The Bridgewater Canal is sometimes described as England's first canal. The truth of this claim, however, is open to much debate. The first artificial navigable waterways in Britain were constructed by the Romans, including the Foss Dyke. Over the centuries, a number of river navigations had been created by constructing weirs and locks. An early example is the Exeter Ship Canal, which had Britain's first pound lock, constructed in 1566. The Mersey and Irwell Navigation opened in 1740, allowing boats to navigate from Liverpool to Manchester.
An important landmark was reached in 1755 when it was decided to create a river navigation for the Sankey Brook, near Warrington, to carry coal from St Helens down to the River Mersey and to Liverpool. The original proposal here was make the Sankey Brook navigable by creating lock cuts. However, much of the waterway was built as an artificial cut parallel to the river and only using the river in places. This arguably made it the first canal of the industrial period and it later became known as the St Helens Canal.
While the Sankey was under construction, a few miles to the east, Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater, was looking for ways to transport coal from his mines at Worsley into Manchester. His father had looked at the idea of making the Worsley Brook navigable to connect with the Mersey and Irwell Navigation but nothing was done. The Duke had been to see the Canal du Midi, built in France in 1681, and saw how the Sankey Canal was being built, nearer to home. This gave him the idea to create a waterway that was independent from a river route. In 1758 the Duke called in James Brindley to look at ways of constructing a canal and of improving the drainage of the mines. The Duke decided to combine the two aims by linking the mines to the canal by an underground canal.
The Duke's first proposal was for a canal from Worsley to Ordsall in Salford. Later, this was amended in favour of a more bold proposal, to cross the Mersey & Irwell Navigation at Barton and run to the edge of central Manchester. This route needed no locks but involved the construction of an aqueduct across the Irwell at Barton. No aqueduct on this scale had been constructed before in England. The canal was carried on high embankments and across the river, 38 feet below, on three sandstone arches.
The Bridgewater Canal opened between Worsley and Manchester in 1763. A westward extension from Worsley, intended to join the Mersey and Irwell Navigation at Hollins Ferry, was abandoned after two miles had been built, when negotiations with the Mersey and Irwell company broke down. This link was replaced by a more ambition scheme to build a branch from Stretford to Runcorn so that boats could get to the Mersey estuary and Liverpool without using the Mersey and Irwell Navigation at all. This branch remained level all the way to Runcorn, where ten locks connected it with the Mersey.
The canal between Stretford and Runcorn was completed in 1772, apart from a short stretch past Norton Priory. A dispute with the landowner delayed the opening of that section until 1776. A short branch was opened in 1772 from Preston Brook to link to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Preston Brook Tunnel.
In 1821, the extension of the aborted Hollins Ferry route from Worsley was linked to a branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal from Wigan at Leigh. A new line of locks was built at Runcorn in 1827 along with new warehouses. Plans for additional extensions to the Bridgewater Canal, from Sale to Stockport, from Runcorn to West Kirby and from Altricham to Middlewich, were never fulfilled.
In 1885, both the Mersey and Irwell navigation and the Bridgewater Canal were bought by the Manchester Ship Canal Company. Much of the Mersey and Irwell was incorporated into the Ship Canal but, to enable the much larger vessels to pass below the Bridgewater Canal, the historic landmark of Barton Aqueduct had to be replaced by the present swing aqueduct. This was an even more daring structure than the original aqueduct, consisting of a channel that could be sealed off at each end to form a 235 feet long and 18 feet wide tank, holding 800 tons of water, that swung round on its pivot, situated on an island in the middle of the Ship Canal.
The canal was built because of the Duke of Bridgewater's coal mines at Worsley. The coal seams ran under the higher ground to the north. The Duke's land agent, John Gilbert, saw that it was possible to connect the canal directly to the mines by way of an underground canal. This in turn could be used to help with draining the mines, providing a source of water for the canal.
The iron ore deposits in the rock faces the tunnels pass through are responsible for the deep orange colour of the canal at Worsley. Around 47 miles of underground canal was constructed, on four different levels connected by a water powered inclined plane and lifts. The main tunnels stretch as far north as Farnsworth, with side tunnels running at right angles along the seams.
Through most of its history boats on the canal were horse-drawn. There were, however, a number of steam powered tugs used. Commercial traffic continued on the canal until 1974. By this time, canals were becoming more important as a leisure facility. From 1952, pleasure craft were allowed to use the canal and it became part of the "Cheshire Ring" circular canal route.
Peter Hardcastle's Canal Roots and Routes site http://www.canalroutes.org/