallasey Pool to West Kirby and so by-pass the River Mersey Estuary, which contained many navigational hazards. Telford is reported to have said about Liverpool... “Look… they’ve built the docks on the wrong side of the river”.

Wallasey and Birkenhead Docks in 1986

He made this comment due to Wallasey Pool, the location of today’s Wallasey and Birkenhead Docks, being a natural harbour as against Liverpool’s docks, many of which are constructed within reclaimed land.  Had his plan been successful, Liverpool would undoubtedly, not have had the successes that it ultimately enjoyed and the MSC as we know it today would not have been built. 1838 saw the building of the Hulme Lock branch of the Bridgewater Canal. This branch connected the Bridgewater Canal to the River Irwell adjacent to where the Medlock runs into the Irwell. The Hulme Lock Branch superseded the previous connection with the Irwell at Cornbrook known as “The Gut”. 


The now disused Hulme Lock connecting the Bridgewater Canal to the River Irwell above Manchester Docks

Despite the modernisation of cargo handling facilities on the Bridgewater Canal and a toll war with the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, the railways were having a noticeable effect on the tonnages carried along both waterways.  One logical solution to the problem would be for the Bridgewater Canal Company to control trade on the Mersey and Irwell Navigation.  Consequently, Parliament was applied to for an Act enabling the Bridgewater Canal Company to purchase the shares of the Mersey and Irwell.  This Act was passed and the transfer of shares took place on 17th January 1846.  The sum paid for the navigation was £550,000. Whilst the acquisition of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, no doubt, helped to boost both waterways’ financial position in the face of the railways, they still needed to be competitive.  By 1860, the Mersey and Irwell was so silted-up that it was impossible for all but the shallowest drafted craft to reach Manchester unless there was an abundance of “fresh” coming down the River Irwell and the River Mersey.  Consequently, in 1872, a new company was formed to inject capital necessary for the dredging of the Mersey and Irwell and increased warehousing, as well as new cargo handling equipment on the Bridgewater Canal and included the purchase of steam tugs after their successful trials had been completed.  The new company was called the “Bridgewater Navigation Company Limited”.  It is ironical that the many of the shareholders also held shares in railway companies as well and that the body collecting shares for the Trustees of the company was actually a collection of railway companies.

An early map (undated but probably Rennie’s survey of 1838) showing the route of the proposed ship canal from Runcorn (not Eastham) to Manchester

The map also shows the start of a proposed canal from Ellesmere Port to the River Dee Estuary

During the nineteenth century there were many proposals for schemes to build a new canal to Manchester. In 1838 Sir John Rennie, the celebrated engineer and canal builder, was commissioned to make a survey of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. His conclusions were that a completely new canal would be preferable to modifying the existing Mersey and Irwell. Following on from this, two years later, H. R. Palmer was instructed by the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company to prepare plans for the scheme. In order to ensure that the best scheme possible, John H. Bateman was also commissioned to produce an alternative plan. Both routes started at Runcorn Gap and utilised part of the existing waterways. Eventually, the proposals were dropped, mainly due to problems surrounding the raising of sufficient capital to finance such a scheme. It was nearly forty years later, in 1877, that Hamilton Fulton proposed yet another scheme for a new canal to supersede the Mersey and Irwell Navigation.  Fulton proposed a canal of larger dimensions than those of the Mersey and Irwell to allow large, ocean-going ships to reach Manchester. In 1882, Daniel Adamson, a Manchester engineer, introduced Fulton to a group of influential businessmen, the Mayors of towns through which his proposed canal would pass and financiers interested in becoming involved with the project.

Daniel Adamson... the father of the Manchester Ship Canal

The proposed scheme was for the building of a ship canal from Eastham on the Wirral bank of the River Mersey estuary to a large purpose-built dock complex at Manchester close to the racecourse. The canal would be following the same general route as the Mersey and Irwell Navigation from Runcorn to Manchester with several new cuts and extensions, plus a completely new section from Eastham to Runcorn, effectively hugging the banks of the River Mersey and separated from the tidal estuary by an embankment. The canal was to be 35 miles in length and 60.5 ft above sea level by the time it reached Manchester. The differences in levels being overcome by the construction of locks situated at Eastham, Latchford, Irlam, Barton and Mode Wheel.

The MSC’s eventual route

This plan caused much excitement and many people wanted to become involved in a scheme that they thought would bring added prosperity to Manchester. After the preliminary survey for the route, plans were formulated for the raising of the necessary capital. On the negative side, the plan was vigorously opposed by many groups including the City of Liverpool, who was afraid that the competition generated by a Ship Canal would adversely affect the city’s livelihood. In 1883, The Manchester Ship Canal Act had its first reading in Parliament. It was passed by the House of Commons but thrown out by the House of Lords. The following year, 1884, the Act was again submitted to Parliament and was passed by the House of Lords but thrown out by the House of Commons. This failure caused much disdain in Manchester but the promoters didn't lose faith in their dream and submitted their proposal to Parliament a third time. It was a case of third time lucky as it was passed by both houses in 1885. The same year, the Manchester Ship Canal Company bought the Bridgewater Navigation Company Limited, which had turned out to be a fairly short-lived company. 

The next couple of years were spent on preparations for the canal’s construction, obtaining the land through which the canal was to be built, purchasing digging equipment and materials, organising the workforce, etc. A contractor was also appointed. This was Thomas Walker, an experienced civil engineering contractor, famous for the construction of the Severn Tunnel for the Great Western Railway. In the Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, a scale model of the proposed canal was on display and aroused interest from all over the world. With the preparations well in hand, Lord Egerton cut the first sod of earth on 11th November 1887 at the site of the entrance locks at Eastham.

 Construction work where the de-masting berths will be at Eastham looking towards Mount Manisty probably about 1891

The following year, construction started in earnest. The route was split up into eight sections: 1. Eastham to Ellesmere Port, 2. Ellesmere Port to Ince, 3. Ince to Weston Point, 4. Weston Point to Norton, 5. Norton to Latchford, 6. Latchford to Warburton, 7. Warburton to Barton and 8. Barton to Manchester. Construction went well initially. Much of the excavation was performed by manual labour and workers were recruited from all over the country to be employed as “Navvies” to work on the canal. The manual labour was supplemented by revolutionary excavators known as “Steam Navvies”, many of which were specially imported from Germany. They were used to scrape earth out of the workings and to profile the sides of the canal bed. A railway was constructed along the length of the workings from Eastham to Manchester to supply equipment and construction materials to various locations along the large, linear construction site. This railway line was partially dismantled after construction but some of it was retained and was later to be the largest private railway complex in the country.

