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Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Manchester Ship Canal

In the 1880s, Manchester businessmen floated the idea of building a canal broad and deep enough so that ships could sail from the Mersey estuary all the way to Manchester.  Cargoes could then be unloaded straight onto canal boats or onto railway waggons.   In 1882 a bill to construct the Ship Canal was proposed in parliament, but rejected by the House of Lords the following year. The scheme was bitterly opposed by Liverpool businessmen who did not want to see potential profits sailing past their collective noses. At last it was given the go-ahead.


The Manchester Ship Canal was a massive undertaking - some 76 million tons of rock and earth were excavated to complete its 35½ mile length. ‘Steam navvies’ (images left and below) were used to speed up the work, but even then over 16,000 ordinary navvies (men and boys) were employed at peak times. After the Ship Canal opened to traffic in January 1894, it rejuvenated trade and industry and the docks at Manchester bustled with cotton, grain and other imports.
The Canal still carries commercial traffic

If you have ancestors who worked on the Ship Canal, there's information on the location of records here on the National Register of Archives database. The main collection relating to workers (including accident books and pension records) is held at Greater Manchester County Record Office (series B10), soon to reopen as part of the new Archivesplus at Manchester Central Library.

Illustrations from author's collection:
Steamers in the Manchester Ship Canal. Lancashire Industrial & Commercial, 1935. 
English Steam Navvy, used to make the cutting for the Ship Canal. These ‘steam navvies’ could remove 3,000 tons of earth per day. Discoveries and Inventions.
French Steam Navvy, used for scooping out material for embankments along the Manchester Ship Canal. Discoveries and Inventions of the Nineteenth Century, Robert Routledge, (Routledge & Sons, 1901.)

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