World Through The Lens

By Janet Wood

Bridgewater Canal

A Brief History

Permission was granted in 1759 to start construction on what would be the forerunner of all modern canals; The Bridgewater Canal in Lancashire. It was named after its owner the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, who financed the canal at great cost to himself. According to the Manchester Mercury in 1761, ‘The canal will be of very great use commercially, as well as ornament.’ The engineers involved with the huge and revolutionary project were John Gilbert and later James Brindley.

The ‘Canal Duke’, as he affectionately became known, owned mines in the Worsley area during the 1750’s but the cost of transporting coal to Manchester and the regular flooding of the mines kept the price too high. In order to resolve the matter the Duke embarked on one of the most remarkable feats of engineering. This involved the cutting of two canals into the sandstone rock face at a place adjacent to the canal known locally as the ‘Delph’.

These canals eventually met up with the coal seams and special boats, known as ‘mine boats’, or ‘M boats’ enabled the quick transportation of coal into Manchester. It also helped to keep the mines drained. This project reduced the cost of coal by 50 percent, which greatly benefited the people of Manchester. Unfortunately the underwater canals were eventually closed in 1889 and the general public were barred from entering for safety reasons.

The unusual orange-coloured canal water at Worsley is caused by iron compounds from the sandstone seeping into the water as it travels through the maze of some 50 miles of underground canals on four different levels, thus producing the ‘rusty’ appearance.

Orange coloured water

The Bridgewater heralded the beginning of the successful canal age in England and helped promote the Industrial Revolution. A monument dedicated to the Duke stands on Worsley Village Green, close to the canal. In 1762 the Duke was given permission to extend the canal east to Runcorn which meant the route to Liverpool was completed by 1776, and by 1795 it had been linked to Leigh in a westward direction. The canal was eventually sold in 1872 to the Bridgewater Navigation Company for over a million pounds, who later sold it onto the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 1885.

As you walk along the canal the Packet House and Boatsteps, which were built in the late 1700’s, dominate the scene. This was where passengers got on and off the ‘packet boats’ that travelled the canal daily. The Duke had been quick to recognise the potential for such a fare-paying passenger service and started using his own boats in 1769.

The Boat House

The Worsley boatyards, still in use today, also date from the 1760’s. Most of the barges that used the canal and worked the mines in the Duke’s time were built and repaired there. Infact they house the oldest inland waterway dry dock in Britain.

The Boat House, with its humbug striped doors, was built to house the Royal Boat that was used to transport Queen Victoria along the canal when she visited Worsley in 1851. It was commissioned by the 1st Earl of Ellesmere, a descendant of Francis Egerton. However, Queen Victoria is not the only royal to have visited Worsley, in 1967 Queen Elizabeth stood on the humpbacked bridge that spans the canal when she opened the park adjacent to the waterway.

Nowadays, the canal has little value as a carrier of commercial goods, but with its good waterway connections its worth as a place for leisure boating is growing steadily. Worsley has several local interest trails, including woodland walks and historical sites and information can be easily obtained form the local library or from the notice boards that are situated along the canal walks.

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