 Temporary bridges were erected to allow access from one side of the workings to the other without the need to go down one side and up the other

These would have been especially beneficial when pushing a wheel barrow

By the beginning of 1889, construction was well in hand but a long series of devastating blows were to effect the canal’s construction and threaten the completion of the project. Daniel Adamson died in January 1889 at the age of 71. Although his death did not effect construction, it did dampen morale. Shortly after this, prolonged rainstorms raised the water levels in the rivers Irwell and Mersey. In many locations, the rivers had been diverted to allow the canal’s construction. Many of the temporary dams built to protect the construction work were washed away by the increased amount of water passing down the rivers undoing many months of work. Floods in the Latchford section between Thelwall and Lymm washed machinery away, destroyed embankments leaving the railway lines suspended in mid-air.  Between Little Bolton Cutting and Mode Wheel the temporary barrier gave way causing 20 million gallons to flood into the works in twenty minutes. In an unrelated incident, the railway locomotives "Rhymney" and "Deal" collided head-on killing three workmen.

An undated engraving depicting Salford Bridge in Manchester close to the head of navigation on the River Irwell at Hunt’s Bank

In April of the same year the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, who had been against the construction of the Ship Canal from the start, served an injunction for deviating from plans regarding openings in embankments. The deviation from the original plans, they alleged, would alter the River Mersey's scouring effect leading to the river channel at Liverpool silting up. If this proved to be correct, it would have had a devastating effect on Liverpool’s trade as ships would not be able to reach the docks due to there being insufficient depth of water. The evidence produced was proved to be inconclusive and construction continued on the canal, unaffected by a last minute attempt by the City of Liverpool to prevent the canal’s construction.

There were some positive happenings in 1889.  In Trafford Cutting, an ancient Runic Cross was unearthed by the excavations taking place there whilst a dug-out canoe was discovered at Partington.  A large quantity of Greenheart timber from British Guiana was delivered to Eastham.  This was to be used in the construction of the giant 80ft entrance lock gates, which would weigh 540 tons in total.  In July, the Shah of Persia visited Manchester and wished to see MSC workings. The remains of a second dug-out canoe were discovered when excavations were taking place at Barton.  Torrential rain and gales caused river levels to rise and breach temporary embankments, which lead to six miles of the workings to be flooded.  Later on in the year, in November, the River Irwell overflowed at Barton causing yet more flooding and damage to the construction work.  Also in November, Thomas Walker, the contractor, died aged 62 and legal problems concerning his estate affected the MSC’s finances and work on the canal’s construction.  This situation was compounded by yet more weather problems further affecting construction.  This spate of bad weather did not abate until January 1891 when remedial work could be made and normal construction recommenced.


This photograph illustrates the immense size of the entrance lock gates at Eastham


The completed entrance lock prior to the filling of the canal looking towards Mount Manisty

1891 didn’t promise to be any better for the MSC than the previous year. In February an industrial dispute over wages stopped construction. This was soon resolved but by that time financial problems were looming on the horizon.

The prolonged bad weather was causing a great deal of remedial work to be done. This work was extra work was putting a strain on the Company’s financial resources. Consequently, on the 9th March, a special committee meeting with Manchester Corporation was called to request financial assistance. The Corporation agreed to advance £3M to the Ship Canal Company and subsequently promoted a Bill in Parliament empowering them to do so. At a public meeting, Salford Corporation was forced by public pressure to contribute £1M but the decision was denied due to the inability of Salford Corporation to borrow that amount of money.

On 5th June 1891, 3000 men worked around the clock to complete the Eastham Section so that it could be filled with water before the ravages of the winter. Work commenced to close the gap in the embankment using concrete. Tugs and dredgers moored in the river adjacent to the gap to act as breakwaters protecting the embankment from tidal damage. Due to the construction work on this section, the regular packet steamer from Liverpool failed to dock at Ellesmere Port for the first time in 54 years. A £300 per day penalty was imposed on the MSC Company due to Ellesmere Port Docks and the Shropshire Union Canal basins being inaccessible from the River Mersey until the canal was completed.

The construction of Pool Hall Siphon which allows the River Rivacre to flow beneath the MSC close to Mount Manisty

Construction machinery was removed on the 18th June prior to filling. The actual date of filling this section of the canal with water was kept secret in order to prevent crowds from forming and creating a safety hazard. A hole in the embankment was made and as the tide rose, water slowly entered the canal. Filling of the section took over a week and when completed the only damage was minor landslips. However, when the hole in the embankment was filled-in with soil and hard-core on 11th July, the embankment was breached by tidal action. The following day the breach was repaired with boulders but failed once again. It was eventually sealed with concrete on the 13th July and no further problems occurred. On the following day, the 14th July 1891, at 08.45, the first ships passed along Ship Canal from Eastham to Ellesmere Port. All subsequent traffic to Ellesmere Port had to go via the Ship Canal from Eastham.


The moment of truth, water is admitted into the canal at Ellesmere Port for the first time. 11th July 1891

A Bridgewater Canal tug towing a Mersey Flat through the gap in the embankment wall at Ellesmere Port prior to the

completion of the section in order to gain access to the Shropshire Union Canal Basins at what is now the Boat Museum

The same location today is marked by a steel and concrete section in the embankment



 Two photographs of the River Gowy Siphon at Stanlow Island


Weston Point Docks on 24th April 1890 prior to filling this section of the canal.

Note the church on the left which is one of the few churches in the country built on an

uninhabited island and the now demolished light house in the right of the photograph

Delamere Lock gave access to Runcorn Docks complex as well as the Bridgewater Canal and the Weaver Navigation via the Weston Canal


Victoria Railway Viaduct at Runcorn Gap

Construction of Latchford Locks. Note the islands in the distance which will form the lock chambers

Elsewhere along the canal, construction work was slowly being completed. On the 1st August, the River Irwell was channelled into Little Barton Cutting. By the 14th September, the Ince Section was completed and filled with water without drama.

There is more evidence of in-filled meanders at Warburton near Lymm. Here a stone toll bridge across the old Mersey and Irwell Navigation was made redundant when the MSC was being constructed. The bridge lay on a meander on the line of the River Mersey that was cut across to shorten the route. The size of vessels anticipated on the MSC would not have been able to negotiate the meander let alone fit beneath the bridge. The original bridge was replaced with a high level girder bridge almost identical to that at Latchford. Once the MSC was completed the original bridge was embanked and the meander in-filled to become farm land. If the area is visited today the meander can still be seen as can the original stone balustrades on the stone bridge. A toll is still payable today but not to pass over the steel girder bridge but the original stone one!

