Bridgewater Canal History
An Act of Parliament was passed allowing the setting up of a company to control tolls and maintain navigation on the River Mersey east of Runcorn to the confluence with the River Irwell, and from there into Salford and Manchester via the River Irwell. The company was to be called the Mersey & Irwell Navigation Company.
An Act of Parliament was gained to convert Worsley Brook into a navigable cut. It is thought that the 1st Duke of Bridgewater (who owned an estate containing coal mines at Worsley) was behind the promotion of this Act. However, after gaining the Act no work was done and the cut was never built.
The first recorded plan to build an artificial waterway into Manchester was a route from the rich coal fields of Wigan and Leigh to the River Irwell in Salford (just west of Manchester).
A survey was made by William Taylor. His route was put to Parliament but was defeated due to objections from owners of turnpike roads and the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, both fearing great losses in income if such a waterway was opened.
Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater owned mines at Worsley to the north west of Manchester.
With his Agent, John Gilbert, he looked at ways to transport his coal into Manchester and Liverpool, he wanted a route which would be cheaper than using the turnpike roads. Between them the two men came up with idea to build “artificial navigable cuts”, one from Worsley to the River Irwell at Salford and one from Worsley to the River Mersey at Hollin Ferry (near Irlam).
Although this still meant they’d have to use the Mersey & Irwell Navigation it would be much cheaper than using the turnpike roads. Although the Duke is often credited as the “Father” of British canals his idea to create artificial navigable cuts was by no means an original one; as we have seen there were earlier attempts in 1737 and 1753 to do much the same thing at Worsley and the Duke’s uncle, Lord Gower, had recently had a possible canal route surveyed which would connect the Mersey to the Potteries in Staffordshire. Near St. Helens a similar canal was already under construction and on top of all of this, it is thought that the Duke had seen many canals in operation whilst touring Europe where such waterways had carried goods for many centuries.
The Duke took his Bill to Parliament but gaining the Act was no formality as all the same objectors who had succeeded in preventing the 1753 canal were out in force again. However, the Duke and Gilbert had learned from the 1753 episode and were well prepared. Among other things the Duke promised that his coal would be no more than 4d per hundredweight and that he would allow certain cargoes (such as manure and lime) to be carried free. Water supply objections were dismissed as the Duke said the supply would come entirely from Worsley Brook within his own estate. He also said no public money would be used as he was to fund the whole venture himself. The Act was passed on March 23rd and the Duke immediately bought a tract of land on the banks of the Irwell where he planned to make a junction into the river.
During that summer the Duke was introduced by Lord Gower’s Agent, Thomas Gilbert (John Gilbert’s brother), to the man who had surveyed Gower’s route to the Potteries. This was a millwright and mine drainage expert named James Brindley, the Duke showed Brindley his plans and Brindley agreed to build the canal with John Gilbert overseeing the works.
Within 12 months the Duke’s cut had reached Patricroft, 2 miles south of Worsley and just one mile from the Irwell. The second route to Hollin Ferry had also reached 2 miles to Botany Bay Wood, north of Irlam.
The Mersey & Irwell Navigation Company were only too aware that the new waterway would become a direct rival to their monopolising route. To keep the Duke at bay they refused to agree reasonable terms to allow the Duke to build junctions into their navigation. Brindley was told to re-survey the routes and it was decided to cancel the line to Hollin Ferry and concentrate on a route into Manchester. The Duke went back to Parliament and a new Act was granted but the new route left people wondering if the Duke and his assistants were going slightly mad. The new Act allowed the waterway to cross over the River Irwell on a navigable bridge. The idea of carrying boats in the air over the top of a river was ridiculed by many but the Duke was not to be put off.
Around this time John Gilbert came up with the idea to take the canal right inside the Duke’s mine workings. Gilbert designed the layout of the underground channels and Brindley (using his mine drainage expertise) engineered the work. When finished this allowed canal boats to travel right up to the coal face, the boats were built 47 feet long and just 4½ feet wide. They had very prominent ribbed sides and this skeletal appearance led to them being nicknamed “starvationers”.
The boats were not crewed but were strung together 5 at a time and pulled in a train by a horse. Inside the mines the water channel was 10 feet wide with 8 feet headroom. The “main line” of the channel (built on the same level as the outside canal) reached 4 miles to shafts at Dixon Green Colliery in Farnworth. A branch off this line reached a further 2 miles to Brackley Colliery. Many other branches were cut, some totalling over a mile in length and extensions continued to be built in the following years, some of which were built on different levels.
It took just one year to complete the aqueduct over the Irwell at Barton. People watched – some in terror – most in astonishment – as the first boats past across the aqueduct on July 17th. Within another 6 months the canal had passed across Trafford Moss and reached Stretford.
