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Near death to super seaway : Manchester Ship Canal

Contributed by Walter Menzies on 29.01.2016

Walter Menzies looks back at the enthralling history of the Manchester Ship Canal and explores what the future may hold for this jewel of the North.

We’re all part of the Northern Powerhouse now. But Liverpool and Manchester keep their distance though they have been linked by the railway since 1830 and the M62 since 1976.

Often overlooked is the Northwest’s equivalent to the Eiffel Tower - that marvel of engineering the Manchester Ship Canal.

36 miles in length, its five sets of locks lift ocean going vessels 18 metres from the Mersey Estuary at Eastham on the Wirral to Manchester, capital of the north. Five sets of sluices and two weirs control its depth.

Landmarks pointed out to visitors on canal cruises include Barton Swing Bridge - the only swing aqueduct in the world and Trafford Park - the world’s first planned industrial estate.

Opened by Queen Victoria in 1894, the Ship Canal enabled the newly created Port of Manchester to become Britain’s third busiest port.

At the height of the construction period 17,000 men were at work in one of the most ambitious and daring construction projects the world had ever seen.

It was the HS2 of the nineteenth century - and it was completed much faster.

Fiercely opposed by Liverpool, the aim was to avoid the charges by the Port of Liverpool and the railway company: Manchester business leaders believed that these were far too high. And the canal was a bold response to problems of depression and unemployment in Manchester. The construction jobs were of course temporary but the Port became a big employer.

Early advertisements for the Port were typical Manchester swagger: “TO THE DOOR OF THE MILL…The Port of Manchester is now third in the kingdom. It brings ocean-going freight steamers into the heart of the country’s greatest manufacturing area”.

The Ship Canal enjoyed its very own patriotic song, composed by R. H. Kay, its own railway - the largest private railway in the UK - and police force.

The 1904 Ship Canal Act enabled its depth to be increased to 8.5 metres to rival the Suez Canal.

Trade peaked in the nineteen fifties: “To catch the morning tide - with her hold laden with cars, trucks, tractors and heavy machinery, she pulls out from the Port of Manchester at sunrise and makes for the open sea”.

But the balance of trade was shifting to the west - oil to Stanlow Refinery at Ellesmere Port. By the 1980’s traffic had declined to such an extent that closing the Canal from Runcorn upstream was seriously considered. Manchester Docks at Salford Quays finally closed in 1984.

The ailing Manchester Ship Canal Company was acquired in an audacious coup in 1987 by prop-erty magnate John Whitaker, whose Peel Holdings subsequently bought the Port of Liverpool as well.

Now the Port and Canal were in single ownership. A completely new chapter began: “A unique, innovative, green highway into the heart of the UK, its unrivalled, multi-modal connections give you an efficient, cost effective, environmentally friendly way to get your cargo closer to your customers”.

The Port of Liverpool - rebranded as Liverpool 2 - is now being expanded to accom-modate some of the world’s largest container ships at a cost of some £300million.

Port Salford “one of the biggest developments in Greater Manchester in half a century” - is under construction with, road, rail and canal / sea connectivity.

Peel Ports aspire to grow the Ship Canal shuttle service to 100,000 containers a year by 2020.

Historic problems of pollution - high levels of cadmium and mercury - in the canal have not yet been resolved. The exception is Salford Quays where aeration of the water means that diving ducks are regular visitors and water quality improvements have enabled spectacular redevelop-ment.

Manchester Ship Canal has a bright future: transporting containers by water reduces road traffic congestion and carbon dioxide emissions from lorries. Now there is talk of big improvements to the freight waterways in the north east.

Could the next step be a Transpennine canal so that freight can travel from the Humber to the Mersey and then on to the wider world?

That really would put the Northern Powerhouse on the global map!

Discover more and take a virtual tour of the Ship canal here.

 

Image credits:
Main image from the Manchester City Council Local Image Collection: Manchester Docks //1900.
Image 1 - Three Bridges: Manchester City Council Local Image Collection
Image 2 - Salford Docks: Manchester City Council Local Image Collection
Image 3 - Stockton Heath: Flickr user Ian Carroll