The original Warburton Bridge over the Mersey and Irwell Navigation


The same location as the previous photograph today shows the drained river bed as well as an embankment beneath the remains of the bridge

From Warburton High Level Bridge over the MSC can be seen the meander on the right leading to the old bridge


Construction work on Warburton High Level Bridge


Warburton High Level Bridge today from the same viewpoint

The Toll Booth and Barrier at Warburton Bridge

A toll is still payable to cross Warburton Bridge

At the end of 1891 another financial crisis struck.  An additional £863,000 was needed to complete the canal. Also, continuous rain caused the rivers Mersey and Irwell to breach embankments and flow into Irwell Cutting. At Latchford the River Bollin also burst into the canal construction works causing damage and demolishing machinery. At least the flooding and damage was not as bad as the previous year when only 2½ miles were flooded as against 18½ miles but the amount of money required to complete the canal was raised to £1¼M due to the winter flood damage.

Construction work above Latchford Locks

By July 1892 the amount of money required to complete the canal was raised yet again to £2M. Manchester Corporation raised its rates to pay the amount. Industrial unrest amongst workers didn’t help matters either but was resolved by raising wages. Cadishead Railway Viaduct at Irlam was completed and the railway company insisted on testing its strength by driving ten railway locomotives over it, weighing a total of 750 tons. Needless to say, the viaduct passed the test with flying colours.


Reputedly Cadishead Railway Viaduct being tested by having ten railway locomotives being driven onto it with a combined weight of 750 tons

The construction of the Manchester Ship Canal only directly affected the Bridgewater Canal in two ways. The first was that at Runcorn, access to the River Mersey could only be gained by crossing the Ship Canal to Bridgewater or Old Quay Lock (further upstream) or by sailing down its length to Eastham. The second change was at the famous Barton Aqueduct. This would have to be demolished due to the limited headroom of Brindley’s original structure.

An undated photograph showing a narrowboat crossing Brindley’s original Barton Aqueduct.

Note the calm water beneath the left hand arch leading to Barton Lock beyond

From the other side of the aqueduct can be seen the MSC construction railway line

This painting shows the old Barton Lock in the foreground and the aqueduct in the background

In this photograph the lock is being demolished and the railway line constructed on the right

Projected schemes for Barton Aqueduct’s replacement included locks to lower craft to the level of the Ship Canal and up the opposite side (as in the Bridgewater Canal’s original proposal) and a vertical lift similar to that at Anderton connecting the Trent and Mersey Canal with the River Weaver.  The latter suggestion is not surprising as the lift at Anderton was the brainchild of the previous engineer for the River Weaver who was none other than Edward Leader Williams (although designed and built by Edwin Clark), the engineer for the Ship Canal.  The design that was eventually settled on was for a “swing aqueduct”.

Edward Leader Williams - the MSC's Chief Engineer

The Swing Aqueduct and the proposed swing bridges on the Ship Canal were to be of similar design to the road bridges that spanned the River Weaver (also designed by Edward Leader Williams).  The aqueduct would pivot on an island built in the centre of the Ship Canal and would swing, full of water, to allow ships to pass either side.  The navigation trough would be sealed at either end prior to swinging by swinging lock-type gates to conserve water. 

The dimensions of Barton Swing Aqueduct are...

Length -   71.6 mtrs (235 feet)
Width -    5.5 mtrs (18 feet)
Depth of water -  1.8 mtrs (6 feet)
Total weight -    1400 tons (800 tons of which is water)

Two photographs showing Barton Road Bridge being demolished. In the second photograph

 the river has been in-filled beneath the left hand arch and accommodates the construction railway.

The centre arch has been removed and replaced by a temporary wooden roadway.

Four photographs showing the Swing Aqueduct in various stages of construction

Work demolishing Brindley’s Barton Aqueduct did not commence until May 1893 when the Bridgewater Canal could be diverted across the new Swing Aqueduct

The weight of the aqueduct is supported by 64 steel rollers, but when swung, a greased hydraulic ram takes some of the weight off the rollers.  The swinging action is achieved hydraulically, being controlled from a tower on the island that overlooks both the aqueduct and the adjacent Barton Road Bridge.  The aqueduct was completed in July 1893 and only then was Brindley’s original structure demolished.  On the northern bank of the Ship Canal remains to this day part of one of the buttresses and approach embankments of the original aqueduct in addition to the site of the Barton Road Aqueduct where the road was spanned by another smaller aqueduct. 

An undated and unusual photograph of Barton Swing Aqueduct being swung complete with barge.

Note the horse on the cantilevered towpath attached to the side of the aqueduct

The completed Barton Swing Aqueduct

Even though Brindley’s original aqueduct was demolished, there remains a similar structure on the Bridgewater Canal opposite the Old Watch House at Stretford.  This is the Hawthorn Lane Aqueduct and even though built on a smaller scale, is reminiscent of its larger brother.

Hawthorne Lane Aqueduct at Watch House, Stretford

Barton Aqueduct completed on 29th May 1893, but a breach in the approach to aqueduct postponed the opening and the subsequent demolition of Brindley's original aqueduct.  When the breach was eventually repaired, the Bridgewater Canal could be diverted over the new aqueduct in order to maintain through traffic on the Bridgewater Canal and demolition of the original aqueduct could take place.  When this was achieved this section of the MSC was completed.  With Brindley’s Barton Aqueduct out of the way, the finishing touches could be made to the MSC in preparation for it’s opening on 1st January 1894, having cost £14,347,891 to construct.

Heavy rain in the November of 1893 caused both the rivers Mersey and Irwell to flood into the completed but partially filled Runcorn to Latchford section.  Within a week, the section was completed and the "Falmouth Castle" giving a tour of the canal to directors, shareholders and local dignitaries, was the first ship to sail along its length on the 25th November 1893.  This section was the last to be completed and construction work on the canal was now completed from one end to the other.

Construction work close to the location of Trafford Road and Rail Bridges

The gigantic scale of the docks is evident by the size of the workmen in front of the steam crane

With the construction work on the canal and docks at the Manchester end now completed, there were legal matters that had to be addressed.  On the 21st December 1893 Manchester was declared a port for Customs purposes. The Chairman of Salford Quarter Sessions, on the 30th December of the same year, issued a certificate declaring that Manchester Docks were completed and ready to accept vessels from that day forward. To celebrate the ship canal’s completion, Manchester’s streets were crowded with people letting in the New Year and celebrating the impending opening of the Ship Canal.

