A proud heritage

The Bridgewater Canal is sometimes described as England's first canal

The Bridgewater Canal is sometimes described as England’s first canal.

Named after its owner, Francis Egerton the third Duke of Bridgewater who built the Canal to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to the industrial areas of Manchester, the Bridgewater Canal was the forerunner of canal networks.

Opened on 17th July 1761, the Bridgewater Canal has a special place in history as the first canal in Britain to be built without following an existing watercourse, and so became a model for those that followed it.

Affectionately known as the “Dukes Cut” the Bridgewater Canal revolutionised transport in this country and marked the beginning of the golden canal era which followed from 1760 to 1830.

1759 - Early Days

As a young man Francis Egerton, 6th Earl and 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, took a grand tour of Europe, and was evidently impressed with the canals in use on the continent which, after turning his back on London, spurred him on to develop this means of transport to serve his collieries in Lancashire.

Initially his Agent, John Gilbert, was involved in the preliminary levelling and surveying of the site. When the Duke was just 23 years old, he presented his first Bill, which was hugely supported by the traders of Manchester and Salford on the Duke’s promise to reduce the delivered price of coal in Manchester to no more that 4d per cwt.

1759-1761 - The process begins

The Duke's Bill, which received Royal Assent on 23rd March 1759, proposed two separate cuts from Worsley keeping north of the River Irwell, one via Patricroft to Salford and the other in the direction of Warrington to link with the River Mersey at Hollins Ferry.

The route towards Patricroft made good progress but the cut to Hollins Ferry ran into difficulties with peat deposits, forcing them the re-examine the route.

At the time James Brindley, who had established a reputation for mine and other workings involving water, was surveying the route of a proposed Canal from the Trent to the Mersey on behalf of Earl Gower, the brother-in law of the Canal Duke. Consequently, Brindley was invited to a meeting at Worsley Old Hall with the Duke and Gilbert and a complete change of plan emerged. The new route abandoned the Hollins Ferry line and the section which had reached Patricroft was altered to cross the Irwell by a Stone Aqueduct, therefore joining Trafford Park to Streford and Manchester.

Worsley Old Hall, a fine timbered house, was the scene of prolonged meetings between the Duke and his advisers when preparing to submit a change to the Bill which was being presented to Parliament. This was passed in March 1760 to give approval to the change of route. Brindley was able to appease any doubters in the Parliamentary Committee by demonstrating his ideas for Barton Aqueduct by making a model from a cheese.

This renowned engineering feat, ridiculed by many, crowned the success of the Opening of the Canal on 17th July, 1761.

1761-1776 – Extending to Merseyside

At the end of 1761, the Canal was completed through to Stretford and to Castlefield Wharf, Manchester by 1765.

Whilst this work was being carried out, the Duke and his team were busy on the next phase of extending the Canal to the Mersey tideway at Runcorn to forge a link with the Port of Liverpool. Despite opposition, the Duke’s third Act to make this possible was passed in March 1762.

The need for an embankment and aqueduct over the Mersey at Sale Moor and similarly across the River Bollin, coupled with disputes with landowners, delayed work under this Act. At the Runcorn end the principal landowner, Sir Richard Brooke of Norton Priory, held up completion for many years.

Before the Canal reached Preston Brook, about five miles from Runcorn, the Trent and Mersey Canal was under construction. The Act of 1766 for the Trent at Mersey Canal, which the Duke was involved in, included a provision empowering him to change the route of his Canal from the junction at Preston Brook to a point lower down the Mersey at Runcorn Gap, opposite Widnes, a more convenient point for barges to proceed on the tideway after descending by a flight of 10 locks.

Eventually in spite of all the trials and tribulations, the Canal between Liverpool and Manchester was completed in the spring of 1776, four years after James Brindley died.

1765 - Financial strain

At the Manchester end, the difficulties regarding land ownership were resolved by the Canal Duke purchasing the Hulme Hall Estate for £9,000.

