Search This Blog

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.)

Monday, 6 January 2014

Earning A Living

The final part of my 'Earning a Living' series, which looks at ancestors' occupations which crop up in the censuses,in Discover Your History magazine, this month discusses undertakers, valets, the woollen trade, xylography, X-ray technicians, yarn dealers, yeomen and zinc workers.  

The woollen trade was an important employer in south- west England and Yorkshire for centuries. In 1818 one pack of wool, if made into stockings, gave work for a week to 184 people: 10 combers, 102 spinners, winders, etc. and 60 stocking-weavers, plus doublers, throwers, and a dyer.  

Xylography is the art of cutting a picture onto a wooden block in order to produce a printed engraving or wood-cut and a skilled xylographer could copy a drawing in reverse directly onto the wooden block.  Hans Holbein (c.1497–1543) and Albrecht Dürer were famous for their beautiful woodcuts and in the late eighteenth century, Thomas Bewick’s wonderful illustrations sparked a revival of this ages-old art. 
Although zinc ores are found in several English counties including Cumbria, Cornwall, Devon, Derbyshire and Flintshire, in the early 1860s, less than 3,000 tons of zinc were mined in the UK annually.   

Zinc was cheaper than tin for making metal alloys like brass, but it's a tricky metal to extract from its ores because it quickly boils off as vapour at the temperatures used for smelting metal ores like iron, and several different techniques were used. William Champion’s zinc processing plant at Bristol in 1738 used the ‘English’ method. 

Images from author's collection:

Coloured Cloth Hall, Leeds, 1860s. Hundreds of clothiers sold dyed woollen cloth here. Pictorial Gallery of Arts Vol. I, (c. 1860).

Abbey Mills, Bradford –on-Avon.  Cloth mill built c.1875; later a rubber factory. © Sue Wilkes.  

‘Death the Avenger’, a reduced version of a woodcut by Albert Rethel (1816–1859). Good Words, Isbister & Co., 1893.