1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Manchester Ship Canal

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MANCHESTER SHIP CANAL. The advantage of a waterway for the conveyance of goods between eastern Lancashire and the sea is so obvious that so far back as the year 1721 Thomas Steers designed a plan for continuing to Manchester the barge navigation which then existed between Liverpool and Warrington. Parliamentary powers were then obtained to improve the rivers Mersey and Irwell from Warrington to Manchester by means of locks and weirs. This work was successfully carried out, and proved of great benefit to the trade of the district. The duke of Bridgewater, who had made a canal from his collieries at Worsley to Manchester, afterwards continued the canal to the Mersey at Runcorn; this extension was opened in 1722 and competed with the Mersey and Irwell navigation, both routes being navigated by barges carrying about fifty tons of cargo. The Liverpool & Manchester railway at a later date afforded further facilities for conveyance of goods, but the high rates of carriage, added to heavy charges at the Liverpool docks, prejudiced trade, and the question was mooted of a ship canal to bring cotton, timber, grain and other goods direct to Manchester without transshipment. The first plan was made by William Chapman in 1825, and was followed by one designed by Henry Palmer in 1840, but it was not until the year 1882 that the movement was originated that culminated in the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal by Queen Victoria on the 21st of May 1894.

In determining the plan of the canal the main point which arose was whether it should be made with locks or whether it should be on the sea-level throughout, and therefore tidal. The advantage of a still waterway in navigating large steamers, and the facilities afforded by one constant water-level for works on the banks and the quick discharge of goods at the terminal docks at Manchester, secured the adoption of the plans for a canal with locks as designed by Sir E. Leader Williams. The fresh-water portion of the canal extended between Manchester and Runcorn, while from the latter place to Garston it was proposed to improve the upper Mersey estuary by constructing training walls and dredging to form a deep central channel. Parliamentary powers to construct the canal were sought in the session of 1883, when the bill passed the committee of the House of Commons but was rejected by the committee of the House of Lords. Brought forward again the next year, it was passed by the Lords but thrown out by the Commons. The opposition from Liverpool and the railway companies was very strong; to meet to some extent that of the former, a continuation of the canal was proposed from Runcorn to Eastham along the Cheshire side of the Mersey, instead of a trained channel in the estuary, and in this form the bill was again introduced in the session of 1885, and, notwithstanding strong opposition, was passed by both houses of parliament. The cost of this contest to promoters and opponents exceeded £400,000, the various committees on the bill having sat over 175 days. Owing to difficulties in raising the capital the works were not begun until November 1887.

The total length of the canal is 351/2 m. and it may be regarded as divided into three sections. From Eastham to Runcorn it is near or through the Mersey estuary for 123/4 m., and thence to Latchford near Warrington, 81/4 m., it is inland; both these sections have the same water-level, which is raised by high tides. At Latchford the locks stop tidal action, and the canal is fed by the waters of the rivers Mersey and Irwell from that point to Manchester, 141/2 m. from Latchford. The canal begins on the Cheshire side of the Mersey at Eastham, about 6 m. above Liverpool. The entrance is well sheltered and adjoins a good low-water channel communicating with the Sloyne deep at Liverpool. Three entrance locks have been provided close to and parallel with each other, their length and width being 600 by 80, 350 by 50, and 150 by 30 ft. These locks maintain the water-level in the canal nearly to mean high-water level (14 ft. 2 in. above the Liverpool datum); when the tide rises above that height the lock gates are opened and the tide flows up to Latchford, giving on high spring tides an additional depth of water of about 7 ft. On the ebb tide this water is returned to the Mersey through large sluices at Randles Creek and at the junction of the river Weaver with the canal, the level of the canal thus being reduced to its normal height. The canal throughout to Manchester has a minimum depth of 28 ft.; the depth originally was 26 ft., but the lock sills were placed 2 ft. lower to allow of the channel being dredged to 28 ft. when necessary. The minimum width at bottom is 120 ft., allowing large vessels to pass each other at any point on the canal; this width is considerably increased at the locks and other parts. The slopes are generally about 11/2 to 1, but are flatter through some portions; in rock-cutting the sides are nearly vertical. From Eastham to Runcorn the canal is alternately inland and on the foreshore of the estuary, on which embankments were constructed to act as dams and keep out the tide during the excavation of the canal, and afterwards to maintain the water-level at low water in the estuary; both sides are faced with heavy coursed stone. The material for the embankments was principally clay excavated from the cuttings. In some places, where the foundation was of a porous nature, sheeting piles of timber had to be used. At Ellesmere Port, where the embankment is 6200 ft. long on sand, 13,000 whole timber sheeting piles 35 ft. long were driven, to secure the base of the embankment on each side; water jets under pressure through 11/2 in. wrought-iron pipes were used at the foot of each pile to assist the sinking, which was found most difficult by ordinary means. At the river Weaver ten Stoney roller sluices are built, each 30 ft. span, with heavy stone and concrete piers and foundations; at Runcorn, where the river Mersey is narrow, a concrete sea-wall 4300 ft. long was substituted for the embankment. At various points under the canal cast-iron siphon pipes were laid to carry off any land drainage which was at a lower level than the canal; the largest of these siphons were constructed to allow the tidal and fresh water of the river Gowy to pass under the canal at Stanlow Point, between Eastham and Ellesmere Port. Two 12-ft. siphons are there placed close together, built of cast-iron segments; they are each 400 ft. long, and were laid on concrete 4 ft. below the bottom of the canal. From Runcorn to Latchford the canal is nearly straight, the depth of cutting varying from 35 to 70 ft., partly in rock, but generally in alluvial deposit. The whole length of the canal passes through the New Red Sandstone formation, with its overlying beds of gravel, clay, sand and silt, which gave much trouble during the progress of the work; retaining walls of stone and brickwork had to be built in these places to maintain the sides of the canal from slips and injury from the wash of steamers.