Spending this large amount of money, as well as other similar costs along the line of Canal, and the cost of constructing the navigation, wharves, warehouses, etc. was a great strain on the Duke’s finances and he had to borrow money to pay his workmen.

In 1765, he received a loan of £25,000 from Child’s Bank on the security of his Canal but this was only the beginning. By today’s values he was eventually at least £2million in debt. To save money, he reduced his personal spending as much as possible; closed Bridgwater House in London and reduced his number servants.

Activity on the canal

Castlefield Wharf and the Basin became a hive of activity from the time the first loads of coal were hoisted to street level by waterwheel at a rate of 5 tons an hour. In addition, warehouses, a brick kiln and lime kiln were also built and boating was extended when the Rochdale Canal was opened from Castlefield.

At the Runcorn end of the Canal, the Duke spent considerable time on the flight of locks and the beginnings of the docks there, hence the building of Bridgewater House near the bottom of the old line of locks. There is also evidence that the Duke became involved as a schooner owner in the coasting trade.

At a fairly early stage of the extension of the Canal to Runcorn, the Duke acquired land in Liverpool for a dock to serve the needs of his companies which was developed into the extensive Dukes Dock complex at Liverpool in the second half of the 18th Century.

1765 - From Sale to Stockport

In 1765, the Duke progressed his fourth Bill for a Branch Canal from Sale to Stockport, following the valley of the Mersey.

Although this was enacted the following year, the work was not started and the Act lapsed. Financial problems and other Canals in the course of development evidently had affected it.

1795 - From Worsley to Leigh

Nevertheless when the Duke was 60 years old, he successfully developed and secured his fifth Canal Act in 1795 to extend the Bridgewater Canal from Worsley to Leigh to link up with the Wigan branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. This would provide a through navigation between Lancashire and Cheshire or beyond in the national system of waterways which had evolved from the beginnings of the Bridgewater Canal.

1803 - Death of the Duke

The work involved in creating the Bridgewater Canal by the 6th Earl and 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, left him heavily in debt for most of his working life. It was only in his later years when the Canal and other activities began to yield marked results that he was able to benefit from the fruits of his labour. He was truly the father of inland navigation, as inscribed on the lasting memorial to him, facing Ashridge, the ancestral home of the Bridgewater’s in Hertfordshire

On the death of the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater in 1803, his will left the canal and mines to a trust of three to run for “as long as the lives of all the Peers of the House of Lords and of their sons who were living at the time of the Duke’s death and for a further 21 years as allowed by law”. It did in fact function for 100 years to 1903 although the navigation part of the Trusteeship was sold to Bridgewater Navigation Co Ltd, in 1872 and completed in 1874.

Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, a beneficiary, came to live at Worsley in 1837. He changed his name to Lord Francis Egerton in accordance with the will, and he received the title of Earl of Ellesmere in 1846.

1825-1845 - Competition and Conflict

Much of the 19th century was taken up with battles in Parliament between the Canal Trustees and the new railways. The proposed Manchester to Liverpool railway was a huge threat to the Bridgewater Canal. The Railway’s Bill in 1825 was opposed to by the Trustees, but this was withdrawn when 1,000 railway shares were allocated to the life tenant and the right to appoint three directors to the Company.

The Trustees gradually took the view that railways and canal could exist side by side, but even so they opposed over 170 Parliamentary Bills to safeguard their interests. For instance, the railway through Eccles was not allowed to reach Worsley until 1861 and even then the railway directors turned up for the cutting of the first sod for Worsley railway station in a canal barge!

A canal improvement at the Manchester end took place in 1838 when, to stop flooding from the Medlock channel at the Castlefield terminus, flood gates were erected and an overflow built. At the same time, the old channel to the Irwell was improved by the creation of the Hulme Locks.

In 1845 the competitive Mersey and Irwell Navigation was purchased by the Bridgewater Trustees for the sum of £550,000.

1872 - Change and Consolidation

As the century passed the canal Trustees were hard pressed to find money to develop the coal mines and to build modern coke ovens - approximately £23,000 a year had to be spent on new plant.

