Brindley and the Early Engineers II.
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SHORTLY after the completion of the New River, and the organization of the Company for the supply of water to the metropolis, we find Hugh Myddelton entering upon a new and formidable enterprise—that of enclosing a large tract of drowned land from the sea.  The scene of his operations on this occasion was the eastern extremity of the Isle of Wight, at a place now marked on the maps as Brading Harbour.  This harbour or haven consists of a tract of about eight hundred acres in extent.  At low water it appears a wide mud flat, through the middle of which a small stream, called the Yar, winds its way from near the village of Brading, at the head of the haven, to the sea at its eastern extremity; whilst at high tide it forms a beautiful and apparently inland lake, embayed between hills of moderate elevation covered with trees, in many places down to the water's edge.  At its seaward margin Bemridge Point stretches out as if to meet the promontory on he opposite shore, where stands the old tower of St. Church, now used as a sea-mark; and, as seen from most points, the bay seems to be completely landlocked.


    The reclamation of so large a tract of land, apparently so conveniently situated for the purpose, had long been matter of speculation.  It is not improbable that at some early period neither swamp nor lake existed at Brading Haven, but a green and fertile valley; for in the course of the works undertaken by Sir Hugh Myddelton for its recovery from the sea, a well, strongly cased with stone, was discovered near the middle of the haven, indicating the existence of a population formerly settled on the soil.  The sea must, however, have burst in and destroyed the settlement, laying the whole area under water.


    In King James's reign, when the inning of drowned lands began to receive an unusual degree of attention, the project of reclaiming Brading Haven was again revived; and in the year 1616 a grant was made of the drowned district to one John Gibb, the King reserving to himself a rental of £20 per annum.  The owners of the adjoining lands contested the grant, claiming a prior right to the property in the haven, whatever its worth might be.  But the verdict of the Exchequer went against the landowners, and the right of the King to grant the area of the haven for the purpose of reclamation was maintained.  It appears that Gibb sold his grant to one Sir Bevis Thelwall a page of the King's bedchamber, who at once invited Hugh Myddelton to join him in undertaking the work; but Thelwall would not agree to pay Gibb anything until the enterprise had been found practicable.  In 1620 we find that a correspondence was in progress as to "the composition to be made by the Solicitor-General with Myddelton touching the draining of certain lands in the Isle of Wight, and the bargain having been made according to such directions as His Majesty hath given, then to prepare the surrender, and thereupon such other assurance for His Majesty as shall be requisite." [p.86]

    A satisfactory arrangement having been made with the King, Myddelton began the work of reclaiming the haven in the course of the same year.  He sent to Holland for Dutch workmen familiar with such undertakings; and from the manner in which he carried out his embankment, it is obvious that he mainly followed the Dutch method of reclamation, which, as we have already seen in the case of the drainage of the Fens by Vermuyden, was not, in many respects, well adapted for English practice.  But it would also appear, from a patent for draining land which he took out in 1621, that he employed some invention of his own for the purpose of facilitating the work.  The introduction to the grant of the patent runs as follows:—

"WHEREAS wee are given to understand that our welbeloved subiect Hugh Middleton, Citizen and Goldsmith of London, hath to his very great charge maynteyned many strangers and others, and bestowed much of his tyme to invent a new way, and by his industrie, greate charge, paynes, and long experience, hath devised and found out 'A NEW INVENČON, SKILL, OR WAY FOR THE WYNNING AND DRAYNING OF MANY GROUNDS WHICH ARE DAYLIE AND DESPERATELIE SURROUNDED WITHIN OUR KINGDOMS OF ENGLAND AND DOMINION OF WALES,' and is now in very great hope to bringe the same to good effect, the same not being heretofore known, experimented, or vsed within our said realme or dominion, whereby much benefitt, which as yet is lost, will certenly be brought both to vs in particular and to our comon wealth in generall, and hath offered to publish and practise his skill amongest our loving subjects. . . . . . . ., KNOWE YEE, that wee, tendring the weale of this our kingdom and the benefitt of our subjects, and out of our princely care to nourish all arts , invencions, and studdies whereof there may be any necessary or pffitable vse within our dominions, and out of our desire to cherish and encourage the industries and paynes of all other our loving subiects in the like laudable indeavors, and to recompense the labors and expenses of the said Hugh Middleton disbursed and to be susteyned as aforesaid, and for the good opinion wee have conceived of the said Hugh Middleton, for that worthy worke of his in bringing the New River to our cittie of London, and his care and industrie in busines of like nature tending to the publicke good . . . . . doe give and graunt full, free, and absolute licence, libertie, power, and authoritie vnto the said Hughe Middleton, his deputies," &c. to use and practise the same during the terme of fowerteene years next ensuing the date hereof.