Although it is not clear who dreamed up the idea, the plan to build an aqueduct was very daring. No navigable aqueduct had ever been built in this country, many people had believed it to be impossible. There are many differing viewpoints on the subject of who’s idea the aqueduct was. Some say it must have been Brindley – he was the man who became famous for his canal building. However, he was never much of an aqueduct builder, the aqueducts he built after this were usually far inferior. Some say it must have been Gilbert’s idea, the whole route was planned by him so why not the aqueduct as well? Not many seem to think it was the Duke himself who dreamed up the idea of a waterway in the air. Yet he surely must have seen many similar structures on his travels around Europe. Who ever it was that thought of the idea, it took all 3 to complete it; the Duke’s money, Gilbert’s management and Brindley’s engineering know-how.
With his waterway now on the south side of the Irwell the Duke was in a very commanding position. He now intended to create a route to Runcorn, this would completely bypass the Mersey & Irwell Navigation and provide very stiff competition for it. In a pamphlet which the Duke published he described the river navigation as “imperfect, expensive and precarious”. His new canal would be nearly 10 miles shorter than the river’s route between Manchester and Runcorn and it would pass through a number of prospering towns. The Act was passed in Parliament with little difficulty and work began.
Work continued on both lines of the canal. The Manchester line reached Trafford while the Runcorn line reached Sale having crossed the Mersey via another aqueduct – this one much smaller than the one at Barton.
The whole of the line from Worsley to Manchester was completed to a terminus at Castle Field. Almost immediately the price of coal in Manchester plummeted to just a fraction of its pre-canal cost. By this time the Runcorn line had crossed Sale Moor and reached the outskirts of Altrincham.
An agreement was made with the promoters of the Trent and Mersey Canal which was then about to begin construction. Both the Bridgewater Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal wanted to terminate in Runcorn so it was agreed that the two waterways would share the route from Preston Brook to Runcorn. Brindley was also to be engineer on the Trent & Mersey route.
Meanwhile, passenger services were begun between Worsley and Manchester and also between Lymm and Manchester on the Runcorn Line. Lymm had been reached quickly despite the need for a number of high embankments.
A rival company proposed a route from Manchester to Stockport. The Duke quickly retaliated by proposing a 7 mile route of his own from Sale to Stockport. The Duke successfully obtained an Act to build this canal though no work was ever started.
By this time the building of the canal was sapping the Duke’s finances. However, he was so sure that his canal would succeed that he sold his London home, mortgaged his estates and borrowed money from his relatives to pay for work to continue. Even with all the help he could muster he still fell heavily into debt and was refused credit in certain areas. On top of this he was given little or no confidence in his scheme from anyone outside the small group who worked with him. Despite all this he kept going and the canal was completed.
In September, James Brindley died. By this time he was not only involved with the Bridgewater Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal but with many other schemes all over the country. Sadly, only a very small amount of Brindley’s projects were finished in his life time but most of them became great successes and many of his waterways still see thousands of boats every year. Shortly after his death his great flight of 10 locks down into the Mersey were completed at Runcorn. In December these were opened and the first boat left the Mersey to climb up onto the Bridgewater Canal. However, at this point there was no through route to Manchester or to the junction at Preston Brook where the Trent & Mersey Canal began. This was due to a landowner, Sir Richard Brooke of Norton, who would not allow the canal to be built across his land. The “Battle of Norton Priory” was begun.
After 3 years of negotiation, Sir Richard Brooke finally agreed to give up his land to allow the Bridgewater Canal to be completed from Preston Brook to Runcorn.
It took 14 years to complete the whole line to Runcorn, it finally opened on March 21st and it was an instant success. Not only did the Duke now have a connection from his mines to Manchester, he now had a link to Liverpool and the sea. Within a year the Trent & Mersey Canal opened giving the Bridgewater Canal access to the Potteries, Birmingham and even the east coast via the River Trent. The Duke soon repaid all his debts and the canal went from strength to strength. By 1779 the line to Runcorn had earned over £21,000. This was growing all the time and in the next two years the route earned the Duke a further £7,000. To ensure he kept full control of his coal he bought land on the banks of the Mersey in Liverpool on which he created his own dock.
The Duke spent the rest of his life dedicated to his mines and the canal and he did much to help promote other canals throughout the country.
With the Runcorn line carrying more cargo every month, the Duke extended his docks at Runcorn
The Duke went into negotiations with the Lancaster Canal company. This company were building a route into the south Lancashire area but had not finalised a link into the main canal network. They hoped to continue their route from the north east of Wigan, through Westhoughton and on to Worsley. Although the link would have been of advantage to both canals no deal was ever completed and the link was never built.
