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Bridgewater Canal
Worsley Basin to Castlefield Basin in Manchester, UK
associated engineer
James Brindley
date  1759 - 21st March 1776, 1795
era  Georgian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  SD747004
ICE reference number  HEW 976
Bridgewater Canal is Britain’s earliest arterial canal — crossing valleys and waterways rather than following rivers. Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater, paid for it in order to transport coal from his Worsley collieries to Manchester. The level canal is ideal for leisure use, and it now forms part of the Cheshire Ring of cruising waterways.
The young Duke had travelled Europe on his Grand Tour and been impressed by the French Canal du Midi (1681) and the Italian Naviglio Martesana (1465), as well as the more local Sankey Canal (1757). In 1757 he employed John Gilbert as his agent, who suggested that coal from the Duke’s mines could be brought to the surface not by packhorses or wagons but on water. So began construction of a network of 74km of underground canals on four levels that reached right to the coalfaces. Narrow ribbed barges known as ‘starvationers’ were filled with coal and pulled out of the mine workings by teams of horses.
It was logical to seek to extend the canal from the Worsley collieries eastwards to Manchester and westwards towards Liverpool — canals were more reliable than the roads of the day. Coal is a bulky cargo and horses can pull far bigger floating loads than they can carry.
The 'Duke’s Cut’ as it became known received Royal assent for a route between Worsley and Hollins Ferry, Lancashire, on 23rd March 1759, with a double flight of locks down to the River Irwell at Barton. Gilbert needed help with the engineering, as his expertise lay more with mining, so James Brindley was called in on 1st July 1757. He was well known to both Gilbert and the Duke through his work on the proposed Trent & Mersey Canal (opened 1777).
The route was amended to end at Longford Bridge, Lancashire, in a second Act of Parliament on 24th March 1760 that superseded the first, with an aqueduct instead of locks at Barton. This 13.3km long section opened on 17th July 1761 and its use as a commercial link was immediate — the cost of coal in Manchester halved.
A third Act, passed on 24th March 1762, permitted the canal to be extended from Longford Bridge to Hempstones on the River Mersey. A fourth Act dated 18th March 1766 enabled a connection with the Trent & Mersey Canal at Preston Brook. The canal covers a distance of 29.8km between Longford Bridge and Preston Brook.
The most impressive structure is the Barton Aqueduct, a three arch sandstone bridge that carried the canal over, and 11.9m above, the River Irwell flanked by embankments 183m long. The aqueduct’s novelty meant that it soon became a tourist attraction, but being narrow it was also a traffic bottleneck. It was demolished in 1894 to make way for the Manchester Ship Canal and replaced by Barton Swing Aqueduct, though the north abutment of the old structure remains.
Some large embankments were required to carry the canal across valleys, and the biggest is the one flanking the single arch aqueduct over the River Mersey at Stretford. Each side is 823m long and 5.2m high with a 34.1m wide base. It crosses boggy ground and Brindley used timber supports on an earth embankment lined with puddled clay, which was adopted as a standard canal waterproofing technique until the 20th century.
The Castlefield Basin terminus in Manchester was completed in 1765. Brindley died on 27th September 1772, and by 31st December the canal had been extended 8.4km via Lymm to Runcorn, where a flight of 10 locks takes the canal down 25.1m to the River Mersey. There is only one other lock on the whole canal, which shows Brindley’s surveying expertise in keeping the canal level (it generally follows the 25.26m above Ordnance Datum contour).
The whole canal from Castlefield Basin, where there is a link with the Rochdale Canal, through Worsley to Runcorn, was completed on 21st March 1776 — with a continuous towpath. By this time the Duke had spent in excess of £220,000 and his fortune was dwindling.
The fifth and last Act received Royal assent on 28th April 1795 and covered the 9.7km branch from the Worsley terminus to Leigh, where the Bridgewater Canal joins the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Subsidence of the land around Worsley led to repeated raising of the canal in this area.
In 1821 the Hollins Ferry route was revived, with a branch of the canal from there to Leigh. New locks were constructed at Runcorn in 1827. By 1825 the canal was providing an excellent return for investors — the original £70 shares were selling for £1,250 each and paying a yearly dividend of £35.
The Manchester Ship Canal Company bought both the Bridgewater Canal and the Mersey & Irwell Navigation in 1885. Pleasure craft were allowed onto the Bridgewater Canal from 1952. Mining and commercial traffic on it ceased in 1974, though the graving (dry) docks at Worsley are still in use.
Survey assistant (1761): Hugh Oldham
Resident engineer (1766-73): Thomas Morris Snr
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain" by Joseph Priestley
Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, London and Richard Nichols
Wakefield, 1831, pp.88-93
"James Brindley: the First Canal Builder" by Nick Corble
Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud, 2005
www.aina.org.uk
www.bridgewatercanal.co.uk
www.penninewaterways.co.uk
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE1IHCE
Location

Bridgewater Canal