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James Brindley (1716-1772)

Brindley, James

James Brindley (1716 - 1772)
Print Artist: J.T. Wedgewood after Robert Dunkarton, 1744-ca.1817
Engraving Original Artist: Francis Parsons, d.1804
Image credits: http://www.sil.si.edu/


James Brindley was a farmer's son who first trained to be a millwright. In 1752, he designed a steam engine to drain the coalpits at Clifton in Lancashire. By 1759, he had turned his attention to canal building. He was employed by the Duke of Bridgewater to build a canal which would take coal from the duke's Worsley colliery to Manchester, a distance of 16 kms.

The duke envisaged a canal with locks, but Brindley persuaded him to accept a new approach. Brindley designed a gravity flow system, which included an aqueduct across the Irwell valley. The Barton aqueduct, as it was called, 183 meters above the River Irwell was completed in 1761.

After this success, Brindley was a much sought-after engineer. What made his work so remarkable was that he did not make any written plans or notes. He used aqueducts and tunnels whenever possible to reduce the number of locks needed. His most famous canals included the Grand Trunk Canal, which was begun in 1766. This included the Hardcastle tunnel which ran through the Pennine mountain chain. The Grand Trunk Canal joined a canal network which effectively linked the Irish and North Seas. Another canal, the Grand Union Canal, linked the River Mersey, and therefore Manchester, to the River Trent and the Staffordshire potteries.

When building in the Midlands, Brindley constructed narrow canals which would prevent too much water loss from this relatively dry area of the country. His canal construction required heavy metals, which were mined in Devon and Cornwall, and flints from East Anglia. Brindley was responsible for over 580kms of the British canal network.




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The Industrial Revolution

The Development of Canals in Britain

The development of the steam engine created an increased demand for coal. However, a major factor limiting the supply of coal was the high cost of its transport from the mines. While some coal was hauled over badly made roads, in panniers on horses or donkeys, some coal was transported by river or sea. Either way, the transportation added greatly to the cost of the coal. River transport was far easier than road transport because roads were often no more than muddy tracks. The problem was that rivers did not always flow either in the direction or at the depth needed for efficient transport.

The idea was put forward that it should be possible to construct artificial waterways to go where they were needed. This would allow goods, including coal, to be transported quickly and cheaply. The man who is credited with beginning the construction of the first canal was the Duke of Bridgewater.

Transporting the coal by road, using pack horses, greatly added to the cost of the coal to be sold at Manchester. Bridgewater decided to cut an artificial waterway, a canal, from Worsley to Manchester, and he employed James Brindley to build it.

The Bridgewater canal, which was 16kms long, was built between 1759 and 1761. At one point Brindley had to take the canal over a river. He did this by building a large aqueduct so that the canal could continue over the river. The canal was so successful in cutting the cost of transport, that the Duke of Bridgewater was able to reduce the cost of his coal.


James Brindley's Barton Aqueduct

James Brindley's Barton Aqueduct carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the River Irwell
by G.F. Yates circa 1793 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Duke's coal mines were adit mines. These were tunnels driven into the side of a mountain. Bridgewater instructed James Brindley to extend the canal into the coal mines. This meant that the coal could be loaded directly from the coal face onto the barges for transport. The longest part of the canal was, in fact, within the tunnels of the coal mine. The Duke of Bridgewater became very rich from his mines and even richer from the canal. He was able to charge other manufacturers for using the canal to transport goods.

Research was carried out to see how efficient this form of transport was. It was found that one horse could pull a barge with 50 tonnes of coal on board. However, the same horse could only carry 150 kgs of coal on its back or between 1 and 2 tonnes when pulling a cart (depending on the road conditions). The Duke of Bridgewater had shown that, by building a canal, goods could be transported more cheaply and efficiently than by road.

Road transport was, in any case, very primitive. Roads were often little more than tracks which were either hard and dusty in summer or so wet in winter that carriages and wagons often stuck in the mud right up to their axles. A journey of about 300kms could take three weeks in bad weather. (The same distance can now be covered by T.G.V. in a little over one hour!)

The Duke of Bridgewater also proved that canals could recover their construction cost very quickly. They made good profit for their investors and provided manufacturers with better transport for their goods. Many people set up canal building companies all over Britain. Eventually Britain was covered by a large canal network of interconnected canals which linked the river system.

By 1800, there were over 6000 kilometres of canals in Britain. However, forty years later, canals were in decline in the face of a new and faster rival, the railways.


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