June 1917: A new dry dock for Manchester Ship Canal

An increase in trade via the Macnhester Ship Canal saw the need to build a new dry dock for maintenance and repairs.

The city of Manchester is 40 miles from the sea but being a landlocked metropolis didn’t prevent its inhabitants  from building a port of national significance.

In fact, when the Manchester Ship Canal opened in 1894 it was declared the largest river navigation canal in the world before going on to be the UK’s third busiest port. According to Historic UK, the canal carried almost 20 million short tons of freight at its peak in 1958.

The steady rise in traffic along the canal had been noted 41-years previously when The Engineer reported on the opening of a third dry dock at Mode Wheel, which was owned by the Manchester Dry Docks Company Limited.

“A noteworthy feature of the work of construction is that the whole of it has been carried out by the contractors, Messrs Robert MacAlpine and Sons, since the commencement of the [first world] war, in spite of all the attendant difficulties with regard to labour, materials and transit, the first sod having been cut in May 1915,” said The Engineer.


Our reporter went on to add that the dock was 450ft long, the breadth of entrance 65ft, and the depth of water on the sill 19ft.

“The quantity of material excavated was 60,000 cubic yards,” The Engineer recorded. “The amount of concrete used was 25,000 cubic yards, brick work 3740 cubic yards, while for the sill and quoins 1700 cubic feet of granite ashlar was used, and for the copings 12,000 cubic feet of sandstone ashlar.

According to our report, an interesting feature in connection with the excavation work was the employment of a steam digger from Bucyrus (a company bought by Caterpillar in 2011 for $8.8bn) that ‘stripped the whole site, or about 30,000 cubic yards, in nine weeks of ordinary working days.’

“This machine employs a grab line bucket which excavated the material and lifted it to waggons on a road at ground level,” said The Engineer. “The concrete walls all around the dock were then constructed in timber trenches, and the excavation was subsequently carried out for the floor in trenches and across the dock.”

Our reporter added: “The dock is constructed of 1:3:6 concrete with displacers and is founded on red sandstone rock, with the exception of a small portion of the floor at the head, which is founded on hard boulder clay overlying the rock.”

The floor was made entirely of concrete, the minimum thickness under the blocks being eight feet six inches. It was carried out in block sections, each section ‘being of such a size as to constitute a day’s work’. The joints with the adjacent blocks and the sidewalls were formed to approximately the radial lines of a concealed arch. The sidewalls were faced with brindle brickwork four and a half inches and nine inches thick, with bullnosed bricks on edge at each altar.

“The dock is set an angle with the water area of the adjoining Manchester docks, and the gates have been designed accordingly in order to obtain the greatest length, while leaving sufficient room at the head for a further extension if desired at some future time,” said The Engineer. “To enable this extension to be easily and comparatively inexpensively carried out, it will be observed that the head has been built in the form of a brick arch, three feet six inches thick, which will be more readily removable than a concrete wall. The gates are of steel with greenheart mitres, heel posts and sill pieces and opened and closed by hand winches. The gates were built by the Manchester Dry Docks Company Limited.”

Water was drained from the dock through a culvert connected to pumps, which dealt with the water from two existing docks belonging to the Dry Docks Company. This culvert was extended under the new dock, ‘so as to be available for any future docks that may be constructed.’

“The filling water is admitted by means of four sluice valves in the gates. The engineer to the undertaking is Mr. H.A. Reed, M Inst. C.E., who is also engineer to the Manchester Ship Canal,” our reporter concluded.

According to the Institution of Civil Engineers, traffic declined on the ship canal in the 1970s and 1980s when containerisation saw ships becoming too big to navigate the waterway. Manchester Dry Docks Company Limited folded in 1980 but was revived in 1987 by former employees who operated under the name Lengthline.

The dry docks may have gone, but the canal remains a vibrant logistics hub. Operator Peel Ports Group reports that it can handle 7.5 million tonnes of cargo across Manchester Ship Canal’s five terminals. “The Canal is thriving, and each year it handles and stores millions of tonnes of cargo from wind turbine blades to animal feed and biomass, to aggregates, sand, salt and chemicals,” the company says on its website.