Part of the completed docks prior to the opening of the canal

At 10.00 on the on the morning of 1st January 1884, a procession of vessels lead by Mr Samuel Platt’s yacht “The Norseman” left Eastham bound for Manchester.  The Wallasey ferry boats “Crocus” and “Lupin” had been chartered by the Ship Canal Company to carry officials, dignitaries and guests and were amongst the first vessels along the canal after the “Norseman”.  It is coincidental that in latter years the Mersey Ferries have offered trips along the ship canal and today they are amongst the only regular craft to use the upper reaches of the ship canal.  Also in the flotilla was the SS “Pioneer” owned by the Co-operative Wholesale Society and had the distinction of unloading the first cargo brought along the Ship Canal to Manchester.

The flotilla of ships lead by the “Norseman” sailing up the canal on 1st January 1894

Even though the ship canal was open for trade, it was not officially opened until the 21st May 1884.  Queen Victoria performed the opening ceremony by “remote control” by throwing a switch from a console specially installed aboard the yacht “Enchantress” which activated the lock gates at Mode Wheel Locks and in doing so, pronounced the Manchester Ship Canal officially open. Once the passage of ships had been established, trade along the canal increased.  In March of 1885 importing of cotton from the Southern States of America commenced feeding the many mills in the Lancashire area with raw materials. It was as a direct result of this trade that the shipping company Manchester Liners was formed. Their ships were to be a familiar sight on the ship canal for nearly one hundred years. 

The official opening ceremony attended by Queen Victoria held aboard the yacht “Enchantress” on 21st May 1894

This undated photograph shows the MSC Walton - a Bridgewater Canal tug on the MSC at an unidentified location.

Construction of Number Nine Dock

An unloading wharf was constructed at Ellesmere Port in 1899 to accommodate a large flour mill that was constructed on the on what was to be known as the “Mill Arm”.  Two years later the ship “Chickahomony” brought the first bananas, mangos, oranges, rum, cocoanuts and logwood to Manchester.  Immediately after this, a two-way service started between the Caribbean and Manchester taking finished goods and various cargoes to the Caribbean on the return journey.  To meet the increase in demand for docking space created by the additional shipping services using the MSC, a new dock half a mile long was constructed on the site of the old racecourse and opened in 1905 by King Edward Vll.  Four years later the overall depth of the MSC was increased to twenty eight feet, allowing deeper draughted vessels to use the canal.  The increased depth was achieved by raising the level of water in the canal rather than additional excavation which would have resulted in closing parts of the canal whilst the work took place.

Even though the MSC was deemed a success, there were craft still travelled along the lower reaches of the River Mersey in the Warrington area. The giant Crossfields manufacturing plant expanded across the Mersey and in 1912 a transporter bridge was constructed to carry vehicles across the river to various parts of the complex. This bridge supplemented an earlier transporter bridge built in 1902 that could only accommodate railway trucks.  The earlier bridge has been demolished but the 1912 bridge is still in existence, is one of the three remaining transporter bridges left in the United Kingdom and is a listed structure. Also in 1912, the Fyffe’s and Elders banana trade moved from Manchester to Liverpool’s Garston Docks. Manchester was becoming one of the premier manufacturing cities in the country.  Historically, manufacturing had concentrated around the textile industry but the founding of Trafford Park Industrial Estate close to Manchester Docks brought a more diverse range of manufacturing to the city ranging from motor vehicles when the Ford Motor Company opened it’s first British factory, railway locomotives from the Vulcan Foundry which were sent all over the world, electrical equipment manufacturing from the General Electric Company’s factory, to production of cornflakes from the famous Kellogg’s factory from which emanated the smell of the cornflakes being baked which wafted all over the Trafford Park area.

Two photographs of Manchester Docks just after the opening of the canal

Further down the Ship Canal, at Ellesmere Port, excavation work commenced at Stanlow Island for the first oil tanker berth to serve the growing petro-chemical industry that was becoming established at Stanlow.  The new wharf was constructed on Stanlow Island, an outcrop of land jutting out into the River Mersey estuary bordered by mud flats on the north and the outlet of the River Gowy to the south.  In years gone by there was a monastery on the Island but was dissolved due to the buildings being ravaged by storms and the encroachment of the River.  The island is only accessible by boat and is connected to the oil refinery by pipes laid beneath the canal.  The new berth was not completed until 1922 and as larger ships started to unload oil at Stanlow, the Ship Canal was deepened to a depth of thirty feet from Eastham to Stanlow to allow ships of up to 15000 tons capacity to reach the oil berth in 1927.  Due to the demand for petrol, oil and petro-chemical products, a second (and larger) tanker berth at Stanlow Island was completed in 1933 adjacent to the first.

During the Second World War, the Port of Manchester was instrumental in loading cargoes onto many ships destined to be sunk in the Atlantic Convoys.  During the same period of time a ship carrying whale oil shed it’s cargo into Manchester Docks covering the water with a crust of emulsified oil.  Boats cleared the spillage working like icebreakers and the workers were paid £8 per day to clear the spillage.

The ferry boat “Pomona” and another unidentified craft moored at Albert Bridge now the location of the Mark Addy public house around the turn of the century

At the other end of the canal, two aerial views of Eastham Locks... the first prior to the construction of the Queen Elizabeth ll Oil Terminal. Note the now disused barge lock being filled. The second craft from the left in the centre of the photograph is one of the paddle tugs used on the canal.

The second photograph was taken after 1951 when the Queen Elizabeth ll Oil Terminal is completed

Stanlow Oil Refinery continued to grow, as did the size of the oil tankers that served it.  The Ship Canal was too narrow to allow passage of these larger ships and plans were formulated to construct an additional dock at Eastham.  The new dock was to be known as the Queen Elizabeth ll Oil Terminal.  Although primarily designed to unload petrochemical oil products it can also handle edible oil products as well.  Its entrance locks are adjacent to the Ship Canal’s main entrance locks but there is no direct connection between the Ship Canal and the new dock except for a water supply regulated by sluices.  Construction work was completed in January 1954 and pipelines were laid to connect the dock to the oil refinery at Stanlow.  The new dock covers 19 acres, has locks capable of passing ships 245 mtrs x 30 mtrs and is able to accommodating tankers of 35000 tons capacity making it the largest enclosed oil dock in the United Kingdom. At the other end of the Ship Canal in the same year, expansion was taking place at Pomona Docks, Manchester with the construction of new cargo handling facilities for the expanding Colgate-Palmolive detergent and toiletries manufacturing complex.

New lock gates being towed from Old Quay Workshops, Runcorn to Eastham for installation, 1939.

