The building of the canals in Cheshire

Artificial waterways or canals have long played an important part in the economic life of the county. The first to be constructed in Cheshire was the Bridgewater canal from Manchester to Runcorn. This was an extension of the Duke's famous canal linking his coal mines at Worsley with Manchester. This extension, opened in 1772, provided a link between the industrial centre of Manchester, and the commercial centre of Liverpool.

The Trent and Mersey canal played a big part in the Cheshire salt trade as it passed through the salt districts. This canal was promoted mainly by the pottery manufacturers led by Josiah Wedgwood, who badly needed improved transport both for finished products and for raw materials.

The bad state of the roads made the journey to Winsford, the nearest point at which their crates of pottery could be shipped down the River Weaver, slow and expensive. This applied too to the cargoes of china clay and flint stone sent up the river. They therefore backed James Brindley's grand scheme to link the Trent and Mersey by canal, to provide a route to the sea in both directions.

Wedgwood visited Northwich and met the Weaver Navigation Trustees to try to negotiate with them a junction between the proposed canal and the river, but the Trustees were deeply suspicious and refused to co-operate. They tried hard to prevent the canal from being built as they were convinced that it would take traffic from the River Weaver.

The scheme went ahead, however, and the canal was opened in 1777. The opposition was so bitter that for many years, there was no co-operation between the two navigations. They would not agree to exchange traffic, and in the Weaver Act of 1807, a clause was inserted which expressly forbade the transhipment of goods, except in the case of salt and rock salt.

When the Trent and Mersey first opened, the tonnage statistics suggest that the Weaver lost some traffic. Henry Holland writing in 1808 about the canals, states that it did not carry the produce of Cheshire so it was probably cargoes to and from the Potteries.

Later in the century, the canal was of particular importance to Middlewich as
before the canal was opened, salt from the works there had to be carried to Winsford for shipping.

In Lawton, Wheelock, Middlewich and Northwich, salt works were built on the banks of the canal, giving them the benefit of direct water transport for coal and salt. The canal passed through the brine pumping and mining area, to the north of Northwich, and was several times affected by subsidence.

In 1825, the Trustees of both navigations had realised that the clause prohibiting the exchange of traffic was damaging, and it was repealed. Although the canal and river are very close to each other at Anderton, the canal is 50 ft above the level of the river so that transfer was not easy.

To overcome the obstacle, chutes, cranes, and an inclined plane was erected and quays built on the river bank. In 1875, the Anderton Lift was built to aid the interchange between the two.
Nantwich was another salt town which suffered from the lack of water transport.

The failure to improve the Weaver beyond Winsford contributed to the decline of Nantwich as a centre for salt making, and the canals which later linked it with other towns, came too late to rectify the damage.

The Chester Canal, the Ellesmere Canal, and the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, were authorised in 1772, 1793 and 1826 respectively.

The usefulness of the Chester Canal was limited by the fact that a junction with the Trent and Mersey at Middlewich was prohibited. It was not allowed to come nearer than 100 yards, which of course meant that through traffic was impossible. This was a clear example of the hostility that existed between the canal companies and the fear that a rival would steal away traffic, and therefore revenue. A junction was not made until 1827.

A merger of several individual canal companies brought about the creation of the
The Shropshire Union Canal in 1846. The main line runs 66.5 miles from Autherley Junction, where it joins the Staffs and Worcester Canal, to Ellesmere Port where it joins the Manchester Ship Canal.

The canals built after 1830 never proved very profitable because of competition from the developing railway system. Indeed in many instances, the railway companies bought up the canals to ensure that they were not rivals. The decline of canal traffic was prolonged but inevitable. The Trent and Mersey continued to carry salt and coal until after the Second World War, but in diminishing quantities.

After the war, the canals were nationalised, and are now run by British Waterways.

In recent years there has been a huge revival of interest in canals, and they have become extremely popular for holiday cruising. The pleasure derived from this leisurely means of transport and the outdoor life in the summer months, leads people to forget what a hard life it was for those who worked on the canals and their families who accompanied them.