In March 2012 the Centre published the first volume in our new Applied Archaeology Series, on the archaeology of the Bridgewater Canal. The monograph marks the culmination of 12 months of research work in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the opening of the canal last July. All the speakers at a conference held at the Worsley Court House in October 2011 have contributed, but this is not a collection of conference papers; it’s a thoughtful re-assessment of the wider context of the canal.
It came as something of a surprise during the research and editing of the volume to discover that the archaeological and historical interest in the canal has been cyclical. In the 1760s and 1770s it was a source of wonder and one of the first tourist destinations of the Industrial Revolution. Early visitors included a princess, a king, and a future Czar of Russia. As late as 1851 the Bridgewater Canal was visited by Queen Victoria. The first serious historical scholarship about the canal appeared around the 100th anniversary of its opening, and focussed upon two of the personalities involved in its construction – the Duke of Bridgewater and James Brindley. By the 150th anniversary in 1912 interest had widened to include the archaeology of the route, particularly the original Barton Aqueduct and the bridges over the rivers Bollin and Mersey. The 200th anniversary coincided with the emergence of Industrial Archaeology as a new branch of the discipline, so that the interest of researchers included the underground coal mines and the canal warehouses of the Castlefield terminus. Interest in the canal was sustained into the 1970s; individual structures were protected and for the first time the estate records were the subject of serious historical study, by Hugh Malet (a lecturer at the then newly established University of Salford).
The 250th anniversary has already seen two major exhibitions (at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, and at the Portico Library in Manchester), two publications (John Aldred’s short study entitled The Duke of Bridgewater – his canal, and the current monograph) and a downloadable iphone ‘app’ tour of the canal. Yet there remain large gaps in our understanding. We don’t know the names of the first canal navvies, nor where they lived. The later business history of the canal has been hardly studied (it was a functioning industrial canal until the 1970s and was not nationalised unlike with most of the canal network which was taken over in 1948). Nor have the canal ports of Worsley (the earliest on the canal network) and Runcorn been studied in detail. Furthermore, there is as yet no definitive study on the engineering and landscape impact of the Bridgewater on the later canal network.
Perhaps we can look forward to the start of another golden era of investigation and scholarship to celebrate one of the World’s great industrial transport monuments?