The Manchester Ship Canal was built in the late 19th Century to give the city of Manchester, England, direct access to the Irish Sea. When it was built, it was the world’s biggest canal for navigation. Roughly following the course of the Rivers Irwell and Mersey between Manchester and Liverpool, the Manchester Ship Canal can accommodate all but modern larger vessels. While not considered a major shipping route today, about six million tons of cargo passes through the Manchester Ship Canal each year.
Although the idea of creating a navigable route to Manchester was first raised in 1660, the needed bills were not passed by Parliament until 1720 creating Mersey & Irwell Navigation. Between 1724 and 1734, the River Mersey was improved to let small ships travel from the Water Street quays in Manchester to the sea. However, during dry periods, loaded boats could not always pass through the waters.
The 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, commissioned the Bridgewater Canal to move coal to Manchester from his mines in Worsley. The Canal opened in 1761, connecting Runcorn to Manchester. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened in 1830. The opening of these two routes made Manchester more competitive for the movement of goods.
By the late 19th Century, the Mersey & Irwell Navigation had become silted and was open to cargo ships only about 15% of the time. Furthermore, with difficult economic conditions, high charges from the Port of Liverpool, and expensive railway fees, it became more affordable to import goods from the other side of the country in Hull than to use Liverpool. The idea for a ship canal was raised as a way to address Manchester’s economic troubles.
In 1182, Daniel Adamson, a local manufacturer, invited a group of leaders from several towns in Lancashire and two engineers to discuss his idea of a tidal canal and channel into Manchester. Both engineers submitted proposals that eventually formed a basis for a bill the group submitted to Parliament in 1882. Opposition from Liverpool and the railways delayed passage of the needed Act of Parliament until 1885. Even then, the bill included difficult stipulations including a significant capital investment within two years.
Adamson was committed to the idea that the capital should be raised from the public and, because raising enough capital took too long under this approach, he resigned his chairmanship of the ship canal committee in 1887. With the subsequent sale of preference shares, the investment was made, and construction began in 1887. In the end, Manchester tax payers bore much of the cost of construction.
The canal had been scheduled for completion in 1891, it opened to traffic on January 1, 1894. In May, Queen Victoria attended an official opening ceremony, knighting Edward Leader Williams, the engineer whose plans were used to build the Manchester Ship Canal. By 1909, the ship canal’s depth was 8.5 meters, matching that of the Suez Canal. Today, the Manchester Ship Canal is almost 58 kilometers long, making it the world’s eighth longest ship canal. It has made Manchester the third busiest port in England.
The Manchester Dry Docks Company purchase land east of the Manchester Ship Canal’s Mode Wheel locks in 1893, and they constructed the graving docks on the south bank of the canal. The docks could receive vessels up to 163.1 meters long carrying eight thousand gross tons.