From Lancashire to the World: The Manchester Ship Canal and Globalization

Harry Stopes, University College London

The ship, prophetic feature of the City Arms, will be no longer a prophecy of what is to be; it will be the symbol of what is, the Port of Manchester, with that other feature of the City Arms, the globe, as representative of the extent of her commerce.”[1]

The opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 was the culmination of a twelve year project which had mobilized mass popular support (a rally of thousands celebrated the passage of a necessary Act of Parliament 3rd October 1885), as well as a significant sum of money (15 million pounds) raised from a mixture of small local investors, large private capital and a loan from the Manchester Corporation. Unlike other nineteenth century British waterways, the Ship Canal was big enough to take modern ocean liners: importers and exporters could now bypass Liverpool docks and sail directly to Manchester, 40 miles inland. Manchester became the fourth biggest port in Britain by value of imports in less than a decade.

1930 US advert for canal

An advert for the canal, for the US market, c. 1930, from the Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council

The canal was rationalized as an intervention into the regional economy of the northwest of England, ameliorating the effects of dock and railway rates that canal supporters claimed were prohibitively expensive. New industries were attracted to the area around the docks, particularly to Trafford Park, the world’s first industrial estate, where the Westinghouse Corporation and Ford Motors opened their first European sites in the early twentieth century. But the canal’s function was also symbolic, politically and culturally. To build it was a statement of intent on the part of the city, an assertion of its forward-thinking nature. The campaign to build the canal built upon a populist political rhetoric that brought together workers and industrial capitalists in an alliance of ‘producers’ against supposedly parasitic ‘merchants’ in Liverpool and London. This rhetoric drew upon the symbolism of the anti Corn Law protests of an earlier generation of Mancunians:

“London and large capitalists should not be asked to find the money for us – or they will get in dividends the just fruits of our labour. Let us keep the profit amongst us.”[2]

There was a persistent utopian tone to this rhetoric. An 1883 comparison between the canal and the then current idea of a Channel Tunnel stated that both “extend the means of intercommunication and help to knit the great family of men together… Whether it be a sub-marine tunnel, a sub-alpine tunnel, a ship canal, an Atlantic cable, an inter-oceanic railway, or the formation of an inland sea, they each in their special function help to make the world more useful to the race which tenants it, and assist in that great and gradual development which we call human progress.”[3]

bananas 1910

From a souvenir booklet produced by the Ship Canal Company in 1910, from the Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council

Claims about the importance of the canal depicted it as making manifest a new era, whose central characteristic was global connectivity. The rhetorical mode was globally facing regionalism.  The canal was, as the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent wrote upon its opening, “the actual point of contact between Lancashire and the world.” Descriptions of the canal repeatedly employed this trope, depicting the Manchester docks as an entry place, a gate: “Today the eyes of the world are turned upon Manchester, for to-day she opens her gates freely to all the nations of the world.”[4] It was as if there was something qualitatively different about ships coming right into the city rather than depositing their goods on the coast, as if the opening of the canal made the city more closely connected to the rest of the world than it had previously been. Images depicting ships in the city itself (not strictly accurate as the docks were a few miles west of the city centre) were a recurring feature of illustrations produced by the canal company.

door of the mill

An advert for the canal, for the US market, c. 1930, from the Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council

If one is interested in global history in the modern era there are obvious reasons for studying transport technology. Such technologies played a central role in bringing about the global as a meaningful category, as well as being a locus for debates about modernity. The historiography on this subject is extensive. However, this literature is more inclined to think about global transport, or globalization more generally, at the global scale. There has been less attention on how globalization related to popular cultural understandings of the world outside a few distinct populations (migrants, sailors, merchants) and a few especially ‘global’ cities.

As Jürgen Osterhammel wrote in his ‘Transformation of the World’, to discuss the global economy of the late nineteenth century is to refer to “a rather abstract theoretical fiction”. Although globalization has been conceptualized as bringing about a ‘world system’, it was really a diffuse, multi-nodal collection of connections and networks. So we might talk about globalization with reference to the global scale, in terms of a generic ‘global shrinking’, but this risks neglecting the way it functions at a local level. In other words, if the global economy is a collection of connections and networks, then we have to study those connections and networks in their local manifestations too – including outside of the most obviously ‘global’ cities. As a cultural historian of globalization, my interest is in their cultural uses and meanings.

Part of my intention in studying the Ship Canal (in passing, in my current doctoral thesis, and hopefully at greater length as a Postdoctoral fellow) is therefore to examine what it meant to describe the docks as a “point of contact” with the rest of the world, and why this had such rhetorical force. What I would suggest provisionally is that being a large industrial city, trading with the whole world had become an important part of Manchester’s self-identity: connections with the globe that were material (like a new canal) could be quickly absorbed into a symbolic language of local identity that had considerable emotive force. This project will hopefully live up to Chris Bayly’s suggestion that the recent upturn in global history should lead us to think about the way the global is everywhere, to write local histories that are globally inflected.

[1] Manchester Ship Canal Gazette, 29th November 1882

[2] Daniel Adamson, Notes for speech, Eccles public meeting, 31st August 1885, Lancashire Public Record Office DDX 101/38.

[3] Ship Canal Gazette, 2nd May 1883.

[4] ‘Opening Day’, Ship Canal News, 1st January 1894.


Harry Stopes is a PhD student at University College London, completing his thesis for submission in the summer of 2016. He is a historian of Britain and France around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, working on the relationship between globalisation and local identity in Manchester and Lille.

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3 Responses to From Lancashire to the World: The Manchester Ship Canal and Globalization

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum

  2. Looks like a brilliantly interesting project. And you are absolutely right about the local transformations wrought by transportation technologies and infrastructures. I run along inland waterways in London (obviously not as grand as the canal you are studying, but as crucial to the local economy). I find this layering of history and its absorption into the local landscape and everyday life some decades after these canals stopped being “working” canals absolutely fascinating.

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  3. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #40 | Whewell's Ghost

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