Social Evening - Friday 7th February 2014 Speaker Fred Tewson - The Manchester Ship Canal

Reporter: Ernie Metcalf

The last social meeting of the season was very well attended with about 60 members present - a tribute to the speaker and the organisers. It was also very pleasant for many of us to link up again with those who had been on the recent Sauze holiday.

Our speaker, and member, Fred Tewson, was prefaced by a short presentation from former Chairman Ian Harford. Ian, who had written a book about the canal some twenty years or so ago, gave us a whole load of statistics which I have included below. Many of these were embossed on a lead coin he showed us which was minted to commemorate the official opening of the Canal by Queen Victoria in May1894.

Fred’s presentation was mainly in the form of a video he took seven years ago as he voyaged on the grain carrying ship Anna D along the Canal from Manchester to Liverpool. He also gave appropriate commentary as the video played. The voyage to Liverpool took 5 hours 25 minutes where in two hours it was loaded with 1000 tons of wheat. The boat returned to Manchester the next day.

The longer we watched the more it became obvious what an enormous engineering feat and achievement the Canal was for the end of the nineteenth century. It was not just the scale of it, but the innovative engineering necessary to build the bridges and aqueducts. The Barton swing aqueduct, for instance, was the first such aqueduct in the world.

Before construction could begin, an act of Parliament was required. There was much opposition from the merchants of Liverpool and the railway companies to the Canal. The whole proposition roused strong feelings for and against, but there were also very good political and economic reasons for it to go ahead. Unemployment was chronic and there was even civil unrest in the area as the “long depression” wore on. Such massive civil engineering work was seen as part of the solution, just as infrastructure work is nowadays. In some ways I can’t help comparing the debates and passions about the Canal with today’s arguments about HS2.

Fred’s photography was so good that at times we could easily have been sailing along the Canal with him. One particularly relaxing part was accompanied by some exquisite music from Mozart. It was not quite like sailing down the Danube, but the music made up for it.

All along the Canal there are a variety of developments and pilot schemes in progress. Over the next thirty years it is estimated the investment by the owners, Peel Holdings, could exceed £50 billion. These include science parks, power generation and a variety of engineering works. In fact Peel have predicted the container traffic will grow from the present volumes of 8000 containers a year to over 100,000 a year. This is all of vital importance in job creation and to help regenerate the North West.

The Canal was never the commercial success its developers envisaged, and while at its peak in the mid 1950’s it carried 18 million tons of traffic, last year this had declined to about 7 million tons. Yet it is still of very important to the region for its ecology and the economic activities along its banks. The Canal may be old but it has wherever possible, kept up with modern technology. The locks and traffic movement are all remotely controlled from a central point at Eastham on the Wirral. Therefore we can today still enjoy the benefits of what was once a real piece of social and economic visionary.

Fred had another video about replacing a sluice gate on one of the locks. Because of time restrictions he had to fast forward much of this. Nevertheless we saw that what may sound like a simple job is still a major engineering undertaking.

Both videos were most enjoyable and well received. Maybe Fred could return later in the year so we could see the whole of the second one. Our thanks to Fred were given by Janet Winstanley.

Construction was started in 1887 and overran both cost and time. It is 36 miles long, with an average width of 172 feet and a minimum depth of 26 feet. There are 5 locks which drop approximately 60 feet from Manchester to Liverpool, 7 swing bridges and 1 swing aqueduct. Ships up to 9000 tons can use it with a maximum speed of 6 knots.

It was built in six sections and took just over five years. In its construction there were 100 Steam Navvies, 228 miles of temporary railway, 173 locomotives, 194 steam cranes, 182 steam engines, 212 steam pumps (flooding was a big problem), 8300 wagons and 58 pile engines. 25000 men and boys were employed and 196 horses. 10,000 tons of coal and 8000 tons of cement were used monthly.

Finally: If you would like more information about the Canal there is plenty of interest on Wikipedia.