The canal from Latchford to Manchester is in heavy cutting through the valleys of the rivers Mersey and Irwell. As these rivers are circuitous in course, only very small portions could be utilized in forming the canal; a line as nearly straight as possible was therefore adopted, and involved many crossings of the river channels. During the whole progress of the work these had to be kept open for the discharge of floods and land water, and in some places temporary cuts of considerable length had to be made for the same object. In November 1890 and December 1891 high winter floods covered the whole of the river valleys, filling many miles of the unfinished canal and causing great damage to the slopes. Altogether 23 m. of canal had to be pumped out to enable the work to be completed. After the cuttings between the river channels were finished, the end dams were removed, and the rivers Irwell and Mersey were turned into the new channel now forming the upper portion of the ship canal. The total rise to the level of the docks at Manchester from the ordinary level of the water in the tidal portion of the canal below Latchford locks is 60 ft. 6 in.; this is obtained by an average rise of about 15 ft. at each of the sets of locks at Latchford, Irlam (71/2 m. nearer Manchester), Barton (2 m. farther) and Mode Wheel (31/2 m. above Barton locks at the entrance to the Manchester docks). For the greater part of this last length the canal is widened at bottom from 120 ft., its normal width, to 170 ft., to enable vessels to lie at timber and other wharves without interfering with the passage of large vessels to or from the docks. The locks are in duplicate, one being 600 ft. long by 65 ft. wide, the other 350 ft. long by 45 ft. wide, with Stoney’s sluices adjacent. They are filled or emptied in five minutes by large culverts on each side with side openings into the lock. Concrete with facings of blue Staffordshire brick is largely used, and the copings, sills, hollow quoins and fender courses are of Cornish granite. The lock gates are constructed of greenheart timber. The sluices near the locks take the place of the weirs used in the old Mersey and Irwell navigation; they are 30 ft. span each, four being generally used at each set of locks. In ordinary seasons any water not used for lockage purposes passes over the tops of the sluices, which are kept closed; in flood times the sluices are raised to a height which will pass off floods with a comparatively small rise in the canal. There are eight hydraulic installations on the canal, each having duplicate steam-engines and boilers; the mains exceed 7 m. in length, the pressure being 700 ℔ to the inch. They work the cranes, lifts and capstans at the docks, lock gates and culvert sluices, coal tips, swing bridges and aqueduct.

At Barton, near Manchester, the Bridgewater canal crosses the river Irwell on the first navigable aqueduct constructed in England. It was the work of James Brindley, and since it was built at only sufficient height to allow of barges passing under it, means had to be found to allow of this important canal being maintained, and yet to permit steamers to use the ship canal below it. Brindley’s canal is on one level throughout its whole length, and as its water supply is only sufficient for the flight of locks by which it descends at Runcorn to the Mersey, locks down to the ship canal would have involved the waste of a lock of water on each side and caused serious delay to the traffic. Sir E. Leader Williams surmounted the difficulty by means of a swing aqueduct for the Bridgewater canal, which when closed enables the traffic to pass as before, while it is opened to allow of ships crossing it on the lower level of the ship canal. The water in the swing portions of the aqueduct when opened is retained by closing gates at each end, similar gates being shut at the same time across the fixed portion of the aqueduct. The swing portion is a large steel trough carried by side girders, 234 ft. long and 33 ft. high in the centre, tapering 4 ft. to the ends; the waterway is 19 ft. wide and 6 ft. deep. The whole works on a central pier with similar arrangements to the largest swing bridges on the canal; it has two spans over the ship canal of 90 ft. each. It is somewhat singular that the first fixed canal aqueduct in England should, after the lapse of 136 years, be replaced by the first swing aqueduct ever constructed. The swing aqueduct is moved by hydraulic power, and has never given any trouble in working, even in times of severe frost. The weight of the movable portion, including the water, is 1600 tons.

