James Brindley Canal Pioneer and North Staffs World Heritage Site Application

(I originally wrote this three years ago. I have been exchanging e-mails with David Martin who is putting forward a bid to get the area’s industrial heritage recognised as a World Heritage site including the canals and mines. I believe that there is a strong case to be made. I think that Brindley is something of a neglected figure and 2016 will see the 300th anniversary of his birth. It would be nice to think we are looking forward to see what could be made of the tercentenary)

Canals and Shipways are back in the news. In October 2007 in order to bolster its green credentials Tesco’s announced that it was using the Manchester Ship canal to transport wine from docks to a bottling plant in Greater Manchester. Sainsbury’s responded by saying that it was using the Thames to transport goods. The Government that it is keen to use more of the 4,000 miles of navigable canals and rivers of Britain to carry freight. The creation of the canal system in Britain can be ascribed to a hero and very much a local hero.

The Victorians also liked their heroes. The Leek based pioneer canal builder and engineer James Brindley (1716-1772) was certainly one of them. He was admired because he represented the self made, practical “sleeves rolled up” strong silent type of Englishman. He was the Scottish writer and social commentator Thomas Carlyle once wrote of Brindley that “he was wonderfully equipped to the fight dragons, be they natural obstacles or human”

So inspiring was Brindley to the writer that he felt him to be the personification of John Bull. In his description of early Victorian society “Past and Present” published in the 1840s he is persuasive in the promotion of Brindley as hero

” The rugged Brindley had little to say for himself, the rugged Brindley, when difficulties accumulate upon him retires silent, generally to his bed, sometimes for three days there in perfect privacy and ascertains in his rough head how the difficulties can be overcome, the ineloquent Brindley Brindley behold! He has chained the seas together; his ships do float visibly over valleys, invisibly through the hearts of mountains; the Mersey and the Thames, the Humber and the Severn. Nature most audibly answers Yeah.

In the summer of 1847 Carlyle was visiting the Peak District in an attempt to find out more about his hero. He wrote to a fellow writer Edward Fitzgerald on August 7th

” We had a kind of purpose to glance into Dovedale. I had determined to try at Tideswell whether the church register would not at least authentically tell me on what day James the transcendent was born. No man had heard of Brindley, his place knew him not”.

Curiously enough Dovedale does have another connection to Brindley as a branch of the family the Beresfords of Beresford Dale lived in the area a century prior to Brindley’s birth. Henry Beresford died 1660 was also the common ancestor of the well known 18th century artist Joseph Wright of Derby- a major exhibition of his work being displayed at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool during that city’s celebration as the European City of Culture in 2008.

Brindley was born in Derbyshire in 1716. A plaque marks his birthplace on bleak moorland over 1000 feet above sea level between Buxton and Wormhill. He was born in the neighbouring county but his roots were firmly in the Staffordshire Moorlands. He had family connections in Butterton, Blore, Alstonfield and Cheddleton and it is through his mother a Bowman of Cheddleton that there existed very strong Quaker connections in Leek. The Quakers or Society of Friends were founded in the middle of the 17th century based on principles of simplicity and religious fervour. This often bought them into conflict with the established Church of England. Brindley’s great grandmother Alice Bowman was ejected by from St Edward Church on Easter Sunday 1664 for disrupting the Holy Communion service. She was imprisoned at Stafford Gaol in conditions so poor that her baby son Matthew who was incarcerated with her died. Another Quaker in the 17th century fractured his skull when outraged Anglicans threw him off the high wall by the parish church.

Brindley moved to Leek as 10 years of age and was quickly apprenticed to Abraham Bennett a wheelwright, whose workshop at Sutton near Macclesfield still stands He was thought of a semi literate and ill educated but in these early years he was keen to learn on one occasion walking to Manchester and back from Sutton to look at a new engine one Sunday back in time to be at work the following day. He quickly developed a reputation for being reliable and very eager to solve problems. He acquired an expertise in the use of water, working out water flow and the potential use and energy of hydraulics. He also journeyed extensively around the country looking at new developments in steam engines. It also seems clear from his notebook housed in the Brindley Mill Museum in Leek that he could write perfectly well and that the claims that he was unlettered are a crude simplification.

He moved back to Leek in 1742 and began building a mill beside the River Churnet on the Macclesfield Road. A biography of Brindley by Kathleen M Evans published 10 years ago by Churnet Valley Books goes into some detail to discover the family links between Brindley and earlier mills. A Randall Brindley, his wife Warber (Werburgh) and their four sons, William, Lawrence, Thomas and Ellis were at a smithy and mill in Leek in 1571.

Brindley would also have been in the area when the Highland Scots Army under Charles Edward Stuart better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie marched into the town in December 1745. An acquaintance of Brindley Joshua Toft of Haregate Hall invited the officers of the Scottish Army back to his house on conditions that they leave their claymores and other weapons by the door. Toft’s young daughter was lifted on the shoulders of a soldier in the market place to see the Prince ride past and probably Brindley would have been defending his property in the town.

