Worsley Delph is a historic landmark in the development of the canal industry in Britain. It began life as a quarry, but later became the start of the first industrial canal in the country, as well as being the entrance to a labyrinth of underground coal mines. Recently archaeologists and historians have re-examined the site, and it has been restored and made into a local heritage attraction.
The Delph existed as a quarry for 300 years before the canal was built. Records show that stone was removed to construct Barton Bridge in 1676. Some 4821 wagon-loads of rock were taken out of the quarry to do this. When the canal was planned, more stone was dug out to build the canal sides and its bridges.
The canal was the vision of Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. On a visit to France he had seen a canal in action, and thought that constructing one on his estate might solve problems he had with his coal mines.
The Duke, together with John Gilbert and James Brindley, devised the plans for an over-ground canal known as the Bridgewater, and a series of underground canals to reach the Duke’s coal mines. The underwater canals would allow the drainage of the mines to prevent flooding. Removal of the coal by underground barge would be ten times more efficient than transporting it by road. It could then be transferred at Worsley Delph onto the over-ground canal and taken on to Manchester.
The Bridgewater canal opened in 1761 and in the next 50 years the local quiet farming community around it was transformed by the huge coal mining industry, centred around Worsley Delph. When Josiah Wedgwood the industrial pottery maker visited in 1773, he commented that it had the appearance of a “considerable sea-port town”. Three years later the philosopher Jean–Jacques Rousseau drew Worsley Road Bridge and its surrounding buildings, along with the unusual looking crane.
By 1765, the over-ground canal had reached Manchester, and this led to the development of the Castlefield area, by the site of the Manchester’s Roman fort. Here wharves and warehouses were constructed, and the area still retains much of its industrial past for visitors to see today. Eventually, the canal was extended to meet up with the Trent & Mersey and Leeds & Liverpool canals.
The Underground Canal System
The underground canal system had its entrance and exit at Worsley Delph and these can still be seen today. A one-way system was put in place so that boats could leave the mines fully laden of coal through the western tunnel, and empty boats could enter the complex through the eastern tunnel. The tunnels were very narrow, and the slim boats known as ‘starvationers’ were used to haul the coal. The unusual name was probably given to them because of their thin shape, and pronounced ‘ribs’.
By 1880, the underground network had expanded to a huge extent, covering some 52 miles of tunnels stretching out to the coal fields of Boothstown, Walkden, Bolton and Farnworth. The tunnels were on three levels, and an ingenious inclined plane boat lift was designed by John Gilbert to move boats between two of the levels. It involved a complicated system of locks and pulleys, but the idea is fairly simple to understand. The boats worked in pairs. One fully laden with coal would descend the slope, drawn down by gravity. It would be coupled to an empty boat, which would be pulled up a level on the other side.
A side effect of the coal mining meant that lots of iron ore was released into the water. This would accumulate in the Delph, staining it an orange rust colour, which the miners called ‘okker’. The staining would leach out into the over-ground canal.
Decline and Repurposing
In 1888, the life of the Delph as an industrial complex came to an end when the underground canal was closed down. Investment was instead put into above-ground railways which were used to transport the coal from the collieries. The nearby huge industrial yard on the site of what is now Worsley Green that had supported the Delph was completely removed, to be replaced by an open grassy space.
In recent years, a big effort has been made to conserve the Delph and bring knowledge of its heritage to the wider public. In 2018, a viewing platform and interpretation boards were installed. The rust that still leaches out from the mines has now been mostly removed, but the process is expensive. A sculpture of the unusual crane that was illustrated in the early drawings of the Delph was installed.
During the excavation and archaeology work, hidden remnants from the industrial past were found. Blocked up tunnels under Worsley Road Bridge and old wharves for the canal boats around the Delph area were discovered.
Two boats, both of fairly recent origin, were uncovered. One was from the 1940s and a second from the 1960s. Although the mines had long been closed, the waterways were still being maintained during those decades. A reconstruction of the original starvationer mining barge was constructed by volunteers from Start Creative, a social enterprise. Using trees felled for a canal improvement scheme, they took 700 work hours to make it. It was named The Volunteer and there are pictures of the boat on the interpretation boards at the site.
Today, Worsley Delph is a popular local tourist destination and people can sit, have something to eat and drink, and look over towards the mine entrances and the model of the crane. In the water, outlines of the starvationer boats have been placed, to give an idea of their size. Nearby, along the Bridgewater Canal, are a number of points of historical interest. These will be the subject of a future page on this website.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2021
Park at Worsley Court House Car Park (this is a public car park). There is a small parking charge. Cross over the road by the historical court house. Head right at the roundabout, passing the library. Walk across Worsley Road Bridge. Cross the road to The Delph and Tung Fung restaurants. Worsley Delph in on the left.
You can further explore the area by heading back to the bridge and turn left down onto the Bridgewater Canal.
Nearby, just a short walk away
Worsley Green and Fountain Monument
For details of Benjamin Franklin’s visit to the Delph see Searching for Benjamin Franklin in Lancashire
The Development of the Worsley Delph Industrial Complex, John Aldred and Judith Atkinson (2020), Eccles & District History Society. This excellent booklet is available the Eccles and District History Society. See here
Worsley Delph Interpretation signs, on site.
Worsley Civic Trust website
Eccles & District History Society website
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