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The charity making life better by water

Explore our historic site

Our museum is housed in a conservation area with 19 Grade II listed buildings where you can walk outdoors around the locks, docks and warehouses spotting the signs that reveal it was a busy working area. You can also visit the forge, stables, workers cottages and the main exhibition area in the Island Warehouse. Somewhere to explore no matter what the weather.

National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, with the canal in the foreground

The Bridgewater Canal was the first canal built in 1763 to transport coal cheaply between Worsley and Manchester. There followed a period of canal mania for the next 60 years and by 1805 there were over 3,000 miles of canals.

The Ellesmere Canal Wirral Line

The museum stands on what was originally the Wirral line of the Ellesmere Canal – a bold scheme to link the Severn at Shrewsbury with the Dee and Mersey estuaries. Work started in 1791 and although never completed in its original form, this section was opened in 1795. It was built by Thomas Telford who engaged William Jessop, a renowned canal engineer to act as consultant to the project.

The canal was built to accommodate 14-foot wide vessels so that coastal flats could gain more direct access to Chester from the Mersey. This can be seen from the wide locks which were completed in 1796. The narrower locks alongside were added in about 1835 when this canal branch was finally connected to the national canal network which extended to Birmingham and beyond.

For the first 30 years there was little trans-shipment facilities and the principal trade on the canal during this early period was the Ellesmere Canal Packet which carried passengers from Chester to Ellesmere Port where they would connect with a ferry to take them across the Mersey to Liverpool – the whole trip taking them about three hours.

When the canal was finally linked up to the rest of the network, there was a significant increase in traffic on the canal and Telford was asked to prepare plans for an expansion of the dock resulting in the new Lower Basin Dock and warehousing which were built in 1843. In the 1890's it was the foremost fly boat centre in the North of England but congestion was such that boats could sometime be waiting two days to unload.

With competition from other modes of transport the Shropshire Union Company ceased trading in 1921. The dock was still run as part of the Manchester Ship Canal operations for a number of years but eventually in 1958 the whole dock closed and fell into disrepair until a group of heritage narrowboat enthusiasts first succeeded in opening a small museum in Telford's Toll House in 1976.

The making of the museum

A photographic exhibition showing the early days of the museum is on display and you can compare the buildings as they were with the buildings here today.

Last Edited: 12 March 2021

photo of a location on the canals
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