Manchester Ship Canal

From Academic Kids

Missing image
The canal at its Manchester end, looking towards Old Trafford

The Manchester Ship Canal (MSC), affectionately known by locals as The Big Ditch, was opened on 21 May 1894, and is a large canal in north-west England. It runs from from the north side of the Wirral Peninsula at Eastham, where Eastham Locks open out into the River Mersey, for 36 miles (57 km) eastwards to link the city of Manchester to the Irish Sea. As the name suggests, the MSC is large enough to take ocean-going ships.


Early history

The canal was built as a way to reverse the economic decline that Manchester suffered during the late 19th century, by ensuring the city had direct access to the sea to export its manufactured goods, and so would not have to rely for sea access on the nearby Port of Liverpool. It was championed by Manchester manufacturer Daniel Adamson. He arranged a meeting at his home (The Towers, in Didsbury) on 27 June 1882, inviting representatives of several Lancashire towns, Manchester businessmen, local politicians and two civil engineers, Hamilton Fulton and Edward Leader Williams. Both engineers were invited to submit proposals, and Williams' plans were selected to form the basis of a Bill submitted to Parliament in November 1882. However, due to intense opposition by Liverpool and railway companies, the Act of Parliament enabling the canal was not passed until 6 August 1885. The promoters then had two years in which to raise 5 million to cover initial construction costs, and to purchase the Bridgewater Canal. Construction of the ship canal eventually started on 11 November 1887.

Large portions of the eventual cost of building were born by Manchester rate-payers, via Manchester City Corporation, effectively subsidising Manchester's industry. Loans were arranged during the early 1890s on condition that the Corporation held 11 of the 21 seats on the Canal Company's board of directors.


More than 54 million cubic yards (41,000,000 m³) of material were excavated for the canal, including 12 million cubic yards (9,000,000 m³) of sandstone rock. At its peak, the project involved some 17,000 workers. In terms of machinery, the scheme called upon 228 miles (367 km) of temporary rail track, 173 locomotives, 6,300 trucks and wagons, 124 steam-powered cranes and 192 other steam engines (mainly used for pumping purposes). Work was twice delayed by water flooding into sections of the excavation, in November 1890 and December 1891.

Major engineering landmarks of the scheme included the Barton Swing Aqueduct (carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the Ship Canal) and a neighbouring swing bridge for road traffic at Barton.

The canal was finally completely filled with water in November 1893, and opened to its first traffic on 1 January 1894.

The construction of the canal was overseen by the chief engineer and designer Edward Leader Williams, who was knighted by Queen Victoria at the official opening on 21 May 1894.


From Eastham, the canal runs parallel to, and along the south side of, the River Mersey, past Ellesmere Port and, having intercepted flows from the River Weaver, then passes around Runcorn. Between Warrington and Flixton the canal borrows the route of the Mersey, and between there and Salford follows the course of the River Irwell.

The canal terminates just past Pomona Docks, Manchester. Today, a fixed road bridge separates Pomona Docks from Salford Quays, meaning only some boats can make the full trip to Pomona Docks. Most vessels have to terminate at Salford Quays.

The MSC is the eighth-longest ship canal in the world, being only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America.

Upon completion, the MSC ensured that Manchester became Britain's third busiest port, despite being 40 miles (60 km) inland.


Unlike most British canals, the MSC and the Bridgewater Canal were never nationalised and remain in the ownership of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, a subsidiary of Peel Holdings.

Today, due largely to the decline in manufacturing industry and the fact that many ocean-going ships are too large to fit in the MSC, the amount of freight carried on the MSC has declined, although around eight million tonnes are still transported on the canal each year.

See also

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