The hamlet that became Ellesmere Port

Since the middle of the l9th Century, Ellesmere Port was one of England’ s principal ports, originally linking with such important industrial areas as Birmingham, the Black Country, the Potteries and North Wales.

Ellesmere Port was born precisely on July 1st, 1795 with the opening of the Wirral line of the Ellesmere Canal. At that time the area we know today as Ellesmere Port was Netherpool, an isolated hamlet of a few farm cottages on the southern side of the Mersey Estuary.

The nearest manor was Whitby Hall but much of the surrounding area was poor marshy ground which probably accounts for the isolation of the Port even in later years. Maps as late as 1831 show Ellesmere Port only connected to the inland villages by water.

The original port was no more than a few buildings and three broad locks down to the tidal basin into the river. A map of 1802 shows only five buildings, a lock-keeper's cottage, stables, a row of cottages, an inn and a building containing a steam driven pump, to pump water up to the canal, to augment the supply from the Chester Canal. There was a large basin at the upper level running parallel for the full length of the locks.

These buildings have long since disappeared, although the present Toll House, Stables and Lighthouse at theriver entrance must have been built shortly afterwards.

Reports suggest that the canal prospered initially not primarily from cargo but from the transport of people and livestock. A packet service was soon established between Chester and Liverpool, a steam tug, the Countess of Bridgewater being purchased in 1816. The service continued until 1840 when the Birkenhead Railway was opened. The probable reason for the lack of cargoes in the early days was the delay in opening the rest of the canal to Ruabon until 1805.

The real expansion of the Port to the size we can see today was being planned in the 1920's and was due to two new lengths of canal. One was a link between the Ellesmere and Chester and the Trent and Mersey, at Middlewich, so enabling the Potteries traffic to use the Port, not only for the export of the finished products but for the import of china clay and flint.

Even more important was the link between the end of the canal at Nantwich and the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal, at Autherley, near Wolverhampton. This canal, the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, provided a direct route between these towns through Ellesmere Port, so opening up the industrial Midlands to the sea whilst avoiding the climb up to and the congestion through the Harecastle Tunnel.

As this new canal and those in Birmingham were narrow (maximum 7 ft beam beam) all the cargoes had to be transhipped before going onto the estuary, or further onto the sea. This new traffic required a massive increase in basins, warehouses and general facilities.

Thomas Telford who had been involved with the original developments was asked to draw up plans for the expanded docks in 1828, his proposals becoming the foundation of the layout of the area as we know it today, even though some of the major buildings have been destroyed. The first stage, the large dock, was opened in 1837, and the arched warehouse in 1843. Further developments were added throughout the19th century.

The Canal Company also built houses for its employees and from 1816 it financed the erection of churches and other buildings that go to make a community. Much of the early housing was in the area now occupied by the container base. Some housing does still remains however.

In 1863 a Gasworks was built by the Company to provide lighting to enable work to continue at night. Later the system was extended to supply the town. The pipe once used for this supply still crosses the Canal.

The middle of the 19th Century saw the development of the railway network and an Act was passed in 1845 enabling the Ellesmere and Chester Company to buy the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction, with permission to convert any or all of their canals into Railways. This new Company was called the Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company and was later leased to the London North Western Railway Company.

Utimately it was this that kept traffic flowing on, their canals long after many of their contemporaries had been virtually eliminated by their railway owners. The reason for this was that their canals ran into the territory of their great rival the Great Western Railway. The Shropshire Union operated regular carrying services and scheduled fly boats until 1921, linking the towns and villages in the area to the major towns of the country.

This service only stopped with the compulsory introduction of the eight-hour day to all employees of railway-owned canal companies.

During the second half of the 18th century the port prospered and expanded. Additional warehouses were built and hydraulically powered cranes were installed to cope with the huge tonnages of cargo that had to be lifted from boat to boat and to and from the warehouses.

The workshops for the building and maintenance of boats and the canal were extended but, most significantly, other industries began to be attracted to the town. In 1883, Nicholas Burnell opened his galvanising worksand in 1905, the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company moved in. Other important industries were cement, soap and smelting.

In 1891 the Manchester Ship Canal was opened as far as Ellesmere Port and completed to Manchester in 1894. This enabled much larger craft to reach the Port. Previously craft entering the dock had been limited by the 120' x 30' dimensions of the sea lock. Wharves were built alongside the ship canal, another grain warehouse and three flour mills with their own arm off the dock. Extensions to the upper and lower (only used up until then for back pumping water into the dock) pump houses were also built.

The increased trade did not last long as the railways were taking more and more traffic and there was a dramatic drop after the First World War. The Shropshire Union finally gave up carrying in 1921 and sold off their fleet. This was not the end of the docks though. Other companies carried on, in particular Fellows, Morton and Clayton, and Thomas Clayton & Co. which were engaged in carrying heavy oil from the new refineries at Stanlow, just up the Ship Canal.

After the Second World War traffic again slumped and in 1948 the docks were officially closed. Today many vessels are still use their canal and Ellesmere Port is a busy port, handling container ships and oil products from the Stanlow Refinery.