    No description is given of the particular method adopted by Myddelton in forming his embankments.  It would, however, appear that he proceeded by driving piles into the bottom of the Haven near Bembridge Point where it is about the narrowest, and thus formed a strong embankment at its junction with the sea, but unfortunately without making adequate provision for the egress of the inland waters.



    A curious contemporary manuscript by Sir John Oglander is still extant, preserved amongst the archives of the Oglander family, who have held the adjoining lands from a period antecedent to the date of the Conquest, which we cannot do better than quote, as giving the most authentic account extant of the circumstances connected with the enclosing of Brading Haven by Hugh Myddelton.  This manuscript says:—

    "Brading Haven was begged first of all of King James by one Mr. John Gibb, being a groom of his bedchamber, and the man that King James trusted to carry the reprieve to Winchester for my Lord George Cobham and Sir Walter Rawleigh, when some of them were on the scaffold to be executed.  This man was put on to beg it of King James by one Sir Bevis Thelwall, who was then one of the pages of the bedchamber.  After be had begged it, Sir Bevis would give him nothing for it until the haven were cleared; for the gentlemen of the island whose lands join to the haven challenged it as belonging unto them.  King James was wonderful earnest in the business, both because it concerned his old servant, and also because it would be a leading case for the fens in Lincolnshire.  After the verdict went in the Chequer against the gentlemen, then Sir Bevis Thelwall would give nothing for it till he could see that it was feasible to be inned from the sea; whereupon one Sir Hugh Myddelton was called in to assist and undertake the work, and Dutchmen were brought out of the Low Countries, and they began to inn the haven about the 20th of December, 1620.  Then, when it was taken in, King James compelled Thelwall and Myddelton to give John Gibb (who the King called 'Father') £2,000.  Afterwards Sir Hugh Myddelton, like a crafty fox and subtle citizen, put it off wholly to Sir Bevis Thelwall, betwixt whom afterwards there was a great suit in the Chancery; but Sir Bevis did enjoy it some eight years, and bestowed much money in building of a barnhouse, mill, fencing of it, and in many other necessary works.

    "But now let me tell you somewhat of Sir Bevis Thelwall and Sir Hugh Myddelton, and of the nature of the ground after it was inned, and the cause of the last breach.  Sir Bevis was a gentleman's son in Wales, bound apprentice to a mercer in Cheapside, and afterwards executed that trade till King James came into England: then be gave up, and purchased to be one of the pages of the bedchamber, where, being an understanding man, and knowing how to handle the Scots, did in that infancy gain a fair estate by getting the Scots to beg for themselves that which he first found out for them, and then himself buying of them with ready money under half the value.  He was a very bold fellow, and one that King James very well affected.  Sir Hugh Myddelton was a goldsmith in London.  This and other famous works brought him into the world, viz., his London waterwork, Brading Haven, and his mine in Wales.

    "The nature of the ground, after it was inned, was not answerable to what was expected, for almost the moiety of it next to the sea was a light running sand, and of little worth.  The best of it was down at the farther end next to Brading, my Marsh, and Knight's Tenement, in Bembridge.  I account that there was 200 acres that might be worth 6s. 8d. the acre, and all the rest 2s. 6d. the acre.  The total of the haven was 706 acres.  Sir Hugh Myddelton, before he sold, tried all experiments in it: he sowed wheat, barley, oats, cabbage seed, and last of all rape seed, which proved best; but all the others came to nothing.  The only inconvenience was in it that the sea brought in so much sand and ooze and seaweed that choked up the passage of the water to go out, insomuch as I am of opinion that if the sea had not broke in Sir Bevis could hardly have kept it, for there would have been no current for the water to go out; for the eastern tide brought so much sand as the water was not of force to drive it away, so that in time it would have laid to the sea, or else the sea would have drowned the whole country.  Therefore, in my opinion, it is not good meddling with a haven so near the main ocean.

    "The country (I mean the common people) was very much against the inning of it, as out of their slender capacity thinking by a little fishing and fowling there would accrue more benefit than by pasturage; but this I am sure of, it caused, after the first three years, a great deal of more health in these parts than was ever before; and another thing is remarkable, that whereas we thought it would have improved our marshes, certainly they were the worse for it, and rotted sheep which before fatted there.

