Manchester Ship Canal

Manchester Ship Canal

Manchester Ship Canal, 35.5 mi (57 km) long with a minimum depth of 28 ft (8.5 m), connecting Manchester, W England, with the Mersey estuary at Eastham, above Birkenhead. Begun in 1887, it was opened in 1894 and changed Manchester from a river port to a seaport.

The Manchester Ship Canal is a wide, long, river navigation in North West England, opened on 21 May 1894. At the time of its completion, it was the largest navigation canal in the world.

The "Big Ditch", as it is sometimes known, consists of the rivers Irwell and Mersey made navigable for seagoing ships from the Mersey Estuary to Salford Docks in Greater Manchester. It transformed Manchester from a landlocked city into a major sea port, known as the Port of Manchester.

Early history

The idea that the Rivers Mersey and Irwell should be made navigable from the Mersey Estuary in the west to Manchester in the east was first proposed in 1660, but it was not until 1720 that the necessary parliamentary bills were tabled. Work began in 1724, and by 1734 boats could make the journey from quays in Water Street, Manchester, to the sea. The Mersey and Irwell was only navigable by small ships however, and during periods of drought, or when strong easterly winds held back the tide in the estuary, there was not always a sufficient depth of water for a fully laden boat. The completion of the Bridgewater Canal in 1776, and the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830, meant increasing competition for the carriage of goods, and in 1844 ownership of the Mersey & Irwell Navigation was transferred to the Bridgewater Trustees. In 1872, it was sold to The Bridgewater Navigation Company for £1,112,000, but by then it had begun to fall into disrepair. In 1882, it was described as being "hopelessly choked with silt and filth", and was open to 50-ton (51 t) boats for only 47 out of 311 working days.

Economic conditions began to deteriorate during the mid-1870s, in what has been called the Long Depression. The dues charged by the Port of Liverpool, and the railway charges from there to Manchester, were also perceived to be excessive; it was often cheaper to import goods from Hull, on the other side of England, than it was to use Liverpool, about away. A ship canal was proposed as a way to reverse Manchester's economic decline by giving the city direct access to the sea for its imports and its exports of manufactured goods.

The canal was championed by Manchester manufacturer Daniel Adamson, who arranged a meeting at his home (The Towers, in Didsbury) on 27 June 1882. He invited representatives of several Lancashire towns, local businessmen and politicians, and two civil engineers, Hamilton Fulton and Edward Leader Williams. Fulton proposed a tidal canal, with no locks and a deepened channel into Manchester; Williams was in favour of a series of locks. Both engineers were invited to submit proposals, and Williams' plans were selected to form the basis of a bill submitted to parliament in November 1882. However, due to intense opposition by Liverpool and the railway companies, the necessary enabling Act of Parliament was not passed until 6 August 1885. Certain conditions were attached however; £5 million had to be raised, and the ship canal company had to buy both the Bridgewater Canal and the Mersey & Irwell Navigation within two years. The estimated cost of construction was £5,160,000, and the work was expected to take four years to complete.

Initial financing

The enabling act of parliament stipulated that the ship canal company's entire share capital of £8 million had to be issued within two years, otherwise the act would lapse. Adamson wanted to encourage the widest possible share ownership, and he believed that the funds should be raised largely from the working population. Richard Peacock, the vice-chairman of the Provisional Manchester Ship Canal Committee, had said in 1882: The enabling act though, did not allow the company to issue shares of less value than £10. To make them easier for ordinary people to buy, shilling coupons were issued in books of ten, so that shares could be paid for in instalments. However, by May 1887 only £3M had been raised. The contractor chosen to construct the canal, Thomas Walker, agreed to accept £½M of the contract price in shares, but raising the remainder required another act of parliament to allow the company's share capital to be restructured as £3M of ordinary shares and £4M of preference shares. Adamson remained convinced that the money should be raised from ordinary members of the public, and he opposed the capital restructuring, resigning as chairman of the ship canal committee on 1 February 1887. A prospectus for the sale of the preference shares was issued jointly by Barings and Rothschild on 15 July, and by 21 July the issue had been fully underwritten. Construction of the canal began on 11 November 1887, when Lord Egerton of Tatton, who had taken over the chairmanship of the Manchester Ship Canal Company from Adamson, cut the first sod.

