The Bridgewater Canal connects Runcorn, Manchester and Leigh, in North West England. It was commissioned by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, to transport coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. It was opened in 1761 from Worsley to Manchester, and later extended from Manchester to Runcorn, and then from Worsley to Leigh.
The canal is connected to the Manchester Ship Canal via a lock at Cornbrook, the Rochdale Canal in Manchester, the Trent and Mersey Canal at Preston Brook, southeast of Runcorn, and to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Leigh. It once connected with The River Mersey at Runcorn but has since been cut off by a slip road to the Silver Jubilee Bridge.
Often considered to be the first "true" canal, it required the construction of an aqueduct to cross the River Irwell, one of the first of its kind. Its success helped inspire a period of intense canal building, known as "canal mania". It later faced intense competition from the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and the Macclesfield Canal. Navigable throughout its history, it is one of the few canals in Britain not to have been nationalised, and remains privately owned. Pleasure craft now use the canal which forms part of the Cheshire Ring network of canals.
Worsley Delph, in Worsley, originally a centuries-old Sandstone quarry near Worsley Brook, was the entrance to the Navigable Levels. It is now a Scheduled Monument. Two entrances, built years apart, allow access to the specially built M-boats (also known as Starvationers), the largest of which could carry 12 long tons (12 t) of coal. Inside the mines 46 miles (74 km) of underground canal on four levels, linked by inclined planes, were constructed. The mines ceased production in 1887. As the canal passes through Worsley, iron oxide from the mines has, for many years, stained the water bright orange. The removal of this colouration is currently the subject of a £2.5 million remedial scheme.
In 1791 the mines at Worsley produced 100,282 long tons (101,891 t) of coal, 60,461 long tons (61,431 t) of which were "sold down the navigation"; 12,000 long tons (12,000 t) of rocksalt was also transported from Cheshire. Sales of coal were £19,455, and nearly £30,000 was earned from other cargoes. Passenger traffic in 1791 brought in receipts of £3,781.
The canal also carried passengers and was in keen competition with the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company (M&IN). The journey down river by the latter route took eight hours (nine hours in the up direction) while the journey on the Bridgewater canal took nine hours each way. Fares were similar but the Bridgewater route was said to be "more picturesque". Boating men also used the canal. They lifted their small lightweight boats out of the M&IN at Runcorn, and carried them a short distance up the steep streets onto the Bridgewater Canal.
Bridgewater Trustees :
The Duke of Bridgewater died on 8 March 1803. By his will the income from the canal was to be paid to his nephew George Leveson-Gower, the Marquess of Stafford (later the 1st Duke of Sutherland). On his death it was to go to Stafford's second son Francis, provided he changed his name to Egerton; and then to his heirs and successors. The management of the company was placed in the hands of three trustees.
These were Sir Archibald Macdonald, who was Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt, at the time the Bishop of Carlisle and later the Archbishop of York, and, as Superintendent, Robert Haldane Bradshaw, the Duke's agent. Bradshaw managed the estate, for which he received a salary of £2,000 a year and the use of the Duke's mansions at Worsley and Runcorn. The other two trustees had each married nieces of the Duke and were "dummy trustees".
During the time the canal was administered by the Bridgewater Trustees, it made a profit every year. Until his retirement in 1834, the administration was carried out entirely by Bradshaw. It has been calculated that the average annual profit between 1806 and 1826 was of the order of 13%, and in 1824, the best year, it was 23%. Bradshaw found it difficult to delegate, and complained of being over-worked, but he was also regarded as being a "formidable bargainer".
In 1805 he was approached by the proprietors of the nearby Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal to resolve a dispute with a Salford landowner, but his response was delayed. In 1810 there was a general agreement with the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company (M&IN) to simultaneously raise freight charges. However any cooperation between the two companies was short-lived and by 1812 the Mersey and Irwell had reduced their charges. Further competition was to come from other carriers who used the canal; in 1824 the traffic carried by private companies exceeded that carried by the Trustees for the first time.
However, in time more profit came from "tonnage traffic" (that carried by private companies) than from the Bridgewater's own carriage of freight. Bradshaw's administration saw increased deterioration of the Fabric of the canal, the locks, docks and warehouses. The undertakings were starved of capital largely due to inadequate provision for it in the Duke's will. There were also problems caused by silting around the entrance to the Mersey and by the changing channels of the river itself.
Bridgewater Way :
The Bridgewater Way is a scheme to redevelop the canal and make it more accessible to users, particularly cyclists. The 40-mile development, which includes a new towpath, will form part of the National Cycle and Footpath Network as Regional Route number 82.