Once at Eastham the new gates are lifted into position by the MSC’s 250 ton floating crane

An oil tanker berthing at Stanlow Island Oil Berth

At Runcorn, the old Transporter Bridge between Runcorn and Widnes was replaced by a modern suspension bridge based on the design of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and completed in 1964.  The new bridge, possessing the largest span in Europe at the time, spanned Runcorn Gap, a narrowing in the River Mersey, a few hundred metres away from the site of the old Transporter Bridge.  The New Line of Locks were in-filled in 1966 which left the Runcorn Arm of the Bridgewater Canal a dead-end with no connection to either the Ship Canal or the Runcorn and Weston Canal (and the River Weaver Navigation), access to which was gained via Runcorn Docks. Two other new bridges crossed the Ship Canal. Thelwall Viaduct (1959) not only spanned the Ship Canal but also the Bridgewater Canal, a railway, a road and the River Mersey.  It carries the M6 Motorway across the Mersey Valley on lofty concrete pillars.  Further along the Ship Canal, at Barton, another high-level bridge was constructed in 1960.  This bridge originally carried the M63 Motorway across the line of the Ship Canal but with the creation of the Manchester Orbital Motorway it has been renumbered M60.

The Runcorn - Widnes Transporter Bridge carried vehicles across the River Mersey and the MSC.

At 1000 mtrs it had the longest span of any transporter bridge in the world until it was demolished in July 1961 

This photograph shows the gondola or “car” suspended by cables from the overhead gantry

There is another transporter bridge located nearby at Crossfields where the tidal River Mersey is spanned

An up-surge of container traffic at Ellesmere Port necessitated the construction of a new purpose-built terminal at North Quay.  It is not unusual to see ships from Russia and Japan moored next to each other whilst being unloaded.  The quay at Ellesmere Port was also used for the import of foreign cars as well as the export of cars from production plants all over the country including the local Vauxhall (Ellesmere Port) and Ford (Halewood, Liverpool… now Jaguar Cars) plants nearby.  A fire damaged Telford’s Warehouses at the Ellesmere Port terminus of the Shropshire Union Canal.  The damage was so great that it necessitated the complete demolition of the historic warehouses that spanned the SUC’s basins.  Two years later, in 1972, all the Liverpool docks up-stream of the Pier Head  (the South Docks system) were closed except for Garston Docks, which were not connected to the Liverpool dock network.  This closure of the South Docks did not effect the Ship Canal directly as the docks had lain derelict for many years.  From the late 1960’s there had been a general downturn in traffic using all Liverpool Docks and this was echoed along the Ship Canal as the number of ship movements along the upper reaches of the canal and Manchester Docks fell to an all-time low, even though there had been significant investment in containerised cargo handling installations.

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A busy scene showing a Manchester Liner in Number Nine Dock

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Manchester Container Terminal served a weekly Manchester/Montreal cellular ship service of Manchester Liners

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A heavy transformer being loaded onto “Happy Pioneer” at Pomona Dock.

Much heavy equipment was exported from the Trafford Park  Industrial Complex to many countries in the world.

Image 171B - Landscape

A busy night scene at the grain terminal at the end of Pomona Number Nine Dock

A railway along the banks of the Ship Canal from Runcorn to Manchester was constructed at the same time as the canal.  At one time it was part of the largest private railway in the country.  The railway was used for maintenance purposes and was closed and dismantled in 1973, although sections around Trafford Park still survive and are in use today but no longer transport cargoes to Manchester Docks.

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At it’s peak the Manchester Ship Canal Company operated the largest privately owned railway system in the United Kingdom.

This photograph shows the Rolls Royce powered Sentinel Diesel Locomotive number 3001 pulling a rake of chemical tankers.

The following year, 1974, saw the establishment of the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port where the Shropshire Union Canal connects with the Ship Canal.  The Museum has since grown into one of the premier collections of ex-working craft and canal exhibits in the country, many of which are sited where Telford’s Warehouses were situated.  The oil traffic from Lever Brothers’ Bromborough Dock, which served the Port Sunlight complex, to the Crossfield’s plant at Warrington ceased in the same year.

An aerial photograph of Weston Point showing the River Mersey in the foreground with the MSC behind it and the Runcorn and Weston Canal nearest to the land.

Another aerial shot with the MSC in the foreground, Runcorn Docks and the two lines of locks of the Bridgewater Canal in the centre of the photograph.

Bridgewater House is on the bottom left. Note the sailing ships moored in the foreground.

The downward trend in shipping along the Upper Reaches of the Ship Canal continued to such an extent that Manchester Docks would close within five years.  Bridgewater Estates (including the Bridgewater Canal) and, shortly afterwards, the Manchester Ship Canal, including the Manchester Docks complex was purchased by Peel Holdings in 1984.

The Atlantic Fisher was one of the last large ships to berth in Manchester in July 1988

When the docks closed, a large-scale regeneration scheme was initiated.  This scheme was to convert derelict docks and warehouses into a prestige business and up-market housing development, starting with Salford Quays in 1985.  The disused docks were converted into water features surrounding the development and included the construction of a new canal connecting with marina-style moorings.  Parts of the dock complex were still in use.  The graving docks, where ships were broken-up for scrap, dismantled a fleet of Russian fishing vessels and in 1987 the Cawoods container service to Manchester doubled.  The following year, Trafford Railway Swing Bridge was removed and floated into Number Nine Dock and converted into a footbridge.  It was renamed Detroit Bridge.  The pivot island close to Trafford Road Swing Bridge can still be seen and is part of the Wharfside Promenade that follows the canal as far as the Imperial War Museum – North.

Salford Quays under construction in 1988 - note the container cranes in the background

Detroit Footbridge… the relocated Trafford Rail Swing Bridge seperates Huron and Erie Basins

Part of the Salford Quays complex... this was Number Nine Dock

A new vertical lift bridge was opened at Trafford Park close to the Cerestar Wharf.  The new bridge named Centenary Bridge carries the Parkway/M602 link road across the canal.  Its span is forty three metres and is the first movable bridge to be constructed over the canal for a hundred years.  The connection with the Bridgewater Canal, Hulme Lock, was also replaced in 1995 with a new lock, Pomona Lock.  The new lock is situated at the end of Pomona Dock (formally Pomona Number Three Dock) at a location close to the original 1763 connection with the River Irwell at Cornbrook known as “The Gut”, which Hulme Lock replaced in 1838.  In 1996 the Centenary Walk adjacent to the docks was opened.  This took the shape of a promenade around the old docks and new footbridges connected the docks supplementing the original Trafford Railway Swing Bridge, which was previously relocated across the docks and converted into a footbridge.  This bridge crosses the old Number Nine Dock now renamed North Bay.  Much of the area was landscaped and new developments sprung-up all along the Manchester Docks and River Irwell corridor.  Manchester’s “Metrolink” tram network was expanded and crosses the Irwell close to Pomona Dock.  A station was built close to Pomona, an area that covers the in-filled Pomona Number One and Two Docks, which is earmarked for further development including the siting of a new marina in the remaining Number Three Dock.

