What Price Industrial Heritage? Losing the Past of Salford Quays

The 1966-built electric cranes at Salford Quays, just before demolition, October 2013

The 1966-built electric cranes at Salford Quays, just before demolition, October 2013

It was with a large amount of irony that a week after I had helped organise a conference on the archaeology and history of Salford Quays I followed online the demolition of the last two cranes on the quayside at Salford. Despite a year-long campaign by local groups to save the electric cranes, first erected in 1966, they were demolished by the local council, who owned them. This was on the grounds that they could not afford to restore the cranes at a time when they were cutting millions of pounds from their annual budget. So how much do we value our industrial heritage? In monetary terms these cranes would have cost close to one million pounds to restore; demolition was a much cheaper one-off cost. Yet the local community valued them enough to attempt to get them listed as historic structures, and to campaign for their retention as monuments to the industry and workers of the docks. Short-term financial gain for the local authority, though, outweighed the long-term loss of structures that spoke of the original identity and function of the docks. There have been several academic reports in the last couple of years that have shown how heritage, particularly industrial archaeology, can help improve the identity, confidence, and self-worth of individuals and local communities.1 Furthermore, a recent study from Oxford Economics for the Heritage Lottery Fund showed that Heritage Tourism earned annually £5 billion for the British economy and supported 134,000 jobs. When the indirect impact is taken into account the annual value of Heritage Tourism rises to £14 billion supporting 393,000 jobs; that’s around a sixth of the annual turnover of the construction sector.2

So what was so important about the cranes at Salford Quays? They were the remnants of the largest engineering project in Victorian Britain – the building of the Manchester Ship Canal and its port. Within a decade of opening in 1894 the Port of Manchester (now Salford Quays) had become the sixth largest port in the country. The ‘Recapturing the Past of Salford Quays’ conference, held at Ordsall Hall on 18th October3 covered the archaeology and history of this engineering achievement: from the opening of the Port of Manchester in 1894, through its apogee in the 1940s and then demise in 1983, to the site’s rebirth as Salford Quays in the 1990s. The papers began with a review of Manchester and Salford’s first water front – the five miles of canal-side wharves represented by the Ashton, Bridgewater, and Rochdale canals through the centre of Manchester, the wharves of the Manchester, Bolton & Bury canal in adjacent Salford, and the quayside warehouses of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company along Water Street. Glen Atkinson then discussed the construction of the Ship Canal and its port using original glass slides. The project was the first to make extensive use of mechanical diggers, although there were plenty navvies, too (one of whom was my great grandfather). David Higginson followed this with a discussion of the cargoes and trade on the canal and through the port, which had 5.5 miles of quays. Most the early trade came from North America and was dominated by cotton, grain, and lamp oil. Later, engineering goods from Trafford Park were a significant export. The port even had its own shipping line to encourage trade – Manchester Liners with its own small fleet. It was ironic to learn, therefore, that this shipping line was one of the first in the UK to introduce containerised shipping in the 1960s, since it was containerisation, and the huge growth in ship size that followed, which led to the closure of the port. This was followed by a talk discussing the three types of warehouse in the port (transhipment sheds, concrete safes, and cotton warehouses) and how these types straddled the traditional form of dock warehouse seen at nearby Liverpool and the containerisation of the late 20th century. The final presentation of the morning, by David George, looked at how the port was redeveloped after it had closed in 1982. This regeneration took inspiration from the London docks and involved the building of some pastiche warehouse-inspired flats and the removal of nearly all the dock buildings, with a few notable exceptions that included the dock offices and the two cranes, both of which were visited during the afternoon tours.

The demolition of the cranes has saved the local council money in the short-term but it’s further degraded the unique character of the docks, devaluing the historic environment (a significant element of the region’s economy and heritage tourism industry), and removed the most prominent symbol of the area’s history as a port. A short-term gain has become a long term loss, not just to the heritage economy but to the identity and sense of place of the wider area. What remains are the docks themselves. These too could have been lost during the redevelopment of the late 1980s and 1990s, were their value and significance to Salford’s future not recognised by the developers. Ironically this included saving the two cranes. The loss of these cranes could be, should be, Salford’s Euston Arch moment – the point at which the residents of the city realise that their heritage is worth fighting for.

1. Dalglish C, (ed), 2013, Archaeology, the Public and Recent Past. London: The Boydell Press.

2. el Beyrouty K & Tessler A, 2013, The Economic Impact of the UK Heritage Tourism Economy. London: Oxford Economics.

3. The conference was organised by the Manchester Region Industrial Archaeology Society (MRIAS) with the support of the Salford History Forum and the CBA North West Industrial Archaeology Panel as the 2013 North West Industrial Archaeology Conference.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.