    "The cause of the last breach was by reason of a wet time when the haven was full of water, and then a high spring tide, when both the waters met underneath in the loose sand.  On the 8th of March, 1630, one Andrew Ripley that was put in earnest to look to Brading Haven by Sir Bevis Thelwall, came in post to my house in Newport to inform me that the sea had made a breach in the said haven near the easternmost end.  I demanded of him what the charge might be to stop it out; he told me he thought 40s., whereupon I bid him go thither and get workmen against the next day morning, and some carts, and I would pay them their wages; but the sea the next day came so forcibly in that there was no meddling of it, for Ripley went up presently to London to Sir Bevis Thelwall himself, to have him come down and take some further course; but within four days after the sea had won so much on the haven, and made the breach so wide and deep, that on the 15th of March when I came thither to see it I knew not well what to judge of it, for whereas at the first £5 would have stopped it out, now I think £200 will not do it, and what will be the event of it time will tell.  Sir Bevis on news of this breach came into the island on the 17th of March, 1630, and brought with him a letter from my Lord Conway to me and Sir Edward Dennies, desiring us to cause my Lady Worsley, on behalf of her son, to make up the breach which happened in her ground through their neglect.  She returned us an answer that she thought that the law would not compel her unto it, and therefore desired to be excused, which answer we returned to my lord.  What the event will be I know not, but it seemeth to me not reasonable that she should suffer for not complying with his request.  If he had not inned the haven this accident could never have happened; therefore he giving the cause, that she should apply the cure I understand not.  But this I am sure, that Sir Bevis thinketh to recover of her and her son all his charges, which he now sweareth every way to be £2,000.  For my part, I would wish no friend of mine to have any hand in the second inning of it.  Truly all the better sort of the island were very sorry for Sir Bevis Thelwall, and the commoner sort were as glad as to say truly of Sir Bevis that he did the country many good offices, and was ready at all times to do his best for the public and for everyone.

    "Sir Hugh Myddelton took it first in, and it was proper for none but him, because he had a mine of silver in Wales to maintain it.  It cost at the first taking of it in £4,000, then they gave £2,000 to Mr. John Gibb for it, who had begged it of King James; afterwards, in building the barn and dwelling-house, and water-mill, with the ditching and quick-setting, and making all the partitions, it could not have cost less than £200 more: so in the total it stood them, from the time they began to take it in, until the 8th of March, a loss of £7,000."

    It will thus be observed that the loss of this undertaking fell upon Thelwall, and not upon Myddelton, who sold out of the adventure long before the sea burst through the embankment.  The date of conveyance of his rights in the reclaimed land to Sir Bevis Thelwall was the 4th September, 1624, nearly six years before the final ruin of the work.  He had, therefore, got his capital out of the concern, most probably with his profit as contractor, and was thus free to embark in the important mining enterprise in Wales, on which we find him next engaged.

    Sir Hugh continued to maintain his Parliamentary connection with his native town of Denbigh, of which he was still the representative.  We do not find that he took an active part in political questions.  The name of his brother, Sir Thomas, frequently appears in the Parliamentary debates of the time, and he was throughout a strong opponent of the Court party; but that of Sir Hugh only occurs in connection with commercial topics or schemes of internal improvement, on which he seems to have been consulted as an authority.


    Sir Hugh's occasional visits to his constituents brought him into contact with Welsh families, and made him acquainted with the mining enterprises then on foot in different parts of Wales—so rich in ores of copper, lead, and iron.  It appears that the Governor and Company of Mines Royal in Cardiganshire were incorporated in the year 1604, for the purpose of working the lead and silver mines of that county.  The principal were those at Cwmsymlog and the Darren Hills, situated about midway, as the crow flies, between Aberystwith and the mountain of Plinlimmon, and at Tallybout, about midway between Aberystwith and the estuary at the mouth of the River Dovey.  They were all situated in the township of Skibery Coed, in the northern part of the county of Cardigan.  For many years these mines (which were first opened out by the Romans) were worked by the Corporation of Mines Royal; but it does not appear that much success attended their operations.  Mining was little understood then, and all kinds of pumping and lifting machinery were clumsy and inefficient.  Although there was no want of ore, the mines were so drowned by water, that the metal could not well be got at and worked out.

    Myddelton's spirit of enterprise was excited by the prospect of battling with the water and getting at the rich ore, and he had confidence that his mechanical ability would enable him to overcome the difficulties.  The Company of Mines Royal were only too glad to get rid of their unprofitable undertaking, and they agreed to farm their mines to Sir Hugh at the rental of £400 per annum.  This was in the year 1617, some time after he had completed his New River works, but before he had begun the embankment of Brading Haven,—and Sir Bevis Thelwall was also a partner with him in this new venture.  It took him some time to clear the mines of water, which he did by pumping-machines of his own contrivance; but at length sufficient ore was raised for testing, and it was found to contain a satisfactory proportion of silver.  His mining adventure seems to have been attended with success, for we shortly afterwards find him sending considerable quantities of silver to the Royal Mint to be coined.