The Duke went back to Parliament to obtain an Act enabling him to build a new canal. This would run west from his mines at Worsley to the mining town of Leigh. The Act was granted and work began. However, there was great sadness for the Duke when on August 4th his agent and great friend John Gilbert died aged 71. Whereas the Duke is credited with providing the money for this country’s first true independent artificial navigation and Brindley is credited with providing the know-how to built it, Gilbert was for many years left out of the honours. Not until the middle of the 20th century, with greater research techniques available, was it realised that the Bridgewater Canal would not have existed without Gilbert. As well as managing the canal’s business (both during construction and operation) he also drew up most of its planned route and the idea to build canals within the Duke’s mines.
Just before his death, Gilbert had put together a plan to extend the use of the underground channels within the Duke’s mines. By now the underground canals were longer than those outside – totalling well over 40 miles in length. However, the channels were built on 4 different levels – the original main line built at the same level as the outside canal, a channel running at 35 yards above the main line, one running 56 yards below and another running 83 yards below. To connect these Gilbert designed an underground inclined plane which had two parallel wagonways each with a container which could hold a “starvationer”. The incline opened in 1797.
The Leigh extension was opened. It was 5 miles long and, like the rest of the Bridgewater Canal main line, had no locks.
On March 8th the Duke of Bridgewater died aged 67, remembered not only as a wealthy businessman but as the man who’s determination started the British canal system which later resulted in the industrial revolution and, therefore, the modern world as we know it.
The Bridgewater Canal passed into the hands of the Duke’s uncle, the Marquess of Stafford (formerly Lord Gower), though the Duke willed that a group of trustees should be formed to look after the interests of his collieries and the canal company. Robert Bradshaw was appointed manager. The new managers first job was to fight a proposal by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to build a link from Wigan to Leigh. The last thing the Bridgewater Canal wanted was a short cut route to Liverpool which would take business away from their Runcorn line. Bradshaw was successful in his opposition to the link and the plan was dropped.
A new canal arrived on the scene in Manchester. This was the Rochdale Canal which crossed the Pennines and connected with the navigations to Leeds and Hull. The Rochdale Canal ended at a junction into the Bridgewater Canal at Castle Field in Manchester. A transhipment warehouse was built on the Bridgewater Canal at a point a little further along the route where the Rochdale Canal ran above the Bridgewater. Hoists and pulleys were used to lift or drop goods from one canal to the other. Castle Field (or Castlefield as it is now known) became a very busy place after the opening of the Rochdale Canal with twelve different carrying companies using the wharves. These included Pickfords, the Bridgewater’s own carrying company and the Hugh Henshall Carrying Company which belonged to the Trent & Mersey Canal. (By 1821 there were 21 companies using the wharves at Castlefield, including a fly boat service carrying goods all the way to London).
Not everything was going in the Bridgewater Canal’s favour. The Mersey & Irwell Navigation didn’t simply give up the fight for trade between Manchester and Runcorn. By now they had opened a new artificial cut of their own which ran right into Runcorn. They instantly stole most of the Bridgewater’s passengers with the start of a packet boat service which made the journey in 8 hours, one hour less than the route via the Bridgewater. The Bridgewater’s yearly growth in profits suddenly halted and this caused the company to fight back. They ended a special rates agreement and changed their toll prices, within a year profits soared and this continued for a number of years until a new agreement was made between the two companies which reset an equal rate for tolls.
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal connected a line from Wigan to the Bridgewater Canal at Leigh. This provided a new direct route to Liverpool and to the Lancashire towns of Wigan, Blackburn & Burnley. A similar link had been objected to by the Bridgewater Canal in 1803 but different circumstances brought different needs and no objections were made on this occasion.
Railways came early to Manchester and Liverpool, in fact, the world’s first ever passenger service ran between the two cities. The first railway to be proposed was announced in the press on October 2nd. Being the good friends that they were (!) the Bridgewater and Mersey & Irwell companies joined forces to vigorously object to this new mode of transport. This first railway onslaught was defeated with its Bill being turned down by Parliament in 1825.
Within a year of the railway’s defeat in Parliament they were back with a new Bill. Having now looked fully at the potential of a railway the Marquess of Stafford (Lord Gower) decided to help promote the project this time. He invested £100,000 in the new company though at the same time (probably to keep the trustees happy) he also invested £40,000 in the Bridgewater Canal. The Mersey & Irwell company were devastated by the canal’s change of allegiance though they vowed to fight on alone. This was to prove fruitless and the Act to build the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was passed on May 1st.
The Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened on September 15th. Following this the canal had a real trade battle on its hands. The company’s manager, Robert Bradshaw, was left in the position of having to compete with a railway that his own canal’s owner had promoted! Bradshaw was given complete control of the canal and was able to set tolls as he pleased but because the Mersey & Irwell company had completely fallen out with the Marquess, Bradshaw was unable to strike up any toll agreement with the river navigation. Although no great losses were made at first, maintaining profit levels was very difficult.
