On a pleasant late spring evening at the end of May 2022 I led half-a-dozen South Trafford Archaeological Group members on an archaeology and history walk around Sale (Greater Manchester) in search of evidence for the town’s agricultural past and a lost canal. The story of the enclosure of Sale Moor and its later conversion into a middle-class suburb on the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway line is a fascinating example of the impact of 19th century urbanisation. However, the story of Sale’s lost canal is for me even more intriguing.
The Bridgewater Canal, financed by the Duke of Bridgewater as a coal canal linking his mines at Worsley with Manchester and later the Mersey estuary via Runcorn, was built through the rural township of Sale in the mid-1760s. An embankment, 3.6km long and in places 3m high, ran across this township. The route included crossing the heathland known as Sale Moor, a roughly triangular area, at the time 1.2km from west to east and at its widest (north to south) 1km near Washway Road (A56) in the west. The building of the canal meant that parts of the heathland had to be drained, although it was not until 1806 that the moor was fully enclosed. Arthur Young, agriculturalist and travel writer, wrote around 1768 that where ‘it [the canal] is carried across Sale Moor, under the first bridge you catch a pleasing view, through the arches of other bridges, in a line’, and at the end a church and steeple’. This view southwards along the Bridgewater Canal survives in the 21st century, and the church steeple is probably the tower of the medieval St Mary’s Church in Bowdon.
What caught my attention during research on the construction and use of the Bridgewater Canal in the 1760s was a proposal to build an eastern branch. This would have run from Sale Moor to Stockport, a distance of c. 12 kilometres (7.5 miles), and thereby link with a proposed canal to Macclesfield. James Brindley undertook the survey of this line, according to his notebooks, in early 1762, although the Act of Parliament for this branch was not passed until March 1766. However, since the Act for the Macclesfield to Stockport Canal was rejected by Parliament later that same year it has been assumed that the branch was never built.
Yet, there is some documentary evidence to suggest that the digging of the Sale Moor canal was begun, and the proposed line of this branch is shown on a plan of the Bridgewater Canal from 1776. Canal historians Charles Hadfield & Gordon Biddle (The Canals of North West England, 1970), noted a report in Prescott’s Manchester Journal from 13 June 1772 that the Duke ‘has already broke ground the length of two miles [3.2km], from Sale Moor towards Stockport’. Another report in the Derby Mercury of 4 October 1776 noted that he intended in the following year ‘to finish his Navigation to Stockport’. A map of the intended canals to be built or commissioned around Cheshire was drawn by Llinos Thomas around 1780 and still showed the proposed line of the canal (Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies DE/AH/1919). The scheme was briefly revived in 1822-3 as part of a proposed 22.2km (13.8 miles) canal from Sale Moor to Stockport and the coal mines at Poynton, before being finally abandoned (Hadfield & Biddle 1970, 100). However, no actual digging appears to have been undertaken at this date.
Tracing the potential line of the Sale Moor canal on the ground in the 21st century is tricky. Its course is obscured by the mid- to late 19th century suburban sprawl of the area, enabled by the 1806 enclosure of Sale Moor. This part of Sale was further built upon in the early 20th century so there are no obvious physical remains of any earthworks relating to the line of the canal. Yet the digging of the canal is reported to have extended for c. 3.2km across Sale Moor into Northern Moor, in Northenden. Another abandoned canal project in the Manchester area, the 1790s Beat Bank Branch of the Ashton Canal in Denton, gives a hint of the extensive earthworks that must have been generated by such digging. Here, a stretch of unfinished canal running for more than 1km can still be seen a terrace on the northern bank of the river Tame, in the form of substantial earthworks rising in places to 1m, as well as overgrown hollows along its length which may represent the digging for clay to line the canal bottom.
No such remains can be seen in Sale, yet the works across Sale Moor must have been extensive. Arthur Young observed that many contemporary observers thought that Sale Moor was impassable due to the boggy nature of the landscape. Young records that James Brindley designed ‘a vast case of timber for the whole work: great piles of deal were fixed as a mound to keep the earth in a proper position to form the banks’. According to Brindley’s own notebooks the construction of this embankment took up most of 1763. Today, the embankment is most visible on its western side along its course past Brooklands cemetery and Walton Park, where it stands around 1m high.
A similar embankment would have been needed for the Sale Moor branch as it crossed the heathland, assuming it was to be on the same level as the Bridgewater Canal. How much of this structure was built in mid-1770s is unknown. The location of the intended Sale Moor junction with the Bridgewater Canal is unclear but the 1806 enclosure map for Sale Moor shows a straight section of drainage ditch (Ditch No. 2) running east of the canal for about 1000m beginning mid-way between Northenden Road, to the north, and Marsland Road, to the south, on the present line of Hope Road. This later drain alignment started also immediately south of the Sale Moor wharf where Hope Road does a dog-leg to the east. Sadly, the 1806 Enclosure map of Sale does not record any earthworks nor landownership by the Bridgewater Trustees in either of these areas (Sale Moor Enclosure Map by Edward Mason, 1806, Trafford Local Studies Library).
Walking around the late 19th century road layout that now covers Sale Moor, it is possible to trace the line of Ditch No. 2, which survives as a boundary between back gardens north of Norman Road east of Hope Road. Towards the line of Derbyshire Road further east it survives as an open ditch on the northern side of Walkden Gardens. This stretch runs for around 50m and is in places 1.5m wide and a meter deep. It is thus possible that this re-used and re-cut ditch is all that remains of the Duke’s unfinished Sale Moor Canal, one of the many canal proposals that emerged between the 1760s and the 1790s that never made it to completion. Standing in the half gloom of a late May evening by this ditch you can almost hear the canal workmen digging the earth of what would be a fruitless venture.