Manchester Ship Canal

by | Feb 28, 2018 | History, Industry, Manchester

iNostalgia looks back at the history of the Manchester Ship Canal – the engineering wonder that helped turn the Northwest into an industrial powerhouse.

Some extraordinary things have found their way into the Manchester Ship Canal since it was officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1894.

Submarines, deep sea divers, bombs and bodies are just some of the items to figure in the canal’s 124-year story.

The canal, known as the Big Ditch due to the immense size of the engineering project, took seven years to complete at a cost of £15 million – a colossal sum in the 1890s.

When it was built, the 36-mile channel was the longest river navigation canal in the world.

In fact the canal, stretching from Eastham on the Mersey estuary to Salford in Greater Manchester, is still the world’s eighth longest ship canal. It’s just shorter than the Panama Canal.

Teams of workmen, known as navigators or navvies for short, dug vast parts of the canal by hand. Many died in the brutal conditions.

But the result helped the Northwest become an industrial powerhouse as ocean-going ships could reach the heart of Manchester from the Irish Sea.

The canal follows the routes of Mersey and Irwell rivers through Cheshire and Lancashire. There are five sets of huge locks at Irlam, Eastham, Latchford, Barton and Mode Wheel.

Major engineering firsts along the canal include the Barton Swing Aqueduct – the only swing aqueduct in the world – and Trafford Park, the world’s first planned industrial estate.

There are also seven swing road bridges, five high-level railway viaducts and four high-level road bridges.

At its height in 1958, the canal carried 18 million tons of freight. This gradually declined as ocean-going ships increased in size and other ports introduced new cargo-handling methods.

Salford docks closed in 1984 – a century after the canal’s opening. Freight movement had slipped to 6.6 million tons by 2009.

Current owners Peel Ports have plans to expand shipping to 100,000 containers a year by 2030 as part of the Atlantic Gateway project.

There were no modern containers in 1945 when our first photograph was taken. The remarkable image shows the intrepid ‘Navy Boys’ – divers who cleared harbours of unexploded bombs.

They were literally human minesweepers who operated from Cherbourg to Bremen after World War II.

It was little wonder the Navy Boys sought some light relief in their perilous work – hence the diver’s back-roll on entry to the murky waters of the ship canal.

Divers known as the Navy Boys sweep the canal for unexploded bombs, October 1945.

A little further down the canal, between Stretford and Worsley, is the Barton Swing Aqueduct – described as one of the wonders of the waterway world.

Opened in 1893, it carries the Bridgewater Canal across the Manchester Ship Canal. Our photo shows the structure in February 1949.

The swing aqueduct, a Grade II listed building, replaced Brindley’s stone aqueduct crossing what was the Mersey and Irwell Navigation.

The Barton Swing Aqueduct

A wonder of the waterways – Barton Swing Aqueduct in February 1949.

Military pomp was strongly in evidence at the official opening of the new oil terminal at Eastham in January 1954.

A formation of RAF Meteor jets flew overhead while a 21-gun salute was fired by the Royal Artillery. Our photo shows a tug helping the first tanker through the lock.

Opening of New Oil Dock at Eastham, a formation of RAF meteors fly overhead

Planes and a 21-gun salute mark the opening of the Eastham oil terminal, January 1954.

The celebrations turned sour a year later when dockers went on strike and marched through Manchester in March 1955 in a dispute over new practices, staffing and pay.

Dockers with placards demonstrating in Manchester.

Striking dockers protest in Manchester, March 1955.

There was no sign of industrial strife in June 1967 when our serene photo of ships unloading in the mist was taken. All was calm on the canal as a harbourmaster watched a trawler navigate its way to a safe berth.

Ships unloading in the docks at Manchester seen through the mist

Ships unloading in the mist, June 1967.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case when the submarine HMS Otter sailed through the canal! It was involved in a minor scrape with a ferry before staying over in Manchester for four days in November 1969.

HMS Otter was accompanied by three other submarines – Olympus, Onyx and Andrew – on its official visit to the city. Our photo shows Lieutenant Commander Ian MacDougall coming ashore after the collision.

Ian Mac Dougall the Commanding officer of submarine H.M.S Otter

Lieutenant Commander Ian MacDougall leaves HMS Otter, November 1969.

You can read more about the Manchester Ship Canal in Clive Hardy’s three About Manchester books covering the 1950s, 60s and 70s.