The Marquess of Stafford died. Like his nephew, the Duke of Bridgewater, he should always be remembered as one of the founders of the canal system. In fact, his first venture – a route from the Mersey to the Potteries – predated the Bridgewater Canal. He is also the man who first employed James Brindley as a canal surveyor. Most of the Marquess’ business was passed to his eldest son, the notorious Duke of Sutherland. This included the Donnington Wood Canal on the East Shropshire tub-boat network but thankfully Sutherland did not inherit the Bridgewater Canal, instead it was left to Gower’s second son, Lord Francis Egerton.
The job of manager of the mines and the canal company (and head of the canal’s trustees) was now held by James Sothern, a man who rarely agreed with Egerton on how the canal should be run. Egerton was keen to make toll agreements with both the railway and the Mersey & Irwell but Sothern refused. Because of this the canal was losing trade but Sothern would not make deals with the rival companies.
After 4 years of battles within the canal company, Egerton was able to buy out Sothern and run his own canal. Immediately he put a stop to the damaging toll wars that Sothern had kept up with the river and railway. He then put James Loch in charge of the company under the title of “Superintendent”.
Although the connection of the Rochdale and Bridgewater canals was of advantage to both companies, they were still in the business of trying to out do each other at all times. This was exaggerated further when both companies created links into the Mersey & Irwell Navigation in Manchester at the same time. The Bridgewater company built a link from Castlefield, via Hulme Locks, while the Rochdale Canal backed the creation of the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal which would link its canal to the Irwell without having to use the Bridgewater Canal at all. This junction canal could have had a devastating effect on the wharves at Castlefield though in the end it was the Bridgewater’s Hulme Locks link which became the most used.
A number of years of wheeling and dealing, buying and selling began when the Mersey & Irwell Navigation company broke ranks and went back on the latest toll agreement between itself, the railway and the Bridgewater Canal. The river navigation had big ideas of a great ship canal into Manchester, it also attempted to strike a deal with the new Manchester & Leeds Railway but one way or another the Bridgewater Canal and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway forced the river navigation back into its original agreement.
Next it was the Liverpool & Manchester Railway who broke ranks. It began to see a decline in profits so in December it reduced the tolls on cotton carrying. A few months later it joined forces with the Manchester & Leeds Railway, creating direct competition to all the waterways from Liverpool to Leeds.
Desperate to regain lost trade from somewhere the Mersey & Irwell company bought the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal. This was somewhat worrying to the Bridgewater company because river traffic could now reach the centre of Manchester and the Rochdale Canal without paying any extra tolls to the Bridgewater. This meant boats no longer wanted to use Hulme Locks on the Bridgewater Canal and Castlefield would be bypassed.
Another tolls agreement was set up but this did more to help the river and railway than it did the canal. Egerton and Loch knew they could not afford to let the situation continue.
The solution to the Bridgewater company’s problem was somewhat drastic …. they proposed to buy out their long time rivals the Mersey & Irwell Navigation. Egerton (now known as Lord Ellesmere) went to Parliament in order to gain an Act enabling him to take over the river navigation. His Bill was successful and on January 17th 1846 he bought the Mersey & Irwell Navigation for £400,000 (of which £110,000 came from his own pocket), his ancestor the 3rd Duke Of Bridgewater (another Francis Egerton), would have been well pleased! Along with the river he also acquired numerous docks and wharves all along the route, including those in Liverpool. He also acquired the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal which he kept open but did not promote as the best route to take – thus keeping Castlefield busy.
Not surprisingly the Bridgewater company saw something of an upturn in profits following its take over of the river and Loch was becoming increasingly tempted to sell out to prospective railway and ship canal builders. By this time railway companies owned all the adjacent canals including all the waterway routes across the Pennines. This meant that the Bridgewater Canal could soon be left at a great disadvantage again and matters were made worse when London & North Western Railway forced the canal into giving up some of its traffic. The share had always been one third canal, one third river and one third railway but the railway successfully argued that this should be changed to 50/50 railway/waterway. To counter this Loch attempted to lease his waterways to Great Western Railway who were then struggling to find a way into the north west market.
James Loch died before any settlement was agreed with GWR. All negotiations were instantly stopped by the new superintendent, the Hon. Algernon Egerton (Lord Ellesmere’s third son). Egerton had no wish to do deals with railways, he decided the company would instead strengthen its ties with other waterways and attempt to create water borne long distance trade routes.
The first (and ultimately – only) step was the opening of a linking canal from Runcorn to Weston Point on the Mersey estuary where the River Weaver Navigation had a large port. The link was just 1¼ miles long and was known as the Runcorn & Weston Canal.
Other improvements were made to Egerton’s waterways including new docks at Runcorn and Liverpool. These improvements and the link with the River Weaver kept the Bridgewater company in good health. Added income came from carrying with nearly half of all goods on the Bridgewater Canal and river navigation being carried by the company’s own carrying fleet.
