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James Brindley
'Father of British Canals'


James Brindley was born in 1716, in a tiny settlement called Tunstead just outside Buxton in Derbyshire. He was the oldest of seven children, born to a farming family.

In 1727 the family moved about 15 miles to Lowe Hill Farm near Leek in Staffordshire, which Brindley’s father acquired through an inheritance. Brindley had a rudimentary Quaker education, and, as the eldest son, would have been expected to take over the family farm business. However, he had other ideas; at the age of 17 he took a 7-year apprenticeship as cartwright and millwright with Abraham Bennett at Sutton near Macclesfield. During the course of his apprenticeship, after some early difficulties, Brindley grew to become Bennett’s right-hand man. Bennett was fond of a drink, and Brindley took control of several projects that should have been dealt with by Bennett. Brindley was effectively running the business by the time his apprenticeship expired.

Brindley set up his own business in Leek, and also had a workshop in Stoke-on-Trent, and quickly built his reputation. In 1752 at the age of 36 Brindley built the water-powered corn mill in Leek near to where his workshop was located. Also that year he was asked to advise on flooding at a coal mine in Clifton near Manchester. He successfully devised a method of draining the mine using a water wheel to drive pumps. It was probably this job that earned him the nickname of ‘The Schemer’.

His career could have gone in several directions: he advised on various things including windmills and even steam engines. However, it was his involvement in canals that was to be his lasting legacy. He was asked to advise on the possibility of building a canal, which later became the Trent and Mersey canal, by Lord Gower of Trentham. This scheme was later supported by the pottery pioneer Josiah Wedgwood. The building of this canal was delayed, and in the meantime Brindley was asked to advise on the building of a canal by the Duke of Bridgewater. (The Duke and Earl Gower were connected by family, and also their respective agents were the Gilbert brothers).

The Duke owned a coal mine at Worsley north of Manchester, and the Duke wanted a way of transporting his coal into Manchester by a better means than packhorse. He had seen canals on his grand tour of Europe, and thought this was the solution. His vision was supported by Brindley. Brindley overcame many difficulties in the construction of the canal, including building an aqueduct over the River Irwell. The canal was a great commercial success, and the aqueduct became a tourist attraction!


The success of this canal led to numerous other canal schemes being promoted all over the country. Brindley had the idea of building a ‘grand cross’ of waterway transport in England, linking London, Liverpool, Hull, and Bristol. This was not completed during his life, but he was involved with many components of it, including the Trent and Mersey canal.

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In today’s terms we would describe Brindley as a consulting engineer. He was self-employed and sold his services to several canal promoters. He became in such demand for his canal-building expertise that he worked on several canals at the same time, travelling many miles across the country to do surveying, advising, and supervising construction. The surveyor’s level that he used is on display at Brindley’s mill, as is one of the notebooks in which he recorded money and time spent on the various projects.

He became quite a wealthy man in the later part of his career, and he bought a large property (Turnhurst Hall, now demolished) just north of Stoke-on-Trent, and quite near the Harecastle tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal. He married at the age of 49; his bride was 19. They had 2 daughters.

He was something of a workaholic, and probably suffered from diabetes. His associates, including Wedgwood, urged him to take more care of himself, but this advice fell on deaf ears. He was surveying the Caldon Canal when he caught a fever. He was taken home to Turnhurst Hall, where he died aged 56.

The canals that he built formed the arteries of trade for the industrial revolution. Many of the canals fell into disuse when the railways and roads were developed. However, that is not the end of the story. A lot of the canal system has been restored and is now enjoyed by thousands of people for leisure. We still owe a debt to Brindley today.

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