It began as a peaceful Sunday morning on the banks of the Trent and Mersey Canal, July 1907. Mr W Smart and his brother, recorded the Northwich Guardian, were fishing with a number of other anglers when they were startled by a loud rumbling noise, “like distant thunder.” To their amazement, a whirlpool appeared near the opposite bank, and the water began to pour over the side of the canal. Within seconds, the bank of the canal gave way and ” the rush of thousands of tons of water … scoured a gaping chasm some sixty feet across and some thirty deep.”
This catastrophic collapse of the canal caused a torrent of water to pour down towards the Witton and Marbury brooks, carrying trees and tons of sand and clay. A haystack was washed away, along with ducks, geese and chickens from Forge Farm.
Canal boats were sucked towards the breach, and as the water drained were left stuck in the mud as the canal rapidly emptied. The Salt Union noted the loss of two barges, including “our boat Sandra, loaded with salt from A J Thompson,” presumably from the Lion Salt Works.
There were dramatic scenes on each side of the breach. Some barges were pulled backwards on the current, and boatman had to force their horses forward to resist being dragged back into the hole. Others were swept forward, overtaking the horses, which had to be released from their traces.
As quickly as possible the flood gates at Marbury were closed and the stop planks at Marston put in place, cutting off the supply of water. But the damage had been done. Half a mile of canal lay empty, and a number of boats, some capsized, were stranded on the mud. The fishermen could now collect bucketfuls of fish, which lay flopping on the bed of the canal.
What had caused this disaster?
It was, of course, subsidence, caused by the collapse of the Marston Hall Mine which lay under the canal at this point. Its 28 acres of caverns, 110 yards below the surface, had flooded in 1905. This eventually caused the culvert carrying Forge Brook under the canal to fracture, undermining the canal bed, and bringing about the burst.
Astonishingly, the damage was repaired in just over two weeks, with up to 200 men packing the breach with clay by spade and wheel barrow. One heavy iron barge was found too difficult to salvage, so was buried in situ, and remains there to this day.
As Colin Edmondson notes in his booklet “Undermined,” a second collapse occurred in 1958, caused by subsidence above the Marston Old and Adelaide mines. This time the authorities were ready, and a new stretch of the canal was built and in use before the collapse occurred.