Two railway companies, the Midland and the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire joined forces and then made a bid for the Bridgewater company. The trustees decided it was an offer they could not refuse and both the canal and river navigation past into railway ownership on July 3rd at a price of £1,115,000. The new operation was to be known as the Bridgewater Navigation Company.
The railway owners did not close down the waterways, instead they brought them into the railway age by introducing steam tugs. These were able to pull three barges at once on the lock free stretch of the canal between Manchester and Runcorn. The company also improved the river navigation by upgrading its wharves and opening Fenton Dock in Runcorn. By this time Runcorn Docks covered 16 acres of land and 36 acres of quay.
The BNC enjoyed stable profits for well over a decade but this came to an abrupt end on August 6th when an Act of Parliament was granted allowing the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. This was not just the usual worry of competition however, the Act enabled the newly formed company to buy out the BNC and this it did for £1,710,000.
Perhaps the saddest part of this as far as the Bridgewater Canal is concerned was that Barton Aqueduct had to be demolished. Once proclaimed as a joke and later as the eighth wonder of the world, the aqueduct now had to make way for the mighty ship canal. However, the aqueduct was replaced by a new wonder created by Edward Leader Williams. This was the first (and only) swing aqueduct. It stretched across the new ship canal joining the Bridgewater Canal on either side, when a vessel needed to pass along the ship canal the water channel on the aqueduct would close, sealing water within it and then it swing open on huge rollers.
The Manchester Ship Canal company had no interest in small local collieries so the underground canals which began at Worsley Delph were closed and never used again.
The ship canal saw its first traffic on January 1st and was officially opened by Queen Victoria in May. The new canal ran along the south bank of the Mersey estuary and then completely took over the Mersey & Irwell Navigation’s route. Unlike the old navigation, the ship canal was straight, wide and always deep. The much smaller Bridgewater Canal survived intact however and while some amount of trade was lost to the new waterway, far more was gained.
Up until WW1 the Bridgewater Canal continued to carry huge amounts of cargo, especially along its Leigh Branch where coal mines were still going strong. Following the war, when all canal boats were handed back to their private owners, many companies simply couldn’t afford to make up the backlog of maintenance. Many independent companies closed all together while most of the Canals which had run their own carrying fleets now reverted to just collecting tolls for income. Railways and the growing use of road haulage also quickened the canal’s decline.
The locks leading from the Bridgewater Canal down to the Manchester Ship Canal at Runcorn Docks were closed. Within a few years they were demolished.
The last major commercial carrying came to an end on the Bridgewater Canal when Trafford Park power station stopped its water borne coal deliveries.
All commercial carrying on the Bridgewater Canal came to an end.
After 100 years of success, commercial traffic on the Manchester Ship Canal dwindled to as little as just one vessel per week. The owners of the Manchester Ship Canal began to look at other ways to earn money, one idea was to redevelop the massive docks at the Manchester end of the canal.
Manchester Docks became Salford Quays with the actual docks becoming a huge recreational water park. Hotels, shops, apartments, night clubs, art galleries…. and lots more were built around what was once the ship canal’s wharfs.
A new lock was opened connecting the ship canal to the Bridgewater Canal. The new lock replaced the old Hulme Lock connection and was named Pomona Lock (after the former dock which it connected with), it cost £1.5 million and was built 70 feet long by 15 feet wide. It opened in May 1995 but sadly this did not pave the way for pleasure craft to use the Manchester Ship Canal. In the main the huge waterway stands unused with its owners seemingly at a loss as to what to do with it.
Because the Bridgewater Canal belongs to the Manchester Ship Canal company it was not nationalised in 1948 when the Government took over most of the country’s other waterways. The canal is now a popular pleasure route, it has outlived many of the local railways and sees hundreds more vessels every year than the ship canal.
Bridgewater Canal Routes
The Bridgewater Canal is a popular holiday route and is featured in many canal guides. Therefore, I shall only list some of my own personal favourite locations here.
Worsley Delph (OS Grid Ref SD 74834 00415)
There can be no better place to start any canal visit than Worsley Delph. The easiest way to approach the area is from Junction 13 of the M60. Take the B5211 (Barton Road), this immediately crosses the canal. Because of double yellow lines on the road you will need to find a parking space in a side street or in the pub car park on the right. The canal runs parallel on the east side of the busy B5211, there is a small area of grass, trees and park benches between the road and the canal.
Beside the road bridge is a junction on the canal. To the west (under the road) is the line to Leigh, to the south east is the line to Manchester and to the north east is a short arm leading to the former mines which belonged to the Duke of Bridgewater. Alongside the junction is a large black and white Tudor-style house which has steps down to the water’s edge. This is the former packet boat station from where boats took passengers to Manchester and Liverpool. It is possible to walk along the canal beside this house and on over a small foot bridge. There is another junction beside this bridge at a point where the arm into the mines splits into two.
