During the 18th century Industrial Revolution, the lower reaches of the river became part of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, linking Manchester to the Mersey estuary. This was only suitable for small ships, and during periods of drought, there wasn’t enough depth for a fully-laden boat.
After the completion of the Bridgewater Canal in 1776, followed by the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1830, the Navigation fell into disrepair. It became polluted by industrial waste and was described in the 1880’s as being choked with silt and filth.
At the end of the 19th century, the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal altered the Irwell’s course and its waters were absorbed by the canal which brought ocean-going ships into the new Manchester and Salford docks.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the river had an abundance of fish and wildlife, and the people of Manchester used its water for drinking and washing etc. However, when factories, cotton mills and poor housing grew up along the river, it became ‘proverbial for the foulness of its water’ as it received the refuse from every industry (cotton factories, bleach works, dye works, chemical works, etc.), not to mention sewage of course. At one time, after the opening of the Suez Canal, the river was jokingly known as ‘Sewage Canal.’ Even the popularity of passenger boat trips on the river ended because of the vile smells from the river.
One famous character of this period was Mark Addy, who was born in a tenement on the banks of the river. He was a boatman and also the landlord of a pub in Salford, and became renowned for the number of rescues he performed for people who had fallen into the polluted river. He won several awards form the Humane Society and in 1878 became the only civilian to be awarded the Albert Medal, after he saved a young boy from a sewage-filled section of the river.