Centenary Lift Bridge in Trafford Park

The River Irwell from Pomona Dock

The Mersey Ferries still visit the City of Manchester as part of their program of regular trips along the Ship Canal.  Another permanent maritime resident in the City was HMS Bronington.  This retired minesweeper (once commanded by the Prince of Wales) was built in 1953 and was the last wooden minesweeper in the British Navy.  It was moored adjacent to the Imperial War Museum - North at Trafford Wharf until it was moved to the Historic Warships Collection located in Wallasey and Birkenhead Docks in July 2002.

HMS Bronington moored at Trafford Wharf before moving to Birkenhead in 2002

It is ironic that the history of the area encompassing Manchester Docks has gone in a full circle. The area was originally the location of Manchester Racecourse.  It became the docks complex when the Ship Canal was constructed and is now reverting to leisure use with the establishment of the Lowry Art Gallery and Shopping Centre in 2000 adjacent to the site of the old Number Nine Dock, the Imperial War Museum - North  opened in July 2002 at Trafford Wharf and the nearby Trafford Centre... one of the premier shopping centres in the country, occupies an area used by industries serving the docks.  The new Lowry Footbridge was constructed to connect the Imperial War Museum - North with the Lowry Centre and is a vertically lifting footbridge.  This bridge was constructed as a lift bridge should larger craft wish to pass beneath it into the area surrounding the Lowry Centre.  The area has undergone many changes in character from the hustle and bustle of the industrial era, the sadness and lethargy of the period when the docks fell into disuse and the atmosphere of hope as more of the area is developed and new buildings and amenities are constructed.  It will be very interesting to see what future developments take place in this area.

The Mersey Ferryboat "Snowdrop" moored at Salford Quays ready to take passengers on a cruise down the MSC

In 2000, an unusual visitor to the Ship Canal was spotted at Eastham.  A dolphin had followed a ship through the entrance locks at Eastham and was seen following the ship along the canal.  It was eventually “ushered” back into the Mersey estuary by staff using a “gig” boat (a small boat used to take ropes from larger vessels) to continue it’s maritime wanderings.

Another unusual visitor to the MSC was the “Super Seacat” Irish ferry catamaran.  In July 2002 she needed to be dry-docked for maintenance but the lower Mersey dry-docks at Liverpool and Birkenhead were in use.  The only alternative was for her to cruise up the Ship Canal to Trafford Wharf and use the dry-docks still located there.  The giant catamaran fitted into the locks with inches to spare but managed to cruise the length of the canal without incident.

The Super Seacat Irish Ferry at Ellesmere Port in July 2002

The MSC itself is undergoing a period of change as well.  In the past, leisure craft were not allowed to cruise along the canal.  Now, it is not unusual to see the occasional leisure narrowboat being allowed to use the canal for access to the River Weaver at Frodsham, the Shropshire Union Canal at Ellesmere Port or for access to the River Mersey Estuary at Eastham.  The latter usually takes place during the Mersey River Festival when craft cruise across the Mersey (weather permitting) to the Albert Dock complex adjacent to Liverpool’s Pier Head.  Although, with the completion of the Liverpool Docks Link from the end of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal passing between the Pier Head and the Liver Building, this crossing of the Mersey from the Ship Canal is not frequented by as many narrowboats and craft.

Early in 2004 it was announced that when the new Runcorn/Widnes Bridge is completed there is a good possibility of the Runcorn Locks being re-instated. This was also dependant upon a planned redevelopment of the area being successful. A rally supporting the re-instatement of the locks took place in July 2004 and the Runcorn Locks Preservation Society formed.  If the plans come about the locks will connect directly to the MSC through a protected corridor either side of the new housing development.

Looking down the new line of locks on the Bridgewater Canal at Runcorn towards the MSC

An aerial view of Wigg Wharf, Runcorn, once the unloading berth for the Guinness tankers from Ireland. This undated photograph probably taken in the 1920’s shows a factory complex that occupied the site of the mustard gas production plant earlier in the century. The line of the old Runcorn and Latchford Canal can be seen behind the factory complex

“Dock Office”… once the headquarters of the Manchester Ship Canal Company in Trafford Road, Manchester


The view from the entrance locks at Eastham looking towards Liverpool in 1990.

The scaffolding structures are called “Dolphins” which are used to guide craft into the locks

In recent years, even with the slowing down of commercial traffic on the Upper Reaches of the MSC there is still an annual tonnage of around eight million tonnes of freight with over 3000 annual shipping movements. A recent development by Peel Holdings (owners of the MSC) is the construction of a new container terminal near Barton. This new wharf will unload vessels “fed” from larger ships moored at the deep water container berth currently being constructed adjacent to Liverpool’s North Docks at Seaforth. This is the Liverpool 2 project capable of berthing Post-Panamax Vessels which are the largest in the world. This is a long term project and will not come to fruition until around 2015 but will assure a continuing future for commercial trade on the MSC.


Eastham Locks is busier times







Three photographs of the tug Daisy Doardo pushing the barge Res V on the Liverpool to Manchester Shuttle Service

MV "Monica" transporting containers from Seaforth to Caddishead

The telescopic wheelhouse on MV "Monica"

Media City under construction in 2009

Media City Footbridge

Clearance work at the site of the Mersey Gateway - the Second Runcorn-Widnes Bridge in 2013

Mersey Gateway Bridge support under construction - May 2016

Artist's impression of the completed Mersey gateway Bridge - aerial view

(CGI - Mersey Gateway)

Completed Mersey Gateway Bridge

(Photograph - Mersey gateway)

Barton Lift Bridge - March 2018


The Chronology of the “Big Ditch”... The Manchester Ship Canal


Fosse constructed at Castlefield by Romans


Thomas Patten makes improvements to River Mersey up to Warrington


Thomas Steers surveyed the Rivers Mersey and Irwell and suggests improvements to allow continuous navigation to Manchester


Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company formed


Mersey and Irwell Navigation completed


Scroop Egerton commissioned Thomas Steers to investigate making Worsley Brook and mine soughs navigable


Survey to make Sankey Brook navigable by Henry Berry


Sankey or Saint Helens Canal partially open


First Bridgewater Canal Act of Parliament


Construction commenced on Bridgewater Canal


Act of Parliament for Barton Aqueduct passed


Connection made between Mersey and Irwell Navigation and Bridgewater Canal at Cornbrook (the Gut)


Bridgewater Canal opened to through traffic


Runcorn and Latchford Canal opened


Woolston New Cut constructed


Proposal for ship canal from Runcorn to West Kirby promoted and surveyed by Thomas Telford dropped mainly due to cost


