No.35 A Lapse in the Time-Space Continuum

When Worlds Collide 

This week I’d like to have a look at a couple of craft which were wrecked in the Manchester Ship Canal before it was built! How can this be?

They were discovered during the works to construct the Canal, a logboat being found at Barton-upon-Irwell in 1889 and a similar vessel discovered at Irlam to the south-west the following year. They were both recorded as a distinctive Lancashire type from very similar contexts, at approximately 25ft deep in alluvial soil. Both were also largely intact at the time of finding, suggesting their preservation in the local environment and that the wreck process had simply been one of long abandonment.

The second find gave rise to a very interesting local newspaper report comparing the two. It was noted that both examples had ‘sustained an injury’ from the heartwood breaking out, the Barton craft at the ‘bows’ and the Irlam craft at the ‘stern’, having been both mended. According to the Manchester Times in 1890, the Irlam boat had been found 100 yards from the course of the river, its location perhaps attributable to stranding when the river changed course. I can think of other reasons, perhaps a local flooding event, or intended recycling when the vessel reached the end of its useful life.

I’ve become quite a connoisseur of prolix Victorian journalese, here suggesting that the wrecking process was very nearly completed by mechanical means:

‘The [Irlam] boat is in an admirable state of preservation, far better than was the Barton one, and it suffered very little in the process of extraction, a piece of good fortune which is ascribable to the fact that the beds at that particular spot were being removed by spade labour: and though the British navvy is not renowned for a light and tender touch, still he would bear away the palm for delicacy from his steam rival, who snatched an ample mouthful out of the side of the Barton boat before its nature was discovered.’ (Manchester Times, July 5, 1890, No.1,719)

For more on the steam navvy, please click here.

The Barton boat was radiocarbon-dated to approximately 965-1095 AD, but this late Anglo-Saxon craft did have something in common with Victorian traffic on the canal. It has been suggested that it was used to transport grain, one of the principal cargoes also carried on the Ship Canal (along with cotton for t’mills, of course). Plus ça change . . . 

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