In the middle of the 18th century Runcorn was effectively a cul-de-sac which was by-passed by the turnpike road built in 1786 on the line of the old Roman road between Chester and Warrington. There was a ferry across the river Mersey, but this was unreliable and he demands made on it were so infrequent that the ferryman had to have a second occupation in order to make a living, Runcorn was 'an obscure village' 1 .
Throughout the 18th century the Mersey and Irwell Navigation between Manchester and Warrington been a factor in increasing the traffic on the river. But without more and improved links for transportation Runcorn may well have retained its rural image and remained a health spa. This was all changed from the time of the 1770s when the building of the Bridgewater canal was completed. This canal formed a link between the town of Runcorn and the Duke of Bridgewater's coal mines at Worsley and also with Castlefield in the centre of Manchester as well as linking Manchester to the great port of Liverpool. Between Worsley, Manchester and Runcorn there were no locks. However in order to reach the River Mersey, a line of 10 locks with a fall of 'near 90 feet' 2 had to be built from the town of Runcorn to the river, and by 1773 these were all complete. A port developed at the bottom of the line of locks and by 1776 the canal was open throughout its length from Runcorn to Manchester 3 . The total cost of the canal was £220,0004 . Runcorn now had access by an inland waterway to Cheshire, Lancashire and, via the Mersey, to the coastal ports of Great Britain, to the Irish Sea and thence to the Atlantic. Bert Starkey has drawn attention to the largely unrecognised importance of the port of Runcorn, which he describes as 'an epicentre of trade routes' during the late 18th and the 19th centuries5 . The arrival of the Bridgewater canal was to have a huge effect on Runcorn; as Nickson states, 'The sleepy hamlet awoke to a life of activity'6 .
Some years earlier, in 1757, the first industrial canal in England, the Sankey canal, had been completed. This followed the line of the Sankey brook and it linked the Lancashire town of St Helens with the north bank of the river Mersey at Sankey Bridges, Warrington. In about 1772 a new entrance lock was opened further downstream at Fiddler's Ferry7 . The canal provided a means of transporting large quantities of coal from the Lancashire coal fields to the river Mersey.
In 1777, shortly after the Bridgewater canal was completed, it was joined to the Trent and Mersey canal by a junction at Preston Brook, some 6 miles from Runcorn. The Trent and Mersey canal gave access to the industrial area of the Five Towns of the Potteries and, beyond that, to the East Midlands. During the next few years, the Bridgewater canal was joined to the Leeds and Liverpool canal through the Leigh branch from Worsley to Wigan, and the Trent and Mersey canal was joined to the Shropshire Union canal via the Middlewich branch from Middlewich to Barbridge. Through these links Runcorn was joined to the entire inland waterway system of England.
And there were yet more waterway links to come. In 1804 the Runcorn to Latchford canal (popularly known as the Old Quay canal) was completed at a cost of £48,0008 . This formed part of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation system which gave an alternative route to Manchester and provided competition with the Bridgewater canal for the carriage of both goods and passengers 9. Then in 1810 the Weston canal was completed which provided access form the river Weaver to the Mersey avoiding the difficult entrance at the mouth of the Weaver10 . This navigation system led to Northwich and Winsford and so provided easier access to the salt fields of central Cheshire.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, carriage by water was the only effective method of transportation to and from Runcorn. The roads were poor, unmade and defective and no through traffic was possible. The nearest points to Runcorn on the turnpike road from Chester to Warrington were some miles away at Preston Brook and Daresbury. The turnpike road between Runcorn and Northwich was not opened until 1820. Railways did not develop until the 1830s and they did not come to Runcorn itself until the 1860s. However because of its numerous links by water, in the early 19th century Runcorn became a sort of mini 'boom town'. Its population increased six-fold in the first 50 years of the century. Industries developed within the town, the most important of which were quarrying, ship-building and the manufacture of soap and chemicals. The port itself was a vital link for the development of the Industrial Revolution in the North West of England and in the Midlands.
Manchester lies some 30 miles inland from Runcorn. It has been described as 'the first predominantly industrial city in the history of the world'. As such it played a major role in starting the Industrial Revolution and its key industry was the textile industry. In the early 18th century the cotton industry was not mechanised and it was spread widely in domestic workshops throughout Lancashire. It was powered initially by human labour, then by water mills driven by the numerous streams and rivers of the county. The major turning point in the Industrial Revolution came with the development of steam-powered mills. The first steam-powered cotton mill was developed in Manchester in the 1780s and by 1794 there were three in operation. With the development of these mills a vast number of associated industries arose. Manchester was a 'boom town', its population growing from around 40,000 in the 1780s to over 70,000 in 1801 (over 84,000 if you include Salford)11 .
All this activity depended upon an efficient transport system. In order to get raw products to Manchester and to distribute manufactured products to their markets they had to travel along the waterways. The Bridgewater canal and the Mersey and Irwell Navigation were foremost among these and both of them had access to the river Mersey at Runcorn.