Blood Sweat And Tears Built The Manchester Ship Canal


There were 17,000 of them. Their toil over six years was the foundation of a magnificent feat of engineering. Now 135 years later the navvies who built the Manchester Ship Canal will be recognised. A memorial to the labourers whose graft created the 36 miles waterway from Salford to the Irish Sea is to be created. It is one of four schemes which have won grants from Historic England, reports Manchester Evening News.

A living memorial

Workers came from Ireland – 5,000 – Scotland, Wales, and South West England as well as the streets of Manchester and Salford. Many paid the ultimate price as they grafted to feed their families back home. Figures for the number of labourers who died digging the canal range from 200 – estimated by insurers for the company – to 1,200 gleaned from records kept by workers groups.

Now a living memorial will be created – a tiny forest in the middle of MediaCityUK. Lead artist for the “Navvies” project, Matt Rosier, said: “The memorial will take two forms. The first will be a forest with about 600 trees planted in a small area but in a dense fashion close to the canal. We will work with the community on the content and the design. The trees will come from all over the UK, but particularly from Ireland – linking with the large migration of workers from there.”

The forest will be formed using the Japanese Miyawaki method – using species of trees that would occur naturally in that area and that work together to create a diverse, multi-layered forest. An area of about 25 by 15 metres will be used but the precise location has yet to be confirmed.

Local community groups, and organisations, including Loaves and Fishes in Langworthy, Salford, a charity which supports the homeless and those at risk of living on the streets will be involved in designing the memorial.


Matt said: “There is a lot of discrepancy as to how many died constructing the Ship Canal. The insurers of the workers estimated 200 deaths. But unions estimate it was about 1,100. Field hospitals were created along the canal. This would later be adapted for use in the First World War. Many of the deaths were due to earth collapsing and burying men. It was considered at the time more dangerous to work as a navvy than be in the British Army.”

Work on planting the forest will commence in November and its hoped that local people will help maintain it over the coming years. There will also be projects to collate the history of the navvies.

“The second part of the memorial will be a light show. Those taking part in creating the forest will be filmed using barrows and spades painted white as they do so. The film will then be reflected onto the water of a basin at MediaCity as part of a light show in December,” said Matt.

It was in 1882 that Manchester manufacturer Daniel Adamson gathered a group with clout and influence to make the building of the canal happen. In June of that year, he met with several other leaders from the Manchester business community, politicians from several Lancashire towns and two civil engineers to draw up the basis of a bill that would be submitted to Parliament later that year for approval.


Objections from the Port of Liverpool saw the bill rejected twice by Parliament. But finally in May 1885 The Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885 was passed and work began with the first sod cut on 11th November 1887 by Lord Egerton of Tatton. But things did not run smoothly and by 1891 the Manchester Ship Canal Company was teetering on bankruptcy with only half the construction work done.

In March that year, to ‘preserve the city’s prestige’ Manchester Corporation provided the cash to stop the company going under. The ship canal was finally flooded in November 1893, and opened for traffic from 1st January 1894. It cost more than £15 million, equivalent today to £2.1 billion. Queen Victoria officially opened the canal on 21st May 1894.

About the project

In the project, which has received a £22,000 grant from Historic England will see a team of 150 local volunteers and heritage experts seek to uncover the stories of the original navvies as well as create the forest and light show. Anyone with stories about the construction of the ship canal and the navvies can contact Matt at

Author Lynn Pegler’s 2016 book, of ‘poetic reportage’ chronicles the history of the Salford Quays and Manchester Ship Canal. Historic black and white pictures are also used to tell the story ‘Salford Quays Unlocked – Voices of Manchester Docks’, a collection of poems by Lynn and photographs by Mike Poloway.

She said: “It was a tough life being a navvy. Many came over from Ireland to dig the canal by hand. They often lived in make-shift huts and rarely saw their families. It’s wonderful that at last, 135 years after constructions began, their hard work is finally being given the recognition it deserves.”

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England said: “I’m excited to see the wide range of creative approaches and subjects proposed for Everyday Heritage Grants: Celebrating Working Class Histories. The histories of castles and great houses and their inhabitants are well documented. We know far less about our everyday heritage. From council estates, pubs and clubs, to farms, factories and shipyards, these are the places where most people have lived, worked and played for hundreds of years. We want to explore these untold stories and celebrate the people and places at the heart of our history.”

“Heritage should be for everyone. But not everyone’s stories are told and not everyone’s history is remembered. Historic England’s Everyday Heritage Grants aim to address this imbalance by engaging with the widest possible range of heritage.”

Four other projects in Greater Manchester each received a £10,000 grant. One will highlight the stories of former workers from Peel Street Mill – a former textile mill in Heywood. It is led by PossAbilities – a social enterprise supporting 400 people with learning disabilities. Their HQ is based on the site of the mill.

St Thomas’s Church in Salford, consecrated in 1831 will be the focus for “Unearthing Pendleton’s Past”. The project will remove turf in two areas of the graveyard permanently revealing the gravestones beneath. Research will be undertaken on those buried, shedding light on the lives of the working class people behind the growth of Pendleton, who fuelled the industrial revolution. Their untold stories will be displayed on interpretation boards within the graveyard.

Inspired by an unknown textile worker, The Kathleen Project in Stretford this will uncover tales from people who w worked in Manchester’s clothing and textile industry from the 1940s onwards revealing the impact this has had on them and their communities to this day.

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Source: Manchester Evening News


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