THE STORY OF THE BRIDGEWATER CANAL
Our October 2018 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Our Chairman, Brian Doman, spoke to us on 1st October about the history and features of the Bridgewater Canal. It was originally created by Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater, to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to the growing town of Manchester. Before the canal was built, coal had to be transported by packhorse to the navigable River Irwell, and its price in Manchester was 7d/cwt (sevenpence per hundredweight). After it was built, the price dropped to 4d/cwt.
Drainage of the mines had always been a problem, and a long tunnel - Massey's Sough - had been constructed as long ago as 1729 to take the water away. When Francis Egerton went on the Grand Tour, he saw the boats on the Canal du Midi, and had the idea of building navigable channels to transport his coal. He engaged James Brindley to design the Bridgewater Canal, with its associated tunnels and bridges. In 1760 Brindley went to London to obtain Parliamentary approval, taking with him a large piece of Cheshire cheese which he used to demonstrate some of his engineering ideas!
The new canal, which opened in 1763, had to cross the River Irwell. There was already a road bridge, and the canal bridge arches had to be at least as wide and high. Brian showed us a colour drawing of Brindley's aqueduct, and also some photographs of the rock face at Worsley from which the canal emerged. The canal tunnel was 8ft high (4ft above and 4ft below the water level) and very soon a second tunnel had to be built to relieve the traffic congestion. We saw a picture of the 'Packet House' from which passenger boats departed for Manchester (a 3-hour journey) or Runcorn (8 hours). As the photographs showed, the canal water is ochre-coloured owing to the presence of iron ore. We saw a map of the mine workings and tunnels. The layout was very complicated, with different navigable levels underground, connected by an 'inclined plane'. All the loading and moving of the barges would have been done by candlelight.
Brian then took us on a pictorial journey along the canal, looking at some of its other features. We saw a lighthouse (to warn of a sharp right turn), a railway station (Patricroft, from where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a canal trip to Worsley Hall), and a video of the very unusual Barton Swing Aqueduct (which replaced Brindley's original bridge when the Manchester Ship Canal was built).
The underground canal at Worsley was only navigable until 1877, but remained in use for drainage until the coal mine closed in 1968. Nowadays the main use of the canal is for pleasure cruising and towpath walking. We saw pictures of the marina at Stretford, converted warehouses, and Greyfriars Quay which handled stone for the Liverpool Docks and Chester Cathedral. We also saw several of Brindley's original bridges which, unusually, are named rather than numbered. Brian explained that a tunnel at Preston Brook links the Bridgewater Canal with the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Brian's talk and pictures brought the story of the canal to life, and no doubt encouraged some of those present to go and take a look for themselves at some of the places featured.