    King James was so much gratified by the further proofs of Myddelton's skill and enterprise, displayed in his embankment of Brading Harbour and his successful mining operations in Wales, that he raised him to the dignity of a Baronet on the 19th of October, 1622; and the compliment was all the more marked by His Majesty directing that Sir Hugh should be discharged from the payment of the customary fees, amounting to £1,095, and that the dignity should be conferred upon him without any charge whatever. [p.94-1]  The patent of baronetcy granted on the occasion sets forth the "reasons and considerations" which induced the King to confer the honour; and it may not be out of place to remark, that though more eminent industrial services have been rendered to the public by succeeding engineers, there has been no such cordial or graceful recognition of them by any succeeding monarch.  The patent states that King James had made a baronet of Hugh Myddelton, of London, goldsmith, for the following reasons and considerations:—

"1. For bringing to the city of London, with excessive charge and greater difficulty, a new cutt or river of fresh water, to the great benefit and inestimable preservation thereof.  2. For gaining a very great and spacious quantity of land in Brading Haven, in the Isle of Wight, out of the bowells of the sea, and with banker and pyles and most strange defensible and chargeable mountains, fortifying the same against the violence and fury of the waves.  3. For finding out, with a fortunate and prosperous skill, exceeding industry, and noe small charge, in the county of Cardigan, a royal and rych myne, from whence he hath extracted many silver plates which have been coyned in the Tower of London for current money of England." [p.94-2]

    The King, however, did more than confer the title—he added to it a solid benefit in confirming the lease made to Sir Hugh by the Governor and Company of Mines Royal, "as a recompense for his industry in bringing a new river into London," waiving all claim to royalty upon the silver produced, although the Crown was entitled, according to the then interpretation of the law, to a payment on all gold and silver found in the lands of a subject; and it is certain that the lessee [p.95] who succeeded Sir Hugh did pay such royalty into the State Exchequer.  It also appears from documents preserved amongst the State Papers, that large offers of royalty were actually made to the King at the very time that this handsome concession was granted to Sir Hugh.

    The discovery of silver in the Welsh mountains doubtless caused much talk at the time, and, as in Australia and California now, there were many attempts made by lawless persons to encroach upon the diggings.  On this, a royal proclamation was published, warning such persons against the consequences of their trespass, and orders were issued that summary proceedings should be taken against them.  It appears that Sir Hugh and his partners continued to work the mines with profit for a period of about sixteen years, although it is stated that during most of that time, in consequence of the large quantity of water met with, little more than the upper surface could be got at.  The water must, however, have been sufficiently kept under to enable so much ore eventually to be raised.  Waller says an engine was employed at Cwmsymlog; and a tradition long existed among the neighbouring miners that there were two engines placed about the middle of the work.  There were also several "levels" at Cwmsymlog, one of which is called to this day "Sir Hugh's Level."

    The following rude cut, from Pettus' 'Fodinæ Regales,' may serve to give an idea of the manner in which the works of Cwmsymlog (facetiously styled by the author or his printer "Come-some-luck") were laid out:


    From a statement made by Bushell to Parliament of the results of the working subsequent to 1636, it appears that the lead alone was worth above £5,000 a year, to which there was to be added the value of the silver—Bushell alleging, in his petition to Charles I., deposited in the State Paper-office, [p.96] that Sir Hugh had brought "to the Minte theis 16 yeares of puer silver 100 poundes weekly."  A ton of the lead ore is said to have yielded about a hundred ounces of silver, and the yield at one time was such that Myddelton's profits were alleged by Bushell to have amounted to at least two thousand pounds a month.  There is no doubt, therefore, that Myddelton realised considerable profits by the working of his Welsh mines, and that towards the close of his useful life he was an eminently prosperous man. [p.97]

    Successful as he had been in his enterprise, he was ready to acknowledge the Giver of all Good in the matter.  He took an early opportunity of presenting a votive cup, manufactured by himself out of the Welsh silver, to the corporation of Denbigh, and another to the head of his family at Gwaenynog, in its immediate neighbourhood, both of which are still preserved.  On the latter is inscribed "Mentem non munus—Omnia a Deo—Hugh Myddelton."

    While conducting the mining operations, Sir Hugh resided at Lodge, now called Lodge Park, in the immediate neighbourhood of the mines.  The house was the property of Sir John Pryse, of Gogerddan, whose son Richard, afterwards created a baronet, was married to Myddelton's daughter Hester.  The house stood on the top of a beautifully wooded hill, overlooking the estuary of the Dovey and the great bog of Gorsfochno, the view being bounded by picturesque hills on the one hand and by the sea on the other.  Whilst residing here, on one of his visits to the mines, a letter reached him from his cousin, Sir John Wynn, of Gwydir, dated the 1st September, 1625, asking his assistance in an engineering project in which he was interested.  This was the reclamation of the large sandy marshes, called Traeth-Mawr and Traeth-Bach, situated at the junction of the counties of Caernarvon and Merioneth, at the northern extremity of the bay of Cardigan.  Sir John, after hailing his good cousin as "one of the great honours of the nation," congratulated him on the great work which he had performed in the Isle of Wight, and added, "I may say to you what the Jews said to Christ, We have heard of thy greats workes done abroade, doe now somewhat in thine own country."  After describing the nature of the land proposed to be reclaimed, Sir John declares his willingness "to adventure a brace of hundred pounds to joyne with Sir Hugh in the worke," and concludes by urging him to take a ride to Traeth-Mawr, which was not above a day's journey from where Sir Hugh was residing, and afterwards to come on and see him at Gwydir House, which was at most only another day's journey or about twenty-five miles further to the north-west of Traeth-Mawr.  The following was Sir Hugh's reply:—

