River Irwell

Environment and its history (summary)

Until the early part of the 19th Century, the waters of the River Irwell ran clean, provided drinking water for people of Lancashire and Manchester and commanding many hundreds of pounds for Salmon fishing rights. During this period, the Manchester Ship Canal was developed and linked to the Irwell, transforming Manchester into a major seaport and later the largest industrial estate in Europe (Trafford Park). The river became vital in the industrial revolution of North West England and became subject of great modification, including walling, deepening, re-alignment, culverts, widening, dredging, straightening and construction of weirs. Hundreds of mills and factories including bleach works, tanneries, cotton mills, paper mills, gas works and houses sprung up along the river banks, all using the rivers waters. The river became severely polluted with industrial waste causing the Irwell to become almost completely devoid of fish and plant life. The last recorded salmon was captured from the Irwell in the 1850’s.

During the 20th century, as industry declined and pollution legislation was introduced, there became a slow improvement in water quality. However, Baron Greenwood of Rossendale, a prominent British Labour Party politician, still had to call attention to the pollution of the River Irwell in an address to parliament in 1950. Here, he defined the river as “the hardest working river in the whole of the UK”, claiming “no other inland river has made a greater contribution to the industrial greatness of this country”.

Today industry is further reduced and operates much more sensitively. Many of the historical modified structures are now in poor condition, crumbling and collapsing, against which the river has begun to naturally adjust. Through wild fish recolonisation and fish stocking schemes in the 1980’s, fish are now present throughout the rivers course and plant life is becoming better established.

Cheesden Lumb photo
Cheesden Lumb Mill, 2015, crumbling and collapsing. Cheesden Brook