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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Manchester Ship Canal, 1880-93

THE greatest engineering work with which Mr. Abernethy was professionally connected, and which he lived to see completed, was the Manchester Ship Canal. Any serious attempt to give a description of the vast number of “works of art” throughout the canal’s length of thirty-six miles from Manchester to Eastham, its lofty viaducts and bridges over which the deviated lines of railway now pass, the swing bridges to enable masted vessels to traverse its course, the swing aqueduct at Barton which conducts the old Bridgewater Canal overhead, the gigantic sluices at the Weaver mouth and elsewhere, the numerous locks and docks, to say nothing of the less interesting portion of the work, such as the immense extent of excavation, walls and embankments, would requre the space of many chapters, and even if some fairly adequate account of the different works alluded to could be abridged into a conveniently small space, the description would still be very imperfect, inasmuch as the great engineering difficulties both foreseen and unforeseen which presented themselves during the progress of the work, would still remain unnoticed, and the services of the engineers and contractors, beginning with Sir E. L. Williams, the engineer-in-chief and responsible head, downwards, upon whose skill and energy the final triumph so much depended, and to each of whom a share of merit is in all justice due, would also be awaiting recognition. Fortunately an accurate description of the entire undertaking when completed may be found in the special number of “Engineering,” published on January 26th, 1894, and the names of those whose services called for special mention may there be found also. Accordingly it is proposed in the present chapter to refer only to the part which Mr. Abernethy took in this historic work, and for the purpose the description referred to also lends valuable assistance.

It was in 1880 that Mr. Daniel Adamson, who together with Mr. Hicks had conceived the project of forming a waterway to Manchester, first came to London to consult him with regard to the scheme, and the upshot of the interview was, that the engineer expressed his willingness to follow up the idea and assist to the best of his ability, provided that some influential Manchester gentlemen could be found to support and prosecute the scheme. Two years later, in 1882, a Provisional Committee was formed to consider two projects for effecting the waterway, one submitted by the late Mr. Hamilton Fulton, C E., who advocated a tidal channel up to Manchester, and the other by Mr. (now Sir) E. Leader Williams, who proposed a canal from Manchester to Runcorn, and thence seaward by the River Mersey. These two rival schemes were submitted by the Provisional Committee to Mr. Abernethy for consideration and opinion, and after inspecting the Rivers Irwell and Mersey from Manchester to Runcorn, he reported in favour of the plans put forward by Sir E. Leader Williams. The tenor of his report was adopted, and he was further requested to act as consulting engineer, and in that capacity advised and gave evidence in support of the Bills before Parliament in the Sessions of 1883, 1884, and 1885. Upon the rejection of Mr. Fulton’s scheme by the Provisional Committee, Sir E. L. Williams remained in possession of the field, and a vast field it proved, not only in point of area, but for the exercise of exceptional ability, energy, and tact, all of which qualities were in constant demand in order to bring the undertaking to a successful issue. But the Bill brought forward in 1883 proposed a very different work to that finally authorized in the Session of 1885. As originally designed, the main entrance to the canal was to be at Runcorn, and from thence to Garston a channel was to be dredged, and kept open by means of half-tide training walls. The canal was to have a depth of 22 feet, and to be 100 feet in width. The first of the three locks was to be at Latchford, between which point and Manchester the old river was to be completely canalized, much in the same manner as has since been carried out, and there were to be docks at Latchford, Irlam, and Barton, as well as the terminal docks at Manchester. But a departure from the scheme as originally designed was made even before the first application to Parliament, in so far that instead of utilizing the existing river channel to Warrington, the river bed was to be abandoned about i| mile above Runcorn, and a new cutting mainly depended upon. The Bill for 1883 was duly deposited :n the preceding November, but a serious omission to comply with the requirements of Standing Orders jeopardised its existence at an early stage; upon petition, however, the House of Commons waived the Standing Orders in its favour, and so saved the Bill in the only way in which it could be saved, and in due time it came before a Committee of the House. Thirty-seven days were occupied in discussion, at the end of which time it was passed, but saddled with conditions which entailed a further application to Parliament in a subsequent Session. The promoters, however, thought fit to proceed to the House of Lords, but unfortunately the Special Committee of Peers took a different view, and declined to allow a Bill to proceed which would in part depend upon a another yet to be obtained.

But the temporary reverse only had the effect of arousing the energy of the promoters, and inciting them all the more keenly to prepare for the following Session, and in 1884 a second Bill, similar in its main features to the first, came on for hearing. But there were several important alterations. The locks were to be brought lower down, training walls were to be made down to Garston, at which point they were to be 1000 feet wide, diminishing to 400 feet opposite the River Weaver, whence the channel would gradually close into the canal proper. It was in opposition to this proposed estuary work that the main evidence of the opponents was directed. Would the effect of these training walls diminish the tidal flow in the Mersey? was the great question which the Committee were called upon to decide.

The estuary of the Mersey is narrower near the entrance than in the upper portion, and the tide naturally runs harder where the sectional area is less, and so keeps the channel clear by scour. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board said, and said legitimately, and were supported in their contention by strong engineering evidence, that if the upper portion of the estuary were interfered with by constructing these training walls, the shoals would increase, less water would ebb and flow, the tidal scour diminish, and finally the channel over the bar silt up.

In that year the contest began in the Upper House and the Bill passed, but the Lower House refused 'ts sanction, so no headway was as yet made, and the scheme remained to be brought forward and contested in a future Session.

At this juncture the Provisional Committee again asked the advice of their consulting engineer, and he reported to them in favour of an alternative design, viz., a canal independently of the tideway from Manchester to Eastham, and at the earliest opportunity, in the Session of 1885, the promoters introduced their Bill by which the estuary works were eliminated. To Mr. G. F. Lyster, the late engineer to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the credit is due of having made this practical suggestion while giving evidence in the preceding year in opposition to the proposed estuary works, and the promoters now embodied the suggestion in their Bill, and so got free from a strong element of opposition. But even with this relief given, thirty days were consumed in the House of Lords, and thirty-five more in the House of Commons before the great scheme passed through both Houses. It was, however this time, under the able pilotage of Mr. Pember, Q.C., the leading counsel, conducted safely through its two long voyages, and received the Royal Assent and so became an Act in 1885 and an accomplished fact in 1894, but it is stated that the actual expenditure incurred in obtaining the authority to commence the work amounted to 350,000.

At this stage the appointment of consulting engineer was renewed, and he undertook to visit and inspect the work while in course of construction once in every month and report its progress and condition to the Works Committee. This duty he continued to perform until 1893, when the canal was nearly completed, its success from a constructive point of view assured, and his services no longer required. It was informally opened for traffic on January 1st, 1894, and formally by Her Majesty the Queen on May 21st of the same year. The cost of construction was over 13,500,000.

His association with the Manchester Ship Canal, however, which had in every sense been a memorable and pleasant one from first to last, was sadly changed after its completion by the death of his son Harold, who had throughout the undertaking acted under Sir E. L. Williams as resident engineer upon the difficult Runcorn section, and had had charge of the construction during the first three years of seven, and afterwards of ten miles of the canal. Shortly before the opening in January, 1894, he contracted a malarial fever upon the canal works, which at intervals incapacitated him from work, and gradually assuming a more malignant form, culminated in his death at the age of thirty-six on his way home from Cape Town, whither he had gone for a sea voyage on July 9th, 1895. He had previously done much good work as assistant engineer at Hull, and at Lake Aboukir in Egypt.

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