    "I have received your kind letter.  Few are the things done by me; for which I give God the glory.  It may please, you to understand my first undertaking of public works was amongst my owns kindred, within less than a myle of the place where I hadd my first being, 24 or 25 years since, in seekinge of coales for the town of Denbighe.

    "Touching the drowned lands near your lyvinge; there are many things considerable therein.  Iff to be gayned, which will hardlie be performed without great stones, which was plentiful at the Weight [Isle of Wight], as well as wood, and great sums of money to be spent, not hundreds, but thousands; [p.98] and first of all his Majesty's interest must be got.  As for myself, I am grown into years, and full of business here at the mynes, the river at London, and other places, my weeklie charge being above £200; which maketh me verie unwillinge to undertake any other worke; and the least of theis, whether the drowned lands or mynes, requireth a whole man, with a large purse.  Noble sir, my desire is great to see you, which should draw me a farr longer waie; yet such are my occasions at this tyme here, for the settlings of this great worke, that I can hardlie be spared one hour in a daie.  My wieff being also here, I cannot leave her in a strange place.  Yet my love to publique works, and desire to see you (if God permit), maie another tyme draws me into those parts.  Soe with my heartie comendations I comit you and all your good desires to God.

                               "Your assured lovinge couzin to command,
"Lodge, Sept. 2nd, 1625."                                           "         HUGH MYDDELTON.

    At the date of this letter Sir Hugh was an old man of seventy, yet he still continued industriously to apply himself to business affairs.  Like most men with whom work has become a habit, he could not be idle, and active occupation seems to have been necessary to his happiness.  To the close of his life we find him engaged in correspondence on various subjects—on mining, draining, and general affairs.  When in London he continued to occupy his house in Bassishaw-street, where the goldsmith business was carried on in his absence by his son William.  He also continued to maintain his pleasant country house at Bush Bill, near Edmonton, which he occupied when engaged on the engineering business of the New River, near to which it was conveniently situated.

    At length all correspondence ceases, and the busy hand and head of the old man find rest in death.  Sir Hugh died on the 10th of December, 1631, at the advanced age of seventy-six.  In his will, which he made on the 21st November, three weeks before his death, when he was "sick in bodie " but "strong in mind," for which he praised God, he directed that he should be buried in the church of St. Matthew, Friday-street, where he had officiated as churchwarden, and where six of his sons and five of his daughters had been baptized.  It had been his parish church, and was hallowed in his memory by many associations of family griefs as well as joys; for there he had buried several of his children in early life, amongst others his two eldest-born sons.  The church of St. Matthew, however, has long since ceased to exist, though its registers have been preserved: it was destroyed in the great fire of 1666, and the monumental record of Sir Hugh's last resting-place perished in the common ruin.

    The popular and oft-repeated story of Sir Hugh Myddelton having died in poverty and obscurity is only one of the numerous fables which have accumulated about his memory. [p.101-1]  He left fair portions to all the children who survived him, and an ample, provision to his widow. [p.100-2]  His eldest son and heir, William, who succeeded to the baronetcy, inherited the estate at Ruthin, and afterwards married the daughter of Sir Thomas Harris, Baronet, of Shrewsbury.  Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir William, married John Grene, of Enfield, clerk to the New River Company, and from her is lineally descended the Rev. Henry Thomas Ellacombe, M.A., rector of Clyst St. George, Devon, who still holds two shares in the New River Company, as trustee for the surviving descendants of Myddelton in his family.  Sir Hugh left to his two other sons, Henry and Simon, [p.101] besides what he had already given them, one share each in the New River Company (after the death of his wife) and £400 a-piece.  His five daughters seem to have been equally well provided for.  Hester was left £900, the remainder of her portion of £1,900; Jane having already had the same portion on her marriage to Dr. Chamberlain, of London.  Elizabeth and Ann, like Henry and Simon, were left a share each in the New River Company and £500 a-piece.  He bequeathed to his wife, Lady Myddelton, the house at Bush Hill, Edmonton, and the furniture in it, for use during her life, with remainder to his youngest son Simon and his heirs.  He also left her all the "chains, rings, jewels, pearls, bracelets, and gold buttons, which she hath in her custody and useth to wear at festivals, and the deep silver basin, spout pot, maudlin cup, and small bowl;" as well as "the keeping and wearing of the great jewel given to him by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London, and after her decease to such one of his sons as she may think most worthy to wear and enjoy it."  By the same will Lady Myddelton was authorised to dispose of her interest in the Cardiganshire mines for her own benefit; and it afterwards appears, from documents in the State Paper Office, that Thomas Bushell, "the great chymist," as he was called, purchased it for £400 cash down, and £400 per annum during the continuance of her grant, which had still twenty-five years to run after her husband's death.

