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James Brindley, canal pioneer

The canals and rivers that we enjoy today exist because of an ambitious set of 18th century engineers who had a vision of an efficient and speedy transport system.

James Brindley

James Brindley (1716-1772) was one of the early canal engineers who worked on some of the first canals of the modern era. He played an essential role in shaping the way canals were built during the Industrial Revolution.

Brindley was part of what the English Heritage Book of Canals calls the ‘pioneering' phase of canal construction. He cut his teeth working with watermills in Derbyshire and had a practical and empirical approach to his work.

The birth of the Canal Age

He worked on the building of the Bridgewater Canal, which was regarded as the first modern British canal, and which triggered an explosion of canal-building. In a sense, Brindley created a template for the narrow canal system when he chose to build narrow locks on the Trent & Mersey Canal.

Brindley pioneered many of the engineering features that became common on Britain's canals. Some of his prototype bridge designs, in brick and stone, have a homely charm about them. Others reflect the Georgian craftsman's love of silhouettes and flowing lines.

Other canals built by Brindley include the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, the Coventry Canal and the Oxford Canal. He was responsible for such ambitious structures as Barton Aqueduct on the Bridgewater Canal and the three-thousand yard Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal.

Setting the template

For a while, Brindley's Harecastle Tunnel was reputedly the longest man-made tunnel on Earth. But it was not a place for the faint-hearted or the claustrophobic. It remains alongside Telford's later, much bigger tunnel as a monument to the more primitive early days of canal construction.

A lot of Brindley's canal construction was done on the cheap and, like his wooden accommodation bridges, has vanished. His surviving brick bridges are curving forms with a hole punched through them. They are like a child's drawing and have a rough-and-ready charm about them. But they also set the scene for much of what came later in the Canal Age.

Brindleyplace in Birmingham, at the heart of the canal network, is named after James Brindley and there are statues of him at Coventry Canal Basin and in the Etruria district of Stoke-on-Trent.

Last Edited: 13 November 2020

photo of a location on the canals
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