Then & Now
The Victorian picture above is of a stagnant dead waterway which, if shown in colour, would be as close to black as one can get. Why? Because it depicts the foul River Irwell once described as “The hardest worked river in the world”. Who can deny it?
Rising in Rossendale the clear waters quickly became polluted and discoloured as cotton mills and dye works pumped in effluents of all kinds, including soap residues which once caused the river to disappear under several inches of foam which blew across the surrounding countryside like a snowstorm. The water also changed colour on a regular basis depending on what dyes were being discarded. Even worse, the river was used for the disposal
of raw human waste which was common enough in the Industrial Revolution when virtually all urban rivers doubled as sewers.
The older picture is looking west towards Salford Docks, and shows the sootblackened Victoria Bridge, constructed in 1839 to replace an older 14th- century bridge, connecting Salford, on the right, to Manchester. In the distance is Blackfriars Bridge completed in 1820, which replaced an 18th- century wooden structure.
The river flows into the Manchester Ship Canal which, until Manchester Liners and all associated industries ceased operation, and the area was transformed into its current leisure complex including BBC Media City, Lowry Centre and the Imperial War Museum North, had up to ten feet of sewage sitting in its 30 feet cut. The sight and smell was appalling with no fish or any other living creatures possible. Amazingly, during the early 20th century there was a ferry from Victoria Bridge to the docks but it was quickly abandoned because of the pong from the water.
The reverse looking modern picture was taken from Blackfriars Bridge and shows Manchester Cathedral and the cleaned- up light sandstone Victoria Bridge, now Grade- II listed. The coarse red- brick offices have been replaced by light concrete buildings and the water, now flowing freely, is full of fish throughout its whole course. Contrast this happier scene with the dismal and depressing picture opposite.