The canal, opened 100 years ago next month by Queen Victoria aboard the 'Enchantress', can be seen as a metaphor for industrial decline. Once the great axis of entrepreneurial capitalism in north-west England, it now has many idle wharves, sailors' graffiti fading, ducks paddling where steamers once manoeuvred.
The canal company fell victim to a typically picaresque 1980s takeover. It is now part of a property company registered in the Isle of Man, and its most spectacular asset is not maritime but terrestrial, a 300-acre canalside site at Dumplington. The land, four miles downstream from the old Salford docks, is to be developed as a large out-of-town mall, with two superstores, 129 shops and all their concomitant 'leisure facilities'. Access will be by road.
Motorways run across and along the 36-mile canal, container-carrying trucks one visible reason for the waterway's decline. But the story of the canal can be misinterpreted. It has declined, but not irrevocably. Last year, the canal carried 8 million tons of cargo worth pounds 21.5m; some 2,500 ship movements made all the dredging worthwhile. It made pounds 6m profit, more than the property side of the company. Jim Chilton, port director, anticipates growth: 'We are starting to see people with more confidence in relocating to docks.'
A fertiliser company and a coal depot have reversed the trend by returning to the waterfront. Port facilities at Ellesmere Port and Runcorn have been modernised. The upper reaches, with its marina, may be a parody of the canal's original purpose, but the 26 miles from Eastham on the Wirral to Partington are still vital to refineries, chemical plants, a big starch manufacturer - even the Potteries, which receive bulk cargoes via the canal.
Mr Chilton has earmarked large sites between Warrington and Irlam, west of Salford, as being ripe for a renaissance of canalside industry and commerce, and the huge tailbacks on nearby motorways have given companies pause for thought about the greener, increasingly competitive watery alternative.
The canal still carries only half its post-1945 volume. In its heyday, the port of Manchester handled 5 per cent of British trade. Trafford Park, the largest industrial estate in Europe, was built by the canal. Canadian grain was piled high in a vast elevator. Downstream, the chemical and refining industries grew, a huge business reaction to the provision of a canal economic zone; and, in Liverpool, belts were tightened.
When plans were laid for the canal in 1882, Manchester was in decline and Liverpool was rich. The privately-owned railway companies bought-up inland waterways to throttle competition. The consequences for inland businesses were dire. Railways charged high freight rates, Liverpool charged expensive dues on goods passing through its docks.
Traders on the river, who did not use the port, also had to pay. In 1881, it cost 96p to send one ton of goods from Manchester to Calcutta; of that, 62p was levied before the goods left Liverpool. It was cheaper for Oldham spinners to import cotton from Bremen through Hull than through Liverpool. Capital fled Manchester, 50 warehouses were empty, whole streets of housing abandoned.
Little wonder public opinion clamoured for a canal that could bring Atlantic and Imperial trade routes to the bottom of Deansgate. It took three years for the opposition of Liverpool and the railway bosses to be overcome and parliamentary approval given.
The canal was to be funded by workers buying 5p coupons to acquire shares by instalments. It was more than the Manchester proletariat could afford. The company turned to the City of London but Rothschild reported in July 1886 that the capital could not be raised.
Local councils had already raised money on the rates to promote the canal's enabling Bill. As the failure of the market to raise capital became apparent, Manchester Corporation invested pounds 5m in return for shares. Railway companies began arranging access to the docks, and excavation started.
It was an engineering masterpiece, a Suez in Lancashire which prompted democratic reform in Liverpool against the 'wretched oligarchy' of the Docks Board.
Next month, steamships will gather at Trafford Wharfside to mark the centenary of Victoria's voyage. The municipal spirit of the canal builders may not recognise the new owners, or the quango helping to develop the derelict docks, but, downstream, it can take satisfaction that the dredger's work continues to clear a passage for trade.
Information on the centenary, including cruises on the canal is on (061) 875 0941/0853/0954.
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