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Transport – a mania for canals

YOU can’t have industry without a proper transport system – the best goods in the world are useless unless you can get them to your customers.

This was the problem faced by entrepreneurs throughout the early days of the industrial Revolution, especially in the textile areas of Lancashire. Two thousand years before, the Romans had built a magnificent system of arterial roads linking all parts of the country, but little or nothing remained of it in the mid-18th century.

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A barge crossing the Barton aqueduct

What passed for roads were now simply bone-breaking tracks at the best of times, and in winter they became impassable morasses of mud and water, upon which only the bravest or most foolhardy would venture.

In summer, it was sometimes possible to use a horse and cart. At other times, pack-horse trains were the only method of moving goods from one town to another – coal from the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines at Worsley had to be brought this way to Manchester, at a cost of 1s (5p) per hundredweight. Completed cotton goods for export went by the same method, often travelling to Bewdley on the river Severn because there was no suitable way to reach the port of Liverpool through the bogs and marshes of South-East Lancashire.

The first stagecoach from Manchester to London began to operate in 1754. The “Flying Coach” took four and a half days (barring accidents) to complete its journey.

One way around the problem had been suggested by Thomas Patten, a Warrington businessman who, by 1698, had made the Mersey navigable as far as Bank Quay, at Warrington, by clearing fish weirs in the river. In a letter to a friend, Patten pointed out the benefits of widening and straightening the river as far as Manchester.

But things moved slowly. It was 14 years before Thomas Steers, who had built the first docks at Liverpool, surveyed the river and came up with a plan which would involve building eight locks between Howley at Warrington and Manchester.

Eight more years passed before the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Act got through Parliament, and it was to be nearly 20 years after that before the river was made navigable to craft of up to 50 tons.

This was a godsend to Manchester businessmen, and Mersey flats became a regular sight on the waterway, either under sail or being hauled eastward by gangs of men. But the situation was still far from perfect. The river was always subject to the weather and the water demands of mill owners along its banks. In drought conditions, boats could be stranded on mudbanks for days, even weeks at a time.