Article excerpt


THE canals were the lifeblood of the industrial revolution. These inland waterways ferried materials to build the new industrial centres and in turn transported the produce from the factories and mines to the ports.

Thousands were employed on these waterways with some of the most important stretches of canal here in the northwest.

Cheshire was a key part of the network with the huge quantities of rock salt produced by the county's salt mines being exported via the ports of Liverpool and Manchester. Also in the northwest the Lancashire coalfield saw millions of tons of coal sent for distribution via the canals.

Runcorn was another important point in the canal network. It was from here that the Old Quay Canal, linking Runcorn with Warrington was constructed and the Weaver Canal was cut through to Weston Point. The canals brought new industry to the region and by the mid-nineteenth century Runcorn boasted a slate works, a timber yard and a tanning industry.

The seeds for the new age were sown when the Mersey and Irwell river Navigation was opened in 1740, enabling boats to navigate from Liverpool to Manchester but the first canal to be built was the Bridgewater, northwest of Manchester in the late 18th century. The Duke of Bridgewater owned coal mines at Worsley and he employed engineer James Brindley to build a short canal to link his mines with the Irwell. It was completed in 1776, opening up new markets for the colliery owners. It was the start of the canal age.

Over the next fifty years, fortunes were made, with the smart money from the City being invested in canals linking the watersheds of the Rivers Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames - some two thousand miles of new waterways! These boom times were to last until the railway age. At first the two forms of transport co-existed but gradually, the spread of the rail network was to spell the death knell for the commercial use of the canals. The decline went on until well into the 20th century when the canals were regenerated for leisure use.

The other major piece of canal engineering in the northwest came at the end of the canal age with the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. It followed a meeting of Manchester businessmen who decided to build a canal capable of being used by sea-going vessels, thereby avoiding charges for rail transport and Liverpool Docks. …