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The Official Opening of the Manchester Ship Canal

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 21 May

The Official Opening of the Manchester Ship Canal


  -  May 21st1894  -  



Raw cotton, imported from America, was arriving in huge quantities in North West England. The conditions in that area were perfect. The damp, moist environment prevented the fibres from splitting and provided the rivers with the water needed to power the mills that were being established in large numbers to spin the threads and weave the cotton. The mills made, amongst other things the dhootie, or loincloth, worn by most of the Indian population at that time and as a result Lancashire became known as the ‘workshop of the world’.


Manchester itself was expanding at a rapid rate and by the 1830s was known as the greatest industrial city in the world. Not only were there mills but also engineers were making the machines that went into them. There was a lot of general manufacturing and engineering as well as a growing chemical industry that went hand in hand with the dying and bleaching companies needed for the cotton. Thus, by the 1870s, despite the building of the world’s first inter-city railway – the Liverpool/Manchester Railway – supply routes were stretched to breaking point and Manchester’s pre-eminence as a manufacturing hub threatened. Add to this the high taxes charged by the Port of Liverpool and action was needed. It was actually cheaper to send ships to Hull on the other side of the country and transport it across the Pennines. In 1882 Manufacturer Daniel Adamson revived a plan suggested back in the 1660s – to build a waterway that stretched from the Mersey estuary right into the City of Manchester, big enough to take the ships carrying the cargo. This project required legislation to be passed in Parliament. Twice this was rejected due to complaints from Liverpool, who feared losing the revenue from the taxes currently charged. 


However in May 1885 it was passed as the Manchester Ship Canal Act and, as a condition, the newly formed company had to raise £8million as share capital. This was achieved and just over two years later, in November 1887, the first turf was cut. The route was 36 miles long and divided into eight sections each with its own chief engineer. By November 1889 bad weather and flooding caused severe delays and in 1891 the Manchester Ship Canal Company ran out of money and had to borrow from the Manchester Corporation before it went bankrupt putting the whole project in severe jeopardy.


12,000 navvies were required on average to dig out the canal and 200 steam trains were needed to haul the 6000 wagons to take away the spoil. The final cost was £15m, which in today’s values would be over £1.25bn. There are also several locks in the canal to raise ships the 18 metres that Manchester is above sea level. Eventually in November 1893 it was flooded on purpose, 11 years after the initial idea was taken up. The canal was then open for business on January 1st1894. Queen Victoria arrived on May 21stto officially cut the ribbon and the Port of Manchester quickly became the third busiest in the UK despite being nearly forty miles from the sea. In that first year the port handled 1,358,875 tonnes of cargo. This rose to 5,881,691 in 1925, to a peak of 18,563,376 in 1955. Since then, due to containerisation, and the subsequent increase in size of the ships carrying these containers, the amount handled by the port started to decrease to 9,767,380 in 1985 and 7,261,919 in 2005. 


The maximum size of a ship allowed into the canal is 161.5m with a beam of 19.35m. Compare this to the Panama Canal, which was built from 1904 – 1914, which can take vessels that are 289m long with a beam of 32.3m. The larger of the two docks that made up the Port of Manchester was the Salford Docks and these were closed in 1982. This area, now known as Salford Quays, has seen one of the biggest regeneration projects in the UK and now houses the Lowry Centre, on Pier 8, which has two theatres and a gallery space housing works by LS Lowry, famous for his drawings and paintings of Lancashire, and Salford in particular. Also to be found there is the Imperial War Museum North and Media City, on Pier 9, which plays host to many media organisations including the BBC. 


The Manchester Ship Canal is one of the greatest engineering feats of the Industrial Revolution period and is somewhat responsible for Manchester’s place as one of the most important cities in the UK and in some people’s eyes, the capital of the North.



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