    Besides these bequeathments, and the gifts of land, money, and New River shares, which he had made to his other children during his lifetime, Sir Hugh left numerous other sums to relatives, friends, and clerks; for instance, to Richard Newell and Howell Jones, £30 each, "to the end that the former may continue his care in the works in the Mines Royal, and the latter in the New River water-works," where they were then respectively employed.  He also left an annuity of £20 to William Lewyn, who had been engaged in the New River undertaking from its commencement.  Nor were his men and women servants neglected, for he bequeathed to each of them a gift of money, not forgetting "the boy in the kitchen," to whom he left forty shillings.  He remembered also the poor of Henllan, near Denbigh, "the parish in which he was born," leaving to them £20; a similar sum to the poor of Denbigh, which he had represented in several successive Parliaments; and £5 to the parish of Amwell, in Hertfordshire.  To the Goldsmiths' Company, of which he had so long been a member, he bequeathed a share in the New River Company, for the benefit of the more necessitous brethren of that guild, "especially to such as shall be of his name, kindred, and county."

    Such was the life and such the end of Sir Hugh Myddelton, a man full of enterprise and resources, an energetic and untiring worker, a great conqueror of obstacles and difficulties, an honest and truly noble man, and one of the most distinguished benefactors the city of London has ever known.




ALTHOUGH the cutting of the New River involved a great deal of labour, and was attended with considerable cost, it was not a work that would now be regarded as of any importance in an engineering point of view.  It was, nevertheless, one of the greatest undertakings of the kind that had at that time been attempted in England; and it is most probable that, but for the persevering energy of Myddelton and the powerful support of the King, the New River enterprise would have failed.  As it was, a hundred years passed before another engineering work of equal importance was attempted, and then it was necessity, and not enterprise, that occasioned it.

    We have, in a previous chapter, referred to the artificial embankment of the Thames, almost from Richmond to the sea, by which a large extent of fertile land is protected from inundation along both banks of the river.  The banks first raised seemed to have been in many places of insufficient strength; and when a strong north-easterly wind blew down the North Sea, and the waters became pent up in that narrow part of it lying between the Belgian and the English coasts,—and especially when this occurred at a time of the highest spring tides,—the strength of the river embankments became severely tested throughout their entire length, and breaches often took place, occasioning destructive inundations.

    Down to the end of the seventeenth century scarcely a season passed without some such accident occurring.  There were frequent burstings of the banks on the south side between London Bridge and Greenwich, the district of Bermondsey, then green fields, being especially liable to be submerged. Commissions were appointed on such occasions, with full powers to distrain for rates, and to impress labourers in order that the requisite repairs might at once be carried out.  In some cases the waters for a long time held their ground, and refused to be driven back.  Thus, in the reign of Henry VIII., the marshes of Plumstead and Lesnes, now used as a practising ground by the Woolwich garrison, were completely drowned by the waters which had burst through Erith Breach, and for a long time all measures taken to reclaim them proved ineffectual.  There were also frequent inundations of the Combe Marshes, lying on the east of the royal palace at Greenwich.

    But the most destructive inundations occurred on the north bank of the Thames.  Thus, in the year 1676, a serious breach took place at Limehouse, when many houses were swept away, and it was with the greatest difficulty that the waters could be banked out again.  The wonder is, that sweeping, as the new current did, over the Isle of Dogs, in the direction of Wapping, and in the line of the present West India Docks, the channel of the river was not then permanently altered.  But Deptford was already established as a royal dockyard, and probably the diversion of the river would have inflicted as much local injury, judging by comparison, as it unquestionably would do at the present day.  The breach was accordingly stemmed, and the course of the river held in its ancient channel by Deptford and Greenwich.  Another destructive inundation shortly after occurred through a breach made in the embankment of the West Thurrock Marshes, in what is called the Long Reach, nearly opposite Greenhithe, where the lands remained under water for seven years, and it was with much difficulty that the breach could be closed.

