The Manchester and Salford Junction Canal joined a short branch of the Rochdale Canal (now infilled and redeveloped) just north of Great Bridgewater Street close to the centre of Manchester. From this junction it ran north westwards passing under Lower Mosley Street through a pair of locks and then under Watson Street where it entered a quarter of a mile long tunnel passing under Deansgate and Camp Street before reappearing just beyond Atherton St. Another pair of locks dropped the level still further and a single lock linked the navigation with the Irwell beyond Water Street south of the Victoria and Albert warehouses and about a hundred and fifty yards up-river from the entrance of the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal. A pump was required to lift water from the level of the Irwell to the top of the paired locks to replace what was used.
The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal joined the River Irwell on its north side but there was no link with the canals in Manchester nearer than the Bridgewater locks at Runcorn. A navigable tunnel from the river to the Rochdale had been suggested as early as 1801, and another four years later, but nothing came of either. Goods had to be off-loaded at the river company’s wharfs and taken across Manchester by cart.
When a Bill was sent to Parliament in 1836 the preamble emphasised the traffic problems in the centre of the town, and this ensured support from the townspeople and traders.
Congestion was a problem even then. The idea of a canal at this time was first raised at a meeting of the Mersey and Irwell shareholders, and it quickly caught on. The Bridgewater company, realising how much trade would be lost, suggested an alternative link between their canal and the Irwell at Hulme.
As the two navigations were within a few yards of one another at this point, it was the obvious place to make a navigable connection.
The Mersey and Irwell company were still wary of the Bridgewater and felt that it would be safer to have a separate link, so they went ahead with the promotion of their Bill. They ensured support from the Bridgewater company by a clause allowing that company to build their own Hulme locks, which were completed in 1838, a year before the Manchester and Salford Junction canal was opened. A further clause ensured that the level of the water above the stop lock should be six inches above that of the Rochdale canal to safeguard the latter’s water supply.
The Manchester and Salford Junction Canal opened the following year; it was five eighths of a mile in length, connecting the River Irwell with a short branch of the Rochdale Canal. There were four locks (three of which were duplicated), two pumping engines to lift water from the Irwell and for most of its length it ran in a 499 yard tunnel. As was only to be expected, with the easy alternative route, the new junction canal did not attract the estimated trade. It was beset with problems from the start; it had troubles with its pumping engines, its stop lock and one of the lock walls and a further Act was necessary to find more money. Half this money came from the river navigation or its shareholders and in 1842 they were induced to take over the junction canal and its debts and liabilities. Though maintenance cost considerably more than revenues from tolls, it added wharfs and basins to the Irwell and brought in additional traffic. Furthermore, because of this link with the Rochdale and Ashton Canals, there is little doubt that the Mersey and Irwell was a much more valuable acquisition when it was bought by Lord Francis Egerton for the Bridgewater trustees a few years later.
Once the junction canal had become the property of the Bridgewater trustees it lost its value as a competitive route. When the Cheshire Lines railway decided on their Manchester terminus at Central station in 1872, they first planned to build it over the canal. Three years later they obtained a second Act which allowed them to fill in the section between Lower Mosley Street and Watson Street and through traffic along the Junction Canal ceased.
The western end, adjoining the Irwell, continued as a useful series of docks. When the Great Northern Railway goods depot was built over the tunnel in 1899 two shafts were sunk 25ft down to the canal for the interchange of goods between the five levels of the railway warehouse and the docks of the Manchester Ship Canal via the Irwell. This traffic continued until 1922 and the remaining length of the canal was abandoned in 1936.
During the war, the canal tunnel was brought back to life as a public air raid shelter. It was divided into bays, each separated by two offset parallel brick wall for protection against blast. The eastern end had been obliterated, but the basins adjoining the Rochdale were not filled in until after the war. Today the only easily accessible traces of the expensive and little used junction canal is the exit to the Irwell, the link with the Rochdale above lock 89. However the tunnel also remains intact although hidden from view. It is now divided into two parts, one part lying beneath the Granada TV studios and the other longer section under the former Great Northern Warehouse.
The section of tunnel under the Great Northern Warehouse was visited by members of Subterranea Britannica during the 1994 Manchester Study Weekend.
Access to the canal bed was through a locked manhole in the underground car park in Watson Street. Here a 25 foot vertical ladder drops down to the canal bed amongst brick arches and walls that were added to support the railway goods above. In the middle of the canal bed two vast brick pillars rise upwards toward the roof, these are the remains of the two winch shafts installed for the transhipment of goods between the canal and the railway. Close to the shafts the eastern tunnel portal is amazingly still intact although itself now more than 25 feet undergroud.
The tunnel mouth has been partly bricked across with steps down to the canal bed and a raised tow path along the north side. There is a small brick building built in the canal bed just inside the tunnel mouth, perhaps a WW2 shelter wardens post. There are three accessible bays, numbered from east to west Bay 1, Bay 2 & Bay 3. The bay numbers with an arrow are still clearly painted on the dividing blast walls.
Bay 2 is the underground transhipment dock, here the tunnel opens out into a huge vaulted chamber with the tow path running around three sides, there is even a mooring bollard alongside the dock. There is an arched doorway to stairs up to the warehouse but these are blocked after a few feet. In Bay 3 the canal bed contains several feet of water but it is still possible to walk along the tow path as far as the next blast wall where there is an arrow pointing to Bay 4. The depth of water made further exploration impossible so it is unclear whether Bay 4 is accessible from here. Further bays are accessible from the basement of the Granada TV studios. Access to this part of the canal tunnel was always refused but following the closure of the studios in June 2013 a small party was allowed to visit in 2014. When the site is redeveloped the canal tunnel will be retained but it will not be part of the development and there will be no public access.
The western end of the canal, including the lock into the River Irwell has now been restored to provide a water feature alongside the new Bridgewater Hall where it terminates in a basin. The Great Northern Warehouse finally closed in 1963 and remained empty until 1998 when work began to transform it into a leisure and shopping complex. The 10-acre site known as ‘The Great Northern’ is now open for business with bars, cafes, restaurant, shops, a 16-screen AMC megaplex cinema and Virgin Active gym. As part of the ongoing development the owners are planning to restore the tunnel beneath and open it to the public.
- Canals to Manchester by David Owen ISBN 0 7190 0686 4
- Lost Canals and Waterways of Britain by Ronald Russell ISBN 0 7153 8072 9
- Bartholomew’s Pocket Atlas and Guide to Manchester 1937
- Pennine Waterways