More money was needed to offset the threat of the railway on new canal development. The Trustees were advised to sell their navigation to the interested railway companies (the Midland, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Company) and the matter proceeded to Parliament. In 1872, the Bridgewater Navigation Company Ltd was formed and this company purchased the shares of both the canal undertakings from the Trustees for £1,120,000.

Though the railways were in no way in control, many of their shareholders were also shareholders of the new company. The news of the sale created something of a sensation in Worsley and some of the local population expressed alarm about their potential unemployment.

1885 - Manchester Ship Canal Company acquires the canal and Barton Swing Bridge Built

In 1885 (completed in 1887) the Canal was again sold when, under the Manchester Ship Canal Act the Manchester Ship Canal Company paid the Bridgewater Navigation Company £1,710,000 for the whole of their properties.

One of the Ship Canal’s earliest requirements was to replace Brindley’s stone aqueduct at Barton with the present steel swing aqueduct to carry the Bridgewater Canal over the Ship Canal, as famous today as its predecessor was in 1761.

1920's to present day

In the 1920’s, Bridgewater Collieries were sold to Manchester Collieries which was nationalised in 1948. Similarly, in 1923, a new company was formed to acquire the estate owned by the Ellesmere family in Worsley and other parts. This company became known as Bridgewater Estates Ltd, and was subsequently purchased by Peel in 1984.

Coincidentally, in 1987 Highams Ltd acquired a majority shareholding of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, later the shares held by Highams were transferred to Peel and in 1994 the Manchester Ship Canal Company became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Peel Group. In 2004, ownership of the Manchester Ship Canal Company was transferred to the Peel Ports Group.

In 2009, the Bridgewater Canal was transferred out of the Peel Ports Group into the Peel Land & Property group. Under a Transport and Works Order, the statutory powers in connection with the operation of the Bridgewater Canal were transferred from the Manchester Ship Canal Company to the Bridgewater Canal Company Limited.

The Bridgewater Canal Company Limited is now the statutory body responsible for the navigation and maintenance of the Bridgewater Canal.

The Bridgewater Canal Company regularly meets with the Bridgewater Canal Trust which was formed in 1975.

1975 Bridgewater Canal Trust formed

The Bridgewater Canal Trust was formed following a breach of the canal at Dunham Massey.

On the 2nd August 1971, a report was received from the Altrincham police concerning a leak from the Bridgewater Canal near the Bollin Aqueduct. The canal crosses over the River Bollin on an embankment with the Canal water level thirty four feet above river level. The Canal gushing into the river below had soon washed out a gorge in the embankment ninety feet wide.

Stop logs were positioned across the Canal on either side of the breach to stem the loss of water from the Canal. This had caused water levels In Manchester to fall by 14 inches.

The cost of repairing the breach was £250,000 and under the Transport Act 1968 the Manchester Ship Canal Company could have applied to close the Canal, or alternatively have sought authority to pipe water across the breach.

However, following discussions with Cheshire County Council and other interested parties it was decided that a working party would be formed to explore the possible formation of a Trust which might bear a fair share of the cost of maintaining the Canal. In the light of the possible formation of a trust, the breach was repaired and the Canal was finally reopened to navigation in September 1973.

Local authorities entered into the trust deed on the 5th November 1975. The parties to the Bridgewater Canal Trust at that time were; Cheshire County Council, Halton Borough Council, Warrington Borough Council, Macclesfield Borough Council, Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council, Manchester City Council, Salford City Council, Wigan Council, and the Manchester Ship Canal Company.

These authorities obviously could have made payment directly to the Manchester Ship Canal Company but it was felt that a Trust would offer them a more direct involvement in the spending of such money and an overview of these aspects.

The trust meet twice a year and formulate the long and short -term policies for the amenity use of the Bridgewater Canal. All income generated by the Bridgewater Canal from pleasure craft, fishing, drainage and sales of water for cooling purposes etc. is used to maintain and improve the Canal and its local environment.

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