James Brindley is one of those well-known names associated with canals and the Industrial Revolution, but the man himself somehow remains slightly elusive.
Popular history has it that Brindley was born the son of a Derbyshire farm labourer, that he could barely read or write and was one of the ‘boors of the Peak’ who moved earth and rocks ‘as you would plum pies’. Also that he had ‘no pleasures’ but spent all his time inventing things. Recent research reveals him to have been in fact the son of a well-to-do yeoman family, who was educated by his mother, apprenticed to a Macclesfield mill-owner at 17 and was soon afterwards running his own business in Leek, Staffordshire.
By 1750 he had gained a reputation for inventing and repairing milling and mining machinery and he was also showing an interest in canals. In 1758 he was busy surveying a line for the Trent & Mersey Canal. The following year he started working on the Bridgewater Canal. In the 1760s he was in the thick of it and was involved with the Oxford, Coventry, Birmingham and Staffs & Worcester canals. He didn’t work alone of course, but had a team of people to help. And although he may have modelled an aqueduct out of cheese and he did build a model lock in his back garden, most of his methods were more orthodox.
To Brindley we owe the 7 foot wide narrow gauge lock, the contour canals of the ‘pioneering’ era of canals, the low, over-sized aqueducts, the morning glory weirs and the rustic functional bridges that display the craftsmanship of rural Georgian England. He also seems to have been the first engineer to use puddle clay lining for canals. His Grand Trunk Canal (the Trent & Mersey) was key to his vision of a ‘Grand Cross’ of canals linking the rivers Mersey, Trent, Thames and Severn but he never lived to see it completed.
In 1765 Brindley married Anne Henshall; he was 49 and she was 19. That seems typical of Brindley somehow. He had loads of energy, he kept going at things, he was obsessed with his work. He was out surveying the Caldon Canal when he caught a rotten cold and died on 27 September 1772. He lies buried in Newchapel church in Staffordshire but his tremendous legacy to the inland waterways of Britain lives on.
James Brindley 1716 – 27 September 1772
As national heritage manager, Nigel’s role is to lead the Canal & River Trust’s team of regional heritage advisers in England and Wales. He has over 25 years’ experience of working in the conservation, archaeology and interpretation of historic buildings and places. He is a member of the editorial board of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation. He has written numerous articles concerning heritage conservation and is the author of several longer published works, including the English Heritage Book of Canals.See more blogs from Nigel Crowe