    But the most destructive and obstinate of all the breaches was that made in the north bank a little to the south of the village of Dagenham, in Essex, by which the whole of the Dagenham and Havering Levels lay drowned at every tide.  A similar breach had occurred in 1621, which Vermuyden, the Dutch engineer, succeeded in stopping; and at the same time he embanked or "inned" the whole of Dagenham Creek, through which the little rivulet flowing past the village of that name found its way to the Thames.  Across the mouth of this rivulet Vermuyden had erected a sluice, of the nature of a "clow," being a strong gate suspended by hinges, which opened to admit of the egress of the inland waters at low tide, and closed against the entrance of the Thames when the tide rose.  It happened, however, that a heavy inland flood, and an unusually high spring tide, occurred simultaneously during the prevalence of a strong north-easterly wind, in the year 1707; when the united force of the waters meeting from both directions blew up the sluice, the repairs of which had been neglected, and in a very short time nearly the whole area of the above Levels was covered by the waters of the Thames.

At first the gap was so slight as to have been easily closed, being only from 14 to 16 feet wide.  But no measures having been taken to stop it, the tide ran in and out for several years, every tide wearing the channel deeper, and rendering the stoppage of the breach more difficult.  At length the channel was found upwards of 30 feet deep at low water, and about 100 feet wide, a lake more than a mile and a half in extent having by this time been formed inside the line of the river embankment.  Above a thousand acres of rich lands were spoiled for all useful purposes, and by the scouring of the waters out and in at every tide, the soil of about a hundred and twenty acres was completely washed away.  It was carried into the channel of the Thames, and formed a bank of about a mile in length, reaching halfway across the river.  This state of things could not be allowed to continue, for the navigation of the stream was seriously interrupted by the obstruction, and there was no knowing where the mischief would stop.

    Various futile attempts were made by the adjoining landowners to stem the breach.  They filled old ships with chalk and stones, and had them scuttled and sunk in the deepest places, throwing in baskets of chalk and earth outside them, together with bundles of straw and hay to stop up the interstices; but when the full tide rose, it washed them away like so many chips, and the opening was again driven clean through.  Then the expedient was tried of sinking into the hole gigantic boxes made expressly for the purpose, fitted tightly together, and filled with chalk.  Power was obtained to lay an embargo on the cargoes of chalk and ballast contained in passing ships, for the purpose of filling these boxes, as well as damming up the gap; and as many as from ten to fifteen freights of chalk a day were thrown in, but still without effect.

    One day when the tide was on the turn, the force of the water lifted one of the monster trunks sheer up from the bottom, when it toppled round, the lid opened, out fell the chalk, and, righting again, the immense box floated out into the stream and down the river.  One of the landowners interested in the stoppage ran along the bank, and shouted out at the top of his voice, "Stop her! stop her!"  But the unwieldy object being under no guidance was carried down stream towards the shipping lying at Gravesend, where its unusual appearance, standing so high out of the water, excited great alarm amongst the sailors.  The empty trunk, however, floated safely past, down the river, until it reached the Nore, where it stranded upon a sandbank.

    The Government next lent the undertakers an old royal ship called the Lion, for the purpose of being sunk in the breach, which was done, with two other ships; but the Lion was broken in pieces by a single tide, and at the very next ebb not a vestige of her was to be seen.  No matter what was sunk, the force of the water at high tide bored through underneath the obstacle, and only served to deepen the breach.  After the destruction of the Lion, the channel was found deepened to 50 feet at low water, at the very place where she had been sunk.

    All this had been but tinkering at the breach, and every measure that had been adopted merely proved the incompetency of the undertakers.  The obstruction to the navigation through the deposit of earth and sand in the river being still on the increase, an Act was passed in 1714, after the bank had been open for a period of seven years, giving powers for its repair at the public expense.  But it is an indication of the very low state of engineering ability in the kingdom at the time, that several more years passed before the measures taken with this object were crowned with success, and the opening was only closed after a fresh succession of failures.

    The works were first let to one Boswell, a contractor.  He proceeded very much after the method which had already failed, sinking two rows of caissons or chests across the breach, but provided with sluices for the purpose of shutting off the inroads of the tide.  All his contrivances, however, failed to make the opening watertight; and his chests were blown up again and again.  Then he tried pontoons of ships, which he loaded and sunk in the opening; but the force of the tide, as before, rushed under and around them, and broke them all to pieces, the only result being to make the gap in the bank considerably wider and deeper than he found it.  Boswell at length abandoned all further attempts to close it, after suffering a heavy loss; and the engineering skill of England seemed likely to be completely baffled by this hole in a river's bank.

    The competent man was, however, at length found in Captain Perry, who had just returned from Russia, where, having been able to find no suitable employment for his abilities in his own country, he had for some time been employed by the Czar Peter in carrying on extensive engineering works.

