Manchester ship canal

Year:1893

Duration:6 years

Cost:£15m (£1.8bn today)

Country: Manchester, UK

What did this project achieve?

Dig a long canal inland by hand and turn the city of Manchester into a port

The Manchester Ship Canal was one of the most important civil engineering projects of the late Victorian period. When it opened in 1894 it was the largest river navigation canal in the world.

Built to cut the time and cost of transporting goods between Manchester and Liverpool by road and rail, it turned a landlocked city into a port. Ocean-going cargo ships could now sail from the Mersey estuary into the centre of Manchester.

The canal was a response to Liverpool port authorities increasing charges for handling goods. Manchester businesses backed the scheme as they wanted to cut their costs.

Construction started in 1887 with the finished canal 36 miles (58km) long.

A key part of Manchester’s economy for over half a century, traffic declined in the 1970s and 1980s when many ships became too big to navigate the canal.

Difference the canal has made

The canal turned Manchester into Britain’s third busiest port despite the city being about 40 miles (64km) inland.

The canal helped generate income for more than half a century after it opened. In 1895 ships coming into the port of Manchester carried about 1.4m tonnes of cargo a year. This rose to a peak of around 18.6m tonnes in 1955.

The canal boosted the local economy and helped put Manchester on the map as one of the UK’s leading cities

How the work was done

Construction of the Manchester Ship Canal was overseen by contracting engineer Thomas Walker. He divided the 36 mile (58km) route into 8 sections, putting an engineer in charge of work on each.

Up to 17,000 labourers (also known as navvies) worked on digging the canal. The project took 6 years to complete – with 54m yards³ (41m³) of earth removed during construction.

Navvies were paid the equivalent of around £19 for a 10-hour working day. Walker also provided living accommodation, meeting halls and hospital facilities for the workforce.

Engineers laid more than 200 miles (320km) of temporary rail track and used 180 locomotives and over 6,000 trucks and wagons to transport building materials along the canal route.

Other equipment included 124 steam powered cranes and 97 steam excavators.

Construction firsts along the route included the Barton Swing Aqueduct near Barton-on-Irwell in Greater Manchester.

The aqueduct was the first of its kind in the world. Designed by Edward Leader Williams, it’s a kind of swing bridge that rotates on a pivot to let big ships pass along the canal.

The company building the canal ran out of money after 4 years and had to borrow £3m (about £354m today) from Manchester corporation (now Manchester city council) to finish the project.

The canal was officially opened by Queen Victoria in May 1894.

"​‌

“The north west’s equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, a marvel of engineering.”

Professor Walter Menzies

in the Manchester Evening News, 2016.

Fascinating facts

Manchester’s financial bail-out of the canal led to a 26% increase in rates (now council tax) from 1892 to 1895. The council continued to own a large part of the business until 1986 when it sold most of its shares for £10m (about £27m today).

In the 1990s it was rumoured that the canal was so polluted the council was warning people not to smoke next to it – in case they ignited poisonous gases coming from the water.

Manchester Ship Canal is now part of a project called Atlantic Gateway, a plan to develop the canal and the port of Liverpool as a way of combating road congestion.

People who made it happen

  • Contracting engineer: Thomas Walker
  • Chief engineer and designer: Edward Leader Williams

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