I made a visit to what is now known as the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port which is situated in South Wirral on the banks of the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal.
The museum contains the largest collection of canal boats in the world. It has boats from Britain’s inland waterways and canals including narrowboats, barges,tugs and some wide bodied vessels as well. The museum has been developed on a site at the northern end of the Shropshire Union Canal where it enters the Manchester Ship Canal at Ellesmere Port where huge warehouses, docks and a range of moorings and locks were built as the canal port developed.
The canal to Ellesmere Port was built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop funded by the merchants of the Shropshire town of Ellesmere to give them an outlet onto the Mersey and the port of Liverpool for their goods. The canal was completed in 1795 and over the next hundred years the village of Netherpool which changed its name to Ellesmere Port grew steadily. Industrial areas grew up around the canal and its docks attracted more and more workers to the area and the town itself continued to expand.
The Manchester Ship Canal opened in 1894 giving businesses in Manchester direct access to the Atlantic to export their goods. The Stanlow Oil Refinery was completed further along the ship canal in the 1920s and the town expanded so that it now incorporated further outlying villages as suburbs. The canal port continued to be fully operational until the 1950s.
With the growth of railways and road transportation the use of canals declined and the dock complex was abandoned in the 1960s. In 1973 a group of volunteers came together to rebuild the warehouses and the lock system and they founded the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum which became the National Waterways Museum in 2004.
The museum covers the area of the former canal port and retains the original system of locks, docks and warehouses. The Island Warehouse now includes an exhibition on the history of boat-building and an exhibition which describes the social history of canals. The Pump House contains the steam-driven pumping engines which supplied power for the hydraulic cranes and the capstans which were used around the dock and the Power Hall contains a variety of other engines.
The Museum also contains a terrace of four houses known as ‘Porter’s Row’. These were dock workers’ cottages which have been decorated and furnished to represent different periods from the docks history. The houses show how they would have been in the 1830s, the 1900s, the 1930s and the 1950s.
The area outside the dockworkers’ cottages is set out as a typical street scene from around the 1940s and 1950s.
Whilst the museum displays many canal boats which tell the story of the waterways the heritage boat yard has a number of old and neglected boats which the boatyard aims to restore training young people in the skills of boat restoration.
Looking across the Boat Museum to the Manchester Ship Canal you can see the Widnes/Runcorn Bridge in the distance, another feat of engineering which was opened in 1961 to replace an older bridge dating from 1905.
The Holiday Inn which is adjacent to the boat museum is built on the site of the former Telford’s Winged Warehouse. So called because it was a four storey building built on two arches across the canal basin. It was completed in 1835 but was burned down in 1970. The Holiday Inn was built in the late 1980s. As I walked past the locks next to the Holiday Inn a pair of swans were feeding on the downfall from the lock gates.
All in all this was a very interesting walk back in time to the days when canals fed the industrial revolution which saw Britain develop into the first industrialised nation.