Large portions of the eventual cost of construction were borne by Manchester rate-payers, via Manchester Corporation. Loans were arranged during the early 1890s on condition that the Corporation held 11 of the 21 seats on the Canal Company's board of directors led by John Aird, an engineering contractor and MP.


Thomas Walker was appointed as the contractor for the construction of the canal, and the work was overseen by the chief engineer and designer Edward Leader Williams. The canal's length was divided into eight sections, with an engineer responsible for each. The first section was from Eastham to Ellesmere Port, northwest of which, on a narrow stretch of land between the canal and the Mersey is now Mount Manisty, a huge mound of earth created from the extracted soil. Its name – and that of the adjacent Manisty Cutting – derives from the engineer in charge of that section. The last section to be built was from Weston Point through the Runcorn gap to Norton, as the existing docks at Runcorn and Weston had to be kept operational until they could be connected to the completed western sections of the ship canal.

For the first two years, construction went according to plan, but on 25 November 1889 Walker died. Initially the work was continued by his executors, but the project began to suffer a number of setbacks, not helped by severe weather and several serious floods. In January 1891, when the work ought to have been completed, a severe winter added to the difficulties when the Bridgewater Canal, the canal company's only source of income, closed because of ice. The company decided to take over the contracting work itself, and purchased all of the equipment on site for £400,000.

The canal was finally completely filled with water in November 1893, and opened to its first traffic on 1 January 1894. Edward Leader Williams was knighted by Queen Victoria at the official opening on 21 May 1894, during one of the three royal visits the Queen made to Manchester.

The project took six years to complete, at a cost of just over £15M. More than 54 million cubic yards (41,000,000 m³) of material were excavated, about half as much as was removed in the building of the Suez Canal. An average of 12,000 workers were employed during construction, peaking at 17,000. Regular navvies were paid at a rate of d per hour for a 10-hour working day, equivalent to about £70 per day as of 2008. In terms of machinery, the scheme called upon over of temporary rail track, 180 locomotives, over 6,000 trucks and wagons, 124 steam-powered cranes, 192 other steam engines, and 97 steam excavators. Major engineering landmarks of the scheme included the Barton Swing Aqueduct (carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the Ship Canal) and a neighbouring swing bridge for road traffic at Barton.

In 1909, the water level in the canal was raised by , increasing the canal's depth from to , to match the depth of the Suez Canal.


From Eastham, the canal runs parallel to, and along the south side of, the River Mersey, past Ellesmere Port and, having intercepted flows from the River Weaver, through the Runcorn Gap between Runcorn and Widnes and to the south of Warrington. Between Rixton, east of the M6 motorway's Thelwall Viaduct and Irlam the canal follows the route of the Mersey – with some old meanders now isolated from the canal – and between Irlam and Salford it follows the course of the River Irwell.

Pomona Docks have been filled in and built over save for number three dock which remains totally intact and has a lock connecting the ship canal to the bridgewater canal that runs parallel to it at this point. The western four docks have been converted into the Salford Quays development and can no longer be used as shipping docks. Ships using the Manchester Ship Canal now dock at various places along the canal side, for example at Mode Wheel.

Most vessels have to terminate at Salford Quays, though smaller vessels can continue up the River Irwell to either join the Bridgewater Canal via Pomona Lock or, carry on to just short of Manchester Cathedral.


The Manchester Ship Canal is the eighth-longest ship canal in the world, only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America.

Upon completion, the Manchester Ship Canal ensured that Manchester became Britain's third busiest port, despite being 40 miles (60 km) inland.

By the 1970s, the water in the Manchester Ship Canal and Salford Docks was grossly polluted and underwater visibility for maintenance divers was zero.

