11 November 1887: work begins on the Manchester Ship Canal

On this day in 1887, work began on digging the 36-mile-long Manchester Ship Canal, which would enable the city’s exporters to bypass the expensive port of Liverpool.

These days, you're more likely to see a TV presenter than a docker at Salford Quays, but 100 years ago, the area was a flourishing new port. 

By the mid-19th century, Manchester was one of the empire's busiest industrial cities, and was at the heart of the cotton industry. But the high fees charged by both Liverpool docks and the railway companies were eating into the cotton barons' profits.

And so in 1882 industrialist Daniel Adamson proposed building a waterway that would enable the city to bypass Liverpool altogether and bring ships into the heart of Manchester. Plans were drawn up and a bill submitted to Parliament. The bill was, predictably, opposed, by Liverpool's Mersey Docks board, and failed. But after three readings, and a 200,000-strong petition from the people of Manchester, the Manchester Ship Canal Act was finally passed in 1885, and work began on this day in 1887.

The canal is 36 miles long and rises 18 metres from the coast to the centre of Manchester. Seven docks were built to take the ships. It opened for business on 1 January 1894. The estimated cost of construction was £5.16m. It would eventually cost £15m.

Soon Manchester was Britain's third-busiest port. The amount of goods handled increased year by year and peaked in 1958 at 18.2 million tonnes. But with the restricted size of vessels able to use it, and the growth of road transport, it began to decline, reaching a low point in 1984. The maximum length of vessels able to navigate the canal is 160m with a beam of 19m and a maximum draft of 7.3m. The 48-mile Panama Canal, by contrast, opened just 20 years later, can take ships up to 290m long and carries 300 million tonnes of shipping a year.

The canal is undergoing something of a renaissance, and currently handles some eight million tonnes of freight a year. It is owned and operated by the Peel Group, a privately held company that operates ports around the country, including Liverpool, and has extensive property interests.

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