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It Could Have Been ‘Ferry Cross the Irwell’ – the Irwell Connection

You may well ask, ‘what is the connection between the Irwell and the Bridgewater Canal?’ There is one physical connection and plenty of indirect connections. One of the most indirect is that the original planned course for the Bridgewater Canal would have taken the canal from Monton to continue southeast to join the Irwell necessitating a transhipment across the river into Manchester. Instead, James Brindley, a consultant engineer on the canal’s construction advised a course that it takes today crossing the Manchester Ship Canal which at that time had been the Mersey & Irwell Navigation at Barton Aqueduct in 1761. This avoided the transhipment on the water of the Irwell.

The former Mersey & Irwell Navigation (M&IN) was created in the 1730s, well before the onset of the Bridgewater Canal which was connected to the Mersey at Runcorn in 1773 via a meandering contour route from Stretford that is roughly parallel to the Mersey & Irwell.

The course of the canal is in the Irwell River Catchment from Worsley to Manchester city centre and to Stretford, beyond which it enters the Mersey Catchment. It can be a tempestuous river as shown in 2015 when Storm Eva deposited 128mm in 36 hours on the Upper Irwell. Downstream, 750 houses were flooded in Salford and 670 in the Radcliffe/Redvales area. The river Irwell should be regarded as a major river but it isn’t because it is relatively short, only 39 miles from the source in the West Pennines above Bacup to the junction with the Mersey at Irlam.

In the early 70s there was a brief moment when the profile of the Irwell could have been improved as, in the wake of the 1972 Local Government Act, the new metropolitan borough of Salford was almost given the name Irwell but opposition pointed out that the Irwell flowed through two other boroughs and also didn’t flow through Worsley, even though Worsley Brook is a tributary of the Irwell.

There are claims that the river Mersey is a rarity among rivers in not being named after the larger tributary, i.e. the Irwell, rather than the smaller Mersey from the point at which they meet. The rivers met at Irlam and the confluence is now with the Manchester Ship Canal near Irlam Locks. The Mersey possibly also had the ascendancy in the name game because it was a boundary river between historic Lancashire and Cheshire and before that between the territories of Mercia to the south and Elmet to the north. So, whether or not it should have been ‘Ferry Across the Irwell’ is a moot point but shows that the Irwell is a historically under-rated river.

The Irwell should be regarded as a major river for its significant role in the development of the world’s first industrial revolution. And the conduit, so to speak, for that role has been two canals, the Bridgewater Canal and the Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal (MBBC). The relationship, the connection, between the three waterways is currently made on the 1.6km stretch of the Irwell between the Pomona Locks on the Bridgewater Canal and the Middlewood Locks on the MBBC.

The Pomona Lock Branch joins the Bridgewater Canal to the Ship Canal and river Irwell
The Bridgewater Canal joins the Ship Canal/Irwell at Pomona Lock (2009)

It is commonly accepted that the drivers for the world’s first industrial revolution were the features that came together in Manchester, namely coal, canals and cotton. Cotton was a consumer and industrial product and it was made affordable by the proximity of coal which was brought to market by the two canals. Thus, the mines at Worsley Delph and along the Irwell Valley gave up the coal that the two canals delivered; the Bridgewater to the wharfs at Castlefield and the MBBC to the wharfs at the aptly named Upper Wharf Street in Salford.

Of course, the Bridgewater Canal Company for many years did not want connections to be made for either the M&IN or the Johnny-come-lately of the MBBC which were both seen as a threat to its business ascendancy. The connection via Pomona docks was only made in 1995 and replaced the short Hulme Locks branch canal opened in 1839 to connect the Bridgewater Canal to the M&IN. In the same year, the MBBC finally made a connection via the river Irwell at Middlewood Locks to the wider network with the construction of the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal (M&SJC) which today can still be seen joining the Rochdale canal near the Rain! Bar in city centre Manchester. It is probably not a coincidence that the canals made the connections in the decade that launched the Railway era and consequent severe competition for the canals’ trade.

The Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal joins the river Irwell (map courtesy of the Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal Society – https://www.mbbcs.org.uk/ )

It is worth reflecting a little more on the intrinsic qualities of the river Irwell, regardless of its canal connections. Cyril Bracegirdle’s book “The Dark River – the Irwell” reflected in its title both its industrial heritage and pollution with 400 mills in proximity to the river found in a survey of 1800, and its propensity to flood.

