2016 will see the tercentenary of the birth of James Brindley, the eighteenth-century canal engineer whom Thomas Carlyle once described as a ‘transcendent human beaver’ and whose fame first derived from his association with Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. Documentation of their dealings is sparse. Fortunately, a few accounts books for the Duke’s Estates survive, as do four of the thin paper-covered notebooks in which James Brindley kept his accounts, records of site visits and day-to-day memoranda. These materials, together with Canal Company minutes books, occasional letters to newspapers and the probate inventory of James Brindley’s estate, have been the major sources for my book, although it is fair to say that the record of events that they provide has many gaps and unexplained silences.

Brindley's record of visits to Worsley reproduced by courtesy of the Institutuion of Civil Engineers

A certain amount of the story is well-known. Although the two men came from radically different backgrounds, both showed their inclination to stubborn independence at an early age. In 1733 when he was seventeen, Brindley, eldest son of a small landowner and heir to the family farm, apprenticed himself to a drunken millwright of Macclesfield named Abraham Bennett. Having succeeded to the title of Duke of Bridgewater at the age of fourteen, one of Francis Egerton’s earliest action was to bring a suit in chancery against his mother and his detested step-father Sir Richard Lyttelton, on the grounds that they had mis-appropriated the estate of his late father, Scrope, the 1st Duke.

By the early 1750s, the two of them were following paths proper to their respective callings. The young Duke made his grand tour in the company of his tutor Robert Wood, scholarly author of a best-selling travel book entitled The Ruins of Palmyra, who may have been somewhat nonplussed by the fascination which the locks, docks and bridges of the seventeenth-century Canal du Midi held for his charge. Brindley, meanwhile, in the English midlands divided his time between designing a silk mill in Congleton, a corn mill in Leek and a drainage scheme for a notoriously flood-prone colliery near Manchester, aptly known as Wet Earth Pit.

The Duke came home from his travels in 1755. He settled in London and amused himself by gambling, riding in races, and falling in love with beautiful Elizabeth Gunning, daughter of an impoverished Irish peer. Shortly after they got engaged, malicious gossip alleged that Elizabeth’s sister Maria, the Countess of Coventry, was pursuing an affaire. When the scrupulous young Duke of Bridgewater suggested that Elizabeth might distance herself from her adored sister, Elizabeth was understandably appalled and ended her engagement.

The Duke retreated to his Lancashire home of Worsley, where he sought solace in planning a canal to convey the coal from his mines to its market. In March 1759, he obtained an Act of Parliament authorising him to cut from Worsley Mill to Salford and three months later, in June 1759, his agent John Gilbert noted expenditure of 9s on levelling staves – graduated rods used to gauge differences in the height of ground –and 7s 6d for the estate employee who had been despatched to Derby to buy a spirit level.

Worsley Old Hall now a welcoming pub May 2015

Gilbert certainly knew of Brindley’s mill-work, and how it called for a useful combination of the skills of joiner, mason, blacksmith, surveyor, besides an understanding of the behaviour of water as a source of motive power. Although the exact circumstances in which he introduced Brindley to the Duke’s canal venture are unknown, whatever conversation may have passed between them had the result that from July 1759 on, Brindley was a regular visitor to the site and recorded the time he spent ‘at Worsley Hall’ in his Notebook. When Sir Joseph Banks came to Worsley in 1767, he observed in his Journal that Brindley ‘was recommended to the duke by Mr Gilbert who found him in Staffordshire, where he was only famous for being the Best Millwright in the Countrey.’ Brindley, he added, was ‘a man of no education, but of extremely strong natural parts.’

The ‘no education’ remark calls for some clarification. While Brindley’s surviving manuscript notebooks give the lie to the tradition that he was illiterate, it is not unfair to say that he was never on entirely easy terms with the written language. Neither, for that matter, was the Duke, who detested writing letters and was always reluctant to commit anything to paper. Although we have no indication of what these two taciturn men made of one another, the consequences of their meeting were immense. Not only did Brindley make short work of ironing out any problems that the canal’s construction may have encountered in its early stages, but his involvement in the venture had the effect of encouraging the Duke to think in ever more ambitious terms. Before long, he applied for a new Act of Parliament which, rather than follow the unadventurous option of building only as far as Salford, would authorise him to take his canal into the heart of Manchester, crossing the River Irwell upon a navigable aqueduct.

