Francis Egerton was born in 1736 and as the result of heavy mortality within his family inherited vast wealth and the title of 3rd Duke of Bridgewater at the age of just twelve. He attracted little attention as a youth: indeed, some of his relatives thought he was feeble-minded. It seems he was disappointed in love as a teenager: certainly he never married. When he came of age at 21 he was thus extremely rich and entirely free. What was he to do with his life?
He could, if he wished, follow the example of other young aristocrats and embark on a career of dissipation, expending his fortune on wine and women, racehorses and cards. On a more positive level, he could build himself a lavish mansion in the latest style and collect works of art. Or he could go into politics, and spend his money on the costly business of electioneering. But Bridgewater did none of these: instead, he decided to build a canal.
The advantages of water transport had been well-known for centuries. A horse could only pull a cartload of half a ton on the bad roads of the time, but could manage 25 tons towing a barge. Adam Smith was to calculate that “6 or 8 men, on a boat, can carry, in the same time, the same quantity of goods from London to Edinburgh as 50 wagons, attended by 100 men and drawn by 400 horses”.
Amongst the duke’s many sources of wealth were coalmines at Worsley, near Manchester; but there were problems. Not only was the cost of transporting the coal into the city prohibitively high, but the mines were liable to flooding, . The Duke and John Gilbert, his agent (effectively the CEO of the vast Bridgewater estates) decided to resolve the problems by building a canal, ten miles long. They obtained a private Act of Parliament authorising them to do this (which, amongst its provisions imposed maximum charges for carriage on the canal) and employed a near-illiterate engineering genius called James Brindley for the work. Brindley devised an ingenious system using the water pumped from the mines to help fill the canal, and built Barton Bridge, an aqueduct to carry the canal over the river Irwell. Nothing like this had been attempted since Roman times, and the project was dismissed by critics as "a castle in the air", but after initial difficulties it worked, and soon became one of the wonders of the age.
(This contemporary picture shows the Duke proudly posing by Barton Bridge, his famous aqueduct. Sadly, the bridge was demolished in 1894)
The costs were enormous; over a thousand pounds a mile (and to put all such figures in context, we should remember that most families in England at that time were having to survive on no more than £25 a year), which was met by the Duke taking out loans, but even before it was opened in 1761 his ambitions were extending. His new scheme was a branch from the Worsley canal to run 25 miles to reach the Mersey estuary at Runcorn. A new Act of Parliament would be needed, and the Duke, Gilbert and Brindley travelled down to London to lobby support. In February 1762 Brindley was able to record, in his inimitable spelling, the final success of their bill in the House of Lords:-
“ad a grate Division of 127 fort Duk
for te Duke 29 Me Jorete”
Brindley had drawn chalk diagrams on the floor to explain the workings of his lock-gates to their lordships; but the Duke’s expenses for the trip included a mysterious payment of £300 to a certain “Mr Bill”, so we may deduce that a certain amount of bribery was also involved.
This new venture, to be known as the Bridgewater canal, proved to be more difficult and expensive to build than had been envisaged, and once again the Duke covered the costs largely by borrowing. The canal was partially opened, and making a profit, by 1771, but determined campaigns of obstruction from local landowners delayed final completion until 1776. By this time money was extremely short; Gilbert’s salary was over £5,000 in arrears and the Duke’s debts had risen to £300,000, incurring interest payments of £11,000 a year. But with the true spirit of a fanatic, he became involved in even grander projects.
For many years people had contemplated a canal to open up the heart of England to water transport. The Duke had personal connections with the midlands: his sister had married Earl Gower, the richest landowner in north Staffordshire, and Gilbert’s brother Thomas was Gower’s agent; important and trusted enough for Gower to have him elected to parliament for the nearby borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. In December 1765 a public meeting was held at Wolseley Bridge, just south of Stafford, with Gower in the chair and influential local landowners like Bagot, Anson and Grey in attendance. Also present was Josiah Wedgwood, the master potter, who needed the means to bring in china clay from Cornwall to his works near Stoke-on-Trent and then to transport his high-quality wares down to London for sale. It was resolved to build a canal to link the rivers Trent and Mersey, and thus allow a direct link by water between the west and east coasts. It would connect with the Bridgewater canal at Preston Brook and run south to Stoke, then follow the line of the Trent until the river became navigable. It would be 93 miles long, with 76 locks, 160 aqueducts and 213 road bridges, with its most spectacular feature being be the Harecastle tunnel, 2880 yards in length, through the hills north of Stoke. An Act of Parliament for this was passed in 1766, and a company set up, with Wedgwood as Treasurer and Brindley as Surveyor-General on a salary of £200 a year. £150,000 was to be raised from shareholders, who included Bridgewater, Gower, Wedgwood and Gilbert, though as is the way of such projects even in those days, it ended up costing twice this sum!
(This is the northern entrance to the Harecastle tunnel, at Kidsgrove, north Staffordshire. Brindley's tunnel is the one on the right, and is now too dangerous to be opened. The larger tunnel on the left, built a generation later by Thomas Telford, is still in use)
Brindley saw the Trent-Mersey canal as a “Grand Trunk”, with branches that would link with England’s two other principal rivers, the Severn and the Thames, so at the same time he was involved in other projects to link this canal with a Staffordshire-Worcestershire canal running south-west to join the Severn at Stourport, another to Birmingham, to Coventry and Oxford. Brindley acted as consultant to all these schemes. The “canal age” had taken off! The Trent-Mersey was partially opened and running by 1773, and completed by 1777. The Duke of Bridgewater’s debts reached a peak of £364,000 in 1786, equivalent to tens of millions today,, but by this time his profits were almost covering the annual interest payments of £17,258 and he was confident of eventual success.
Brindley died of diabetes, complicated by a chill caught whilst surveying the course for the Caldon canal near Stoke, in 1772, and thus did not survive to see most of his great projects completed. Gilbert, whose share of the work was at least as important as Brindley’s, died in 1795. The Duke of Bridgewater lived until 1803, by which time his canals were immensely profitable, and the value of his shares in the Trent-Mersey company had multiplied 15 times, though most of the earnings were still being used to pay the debts. He was increasingly eccentric in his later years, accused by his fellow-peers of bad language, irreligion and a generally dirty appearance. Right till the end of his life he was engaged a new project: the Lea Navigation to run from London to Hertford. He never married, so at his death his dukedom became extinct, and the huge returns on his projects went to swell the already extensive wealth of his sister’s family, the Gowers of Trentham. Certainly Bridgewater must be regarded as an obsessive, even a fanatic; but without his obsession, without his enormous resources and vital social and political connections, the industries of the Midlands could hardly have taken off. When Friedrich Engels commented that England had a “bourgeois aristocracy”, he might have had in his mind the likes of the Duke of Bridgewater.
(This grandiose building is the "Duke of Bridgewater" inn, beside the Trent-Mersey canal at Longport, Stoke-on-Trent. Alas, when I was there last year it was empty and seeking a new landlord)