Wednesday, 22 June 2011
James Brindley (1716-1772) was a self-taught genius of civil engineering, who was responsible for the design and building of the first network of canals in England.He worked with the immensely rich young Duke of Bridgewater and the Duke's agent, John Gilbert, on a series of increasingly ambitious projects: first the Worsley canal to bring the coal from the Duke's mines into Manchester, next the Bridgewater canal to link to the river Mersey at Runcorn, and then the Trent-Mersey canal, 93 miles long. (Amongst other benefits, the Trent-Mersey canal enabled the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood, to bring in his china clay from Cornwall via Liverpool to his factory in Stoke-on-Trent, and then ship his finished products to the London salerooms via Hull) Brindley did not live to see the fulfilment of his greatest vision: a "Grand Cross" of canals, centred on Birmingham, linking together England's four principal river systems; the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames.
Brindley's canal designs involved daring innovations, such as the Barton Bridge aqueduct (shown in the picture above) which carried the Bridgewater canal over the river Irwell, and the Harecastle Tunnel, 2880 yards long, a few miles north of Stoke-on-Trent (shown in the picture below). Contemporary commentators were well aware that nothing like this had ever been attempted before, and everyone hailed Brindley's genius. He was well paid for his work: his salary as Surveyor-General for the Trent-Mersey project was £200 a year, almost ten times the income of a labourer in those days, and he was hired as a consultant for other canal plans as well.
I would like to focus on one minor incident in his life. In 1762 Brindley went down to London with John Gilbert and the Duke to give evidence at a Parliamentary hearing into the plans for building the Bridgewater canal. Brindley was almost illiterate and found it hard to explain his designs to others, but he was undaunted by the occasion. He brought troughs of clay and sand to demonstrate to their Lordships how a canal-bed could be made water-tight, and drew diagrams in chalk on the floor to explain the workings of a lock-gate. The plans were approved. While in London, he was taken to the theatre to watch the great actor David Garrick star in Shakespeare's "Richard III". Brindley had never seen a play before, and Garrick's performance as the wicked king so unsettled him that it is said he had to spend the next few days in bed before he was fit to resume work! Nowadays it is inconceivable that anyone could reach the age of 45 without ever having seen a dramatic production, and would be so much affected by one.
The picture below shows the northern entrance to the Harecastle tunnel, viewed from Kidsgrove station. Brindley's tunnel is the one on the right, but for a long time now it has been too unsafe to be entered. It was replaced by the left-hand tunnel, built by Thomas Telford between 1824 and 1827, which is still in use today. Most of Brindley's canals are still functioning.
For more on Brindley and his canals, see my later piece, "The Canal Duke"