Even in 1972, Bracegirdle records, the flow of water at the Adelphi Weir in Salford was 120 million gallons and that included 32 million gallons of outflow from seven sewage works and another 14 million gallons of industrial effluent from twenty-one factories. Today it is a much cleaner river with the totemic kingfishers seen regularly along the full length and in recent years the arrival of otters. In the late 19th century, Joseph Anthony wrote,

              Whoe’er hath seen dark Irwell’s tide,

              Its sombre look and sullen glide,

              Would never deem that it, I ween,

              Had ever brighter, gayer been

It’s not perfect now but it is certainly brighter than in those dark Irwell days and is overdue a recognition for its role in canal creation and the industrial revolution.

Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal joins the Irwell at Middlewood Locks (2024)

David Barnes Green Badge Tourist Guide for the Bridgewater Canal

If you are interested in visiting the Bridgewater Canal with a guide contact David on:

07961535163 / davidbarnes.david@gmail.com

Photo credits:

Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal joins the Irwell at Middlewood Locks – photo by David Barnes

Bridgewater Canal – joins the Ship Canal/Irwell via Pomona Lock – photo by David Barnes

The Great Glaziers of St Mark’s Church

St Mark’s Church was endowed by the Egerton family who moved to Worsley following the succession of Lord Francis Egerton, (the Earl of Ellesmere) as beneficiary of the Bridgewater trust.

He described Worsley as “A God-forgotten place, its inhabitants much addicted to drink and rude sports, their morals deplorably low” and the family set about improving the village provisions.

The Church foundation stone was laid on 15 June 1844 and completed and consecrated 2 July 1846.

No expense was spared and the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott built a fine Gothic church for which glass windows needed to be acquired. The Morning Post wrote on Mon. 13 October 1851 “The Queen and the Prince Consort were greeted at the church door … and they proceeded down the main aisle. Victoria seemed very pleased by the architecture and sculpture of the church, and its rich stained-glass windows.” The visit had taken place on 10th October and the only coloured windows at that time were the main East windows, installed only a few weeks prior.

Renovations of the family house in London had connected the Egerton family to Sir Charles Barry. Barry had famously won the competition to rebuild the Palace of Westminster following the fire in 1834 for which he was knighted. For that work Barry had recruited Augustus Welby Pugin to help with the interior design. Pugin further collaborated with the lesser-known John Hardman of Birmingham, whose family business expanded to introduce ecclesiastical metal work made to Pugin’s designs and also stained glass.

Therefore, when the Egerton’s were looking for an East Window design to impress, they employed the finest architects of the time. Charles Barry visited Worsley in 1851 to discuss alterations to Worsley Old Hall and the church.

Lady Ellesmere appears to have been very involved with the design of the East window and we know this from her correspondence stating her displeasure at the finished product.

“The Window in Worsley Church is completed & I am sorry to say unsuccessful. The execution is pretty in itself but wholly unsuited to the rest in colouring. It has the effect of a gown of which the skirt is crimson, & the body pink.

Now the question is can anything be done to improve it. Who is the executor of it? Did he ever see the window?

I should be inclined to have him down to look at it; but before determining upon this, should like to know his name & address”.

Approximately a week after this communication, all three men Barry, Pugin and Hardman, visited Worsley. What exactly was discussed at this meeting and what changes were made we may never know.

The main sections of the East were probably acquired by the George Gilbert Soctt or the Earl  from a church in southern Germany and the tracery glass above these main panels is that designed by A W Pugin. Why not visit for yourself and decide whether you agree with Lady Ellesmere.

The Coal, Cake and Canal walking tour run by Bridgewater Canal Guided Tours finishes with a visit to St Mark’s church for tea and cake. The perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Book now

Michele Thompson – Bridgewater Canal Tourist Guide

gotguided@gmail.com / 07786992053

Right Royal Ramble – 2024!

Book a tour

2024 dates on sale now – Ramble your way through the royal history in and around The Bridgewater Canal and Worsley

Join Green Badge Guide Royston Futter and, in your imagination, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, The Duke of Wellington and various other Royals and Luminaries who visited Worsley New Hall and the Bridgewater Canal in their heyday.

The circular guided tour, taking in the magnificent gates shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition, St Marks Churchyard, Worsley Delph and The Bridgewater Canal starts and ends in the carpark of RHS Bridgewater so you can visit the garden and have refreshments before or after the walk.

Please see Eventbrite for available dates.

Start 2pm – tour will last approx 2 ½ hrs (Distance around 4.5miles – generally flat but moderate uphill walk back towards the gardens.)

Tour Dates:

Sunday 12th May, 16th June and 1st September 2024

Adults £13 plus booking fee

For children under 12 use promo code CHILD – price £6 plus fee.

https://rightroyalramble.eventbrite.co.uk

Booking essential