Features and coordinates
Location Distance from
Eastham Locks
(links to map & photo sources)
miles km
Eastham Locks 0 0
Runcorn Railway Bridge 12.5 20.1
Silver Jubilee Bridge 12.6 20.3
Old Quay Lock (closed) 13.0 20.9
Old Quay Swing Bridge 13.3 21.4
Moore Lane Swing Bridge 17.1 27.5
Acton Grange Railway Viaduct 17.9 28.8
Chester Road Swing Bridge 18.7 30.1
London Road (A49) Swing Bridge 19.4 31.2
Cantilever High Level Bridge 20.1 32.3
Knutsford Road Swing Bridge 20.4 32.8
Thelwall Viaduct (M6) 22.8 36.7
Warburton Bridge (Toll) 28.1 45.2
Irlam Railway Viaduct 28.1 45.2
Barton High Level Bridge (M60) 30.9 49.7
Barton Road Swing Bridge 31.7 51.0
Barton Swing Aqueduct 31.7 51.0
Salford Quays 34.6 55.7
Trafford Road Swing Bridge 35.0 56.3
Pomona Docks 35.5 57.1
Woden Street Bridge 36.0 57.9

MSC Railway

To service the large amount of freight being landed at the canal's docks the MSC Railway was created to carry goods from nearby industrial estates, including Trafford Park, and connect to the various railway companies near the canal. The MSC Railway, unlike most other railway companies in the UK, was not nationalised in 1948 and became the largest private railway in the UK during the British Railways era. The MSC Railway operated a large fleet of steam locomotives, many being 0-6-0 tank engines, several of which have been preserved.Such as:

  • Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0 No. 4002
  • Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0T no. 32 "Gothenburg"

Both of which are at the East Lancashire Railway


Unlike most other British canals, the Manchester Ship Canal was never nationalised. In 1991 the Ship Canal Company became a part of Peel Holdings, and as at 2008, the canal is owned and operated by Peel Ports, who also own the Port of Liverpool.

Today, largely because of the decline of UK-based manufacturing industry and also because many ocean-going ships are too large to fit in the canal, the amount of freight it carries has dropped to about six million tonnes each year. Salford Docks are no longer used as ship docks, and ships using the Manchester Ship Canal dock at various places along the canal side, e.g. at Mode Wheel.

On 18 October 2007, the retail chain Tesco announced that it had begun using the canal for transporting New World wine between Liverpool and the Irlam Container Terminal, from where the cargo is offloaded and transported to a nearby bottling plant. Tesco has said that this will save of road haulage per year.

Leisure craft (e.g. narrowboats) can join the Manchester Ship Canal from the Shropshire Union Canal at Ellesmere Port, from the Weaver Navigation at Weston near Runcorn, and from the Bridgewater Canal at Pomona Lock in Salford. However, the safety rules necessary on a major commercial waterway are too onerous for most leisure traffic, so only the most intrepid narrowboaters use the canal to complete a "Shropshire Union/Trent and Mersey/Weaver" ring route. A few canal boats take advantage of the less severe restrictions "upstream" of Pomona Lock, to explore the final section of the canal and a short length of the River Irwell. The construction of a new canal from the present Liverpool terminus of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to the Pier Head at Liverpool may see more willing to try to navigate the Mersey itself and access the Ship Canal at Eastham Locks.

Maximum size

Although the canal was built for ocean-going ships, ship sizes have long outgrown the canal.

In 2005 the maximum length of ship accepted into the canal was 170.68 m with a beam of 21.94 m. However, beams of around 23 m are acceptable with a smaller length. Maximum draught is 8.78 m.

The maximum size of a ship going to the end of the canal in Salford is length 161.54m, beam 19.35m, and draught 7.31m. This is due to the sizes of the largest locks that can be used, 182.88m x 19.81m. Ships passing the Runcorn bridge also have a height restriction of 24.25 m above normal water levels.

The Queen Elizabeth II Dock at the entrance to the canal can accept vessels up to 208.79 m long with a 28 m beam, maximum draught 10 m.

While many ships are designed specifically to fit the Suez and Panama Canals (Suezmax, Panamax), the narrower Manchester Ship Canal is no longer of major importance for shipping.

See also




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