Having a long-term interest in canals I decided that I would visit the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port on a glorious sunny day.
Upon arrival I went for a cappuccino to find the café over-run with a large group of “mature ladies” (and one man) sat around several tables practicing the crocheting skills (apparently Tuesday is craft day for community groups at the centre).
The museum site occupies the former canal port covering an area of 7 acres (3 ha) where the Shropshire Union Canal joined the River Mersey.
The canal port was designed by Thomas Telford under the direction of William Jessop was in use until the 1950s. It consisted of a system of locks, docks and warehouses and a pump and engine room. A tollhouse was built in 1805 and the Island Warehouse was built in 1871 to store grain.
The museum, on the site of the canal port, contains the elements present in the port, including the locks, docks and warehouses. The Island Warehouse has an exhibition on the history of boat building (fascinating and strongly recommended) and another describing the social history of canals.
The Pump House contains the steam-driven pumping engines, which supplied power for the hydraulic cranes and the capstans, which were used around the dock,and the Power Hall contains a variety of other engines.
The blacksmith’s forge was where the ironwork for the canal and its boats was made. A resident blacksmith works in the forge. It is very interesting to see the hours of work of the original blacksmiths i.e. from 6.00am to 5.30pm (see photo)
The stables, which housed the horses and pigs, are still present. The former tollhouse host’s temporary and touring exhibitions and the Waterways Archive contains a wide range of material relating to waterways in Britain and abroad.
Whilst walking around the various exhibits and reading about the working conditions it is evident that health and safety was virtually non-existent working on the barges or in the dockyards. Severe physical injuries were commonplace and there are stories about very young people being killed with no compensation being paid, it seems that both employer and employee accepted this kind of thing as an “occupational hazard” The poster illustration below describes a young man killed at the age of 18 when his head was caught in the machinery and he was crushed (perhaps we should moan less about “elf and safety” today!)
If you want to while away several hours and learn something about our industrial heritage then I strongly recommend a visit, you can even take a trip on a barge if you are feeling adventurous.