To see the entrance of the mines you must continue a few yards further along to the main road (A572), climbing up a set of steps to take you onto the road beside a canal bridge. Cross over the road at the bridge and look over the parapet on the opposite side. From here you can look down onto the mine entrances which are actually at the foot of a shear cliff-face that seems to be totally out of place here in urban Manchester. In the basin there is a partly submerged “starvationer” boat. As you view the water channels disappearing into the mine it is worth remembering that there are many more miles of the Bridgewater Canal hidden underground than there are above ground.
If you don’t wish to return to your car via the same route as you came you can cross the road again but walk a few yards east to Worsley Green. The road alongside the green passes some attractive houses and arrives at a humped iron footbridge over the canal. From this bridge you can look north west towards the packet house with a large converted warehouse on the right hand bank in front of you. There is a myth that it always rains in Manchester, I have been there three times in the past four years and each visit has been on lovely hot summer days. There is no prettier sight anywhere on the canal system than the brightly sun lit, orange canal by the junction at Worsley Delph. Yes – I said “orange canal”. Apparently it is this colour because of iron ore within the mine workings.
Barton Swing Aqueduct (SJ 76723 97588)
The next place to visit is not far away. Drive south east on the B5211 for about 3 miles. After 2 miles you will come right alongside the canal and on the 3 mile mark you will cross the Manchester Ship Canal. If you are NOT the driver of the car you can look left to see a huge red and white bridge which also crosses the Manchester Ship Canal (see picture, left). Park on Chapel Lane which is immediately left at the south end of the road bridge. At the top of this lane is a rough car park alongside the Bridgewater Canal and just to the left it crosses the Manchester Ship Canal on Barton Swing Aqueduct (the red and white bridge you saw from the car).
You would have to be immensely lucky to arrive at the same time as a vessel large enough to cause the aqueduct to be swung, if you catch it moving it is more likely just being tested. When it swings it is sealed off at both ends by large gates, the 235 feet long, 1,450 ton structure will then swing at right angles to the canal via a central pivot on an island. If a ship is coming along you get double your money as the adjacent road bridge also has to be opened of course. I have not seen the aqueduct swing and, in fact, on one of my visits it was completely closed to Bridgewater Canal boats too. There is a viewing platform across the southern end of the aqueduct from where it is possible to watch narrowboats cross over the ship canal.
Castlefield, Manchester (SJ 83063 97741)
The next location of interest is in central Manchester at Castlefield. I could not begin to direct a car to the correct place, suffice it to say that I found a car park close to the road called Potato Wharf, south of Liverpool Road. Castlefield was redeveloped in the early 1990’s into an urban heritage area. In real terms this means there is lots of tidy concrete and grass where once there were wharves and derelict warehouses. This is not a criticism however as the area is well worth a visit and it is a popular mooring point for boat crews. Nearby are the ruins of an old Roman Fort and just up the road are the Granada TV studios with their “Coronation Street” visitor centre. If you walk right around Castlefield Basin in a clockwise direction, you will eventually pass beneath high railway bridges to reach the main line of the Bridgewater Canal very close to its junction with the Rochdale Canal.
To reach the far side of the Bridgewater Canal use the new, but somewhat unloved, Merchant’s Footbridge. On the far side walk south opposite the Rochdale Canal junction. The towpath takes you around to the left (eastward) into an area of redeveloped warehouses now used by modern businesses. Just before the canal passes under the large A56 road bridge you should cross the canal via the iron footbridge onto the northern side. Here you will see Grocer’s Wharf where a transhipment building once stood allowing goods to be moved to and from the Rochdale Canal which is on a higher level at the back of the wharf. It is possible to enter the remains of the transhipment building and climb up the steps to the Rochdale Canal. A reconstruction of the transhipment system has been created within the building.
From the back of Grocer’s Wharf you can walk back to your car via the Rochdale Canal or go back the way you came (maybe using the opposite bank of the Bridgewater Canal). Alternatively you could walk the other way along the Rochdale Canal and enjoy the flight of locks known as the Rochdale Nine.
Sale (SJ 78896 92048)
To the south of Manchester the canal line to Runcorn runs dead straight through Sale and Timperley (where I lived as a teenager without knowing the canal existed)! On a recent visit to the Sale section I found a number of rowing teams training on the canal with a mad cyclist instructing them from the towpath. It is hard to believe that this area, now surrounded by street after street of houses on all sides, was once the remote and wild Sale Moss. Today there is a new attraction alongside the canal in the form of the new Manchester Supertrams. These pass by at high speed with great regularity. Sale and Timperley are on the A56. The canal is in among the housing estates to the east.
