MUCH is made of Salford’s canal history, after all it remains one of the great legacies of the industrial age.

But less is known of a remarkable underground transport system that was essential in ensuring that the coal which was so vital for powering the mills and the railways got to where it needed.

Stretching out underneath Worsley and the surrounding area to this day are around 46 miles of underground canals, the majority of them blocked up and forgotten about.

This staggering engineering feat was once a busy coal-producing thoroughfare along the lines of the London Underground.

Initially the brainchild of John Gilbert around 1721, the land agent of the Duke of Bridgewater who owned the mines at Worsley, the tunnels also helped to drain the mines. Eventually the canals operated on four different levels and they were connected by watered-powered planes and lifts. The canals burrowed their way brick by hand-made brick until they linked every colliery in the area

Thousands of tons of coal emerged from their dark depths during the Industrial Revolution but as the pits closed, more and more sections of the underground waterway were closed down, occasionally becoming dangerous as gases built up which were potentially lethal.

Normal barges could not operate in the underground tunnels. Instead, the main means of transport were boats known as starvationers. which at around four and a half feet wide could slip easily through the passages.

Coal was loaded on to them at the coal face and then they were hauled out until they finally emerged into the daylight.

One of the main entrances to the underground canal network was was an old sandstone quarry near Worsley Brook. At one point a million tons of coal a year passed through this tunnel which led to severe congestion underground and required a second major tunnel to be added.