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BBC to screen Manchester Ship Canal history documentary

A new series charting the impact of canals in the formation of the country’s industrial and social history will be broadcast tonight on the BBC.

Manchester-born presenter and canal expert Liz McIvor is the Curator of Social History and Technology at the Bradford Museums and Galleries. She wrote the book which accompanies the series Canals: The Making of a Nation.

The programme will see presenter Liz travel along The Manchester Ship Canal route, to tell a deeper story of how our waterways helped change our lives – and how that legacy lives on today.

The ‘golden age’ of canals opened up trade and acted as a catalyst to the industrial revolution in the 1770s-1830s. Big changes ensued.

Liz, who lives in Manchester and is an expert in industrial history and curator at Bradford Industrial Museum, takes viewers on a journey which shows just how instrumental canals were in shaping our modern world and how they came to be.

The six-part series starts on BBC Four next week (1 September at 8pm) with each episode covering a different region and canal route each with its own special interest story – themes including engineering, geology, capitalism, heritage, and ‘The Boat People’.

In the North West episode (The Workers) Liz McIvor’s route is along The Manchester Ship Canal where she tells the story of the men who built our canals – the navigators or ‘navvies’. They represented an ‘army’ of hard physical men who were capable of enduring tough labour for long hours. Many ‘roved’ the countryside looking for work and a better deal.

Liz McIvor at Latchford on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal

They gained a reputation as troublesome outsiders, fond of drinking and living a life of ungodly debauchery. But who were they? Unreliable heathens and outcasts, or unsung heroes who used might and muscle to build canals and railways?

The Manchester Ship Canal was the swansong for the navvies and hailed as the greatest engineering feat of the Victorian Age.

Liz said: “The canals have been covered by television programmes before, which have lately tended to focus on them as pleasureways. This is how most of us know and love them today…but not so long ago they were used for the opposite of leisure and were not the rural idyll they now seem.

“Although so many use them, it can be hard to see how they relate to each other and get a sense of the rich history and culture they were and remain, a part of. We wanted to open up the subject and act as a way in for people who were neither boat owners nor historians.”

She adds: “Each canal has its own special interest story and each region covered gave a chance to explore a different angle of a massive story.”

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Tom is SalfordOnline.com's News Editor and community co-ordinator.