Lymm (SJ 68272 87295)
Past Altrincham the canal runs into more open countryside and is often high up on embankments. One such embankment takes the route right through the centre of Lymm. The canal crosses under the A6144 as it enters the town and then crosses a small lane on an aqueduct. This is a very popular place for mooring with a cobbled road leading from the moorings down into the town. The town has a large pond in its centre and a mock set of stocks beside the town memorial. Past all the moored boats the canal enters a pretty cutting with trees over hanging the waterway. To the west of Lymm the canal enters urban areas once again and comes within ¼ of a mile of the Manchester Ship Canal
Runcorn & Latchford Canal, Moore (SJ 57656 85781)
Back out into the country the Bridgewater Canal enters the village of Moore (SJ 58263 84180), situated just west of the A56, to the south west of Warrington. This surely must be the only village in Britain to have three completely different canals running parallel to each other with no waterway link connecting them.
First there is the Bridgewater which runs parallel to the main street – though this is a very quiet main street nowadays. The whole stretch of canal through the village is very pleasant.
Moore Lane heads off the main street in a northerly direction. This road was obviously once used by a lot of lorries and is as wide as a motorway despite now seeing virtually no traffic at all. You cannot, of course, miss the huge swing bridge crossing the wide Manchester Ship Canal (SJ 57809 85377). Just like Barton swing aqueduct, here there is a tall bridge operator’s tower alongside the swing bridge and there are long straight views along the canal in both directions from the bridge.
Continue straight on past the bridge, north, onto the much narrower Lapwing Lane. This is clearly not used by motor vehicles very much and soon heads into what looks like a small wood. Just before the lane begins to bend left you should stop and locate the point where a public footpath crosses the lane (SJ 57656 85781). If you get the right spot you will be standing on a former bridge of the Runcorn & Latchford Canal.
This waterway is now closed but it was originally built as part of improvements made by the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, cutting out a meandering section of the River Mersey through Warrington. When I was here in 1997 I met a man who reckoned he could remember boats on this canal when he was a small child. This surprised me as I’d thought it would have been disused since the opening of the ship canal in the 1890’s. The gentleman also told me that his friends and family referred to the Runcorn & Latchford Canal as the “OK Canal” – I’ve since discovered it was officially known as the Old Quay Canal.
This section of the Runcorn & Latchford Canal is now a dry ditch with a designated long distance footpath along its side. Much further east, in Warrington, the far end of the Runcorn & Latchford Canal is known as the Black Bear Canal where it ran through Victoria Park and dropped into the Mersey. Although the line of the Black Bear Canal can easily be followed in the park there is little to see because it was filled in during the 1970’s. The remains of Manor Lock (which dropped the canal into the Mersey at Warrington) have been “preserved” (SJ 62362 88058).
Preston Brook (SJ 56805 80701)
Back on the Bridgewater Canal, at the village of Preston Brook is a 3-way junction where the branch to Runcorn begins. The Bridgewater continues on for another ¾ of a mile south into Preston Brook Tunnel. When it emerges (¾ of a mile further south) it then becomes the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Preston Brook is on the A56 just ¼ of a mile south west of Junction 11 of the M56. It is possible to turn north at the A56 bridge over the canal and drive along the towpath.
Today there is not a great deal to see here (on the surface) but in working days it was a very different story, for this was once the busiest transhipment wharf in all of Britain.
Click on the image to the left to see a diagram of Preston Brook as it was in working days. North, is to the right.
Today, on the north side of the A56 and on the towpath (west) side of the canal there is a short row of white terraced cottages. Directly opposite, on the east bank, there is a small boat yard. In working days, directly in front of the terraced cottages, was an office building used by the canal company’s agent and other administrative officers. This building stood right up against the road bridge and straddled the towpath, causing boatmen to unhitch their horses to pass through.
A few yards north of this office is the site of a small building which was called the Bell warehouse. This got its name because it had a belfry on the roof. The bell sounded at 6am to start the working day and at noon to start lunch break. It was replaced by a hooter in 1900. The agent’s office and Bell warehouse were demolished in 1934 and a new, wider road bridge was constructed at the same time.
Behind (west of) the Bell Warehouse, set back from the towpath, were a row of houses situated around a green facing the canal. These were occupied by company servants such as the agent, the warehouse manager, the ostler and other people who worked at the wharf. These houses can still be seen, the largest of them is named Wharf House.
As you continue north along the towpath, beyond Wharf House was a fire engine shed and then a long row of stables. A newer building and a rough parking lot now stand here.
On the opposite bank, where the boat yard is now situated, there was a row of warehouses collectively known as the Preston Sheds. These were the main transhipment sheds which made Preston Brook a very busy place. Transhipment was necessary because there were 3 types of boat capable of reaching this point with none being well suited to travel on the other’s waterway. These were Mersey Flats, Bridgewater Barges and Trent & Mersey narrowboats. Cranes and hoists used to stand beside the warehouses, the hoists being powered by a steam beam engine which was used up until the 1930’s. One of the warehouses was built out over the canal to create a covered wharf.
