Ship Canal letter, 1891

NatWest Group History 100 object 18: letter to Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co from the chairman of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, 1891.

When the Manchester Ship Canal was completed in 1894 it was the biggest navigation canal in the world. It was a formidable feat of engineering, but had also called for heroic efforts by its financiers, including the issuance of (at the time) the largest-value cheque ever written. In this letter, the canal company's chairman thanks its London bankers, Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co, for their support: 'But for your timely assistance and valuable counsel', he reflects, 'it is very doubtful if the Manchester Ship Canal would have been begun'.

Summer 1887 was the key moment for Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co's part in the story. Parliament had passed the Ship Canal Bill, authorising the building of the canal, two years earlier. That Bill dictated that the company must raise its entire £5m capital, plus £1.75m to buy the existing Bridgwater Canal, within two years, or permission would lapse. Soon after the Bill was passed, NM Rothschild & Son had promoted the company's stock on the London Stock Exchange, but it proved an unpopular investment. Not enough buyers came forward, and it was withdrawn from the market.

Refusing to let the plan die, the canal's promoters launched a new prospectus in May 1887, just three months before the two-year deadline. This time, more emphasis was placed on securing investment in Lancashire, where the success or otherwise of the canal would have most impact. The company's principal local banker was National Provincial Bank of England, a bank with a strong presence in north west England. It went to great lengths to promote and administer capital-raising activities.

Such an enormous sum could not, however, be raised in Manchester alone. The company also depended on help from London. This was where Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co came in. As a merchant bank, it was already experienced in financing large-scale infrastructure projects. Its involvement in railway-building all over the world had earned it the nickname 'the Railway Bank'. At the beginning of August 1887 the canal company's chairman Sir Joseph Lee travelled from Manchester to London to meet the bank and conduct urgent negotiations.

'But for your timely assistance and valuable counsel it is very doubtful if the Manchester Ship Canal would have been begun'

The negotiations were a success, and on 3 August 1887 Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co became London bankers to the Manchester Ship Canal Company. A cheque for £1.7m - at the time, the largest ever written - was drawn immediately, enabling the company to buy the Bridgwater Canal. On 6 August, just one day before the expiry of the time limit, the Manchester Ship Canal Company announced that it had both met its capital-raising target and bought the Bridgwater.

Site work began in November that year. Construction was fraught with difficulties, particularly in the winter of 1890 when floods, the death of the contractor and rising costs conspired to cause financial problems. Manchester Corporation was instrumental in raising capital and pushing the project through this difficult time, but Glyn, Mills also played its part, advancing a further £250,000 and providing vital access to the London money markets.

The canal finally opened in 1894. Its status as one of Victorian Britain's finest engineering feats was underlined when Queen Victoria herself sailed down part of the canal at the opening ceremony.