Brindley then becomes involved as his reputation grew with the new class of industrialists and chief of them locally was Josiah Wedgwood. In 1750 he rented a workshop from the Wedgwood family in Burslem, a deal that began a friendship and working relationship, which ends only with Brindley’s death. Brindley is at a major point in his life. Brindley the unschooled becomes the coming man of the developing industrial revolution. He becomes involved on greater projects and comes to the notice of the young Duke of Bridgewater who was looking for a way to improve transport from his coalmine at Worsley near Salford to Manchester. In 1759 he started on the task to do just that. The resulting Bridgewater Canal was opened in 1761 is considered as the first British canal of the modern industrial era. One feature of the canal bought tourists flocking. The Barton aqueduct carried the canal over the River Irwell and visitors came to see the marvel of the age as barges on the aqueduct were carried far above the boats on the river below. The canal was also a financial success as coal from the Duke’s coalmines was carried cheaply into Manchester stimulating trade and reducing costs for the manufacturers of the town.

The Duke who was in his twenties is the figurehead with connections in the enterprise he is supported in the enterprise by his agent the Alton born John Gilbert who was the manager and fixer. Gilbert had much business interest in North Staffordshire including a quarry at Cauldon and is an integral part of what Josiah Wedgwood calls the “Triumvirate”. The three men throw themselves into the task and were totally dependent on each other for the success of the project. Brindley in the manner of his Quaker ancestors was plainly dressed often snootily dismissed as being clothed as a peasant, barking out orders to workmen in an almost unintelligible accent to get the job done.

Wedgwood in a letter written after the death of his friend was full of admiration for his diligence, dedication and an ability to leave clear instruction and train his workforce. He trained his brother in law Henshall who completed his work on the Trent and Mersey canal after his death and also a nephew another James Brindley who went on to build one of the earliest canals in the States- the Conewago Canal in Pennsylvania

The relationship between Gilbert and Brindley was somewhat tense. A story is related about the relationship between them Gilbert the more cosmopolitan of the two takes Brindley to the theatre in London to see the famous Staffordshire born actor David Garrick perform in the leading role in ” Richard III”. Brindley loathed the play and vowed never to go to the theatre again. It may well be that Brindley is too work obsessed to relax.

Brindley worked on other canals and from the 1760s he is engaged or consulted on a number of canals built in Scotland, Durham, Yorkshire, Preston, Lancaster, Liverpool, Chester, Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire, Hampshire and London. But it is the route to the Mersey from the North Midlands across the Cheshire Plain, which was to prove his most memorable achievement. The total length between Wilden Ferry in Derbyshire and Runcorn was 93 miles and required 6 tunnels, 91 locks and 127 aqueducts and culverts. He called it the Grand Trunk and work began with the relevant legislation passed began in 1766. On the 26th July Wedgwood cut the first sod at Brownhills and Brindley wheeled away the turf. The canal was completed five years after Brindley’s death.

The main engineering task that he faced in the construction of the canal that linked the Trent and the Mersey was building the Harecastle Tunnel and it took 11 years of cutting through rock to construct the 2,880 yard tunnel. Contemporaries marvelled at this engineering feat achieved by the picks and shovels of the men who hacked at the rock “Gentlemen come to view our eight wonder of the world, the subterraneous navigation, which is the cutting by the great Mr Brindley, who handles rocks as easily as you would plum pies and makes the four elements subservient to his will” so wrote a London newspaper in 1767.

The tunnel was too narrow for a towpath and the bargees had to leg it by lying on their backs on wooden planks and walking through the tunnel. The engineer Thomas Telford built a later tunnel running parallel to the original in the following century. The canal was completed between Shardlow and near Stafford by 1770 the first part of a planned network of canals to join the major waterways of the country together with the idea according to Wedgwood of uniting seas and distant countries. The Chester Canal was started two years later as part of the ambitious project.

By this time Brindley was so hard worked that Wedgwood was beginning to have concerns for his health. Brindley had planned a visit to Scotland to survey a canal. In 1767 Wedgwood wrote that Brindley was “so incessantly harassed on every side, that he hath no rest, either for his mind, or body, and will not be prevailed on to take proper control of his health.

Eventually he took a holiday in Derbyshire visiting mines and taking samples for Wedgwood’s friends in the “Lunar Society” who had developed an interest in fossils, but he was soon back in the fray his health however continued to worsen. It was one member of the “Lunar Society” Erasmus Darwin the grandfather of Charles who diagnosed Brindley as suffering from diabetes in the summer of 1772. His condition was exacerbated by over work and poor diet. He fell ill when provided with damp bedding at an inn at Ipstones after he had been surveying the land for the Caldon canal at Froghall. He died in September 1772 and is buried close to his house at Turnhurst in Newchapel Churchyard aged 56. In a letter his friend appraised the life of Brindley describing him as a dedicated colleague and an affectionate family man but with a mind “too ardently intent upon the execution of the works it had planned”¦ for which millions yet unborn will revere and bless his memory.

Doctor Erasmus Darwin who laboured hard in trying to save Bindley’s life penned a tribute to the engineer in an indifferent poem called The Economy of Vegetation

“So with strong arm immortal Brindley leads
His long canals, and parts the velvet meads;
Winding in lucid lines, the watery mass
Mines the firm rock, or loads the deep morass,
With rising locks a thousand hills alarms,
Flings o’er a thousand streams in silver arms,
Feeds the long vale, the nodding woodland laves;
And Plenty, Arts and Commerce freight the waves”.

After the engineer’s death Darwin proposed unsuccessfully that a statue of Brindley be erected in Westminster Abbey. However public monuments and memorials to one of the key figure in the Industrial Revolution most notably the Brindley Mill Museum in Leek perpetuates his memory.

Have Your Say