the Bridgewater Canal
One of the great canals
of the North West is the Bridgewater Canal which came about in the
18th century through an unlikely alliance between Francis Egerton,
the third Duke of Bridgewater, and James Brindley, a semi-literate
The Duke had inherited great wealth and a vast area of land around
Worsley, near Manchester, where coal had been discovered and where,
in the 17th century, coal-mining operations had begun.
The Duke’s land agent was John Gilbert who was keenly interested
in the development of the coal industry. However, like the Duke,
he was acutely aware that cheap transport was the key to prosperity.
The solution of this problem was essential to enable large quantities
of coal to be conveyed far afield from the Worsley district; railways
in those days were unheard of and the chief means of transport for
all classes of raw materials and merchandise was the pack-horse.
Enter James Brindley who, in 1758, was surveying the Potteries district
with the idea of cutting a canal from the River Weaver at Winsford.
Brindley had not received any formal education at an early age had
been apprenticed to a wheelwright at Sutton-in-Macclesfield, whom
he served for seven years.
On the death of his employer, Brindley carried on the firm’s
existing contracts and, in 1742, with no capital but his own pair
of hands and a capacity for work, he took over the entire business.
However, his lack of education proved a great handicap; he could
solve engineering problems, but he could barely read or write.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Bridgewater had successfully pushed through
a Parliamentary Bill allowing him to make the old Worsley Brook
navigable to Salford.
Brindley was persuaded by Gilbert and the Duke to shelve his other
plans for the time being and together they commenced a long and
hazardous journey that led to the Bridgewater Canal.
The Duke had wealth and land; Gilbert knowledge and business acumen;
and Brindley the ideas and tenacity.
Brindley cast aside the Worsley Brook scheme and prepared an alternative,
for a separate waterway, on one level, to run from Worsley to Manchester,
seven and a quarter miles without a single lock. The Duke, mindful
of the fact that the River Irwell had to be crossed, was doubtful
of Brindley’s idea being a practical success, especially with
regard to his proposed Barton aqueduct.
The idea was also much ridiculed by other engineers, but nevertheless
the plans for the Worsley Canal were completed and Parliament approved
them, almost without opposition.
Construction went ahead at a pace and upon completion thousands
flocked to visit this triumph of inland navigation, and to see the
aqueduct at Barton which was described as a river in the air with
another flowing beneath.
The first boatload of coal passed over the Barton aqueduct on July
17th, 1761, and the new cheap transport soon halved the price of
coal, from 7d per cwt.
The Duke was delighted and immediately proceeded with a further
venture of cutting a canal to Liverpool.
Brindley was again the engineer to carry out the enterprise, bigger
in proportion than the Worsley, and with greater problems to overcome.
Unlike the Worsley Canal, the new venture provoked fierce opposition
in Parliament and amongst the aristocratic squires and landowners
of North Cheshire. Long and vigorous debates took place in the House
Brindley himself travelled to London to plead the case and demonstrate
his ideas and, eventually, the bill was passed, though not without
stringent conditions regarding the purchase of land which were such
that the financial resources of even the wealthy Duke would be taxed
to the utmost.
From a point known as Waters Meeting, near Stretford, Brindley began
his canal to Runcorn and he was soon called upon to overcome quicksand
and bog in the Mersey Valley. He safely negotiated the upper reaches
and cutting progressed through Sale, Timperley, Broadheath and Dunham
Little hump-back bridges were built, warehouses constructed along
the way and barges were utilised as floating workshops for the army
of blacksmiths, carpenters, stonemasons etc.
Brindley took personal responsibility for everything and yet his
weekly wages never exceeded one guinea.
Speedy headway was made until formidable trouble was encountered
in the Bollin Valley where it was necessary to construct high and
substantial embankments to maintain a water level. Whilst this was
being done the cutting was continued to Lymm.
The Duke, however, was beginning to feel the financial strain, especially
as the cost of labour had far exceeded budgets. The most rigid economies
were exercised and the Duke himself even ceased to use his ancestral
home. Worsley Hall, and for a time went to live in a lonely inn
These were gloomy days and for a time completion hung in the balance.
To assist matters, Gilbert went round the Duke’s tenants,
borrowing £10 here and £5 there, but this too soon dried
A climax was reached when the cutting had progressed to a section
between Stockton Heath and Runcorn. The workmen refused to work
unless their wages were paid on a regularl weekly basis.
The Duke, rather in desperation prompted by his refusal to mortgage
his lands, arranged a £25,000 loan from a leading London banker,
so enabling work to proceed.
At Preston Brook, the Bridgewater Canal was to later link with the
Trent & Mersey Canal, which was to become a vital water link
between the Potteries and Liverpool.
The Bridgewater then continued to Runcorn, to a point within half
a mile of the Mersey estuary, where Bridnley had planned to construct
a 500-yard aqueduct, to carry the canal over the river and on to
Liverpool. However, the funds were not available and instead, the
tidal waters of the Mersey were utilised to connect from Runcorn
to Liverpool, via a series of thirteen locks and basins, a fall
of 72ft within half a mile.
Here, at Runcorn, on an island site, the Duke built a fine house
for his own occupation.
The total cost of the construction from Manchester to Runcorn, including
warehouses and wharfes, amounted to £220,000 and occupied
a period of eleven years.
On January 1, 1773, thousands witnessed the amazing specatacle of
the first barge passing from the Bridgewater Canal to the River
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