The manner of dealing with the five lines of railways that were cut through by the canal was one of importance, both in the interests of the travelling public and the trade on the canal; they are all lines with a heavy traffic, including the main line of the London & North Western railway near Warrington, with its important route to Scotland. Swing bridges, although in use on some lines to cross navigations, are dangerous and inconvenient, and high-level deviation lines were adopted for each railway crossing the canal. No such alteration of a railway had been previously sanctioned by parliament, and it was only the importance of a ship canal to Manchester that secured the requisite powers against the strong opposition of the railway companies. Embankments were made close to and parallel with the old lines, beginning about a mile and a quarter from the canal on each side, the canal itself being crossed by viaducts which give a clear headway of 75 ft. at ordinary water-level. Vessels with high masts trading on the canal are provided with telescopic or sliding top-masts. The gradients on the railways rising up to the viaducts are 1 in 135. The span of the viaducts is so arranged as to maintain the full width of the canal for navigation; and as the railways generally cross the canal on the skew, this necessitated girders in some cases of 300 ft. span. There are nine main roads requiring swing bridges across the canal; all below Barton have a span giving a clear waterway of 120 ft. The width of these bridges varies with the importance of the roads from 20 to 36 ft., and they are constructed of steel, their weight ranging from 500 to 1000 tons each. They work on a live ring of conical cast-iron rollers and are moved by hydraulic power supplied by steam, gas or oil engines. The Trafford Road bridge at the docks at Manchester is the heaviest swing bridge on the canal; being of extra width, it weighs 1800 tons.

The canal being virtually one long dock, wharves at various points have been erected to enable chemical or manufacturing works to be carried on, widenings being provided where necessary. At Ellesmere Port coal tips and sheds have been erected, and the canal is in direct communication with the docks there as well as at Weston Point and Runcorn, where a large trade is carried on with the Staffordshire Potteries and the Cheshire salt districts. At Partington branches from the railways connect the canal with the Yorkshire and Lancashire coal-fields, and the canal is widened out 65 ft. on each side for six hydraulic coal tips. At Mode Wheel there are extensive abattoirs and lairages, erected by the Manchester Corporation; also large petroleum oil tanks, graving dock and pontoons, cold-air meat stores and other accommodation for traffic. At Manchester the area of the docks is 104 acres, with 152 acres of quay space, having over 5 m. of frontage to the docks, which are provided with a number of three-storey transit sheds, thirteen seven-storey and seven four-storey warehouses, and a large grain silo. The London & North Western and Lancashire & Yorkshire railway companies and the Cheshire Lines Committee have made branch lines to the docks, the railways and sidings at which are over 30 miles in length. Much traffic is also carted, or dealt with by inland canals in direct communication with the docks. The substitution of a wide and deep canal, nearly straight, for comparatively shallow and narrow winding rivers, and the use of large sluices in place of fixed weirs to carry off the river water, have been of great advantage to the district in greatly reducing the height of floods.

The total amount of excavation in the canal, docks and subsidiary work amounted to over 54 million cub. yds., nearly one-fourth of which was sandstone rock; the excavated material was used in forming the railway deviation embankments, filling up the old beds of the rivers and raising low lands near the canal. As many men were employed on the works as could be obtained, but the number never exceeded 17,000, and the greater part of the excavation was done by about eighty steam navvies and land dredgers. For the conveyance of excavation and materials, 228 miles of temporary railway lines were laid, and 173 locomotives, 6300 wagons and trucks, and 316 fixed and portable steam-engines and cranes were employed, the total cost of the plant being nearly £1,000,000. The expenditure on the works, including plant and equipment, to the 1st of January 1900, was £10,327,666. The purchase of the Mersey and Irwell and Bridgewater navigations (£1,786,651), land and compensation (£1,223,809), interest on capital during constructions (£1,170,733), and parliamentary, superintendence and general expenses brought up the total amount to £15,248,437.

The traffic on the canal gradually increased from 925,659 tons in 1894 to 2,778,108 tons in 1899 and 5,210,759 tons in 1907. After its opening considerable reductions were made in the railway rates of carriage and the charges at the Liverpool docks in order to meet the lower cost of conveyance by shipping passing up it. The result has been of great advantage to the trade of Lancashire and the surrounding districts, and the saving in the cost of carriage, estimated at £700,000 a year, assists manufacturers to meet the competition of their foreign opponents who have the advantage of low rates of carriage on the improved waterways of America, Germany, France and Belgium. Before the construction of the canal, large manufacturers had left Manchester to establish their works at ports like Glasgow, where they could save the cost of inland carriage. Since its opening, new industries have been started at Manchester and along its banks, warehouses and mills that were formerly empty are now occupied, while nearly 10,000 new houses have been built for the accommodation of the workpeople required to meet the enlarged trade of the city.

For further details see Sir Bosdin Leech, History of the Manchester Ship Canal (Manchester, 1907).  (E. L. W.)