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Bridgewater Canal


Records of Bridgewater Canal: office correspondence 1857 and 1860.



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

The period of canal construction in the 1760s and 1770s is at least partly attributable to the success of the biggest waterway project to be solely financed by one individual: the Bridgewater Canal. In 1759 a canal from Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater's mines at Worsley to Salford was authorized. An Act had been secured in 1737 by the Mersey and Irwell Navigation to make the Worsley Brook navigable down to their waterway. This idea was re-examined in the 1750s, when a canal to carry coal was planned from Salford to Wigan via Eccles, Worsley and Leigh, but it was the Duke who actually revived the canal project between Worsley and the Irwell. He was probably encouraged by his brother-in-law and former guardian Lord Gower as he had been considering a canal from the Trent at Wilden Ferry, Shardlow, to Stoke. It is likely that the plans sanctioned in the 1759 Act for the canal to Salford had been devised by the Duke's agent, John Gilbert. Work commenced under John Gilbert with James Brindley as his assistant. In 1760, another Act was sought and passed after the Duke decided to extend the canal to Manchester, much to the Mersey and Irwell's chagrin. By crossing the Mersey and Irwell at Barton, and with a short, half-mile branch from Stretford to Longford bridge, the Duke was now able to transport his coal to within reach of Manchester and Cheshire. He was present at the opening of the aqueduct crossing the Irwell in 1761, and later that year the Stretford-Longford bridge branch was completed. The first wharf at Castlefield, Manchester, came into use in 1765. The Duke faced further opposition from the Mersey and Irwell over his plans to extend to Hempstones on the Mersey, 2.5 miles above Runcorn. His attempt to buy them out failed, but his Act did not and was passed in 1762, effectively putting him in competition with the Mersey and Irwell. By 1765, Josiah Wedgwood's scheme for a navigation to link the Trent and Mersey (surveyed by James Brindley and with the aforementioned Lord Gower as patron) was looking increasingly like becoming a reality. John Gilbert persuaded them to join the Duke's canal, which would give them a route to Manchester. Once the issue of where (Preston Brook) and how the Duke's canal would join the Mersey was resolved, and after the authorization Act of 1766, he paid for the construction of the Trent and Mersey to Runcorn. The expense was justified; the Duke now controlled the Mersey exit of the Midlands canals. Ten locks, grouped in staircase pairs, were built for the descent from Runcorn to the Mersey, of a standard 72 feet by 14 feet 2 inches. By 1773, the canal was virtually complete, where plans for a short length to Norton Priory had run into trouble. The land was owned by Sir Richard Brooke, and it took a further three years to persuade him to sell it. The entire Bridgewater Canal was 33 miles long between Worsley and Runcorn, not including the ¾ mile branch at Preston Brook linking it to the Trent and Mersey. Four miles of the six-mile proposed Worsley to Hollins Ferry branch were never started. The existing length and a small cut of 9/10 miles built between 1799 and 1803 were used until the 19th century. A smaller branch of just 1100 yards (5/8 mile) was built before 1785 for the purpose of carrying moss into Chat Moss. The canal was fed by water from Worsley Brook, the Trent and Mersey, Medlock in Manchester, (from 1789, water came via the navigable Bank Top tunnel, which fed into the Medlock) and from the Ashton and Rochdale canals from 1799 and 1804 respectively. From 1767 there was a passenger service available, which was extended with the canal. It eventually covered Broadheath, Worsley and Runcorn to Manchester. The Duke was granted permission to extend from Worsley to Leigh in 1795 using a section of the Hollins Ferry Line, and the level 6¼ mile line was completed in four years. The Duke had always been responsible for carrying and the passenger service, and therefore exercised considerable control over, and derived considerable profits from, the canal. After his death in March 1803, a life rent in the canal, mines and estates passed to his nephew, the second Marquess of Stafford, and to his son Lord Francis Egerton after the Marquess's death in 1833; however the Duke placed control of the properties with three trustees headed by Robert Haldane Bradshaw, his legal agent, canal manager and superintendent of the trust. Advances continued at the same pace under Robert Haldane Bradshaw as they had under the Duke. In 1807 the Bridgewater Trustees arranged a connective service between Runcorn and Liverpool, in response to the Mersey and Irwell's new passenger service. Steamers were introduced onto this route within ten years, the first of which was "Elizabeth" in 1815. In 1820, the Worlsey to Leigh extension was joined by a branch of the Leeds and Liverpool at Wigan and soon began operating daily passenger services. Seven years later a new flight of ten locks, with five intermediate reservoirs to enter a tidal basin at Runcorn, just downstream from the old main line was completed. Passenger rates were cut in 1830 following the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, although it did not seem to have a detrimental effect on the daily services offered by the Bridgewater Canal. After Robert Haldane Bradshaw's resignation in 1834, James Sothern was appointed as superintendent. He was not as unwilling to enter into a rate-agreement with the railway as his predecessor, but his desire for independence from Lord Francis did not impress the latter, and James Sothern was bought out of his job for £45, 000 after barely two years. Under his replacement James Loch, the three locks at Hulme which linked the canal to the Irwell were completed in 1838. The greatest challenge posed to James Loch through the 1840s was the increased competition. The Grand Junction was now complete to Birmingham and by 1842 the Liverpool & Manchester Railway had allied with the Manchester & Leeds Railway against the canals in the area. Cutting prices was not enough, and there was still much hostility between the Bridgewater and Mersey & Irwell. Until his death in 1855, Loch favoured selling the trustees' waterways to the control of the railways and possibly converting to a railway, in order to protect Lord Francis's income. James Loch was almost entirely focussed on railways and consequently no real improvements were made to the waterway. In 1844, Lord Francis bought the troublesome Mersey and Irwell, a year later a rates agreement was drawn up between the Liverpool & Manchester Railway and the waterways, and in 1846 control of the Mersey and Irwell passed to the Bridgewater Trustees. Although the Bridgewater now offered a carrying service into the Midlands and as far south as Bristol, thanks to various agreements with Midland carriers, it was one of the few waterways with no links to the railways when the majority of canals to Manchester were owned by railway companies. Several possibilities were investigated, but eventually the canal manager George Fereday Smith persuaded Lord Francis (now Lord Ellesmere) that an alliance was unnecessary for the future of the Bridgewater. Instead, now that the Hon. Algernon Egerton was superintendent, the resources were again spent on improving the canal, particularly around Runcorn. The two-lock, 1¼ mile long Runcorn and Weston Canal was completed in 1859, paid for by Lord Ellesmere. It was capable of taking craft 72 feet 3 inches by 1 feet 5 inches and was constructed solely to bolster the salt trade (although in reality it was not often used). The new tidal basin and Alfred Dock, also at Runcorn, were finished by 1860. Swift boats no longer operated on the canal and the once-extensive passenger service had been reduced to only running between Preston Brook station and Runcorn, and Stockton Quay and Manchester. George Fereday Smith could not stop the involvement of the railway companies indefinitely. The trustees sold their canals, carrying business and waterway property in July 1872 to the newly-formed Bridgewater Navigation Company, with Sir Edward Watkin, chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway and W P Price, chairman of the Midland Railway Company. For further information on the Bridgewater Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield and Gordon Biddle's 'The Canals of North West England Volumes 1 and 2'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain any original structure of record-keeping from the small number of records held for this company. The fonds has therefore been arranged in chronological order.

Associated material

[See also: BW12 and 67 for records of the Bridgewater Canal during other periods of ownership]

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