The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally Ho (Part 1 of 3)

MSC route

The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally Ho

The rhyme and song were often sung by children playing skipping games – the lyrics suited the ritual chants for children ‘jumping in’ the skipping ropes. Perhaps the term ‘big ships’ provide a clue to the origins. The Manchester Ship canal was opened in 1894 and is the eighth-longest ship canal in the world, being only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America. The MSC was built for ocean-going ships – there were only six ships in the world too big to use the Ship Canal. These big ships started their journeys on the canal which led to the sea. The Manchester Ship Canal connected Manchester, W England, with the Mersey estuary at Eastham, Birkenhead. Perhaps this is the origin of the song…

This article intends to inform the reader about the historical value of the Manchester Ship Canal to Frodsham Marsh from the 19th Century to present. The development of ‘sludge tanks’ and how they have shaped the land for birds and birding in Cheshire in the 1980’s is told in three parts.

The marshes at Frodsham and Helsby have seen changes to their land since medieval times but nothing prepared them for the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal and it’s completion in 1894. With the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution in Northern England a new era of prosperity was sweeping the land. A sea port positioned in Liverpool needed ready access to goods that were manufactured from the industrial areas of Manchester and beyond to service an expanding economy. The cumbersome and slow going canal system positioned inland was limited to the amount it could transport. A radical concept and the need for bigger, better and faster water vessels to service this insatiable appetite was required. The only alternative was to construct an ocean-going water course suitable to support ships to penetrate the main hubs of industry inland. So a decision was made to build a large canal system and a major engineering feat was embarked upon with the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal from 1887.

The Mission Hall at Marshville, Frodsham Marsh

Mission huts were established at ‘Saltworks Corner’ for the ‘navvies’ who were recruited from far and wide but mostly consisted of Irish and Dutch labourers. construction methods were to be state of the art, with new machines and devices employed alongside the army of “navvies” (an abbreviation of “navigators” – the men and boys who dug the canal).

Construction work where the de-masting berths will be at Eastham looking towards Mount Manisty probably about 1891

Excavation work on the construction of the MSC at Stanlow looking east to Frodsham

24.04.1890 at Weston Point 2

The MSC at Weston Point (Christ Church still stands today) looking east to the Weaver Estuary.

MSC at Ellesmere Port Filling. 11th July 1891

The Mersey enters the MSC for the first time at Ellesmere Port.

LR Image 010 Temporary Bridge

A temporary bridge for work access.

Frodsham Sludge Pool (2) 17.5.53

An old image of No 4 tank looking south 1953. Image by Rob Cockbain.

This is all fascinating stuff but what has this got to do with Frodsham Marsh?

Well, there is a by-product from the Manchester Ship Canal because every time the lock gates at Easton are opened they are inundated by thousands of tons of river water and its ensuing silt. This silt is washed along the entire length of the canal and would eventually clog the artery it supplies. One way of clearing this mud is to engage dredging vessels which would pump it out of the canal to a containing area: dredging boats were commissioned to facilitate this purpose. The next step requires an area to pump the silt (sludge) from the bed of the canal into a secured area. This also provides a controllable area and a site for additional pumping after it settles. It was decided that Frodsham and Helsby marshes had the landmass to contain a developing series of deposit grounds for the silt to be pumped into. The first ‘sludge tank’ was appropriately No 1 tank, situated on salt marsh (The Corner) at the mouth of the Weaver estuary. This was followed by Numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, and finally 6 which is presently still in use. At various stages over the intervening years extensions to the width and height of the deposit tanks have evolved. As mentioned earlier No 6 tank is presently ‘active’ but, this article (in its three parts) is concerned with the construction, development, and settling. The other two articles colour the picture more with a rich variety of birds that were attracted to the water filled scrapes that were created during ongoing work on No 4 tank in the 1980’s,

18.11.12. Reed Bunting, Pumping Station Frodsham Marsh. Tony Broome.

The MSC today with an ocean-going vessel ploughing its course past Frodsham Marsh and Score.

Unfortunately, I have not come across any more older images of the sludge tanks from the early part of the 20th century but if you do or have some please send them to me and I’ll insert them in this post.

Listed below are links to more archival material concerning the Manchester Ship Canal.


Part 1: The History of No.6 tank

Part 2: April Come She Will

” A pink, a pink, you know? A Pink Flamingo on Frodsham Marshes”. Thanks to James Walsh for putting me on to this one.

Manchester Ship Canal…/big%20ditch.htm
The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally Ho




Illustration of Egyptian Vulture.. Bill Morton

The idea behind this is to put my work out there again and generate some work from it. So, if you like what you see and would like to use my work then drop me an email at In the mean time here are a couple of samples and for more… .

Art work watercolour of Wall  Lizard)

Watercolour of ‘Living Fossil’ used in a cover design for an environmental education pack.