James Brindley's Bible - a gift from the Duke Image courtesy of Dominic Winter auctioneers

Stories about Brindley’s skill in enabling the uncomprehending members of parliament to grasp what form the structure would take have passed into engineering folklore. To give the bemused Parliamentarians an idea of what it would look like, for instance, he allegedly carved a small-scale replica from a Cheshire cheese. To demonstrate how he proposed to ensure that the canal should be water-tight, he provided himself with a trough of wet clay and a jug of water, and gave a practical demonstration on the floor of the House of how to work up clay puddle. Even when building had begun, people still could not believe that the bridge could actually carry a canal over a river, and the battle to win hearts and minds continued. One infamous tale claims that the Duke rashly took an unnamed ‘Gentleman of Eminence’ on a site inspection in the hope that he might give the enterprise his blessing and spare its promoters some word of encouragement. On his departure, the grand visitor scathingly observed that although he had often heard of castles in the air, he had never before seen where one was to be erected.

By this time, Brindley, Gilbert and the Duke were all based at Worsley Old Hall. Perseverance in the face of the nay-sayers’ scorn drew them into increasing if unlikely intimacy. It was not precisely friendship, but more the reluctant fellow-feeling of cross-grained allies bound on the same course. Gilbert - always the Duke’s loyal man – and the independent Brindley were, perhaps predictably, prone to quarrel. There were setbacks, notably when the bridge threatened to collapse shortly before completion. On this occasion, folklore maintains that Brindley had a total breakdown and only John Gilbert’s prompt action in redistributing the weight between the arch and the abutments saved the day. In the absence of documentary evidence, it is hard to know how much trust to place upon this version of events.

What is clear is that whatever misadventures attended its building, on 17 July 1761 the Barton Aqueduct opened to traffic and swiftly became a source of fairground thrill to the visitors who came to view it. Earnest clergymen took the dare of walking across it, all of thirty nine feet above the river Irwell. The poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld celebrated it in couplets, remarking how

The traveller with pleasing wonder sees

The white sail gleaming thro’ the dusky trees;

And views the alter’d landscape with surprise,

And doubts the magic scenes which round him rise.

Meanwhile in the sober prose of his Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester, her brother John Aikin promised that travellers to Barton upon Irwell would be ‘gratified with the extraordinary sight, never before beheld in this country, of one vessel sailing over the top of another.’ Both the Duke and Brindley included it in their portraits, each man enshrining its completion as the defining achievements of his life.

The illustration on my book’s cover shows an engraving made around 1860 by Percival Skelton. His depiction of the aqueduct against a background of the mills of Victorian Manchester may not have much geographical precision, but perhaps his artistic licence is justified. In his picture, the aqueduct together with the smoke from their chimneys, serves as a sign of the city’s prosperity – the emblem of all that the combined endeavours of the Duke and Brindley had brought about.

Sir Edward Leader-Williams' swing bridge Barton-upon-Irwell May 2015

With the building of the Manchester Ship Canal in the 1890s much of the old Barton Aqueduct was demolished. In its place Sir Edward Leader Williams’ Barton Swing Bridge would carry the venerable Bridgewater Canal over the vast new waterway – an instance of progress quite literally shouldering history aside. Nevertheless, affection for the old bridge was strong and at the behest of local people, a fragment of the dismantled structure was reassembled and set in a wall at the side of the road as a memento of the work of Brindley and the Duke. Men of immense ambition, the story of the way in which they nurtured the canal network and with it, a new industrial age straddles the realms of engineering history and engineering myth. I’ve enormously enjoyed writing about them; I hope you’ll enjoy reading my book.


Victoria's book James Brindley and the Duke of Bridgewater is available for purchase now