Montage of canal images. Follow this link to skip navigation.
Link to the canal archive

Canal Archive: Bridging the Years

Link to home page
Link to canals section
Link to railways section
Link to aviation section
Link to learning zone
Link to about this site
Link to send feedback
Navigation ends

The Need for a Ship Canal

In 1876 George Hicks, a member of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian, lamenting the state of the rivers Mersey and Irwell, having seen vessels stuck fast in the mud. He commented that whilst Manchester and the other nearby towns were suffering under the high rates imposed on goods moving through Liverpool, a route which could remove the need for such charges was lying virtually unused.

The Mersey and Irwell Navigation, once a thriving waterway, had been neglected, with the result that the rivers had become choked up with silt and rubbish, hampering the passage of vessels. In 1844 the Navigation had been purchased by the Bridgewater Trustees. The Trustees had then focused their attention on the Canal rather than the rivers. The Navigation was not regularly dredged by its new owners, a necessary task to keep the passageway open, and it became a poor relation to the Bridgewater Canal.

Hicks was not the first individual to make this observation. Although the Bridgewater Canal provided a good route to Liverpool, many saw the need for a waterway that could accommodate for much bigger vessels. Liverpool's rates were seen by many as extortionate. It was said that it was often cheaper for goods to be imported from Hull and then transported across the country, than to use Liverpool. Manchester traders felt that they were being held at a disadvantage.

Hick's letter did not go unnoticed. Hamilton Fulton, a London engineer, reacted to his comments by submitting a scheme for a 'ship canal'. As a result, in 1877, the Chamber of Commerce after considering the plan declared that 'it would be of the greatest service to the interests of Manchester and the trade of the district to have an improved waterway'.

Unfortunately these efforts had no immediate effect. The late 1870s was a period of economic stagnation, from which Manchester was not immune. Local industry was suffering, with factories closing and workers being laid off. However, in the face of such difficult times, the call for a Ship Canal became louder. In the previous decade the American Civil War had hit Lancashire's cotton industry hard, and had highlighted the high rates charged by the railways companies, who were also buying up waterways and slowly closing these alternative routes. Improvements to the Clyde and Tyne, and the construction of the Suez Canal illustrated what could be achieved, and added weight to the arguments of the Ship Canal's supporters.

Support for a Ship Canal grew, encouraged by various letters and comments in the press, and by the publication of a pamphlet 'Facts and Figures in Favour of the Proposed Manchester Ship Canal', under the name of 'Mancuniensis'. This pamphlet provided a detailed argument in favour of the scheme, showing 'how to solve the cheap transport problem for the great import and export trade of Lancashire and the West Riding'. The publication was enormously popular, having the effect, as described by Sir Bosdin Leech, 'of making people think, and stimulating them to see that if Manchester and Lancashire meant to hold their own, they must be up and doing, or other places would run away with the kernel and leave only the shell'.

Go to the next page >

This is page 2 of Bringing the Sea to Manchester - The Need for a 'Big Ditch'.
View the complete story contents.

An Illustration from the 'Illustrated London News' in 1883 showing the River Mersey before the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal

An Illustration from the 'Illustrated London News' in 1883 showing the River Mersey before the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal
Find out more about this image >

Sir Bosdin Leech - A passionate supporter of the Manchester Ship Canal who held several positions within the Manchester Ship Canal Company. He published a two volume work on the history of the Ship Canal.

Sir Bosdin Leech - A passionate supporter of the Manchester Ship Canal who held several positions within the Manchester Ship Canal Company. He published a two volume work on the history of the Ship Canal.
Find out more about this image >

  Intro     1     2     3     4     5