St Helens Canal extension to Widnes constructed to counteract railway competition


Bridgewater Canal’s Hulme Lock branch built superseding the previous connection to the River Irwell… The Gut


Act of Parliament allowing the Bridgewater Canal to purchase the shares of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation and the formation of the Bridgewater Navigation Company Limited


Upper Mersey Navigation Commission established to light and buoy channels to Bank Quay, Warrington using the tender/buoy lighter/survey vessel "Jesse Wallwork"


Proposal by Hamilton Fulton for a ship canal to connect Manchester to the River Mersey estuary


Fulton’s scheme for the Manchester Ship Canal adopted by Daniel Adamson and proposed to a group of Manchester businessmen, financiers and local Mayors


MSC Bill passed by House of Commons but thrown out by House of Lords

11/1883 Ferdinand de Lesseps (engineer of the Suez Canal) visits Manchester to inspect plans for the MSC and asked to be kept informed of progress


MSC Bill passed by House of Lords but thrown out by House of Commons on 1-8-1884


Manchester Ship Canal Company formed, MSC Bill finally passed by both Houses of Parliament


Bridgewater Navigation Co Ltd purchased by Manchester Ship Canal Company and a public holiday declared in Manchester to celebrate the passing of the MSC Act of Parliament

1886 Act of Parliament passed to pay interest out of capitol in order to raise £8m on the Stock Exchange


Jubilee Exhibition contains scale model of MSC


Lord Egerton cuts the first sod of earth in the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal at Eastham on the Wirral Peninsula


Construction of MSC commences in 8 sections - 1. Eastham to Ellesmere Port, 2. Ellesmere Port to Ince, 3. Ince to Weston Point, 4. Weston Point to Norton, 5. Norton to Latchford, 6. Latchford to Warburton, 7. Warburton to Barton and 8. Barton to Manchester


Daniel Adamson dies at the age of 71. Prolonged rain caused floods in fields and villages due to raised river levels.  Temporary dams were washed away


Floods in Latchford section between Thelwall and Lymm washed machinery away, destroyed embankments leaving the railway lines suspended in mid-air, between Little Bolton Cutting and Mode Wheel barrier gave way causing 20 million gallons to flood into the works in twenty minutes.  In Trafford Cutting an ancient Runic Cross was discovered and another dug-out canoe discovered at Partington.  The railway locomotives "Rhymney" and "Deal" collided head-on killing three workmen.


Mersey Docks and Harbour Company serve injunction against MSC for deviating from plans regarding openings in embankments, which allegedly would alter the River Mersey's scouring effect leading to damaging the river channel at Liverpool.  Greenhart timber delivered from British Guiana delivered to Eastham for construction of the 80ft lock gates weighing 540 tons each


Shah of Persia visited Manchester and wished to see MSC workings and remains of dug-out canoe discovered at Barton


More rain and gales caused river levels to rise and breach temporary embankments which lead to six miles of the workings to be flooded


River Irwell overflowed at Barton


Thomas Walker, the contractor, dies aged 62 and legal problems concerning his estate effected working on the Ship Canal.

11/1890 to 1/1891

More weather problems affected construction and weather did not abate until January 1891

4/2/1891 Industrial disputes over wages affected construction.
9/3/1891 Special Committee meeting with Manchester Corporation to request financial assistance.  The Corporation agreed to advance £3M and subsequently promoted a Bill in Parliament empowering them to do so.  At a public meeting, Salford Corporation were forced by public pressure to contribute £1M but the decision was denied due to the inability of Salford Corporation to borrow that amount of money.
5/6/1891 3000 men worked around the clock to complete the Eastham Section.
13/6/1891 Regular packet steamer from Liverpool to Ellesmere Port failed to dock for the first time in 54 years.  A £300 per day penalty imposed due to Ellesmere Port Docks being inaccessible.
14/6/1891 Work commenced to close the gap in the embankment at Ellesmere Port using concrete.  Tugs and dredgers moored in the river adjacent to the gap to act as breakwaters protecting the embankment from tidal damage.


Construction machinery removed on completion of the Ellesmere Port section prior to filling.  The actual date of filling this section of the canal was kept secret in order to prevent crowds from forming.  A hole in the embankment was made and as the tide rose, water slowly entered the canal.  Filling of the section took over a week and when completed the only damage was minor landslips.  However, when the hole in the embankment was filled-in on 11th July, the embankment was breached.  The following day the breach was repaired with boulders but failed once again.  It was eventually sealed with concrete and no further problems occurred.

11/7/1891 River water entrance hole in embankment filled-in with soil.
12/7/1891 Embankment at Ellesmere Port breached by tidal action and repaired using boulders but breached again.


Breach successfully repaired using concrete.

