The National Waterways Museum (NWM) at Ellesmere Port, is located just six miles north of Chester and eleven miles south of Liverpool. It is recognised internationally as a vital part of the history of the industrial revolution and its first transport enabler, the canal.
Early Canal Building
Canal building can be traced at least as far back as the fifth century BC in China perhaps earlier still. Subsequently, many other countries have constructed canals to improve communications and for a variety of economic reasons.
One well-known example was in seventeenth-century France, where Jean Baptiste Colbert, under an edict from Louis XIV, built the 150 mile-long Canal du Midi between 1666 and 1681, with the aim of developing the French trade in wheat. This was then further extended by the construction of the 120-mile long Canal de Garonne which helped connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
The key differentiating factor between these earlier canals in other countries and the explosive growth of Britain’s canal network in the late eighteenth century was the industrial revolution. Britain was the first country in the world to undergo such a transformation and canals played an absolutely crucial role in this.
New factories required unprecedented volumes of raw materials to be brought in. Equally, the concentrated production demanded speedy and efficient despatch to markets all over the country.
From tentative beginnings as early as the late seventeenth century, the industrial revolution got underway in earnest from around 1760 and then accelerated rapidly throughout the nineteen century. It was the major factor in the emergence of Britain’s canal network.
Every completed canal created the possibility for additional industrial development so that cause and effect became intimately blended. It was an early example of development such as took place in the 1920s and 1930s when new suburban railway lines created unprecedented growth around intermediate stations. So with the canals, the areas through which they passed thrived because of the vastly improved communications they offered.
It was a take-off into a sustained period of economic growth of a kind which the world had not seen before. The canals were not limited to movements of raw materials and finished products within Britain itself but were instrumental in transporting goods in and out of ports such as Liverpool which increasingly supplied customers around the world.
What came to be known as the golden era of canal building in Britain was ushered in by the opening of the Sankey canal, connecting the manufacturing town of St Helens to the River Mersey, in 1757. This was followed, in 1761, by the success of the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, which carried coal cheaply from his mines Worsley directly into industrial Manchester. It was the direct cause of the price of coal falling by 75% in the town.
Manchester became a city only in 1853. The Duke of Bridgewater was, however, pursuing an even more ambitious plan to extend his canal to the Mersey river at Runcorn. Major obstacles had to be overcome before this link between Manchester and Liverpool was finally completed in 1776. In 1885, the Bridgewater Canal was acquired by the Manchester Ship Canal Company for £1.71 million. By 1850, some 4,800 miles of inland waterway had been constructed in Britain.
Ellesmere Port & the Ellesmere Canal
The town of Ellesmere Port owes its existence to the cutting of the Ellesmere Canal in the eighteenth century, which was intended by the Duke of Bridgewater and other backers to connect the rivers Mersey, Dee and Severn with Ellesmere, a market town in North Shropshire, becoming the central hub.
The plan was to create a link between the Port of Liverpool and the mineral industries of North East Wales and the manufacturing centres of the West Midlands. William Jessop and Thomas Telford were appointed to oversee the project and parliamentary approval for the project was given in 1793.
Although the Severn part of the project was never completed, the Ellesmere canal connected to the Mersey in Netherpool in 1795 and the basin became known as Whitby Wharf and Locks. The area which included locks, cottages and warehouses, became known as Port of Ellesmere and, by the nineteenth century, this had changed to Ellesmere Port. The Ellesmere Canal was later renamed as the Shropshire Union Canal.
The National Waterways Museum (NWM)
The NWM is now operated by The Canal & River Trust and is situated at the Ellesmere Port docks on the Mersey. The docks were designed by Thomas Telford, and went on to become the largest inland waterway dock complex in the UK. It was still operating until the 1950s. The reason for its importance was the superb location of the docks, just across the Mersey River from Liverpool, at the point where the northern end of the Shropshire Union canal meets the Mersey. From the early twentieth century, the newly constructed Manchester Ship Canal was also connected to the docks.
Ellesmere Port therefore became a strategic freight hub. Goods from all over the world were imported through Liverpool and then transferred via smaller vessels to Ellesmere docks where they were loaded onto narrowboats for distribution along the canal network. The docks were also used for outgoing British goods bound for export which were transhipped at Ellesmere from narrowboats onto larger vessels before being transported across the Mersey to Liverpool Docks and onwards to world markets.
Thanks to The Canal & River Trust with its diverse grants and donations, as well as to a host of volunteers, the docks have emerged over the last forty years as a national museum of major national and international significance.
Important Features of the NWM
I have already explained the historical importance of the ports complex. The visitor can also enjoy seeing the surviving Victorian locks, moorings, docks and warehouses in addition to a forge and stables.
The whole area around the docks is a Conservation Area with nineteen Grade II listed buildings. Of particular interest are the Porters Row Cottages which were originally built in 1833.
Over the years, the four surviving cottages were home to shipwrights, blacksmiths, railway workers and, of course, porters and their families.
Today, the cottages are presented as real-life homes from the 1830s, 1900s, 1930s and 1950s.
The Island Warehouse was built in 1871 as a store for grain.The power hall is packed full of gleaming, beautifully maintained engines. The Pump House contains the steam-driven pumping engines that once supplied the power for hydraulic cranes and capstans throughout the dock at Ellesmere Port.The historic boat collection illustrates the many different types of craft that have used canals and rivers over the centuries.
One vessel at the NWM of particular interest to me is the MV Cuddington since it was worked by ICI, Imperial Chemical Industries, the company for which I worked for thirty-two years. The ICI roundel is still fixed to its funnel.
I understand that the vessel was built for ICI and was crewed and operated by company employees until about forty years ago. It was principally involved in the shipping of soda ash (sodium carbonate or Na2CO3) one of the main raw materials for glass manufacture. Soda ash was manufactured at ICI’s Winnington works and it was shipped by the MV Cuddington on the rivers Mersey and Weaver. It was also a suitably sized vessel for supplying 200-ton shipments of soda ash to Irish Glass Bottle Company in Dublin because of the relatively narrow dimensions of the dock there.
As the pictures illustrate, MV Cuddington has seen better days and is in need of some restoration. It will, however, have to take its turn in the queue for renovation with other boats of arguably rather greater historical importance.
The Concrete Barge
This vessel sounds about as much use as a chocolate teapot. It tells however a tale of WWII steel shortage and something about British “making do”.
The concrete barge was built in 1944 by Messrs Wates of Barrow-in-Furness at a time of shortage of steel and shortage of skilled shipbuilders. The Government sought a solution by turning to the building trade to make vessels out of concrete. To make an all-steel barge capable of carrying 200 tons of cargo required 56 tons of steel, whereas a concrete barge of the same capacity used a mere 18 tons of steel.
Although useful in wartime, these concrete barges were very heavy and difficult to steer. They were also easy to damage due to the brittle nature of concrete, despite heavy timber fenders along their sides. Concrete barges were mainly used around major ports and rivers and for local journeys, as this one was, on the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey.
The NWM is engaged in extensive restoration work on the vessels under their care. One example is shown in the picture below:
Find more details of the National Waterways Museum here. If you are in the area it is well worth a visit.
Did you know?
David Suchet, actor and lifelong Leica enthusiast, is also a canals and waterways fan? You can read about his interests, and how he and his wife lived on a canal longboat for several years, in his new book, Behind the Lens – My Life.