Friday, 8 July 2011

The Opening of the Manchester Ship Canal A.D. 1894

A woman dips her feet into the ocean as seagulls hover above and children play with a bucket and spade. On closer inspection, we realise that the woman is sitting on a warehouse and that in the background there is a dark industrial scene of chimney stacks billowing smoke into the air. Punch's satirical cartoon, dated 7th October 1882, has the caption MANCHESTER-SUR-MER: A SEA-DUCTIVE PROSPECT. Just over eleven years later – at was then a staggering cost of £15,000,000 – this seemingly ridiculous idea was to become reality. The Manchester Ship Canal was the engineering achievement of its time, the largest navigation canal in the world, transforming a land-locked city into an important sea-trading hub. When we look at a satellite image of the North West of England today, we can clearly see the canal cutting through great swathes of land in unnaturally straight lines from the Mersey Estuary to Salford Quays where it meets the Irwell (as the Mersey itself meanders insignificantly alongside). In terms of the Ascent of Manchester, this is a key moment, allowing the city to diversify into the shipping industry at Liverpool's expense (exacerbating what was already a bitter rivalry between the two cities) and ensuring greater independence in what was to be a period of increasing uncertainty.

In 1855 Manchester had 1,724 warehouses and only 95 cotton mills. This reflected its position as the trading centre for goods produced in the surrounding towns of South-East Lancashire (Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Stockport) and East Lancashire (Burnley, Accrington, Blackburn) further north. The Manchester – Liverpool axis was still of vital importance for importing raw cotton and exporting manufactured goods through the Port of Liverpool. Since the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, this had mainly been done by train with the goods yards in Liverpool Road Station surrounded by warehouses and canals. Manchester had survived the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861 – 1865, during which large scale public works were commissioned by local government to reduce unemployment, but the lean years had shown just how fragile the Cottonpolis economy really was, a dark omen for the future of what was still the world's largest industrial city.

By the 1870s, with dues charged by the Port of Liverpool and what were considered excessive railway charges, it was often cheaper to import goods from Hull than it was from Liverpool. On 27th June 1882, the manufacturer Daniel Adamson arranged a meeting at his home in Didsbury to discuss the possibility of building something like the Suez Canal (which had opened on 17th November 1869 after ten years of construction) to by-pass Liverpool and gain direct access to the sea. The meeting was attended by 68 people, including the mayors of Manchester and the surrounding towns, leaders of commerce and industry, bankers and financiers. A bill was submitted to Parliament in November, to much amusement in the rest of the country (and possibly great alarm in Liverpool). It faced intense opposition from railway companies and the Port of Liverpool but was finally passed on 6th August 1885. This was clearly a group of people for whom there was a belief that anything was possible. If the Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857 had been a global exercise in boosting civic pride, this was a daring example of ruthlessness from Manchester's business elite.

It took nearly two years to raise the money and on 15th July 1887, a prospectus for the sale of preference shares in the company had to be issued jointly by Barings and Rothschild. A week later the project was underwritten. Lord Egerton of Tatton, the chairman of the board of directors of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, cut the first sod on 11th November 1887 as construction began on what was to be a huge and complex engineering project. After four years the canal company had exhausted its already considerable funds of £8,000,000 – with only half the project complete. To avoid having to declare bankruptcy, they appealed to the Manchester Corporation to bail them out. On 9th March 1891 the Corporation agreed to lend the £3,000,000 necessary to finish the project and preserve the city's prestige. On 14th October they would have to lend a further £1,500,000 as estimates for the costs of completion rose. The canal was finally completed in November 1893 and opened to traffic on New Year's Day.

On 14th May 1894 Blackpool Tower was opened. Along with the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool (1911) and the Beetham Tower in Manchester (2007), it was to become one of the North West of England's three landmark pieces of architecture, and a symbol of the rising popularity of the seaside resort as a destination for workers and their families. A week later, on 21st May, Queen Victoria visited Manchester to perform the official opening of the Manchester Ship Canal. In terms of the amount of material that had been excavated during construction, it was around half the size of the Suez Canal (the world's most important trade route). At first the traffic predicted for the canal failed to materialize as the shipping cartels based in Liverpool watched and waited, and for a while it must have looked like this expensive project was a huge white elephant – perhaps in the end it was. Manchester's business community certainly benefitted from the Ship Canal as the Liverpool-based cartels were forced to lower their prices. But the Canal itself only began to achieve its full potential with the establishment in 1898 of the Manchester Liners who were able to offer a range of transatlantic shipping routes. The arrival of the Middlesbrough-built 'Manchester City' (designed to carry frozen meat and live cattle) was a cause for celebration when it became the first large vessel to enter the terminal docks. The Manchester Guardian reported on 16th January 1899 that 'there were many shakings of the head, not only in Liverpool, at the audacity of the attempt.'

The area around the Port of Manchester and the Manchester Ship Canal became a focus for further industrialisation and modernisation, providing jobs for workers from the surrounding districts of Ordsall, Salford, Old Trafford and Moss Side as the city continued its rapid expansion. At the turn of the century, Trafford Park was the largest industrial estate in Europe and it's hard to imagine this being the case if the Ship Canal hadn't been built. Manchester was the birthplace of trade unionism and had hosted the first meeting of the TUC in 1868 but its workers had jobs and relative prosperity. The city had gone from being dominated by warehouses and commodity exchanges to a major international shipping centre, just as Liverpool and the cotton manufacturing towns of East Lancashire were beginning to enter into decline. Its workers were now enjoying the radical concept of 'leisure time' – time spent at the seaside with their families or watching one of the region's many football teams. The Football League had been founded in Manchester in 1888 by teams from Lancashire and the Midlands. Manchester United won their first league title in 1908, their first FA Cup in 1909 and on 19th February 1910 played their first match at their new stadium in Old Trafford near the Port of Manchester. Strangely enough, considering the impact the idea of Manchester-on-Sea had had since Daniel Adamson's meeting nearly thirty years earlier, the match was against Liverpool (who won 4-3).

Manchester United's links with the Port of Manchester and Trafford Park evolved naturally from its support base amongst the dockworkers of Salford, Ordsall and Old Trafford. Interestingly its fortunes are linked with the subsequent history of the Ship Canal. The area was heavily bombed during World War II, such was its strategic importance to the Allies. After the war, the Ship Canal was to reach its hey-day in the fifties and sixties as Manchester United went on to become the first English team to compete in Europe in 1957 and the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968. Ultimately the Manchester Ship Canal could not remain competetive following the growth of container ports in the 1970s and the arrival of the much larger ships that were being built. The world was becoming increasingly globalized as manufacturing jobs were outsourced to countries in the Far East such as China and Vietnam. The huge container ships that we see today are the symbol of the new globalization and the decline of the Manchester Ship Canal. Their rise coincides not only with the technological revolution and the age of satellite TV and the internet but also with the Manchester United's success under Alex Ferguson since his managerial appointment in November 1986. A hundred years after the Ship Canal was first opened to traffic, Manchester United became the first team to win the English Premier League – the globally successful franchise that has grown in popularity along with the club itself. The Ship Canal is owned by Peel Holdings who have long had plans to regenerate the route. More significantly, the area around Old Trafford and Salford Quays is now served by the Metrolink and is home to thriving office space and property developments, the Lowry (1999), the Imperial War Museum North (2002) and – nearly 130 years since Daniel Adamson first raised the idea of Manchester-on-Sea – the MediaCity:UK development which will soon be home to the BBC (2011).

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