Building 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 wheelwright.

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 of Commons.

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 Massey.

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 near Worsley.

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 up.

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 Mersey.