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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.

James Brindley (1716-1772)

Brindley, James

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

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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