The Father of English Canals - James Brindley

Created on 06/01/2016

James Brindley (1716-1772)

2016 sees the 300th anniversary of the birth of the canal builder and engineer, James Brindley, often referred to as the 'father of English canals'. 

The inland waterways network as we know it today has its origins in the work of James Brindley.  His vision to link the River Trent to the River Mersey led to the building of 365 miles of canal at the heart of the network. 

Photo: James Brindley by Francis Parsons, oil on canvas, 1770, cropped, NPG 6170 © National Portrait Gallery, London

James Brindley was born in Derbyshire in 1716 at Tunstead, Derbyshire, and by the age of 17 was apprenticed as a millwright in the village of Sutton near Macclesfield, Cheshire.  By 1742 he had returned to his family’s home town of Leek, Staffordshire where he set up in business as a wheelwright. 

In 1752 Brindley was asked to rebuild a corn mill on the River Churnet in Leek (now known as Brindley Mill) and by 1755 he was also working on corn mills at Wheelock, Codan, Ashbourne, Marchant Brooks and Trentham, as well as fitting out a new silk mill in Congleton.  Other mills followed, including flint grinding mills such as the one at Cheddleton in Staffordshire. 

The reputation of James Brindley’s good workmanship spread and he was invited to resolve a flooding problem at a coal mine (Wet Earth Colliery at Clifton, near Manchester), where he created a hydraulic power scheme to pump the mines.  His scheme was in continuous use from 1756 to 1924. 

In 1758 Brindley was asked by Earl Gower and Lord Anson to make a survey for a canal from the River Trent to the River Mersey.  His findings confirmed an earlier survey, that the cost was prohibitively expensive.

Linking Mines to Towns

Meanwhile, Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater, was looking for a way to resolve the costs of dealing with flooding in his coal mine at Worsley and the price of his coal being undercut following the opening of the Sankey Canal in 1757.  The Sankey Canal, also known as the St Helen’s Canal, was the first canal in Britain since Roman times.  The Duke’s agent, John Gilbert, came up with the idea of excavating a new channel to drain the Worsley mine, which would be constructed on a large enough scale to allow the use of barges for transporting the coal from the mine as well as resolving both flooding and water supply issues.  They already had an Act of Parliament to enable them to construct the canal by the time they brought James Brindley on board in 1759, but his change of route required further surveys and new Acts of Parliament.  Brindley’s contribution to the scheme included the Barton Aqueduct, which carried the canal over the River Irwell, the first such structure in England. The Worsley to Manchester section of the Bridgwater Canal was completed by July 1761 but the rest of the canal was held up by various problems including landowner opposition and wasn’t to be completed until 1776 (well after Brindley's death). 

Photo: Packet House, Bridgwater Canal - Christine Smith

The Grand Trunk

The likely success of the Bridgewater Canal meant that Brindley’s original survey for a canal to link the Trent and Mersey rivers was resurrected, with the Duke of Bridgewater backing the scheme.  Also supporting the building of this canal was pottery owner Josiah Wedgwood.  The canal would enable his pottery to be transported with considerably less breakages than with packhorses or wagons, as well as being much faster.  The canal would also enable raw materials required for the pottery industry to arrive in a more cost effective way. 

The canal, called by Brindley the “Grand Trunk”, was to go from the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook, to join the navigable River Trent at Wilden Ferry. The first meeting of the Trent & Mersey Canal Company took place on 30th December 1765, with the first sod of the canal being cut (at Brownhills near Tunstall) on 26th July 1766 (making 2016 significant also as the 250th anniversary of this important navigation).  

The canal was finally finished in 1777 (after Brindley’s death), with one of the main challenges having been the tunnel through Harecastle Hill, which was 2,880 yards long.  The canal was 93 miles long and had 76 locks, 160 aqueducts (some quite substantial, such as those over the rivers Trent and Dove near Rugeley and Clay Mills respectively), 213 bridges and 5 tunnels. 

Whilst the Grand Trunk was being built, Brindley’s next canal was also under construction.  The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal went from the Trent & Mersey Canal at Great Haywood to join the River Severn after going down the valley of the River Stour, that river giving its name to the settlement that grew up there (Stourport). This canal was 46 miles long with 43 locks and was opened throughout in May 1772. 

Photo: Evening light at Hyde Lock, Kinver, Staffs and Worcs Canal, Sept - Carmen Smith

Up to this time, cargo carrying boats had varied in dimensions from one river navigation to another, and the St Helen’s Canal had already been built with locks to take local craft.  For Brindley’s canals, however, a new standard was agreed upon, and it is this decision that gives us today’s narrow boat.  At a meeting of canal company proprietors in 1769 the size of 74’6” feet long by 7 feet wide was agreed for the locks on the Grand Trunk, and was later used on most of the other Midlands canals built subsequently.  

The final stage of what was to become known (much later) as "Brindley's Grand Cross" was to link to the River Thames, and this was done by setting up two separate canal companies, one to build the Coventry Canal (which would be 34 miles long from the Trent & Mersey Canal near Fradley to Coventry) and the Oxford Canal (82 miles long) which would leave the Coventry Canal a few miles away from its terminus at Longford and join the River Thames at Oxford. 

The joining of the four rivers (Trent, Mersey, Severn and Thames) was finally completed in 1793, long after Brindley had died, but he lived to see two arms complete with the River Severn connected to the River Trent

Other Projects

Other canals engineered by Brindley and opened before he died are the Birmingham Canal (which left the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal near Wolverhampton and went 24 miles to Birmingham), the Droitwich Canal (the six mile long barge canal which linked the town of Droitwich to the River Severn) and the Chesterfield Canal, 46 miles from Chesterfield to the River Trent. 

Brindley also surveyed or gave advice on several other canals which were mostly completed after his death, including the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, Bradford Canal, part of the Calder & Hebble Navigation, Rochdale Canal, Chester Canal, Huddersfield Broad Canal, Leeds & Selby Canal, Forth & Clyde Canal, Andover Canal, Salisbury & Southampton Canal and finally, the Caldon Canal.  It was whilst out surveying this last canal, a branch of the Trent & Mersey, that he caught a chill, which on top of poor diet, over work and diabetes, contributed to his death soon afterwards on 27th September 1772.  

James Brindley's Epitaph

Brindley's death was noted in the Chester Courant of 1st December 1772 in the form of an epitaph:

JAMES BRINDLEY lies amongst these Rocks,
He made Canals, Bridges, and Locks,
To convey Water; he made Tunnels
for Barges, Boats, and Air-Vessels;
He erected several Banks,
Mills, Pumps, Machines, with Wheels and Cranks;
He was famous t'invent Engines,
Calculated for working Mines;
He knew Water, its Weight and Strength,
Turn'd Brooks, made Soughs to a great Length;
While he used the Miners' Blast,
He stopp'd Currents from running too fast;
There ne'er was paid such Attention
As he did to Navigation.
But while busy with Pit or Well,
His Spirits sunk below Level;
And, when too late, his Doctor found,
Water sent him to the Ground.

Find out about Brindley celebration events taking place in 2016 as well as places to visit, statues & portraits, books and Brindley's Canals.

Photo-top: Brindley Mill, Leek.