14/7/1891 At 08.45 the first passage along Ship Canal from Eastham to Ellesmere Port.  All subsequent traffic to Ellesmere Port had to go via the Ship Canal from Eastham.
1/8/1891 River Irwell channelled into Little Barton Cutting.
14/9/1891 Ince Section filled without drama.
12/1891 Another financial crisis strikes.  £863000 needed to complete the canal.
14/12/1891 Continuous rain caused the rivers Mersey and Irwell to breach embankments and flow into Irwell Cutting.  At Latchford the Bollin also burst into the canal causing damage and demolishing machinery.  At last not a bad as previous year… 2½ miles flooded as against 18½ miles.
1892 Amount required to complete the canal raised to £1¼M due to winter flood damage.
7/9/1892 Amount required to finish the canal raised yet again to £2M.  Manchester Corporation raised rates to pay the amount.  Industrial unrest amongst workers.
29/5/1893 Barton Aqueduct completed but breach in approach to aqueduct postponed demolition of Brindley's original aqueduct.  When breach repaired, demolition of original aqueduct could take place and this section of the canal was completed.
25/11/1893 Heavy rain caused both Mersey and Irwell to flood into the completed but partially filled Runcorn and Latchford section.  Within a week, the section was completed and the "Falmouth Castle" was the first ship to sail along it.  This section was the last to be completed and the canal was completed from one end to the other.
21/12/1893 Manchester declared a port for Customs purposes.
30/12/1893 Chairman of Salford Quarter Sessions issued a certificate declaring that Manchester Docks were completed and ready to accept vessels.
31/12/1893 Manchester streets crowded with people letting in the New Year and celebrating the opening of the Ship Canal.
1/1/1894 Manchester Ship Canal completed costing £14,347,891 to construct. At 10.00am - a flotilla of ships headed by the steam yacht "Norsman" left Eastham heading along the canal followed by the Wallasey Ferryboats "Snowdrop" and "Crocus". The first cargo carried along the whole length of the canal and discharged at Manchester was from the Co-operative Wholesale Societies’ ship “SS Pioneer”.
21/5/1894 MSC officially opened by Queen Victoria aboard the yacht "Enchantress".
3/1895 Cotton trade between Southern States of America and Manchester commences.
1898 Manchester Liners formed as direct result of cotton trade's success.
1899 A large flour mill constructed at Ellesmere Port connected to the canal by the Mill Arm.
27/7/1901 SS "Chickahomony" brought the first bananas, mangos, oranges, rum, cocoanuts and logwood.  Immediately after this a two-way service started between the Caribbean and Manchester.
1902 First transporter bridge constructed at Crossfields chemical plant at Warrington to transport railway trucks across the River Mersey
1905 New dock half a mile long constructed on the site of the old racecourse and opened by King Edward Vll and the Runcorn-Widnes Transporter Bridge completed
1909 Water levels raised throughout the whole length of the canal to give a maximum depth of twenty eight feet
1912 Second transporter bridge at Crossfields plant in Warrington constructed to carry railway trucks across the Mersey &Irwell Navigation.  Ffifes and Elders banana trade moved from Manchester to Liverpool Garston Docks.
1916 Excavation work commences at Stanlow Island for the first oil tanker berth and Trafford Park Industrial Estate founded close to Manchester Docks.
1922 Stanlow Island tanker berth completed.
1927 Ship Canal deepened between Eastham and Stanlow to accommodate 15000 ton capacity oil tankers.
1933 Second (and larger) Stanlow Island tanker berth completed adjacent to the first.
1940? A ship carrying a whale oil cargo shed it’s cargo into Manchester Docks covering the water with a crust of emulsified oil. Boats cleared the spillage working like icebreakers and the workers were paid £8 per day to clear the spillage
1952 Construction work commences on Queen Elizabeth II Oil Terminal at Eastham which will cover 19 acres when completed
1/1954 Opening of Queen Elizabeth II Oil Terminal capable of handling ships of 35000 tons and expansion of cargo handling facilities for Colgate-Palmolive at Pomona Docks
1960 Construction of Barton High-Level Bridge carrying what was then called the M602 Motorway
1966 Bridgewater Canal’s New Line of locks, part of Runcorn Docks and part of the Runcorn and Weston Canal infilled.
1970 New container berth constructed at North Quay, Ellesmere Port.
1972 All Liverpool Docks upstream of the Pier Head closed except for Garston Docks.
1973 MSC Railway closes and the track subsequently removed except for the section within Trafford Park.
1974 Boat Museum established Ellesmere Port Docks at the Shropshire Union Canal’s terminus and oil traffic from Bromborough to Crossfields at Warrington ceases.
1984 Bridgewater Estates and, shortly afterwards the Manchester Ship Canal, purchased by Peel Holdings.
1985 Peel Holdings commence redevelopment of Manchester Docklands starting with Salford Quays.
1987 Cawoods container service to Manchester doubled and container handling facilities increased accordingly.
1988 Trafford Railway Swing Bridge is relocated to Number Nine Dock where it was renamed Detroit Bridge
1994 MSC’s 100th anniversary celebrated by a commemorative boat rally held at Salford Quays
1995 New Pomona Lock replaces Hulme Lock as connection with the River Irwell and Manchester Docks and opening of new vertical lift bridge… the Centenary Bridge at Trafford Park close to Cerestar Wharf.
1996 Centenary Walk, a promenade along what is to be the Lowry Centre was completed.
1998 Lowry Centre opens on North Bay (formally Number Nine Dock) and a dolphin was sighted in the lower reaches of the Ship Canal at Eastham.
2000 Imperial War Museum North West to be located close to the Lowry Centre in Manchester Docklands.
2001 Proposal to utilise Pomona Dock as a marina to provide moorings for pleasure craft and the refurbishment of Weaste Wharf for trans-shipment of cement products .
7/2002 Imperial War Museum - North, located at Trafford Wharf opened to the public, “Super Seacat” cruises up the MSC to be dry-docked at Trafford Wharf and HMS Bronnington moved to the Historic Warships Collection at Wallasey Docks.
3/2004 Proposals unveiled for a new container terminal in the Barton area to load and unload feeder ships for the proposed deep-water container berth at Seaforth on the River Mersey Estuary opposite New Brighton.
10/2007 Tug "Daisy Dorado" and barge "Res-V" commence Liverpool to Manchester Container Shuttle Service.
2011 Media City at Salford Quays completed and BBC followed soon after by ITV move there.
2012 Planning permission granted for Second Mersey Crossing at Runcorn and construction work commences. Tug "Daisy Dorardo" and barge "Res-V" replaced with MV "Monica"... a purpose built container barge with elevating wheelhouse and MV "Coastal Deniz"... a coastal container ship. Media City Footbridge completed.
2013 Work commenced on Mersey Gateway (Runcorn) Bridge, Port Salford Freight Terminal, Western Gateway Infrastructure Scheme (including Barton Lift Bridge) and the "Liverpool 2" deep-water container terminal at Seaforth in the Mersey Estuary.
2016 Port Salford Freight Terminal and the "Liverpool 2" deep-water container terminal completed
16/05/2016 Partially completed Barton Lift Bridge collapesed
14/10/2017 Mersey Gateway Bridge completed
2018 Barton Lift Bridge completed and opened


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Chapter Two... The Description of the Route


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So You Want To Go Canal Cruising?

 Book 1 - 1959 to 1982

 Book 2 - 1983 to 1999

 Book 3 - 2000 to 2005

 Book 4 - 2006 to 2007

 Book 5 - 2008 to 2009

 Book 6 - 2010

 Book 7 - 2011

 Book 8 - 2012

 Book 9 - 2013

 Book 10 - 2014

 Book 11 - 2015

 Book 12 - 2016
 Book 13 - 2017
 Book 14 - 2018
nb Squirrel
Canals on Screen
Canalscape Photography
Canalscape Gallery
Photography in One

The History of Lymm Cruising Club

The Duke's Cut - The Bridgewater Canal

Shroppie - The Shropshire Union Canal System (In Preparation)

The Manchester and Salford Junction Canal
Mersey Connections (Coming Soon)

Wonders of the Waterways

2011 Gardner Engine Rally Report

Foreign Forays - Canals of the World

Worsley Canal Heritage Walk

Castlefield Canal Heritage Walk

The Liverpool Docks Link

nb Total Eclipse

Don't Call it a Barge

Canis Canalus
Lymm Cruising Club Website

Footnote and Acknowledgements

Site Map
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Updated 23/03/2018