North of these buildings was a large area of open cargo space containing over half a dozen hand operated cranes. Further north was an isolated building called Dandy Warehouse (standing where the M56 bridge now crosses over). Preston Sheds were derelict by WW2 as transhipment had moved to a site further north (see below). The sheds were reinstated to hold lard during WW2 but they were demolished soon afterwards.
Just north of the M56 bridge is a 3-way canal junction. In the early days of the canal there was nothing to the north west of the junction (on the Runcorn arm) but as time went on the area was developed. First came a railway, this still passes beneath an aqueduct just a few yards into the Runcorn arm. A few yards further along the Runcorn arm was a smaller arm leading into a basin on the west side of the canal. The large Norton Warehouse straddled this arm, allowing boats to pull inside to be loaded under cover.
Numerous smaller buildings stood around the basin at the back of the warehouse. These included a smithy, an engine driver’s house, the Hay Shed, the Ginny Shed and a gas works which lit the whole transhipment area. The Ginny Shed was a long building containing a crane on rails which could move up and down the length of the basin moving cargo from boat to boat or to almost anywhere on the wharf. The men who worked on this wharf were known as “iron men” because iron was the main cargo. The Hay Shed was where the “provender gang” worked. These were the men who made up the feed for the horses belonging to the Bridgewater company. The feed was bagged and loaded onto barges to be sent to stables (or “horse stations”) all along the canal. The men who ran these stables were called Ostlers. Originally I wondered if this was a slang term because they looked after the ‘osses! But I’ve since upped my education and found that the word Ostle is the same as Hostel – and means a safe place to stay at night.
At the back of the basin were a row of cottages, once again occupied by canal officers. Between the railway aqueduct and the basin was a school and chapel. Lewis Caroll’s father, the vicar of nearby Daresbury, is said to have taught here. The school was for the children of the clerks at the transhipment area, the chapel had apparently been capable of floating before it was fixed in place at Preston Brook. In 1880 the “boat school” was burned down and replaced by a mission hut though this was never used as a school.
To the north of Norton Warehouse, right on the canal bank, were a number of other sheds. One of these was called Railway Shed, it had a double arch at each end and a massive canopy built out over the canal. Although the building was impressive the railway’s success was not and the Birkenhead, Lancashire & Cheshire Junction Railway was dismantled by 1877. Other sheds were also built on this stretch, they all used horse powered hoists where the horse would drag a rope via a pulley to lift goods between the barges and the sheds.
Today there is no sign of Norton Warehouse, it was accidentally burnt down during its demolition just after WW2. The Ginny Shed had already been demolished before the war after its roof had blown off. Only one canal building, Stitts Shed, has survived and today it stands on the northern side of the junction into the former Norton Basin. On the opposite side of the junction was “Black Shed” which was still standing in the mid 1970’s but has now disappeared, replaced by new housing. In fact, all around the area is the huge new private housing estate of Murdishaw. Some of the back gardens of the new houses surround the old basin, now called Duke’s Wharf.
Further along the canal the impressive railway shed also burnt down with enormous damage being caused to a hotel boat company who used the shed at the time. On its site, and where the horse powered hoist sheds used to be, there is now a road with houses facing the canal. The sheds survived in place until the late 1960’s when the housing estate replaced them. Directly opposite the housing estate (though hidden from view) is the huge Preston Brook Marina.
Back at the A56 road bridge you should take a look south towards Preston Brook Tunnel.
Although the tunnel is some way out of sight you will be able to see a large old building on the non-towpath side. This was the North Stafford Warehouse, also known as the “flour” warehouse. In recent decades this has been used as a night club and a restaurant though it has now been converted into apartments. On the towpath side there were two rows of cottages, other houses, some shops, a smithy, a weigh ticket office and a gauging dock. There were also two railway interchange buildings and although the railway sidings are still used today, no transhipment has taken place here since about 1920. Sadly, all but a few of the houses have now completely gone from this side of the canal.
Runcorn (SJ 51906 82967)
In Runcorn the Bridgewater Canal is fairly easy to find – its in Canal Street! This is just off Heath Road (B5155) which leads into the town centre. About 500 yards west along the canal from Canal Street the short Victoria Arm still exists but sadly the locks down to the Mersey and Manchester Ship Canal have completely gone. Abandoned in 1963, they were filled in a few years later. It is somewhat depressing to think that this flight of 10 broad locks, among the first ever built on an artificial waterway, were lost just a few years before the great canal revival came along – they would have been an impressive sight. I do not currently have information about the state of the site of the former lock flight, but they were situated to the west of the A533 (which leads to Runcorn Bridge). The Liverpool A-Z Street Atlas marks a public open space, Custom House and Bridgewater House in this area (SJ 50518 82968).