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Manchester Ship Canal: An Engineering Miracle

The Manchester Ship Canal
The Ship Canal
The Detroit Bridge
Salford Quays

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Just 36 miles from end to end, the Manchester Ship Canal transformed the fortunes of the city, helping it become the true capital of Northern England.
In the 1870s, Manchester's business leaders had a problem. Over the preceding decades, the city had been booming. The damp climate, perfect for processing cotton, had helped it become 'the Workshop of the World' as hundreds of huge mills sprang up to meet the insatiable demands of the British Empire. The population swelled as people flocked to the city for work, banks and insurance companies from London set up their bases in the north, and new technology—above all, the machines developed by pioneering mill owner Richard Arkwright—saw the emergence of a chemical industry, supplying the cotton producers with the latest dyes and bleaches.
But still, though they were the leaders of the industrial world, the businessmen were far from happy. Being around 60km from the coast, Manchester lacked its own port. While the Rivers Irwell and Mersey had been navigable since the 1730s, and a rail link to the Irish Sea was opened in the 1830s, everything still had to go through the Port of Liverpool. And this was far from cheap. What Manchester needed, the industrialists argued, was a direct link to the sea, though this would require one of the most audacious engineering projects Britain had ever seen.
When the plans for the canal were first put before the Houses of Parliament, they were rejected. Unsurprisingly, representatives for Liverpool opposed the proposals, fearful that such a sea link would deprive the Port of Liverpool of a valuable source of income. But, under the leadership of Daniel Adamson, the Manchester Ship Canal Act was finally passed in May of 1885, paving the way for the city to get its own link to the sea, provided it could finance the work itself.
What followed was indeed one of the most ambitious and successful civil engineering projects in British history. Starting in November 1887, some 17,000 temporary workers ('navvies') excavated 41.3 cubic metres of earth and rock, almost entirely by hand. Conditions were tough: hundreds died, and the canal even had its own private police force to enforce discipline. Nevertheless, despite the challenges, the canal was completed in just seven years, albeit at a cost of £15 million – equivalent to £1.65 billion today.
As soon as Queen Victoria officially declared the Ship Canal open for business, Manchester started reaping the benefits. As one boastful advert placed in the Manchester Evening News declared: "The port of Manchester is now third in the kingdom. It brings ocean-going freight steamers into the heart of the country's greatest manufacturing area." Almost overnight, Manchester had overtaken its local rival (and, according to some proud Mancunians, Liverpool has never caught up), with the newly-created Port of Manchester—Britain's third busiest, despite serving a city miles inland. So central was the waterway to Manchester's identity that the city's two football teams both made reference to it on their club crests, with ships depicted above the Red Devil of United and the Red Rose of City.
At its peak, the canal would handle in excess of 20 million tonnes of freight of all kinds a year, firmly establishing Manchester as the 'Capital of the North', despite the claims of certain other cities. And, while shifts in global trade and logistics meant that, from the 1950s onwards, traffic on the canal dropped significantly, the civic pride it brought to Manchester and its residents would remain.

Breathing new life into the waterway

According to one urban legend, by the early 1990s, the Ship Canal was so polluted that the council warned people not to smoke next to it as they could ignite poisonous gases coming from the water. These days, however, thanks to a massive clean-up operation, the canal is thriving. In fact, it’s now possible to fish in the heart of the city, something that would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago.

A cruise through history

There's no better way of appreciating just what a feat of engineering the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal really was than by seeing it from the water. Cruises now take history lovers the whole length of the canal, from the Salford Quays to Liverpool. During the six-hour journey, specialist guides tell the story of how the canal changes Manchester—and the north of England— forever.

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