    John Perry was born at Rodborough, in Gloucestershire, in 1669, and spent the early part of his life at sea.  In 1693 we find him a lieutenant on board the royal ship the Montague.  The vessel having put into harbour at Portsmouth to be refitted, Perry is said to have displayed considerable mechanical skill in contriving an engine for throwing out a large quantity of water from deep sluices (probably for purposes of dry docking) in a very short space of time.  The Montague having been repaired, went to sea, and was shortly after lost.  As the English navy had suffered greatly during the same year, partly by mismanagement, and partly by treachery, the Government was in a very bad temper, and Perry was tried for alleged misconduct.  The result was, that he was sentenced to pay a fine of £1,000, and to undergo ten years' imprisonment in the Marshalsea.

    This sentence must, however, have been subsequently mitigated, for we find him in 1695 publishing a "Regulation for Seamen," with a view to the more effectual manning of the English navy; and in 1698 the Marquis of Caermarthen and others recommended him to the notice of the Czar Peter, then resident in England, by whom he was invited to go out to Russia, to superintend the establishment of a royal fleet, and the execution of several gigantic works then contemplated for the purpose of opening up the resources of that empire.  Perry was engaged by the Czar at a salary of £300 a year, and shortly after accompanied him to Holland, thence proceeding to Moscow, to enter upon the business of his office.

    One of the Czar's grand designs was to open up a system of inland navigation to connect his new city of St. Petersburg with the Caspian Sea, and also to place Moscow upon another line, by forming a canal between the Don and the Volga.  In 1698 the works had been begun by one Colonel Breckell, a German officer in the Czar's service.  But though a good military engineer, it turned out that he knew nothing of canal making; for the first sluice which he constructed was immediately blown up.  The water, when let in, forced itself under the foundations of the work, and the six months' labour of several thousand workmen was destroyed in a night.  The Colonel, having a due regard for his personal safety, at once fled the country in the disguise of a servant, and was never after heard of.  Captain Perry entered upon this luckless gentleman's office, and forthwith proceeded to survey the work he had begun, some seventy-five miles beyond Moscow.  Perry had a vast number of labourers placed at his disposal, but they were altogether unskilled, and therefore comparatively useless.  His orders were to have no fewer than 30,000 men at work, though he seldom had more than from 10,000 to 15,000; but one-twentieth the number of skilled labourers would have better served his purpose.  He had many difficulties to contend with.  The local nobility or boyars were strongly opposed to the undertaking, declaring it to be impossible; and their observation was, that God had made the rivers to flow one way, and it was presumption in man to think of attempting to turn them in another.

    Shortly after the Czar had returned to his dominions, he got involved in war with Sweden, and was defeated by Charles XII. at the battle of Narva, in 1701.  Although the Don and Volga Canal was by this time half-dug, and many of the requisite sluices were finished, the Czar sent orders to Perry to let the works stand, and attend upon him immediately at St. Petersburg.  Leaving one of his assistants to take charge of the work in hand, Perry waited upon his royal employer, who had a great new design on foot of an altogether different character.  This was the formation of a royal dockyard on one of the southern rivers of Russia, where Peter contemplated building a fleet of warships, wherewith to act against the Turks in the Black Sea.  Perry immediately entered upon the office to which he was appointed, of Comptroller of Russian Maritime Works, and proceeded to carry out the new project.  The site of the Royal Dockyard was fixed at Veronize on the Don, where he was occupied for several years, with a vast number of workmen under him, in building a dockyard, with storehouses, ship-sheds, and workshops. He also laid down and superintended the construction of numerous vessels, one of them of eighty guns: the slips on which he built them are said to have been very ingeniously connived.

    The creation of this dockyard was far advanced when he received a fresh command to undertake the survey of a canal to connect St. Petersburg with the Volga, to enable provisions, timber, and building materials to flow freely to the capital from the interior of the empire.  Perry surveyed three several routes, recommending the adoption of that through Lakes Ladoga and Onega; and the works were forthwith begun under his direction.  Before they were completed, however, he had left Russia, never to return.  During the whole of his stay in the kingdom he had been unable to get paid for his work.  His applications for his stipulated salary were put off with excuses from year to year.  Proceedings in the courts of law were out of the question in such a country; he could only dun the Czar and his ministers; and at length his arrears had become so great, and his necessities so urgent, that he could no longer endure his position, and threatened to quit the Czar's service.  It came to his ears that the Czar had threatened on his part, that if he did, he would have Perry's head; and the engineer immediately took refuge at the house of the British minister, who shortly after contrived to get him conveyed safely out of the country, but without being paid.  He returned to England in 1712, as poor as he had left it, though he had so largely contributed to create the navy of Russia, and to lay the foundations of its afterwards splendid system of inland navigation.

    It will be remembered that all attempts made to stop the breach at Dagenham had thus far proved ineffectual; and it threatened to bid defiance to the engineering talent of England.  Perry seemed to be one of those men who delight in difficult undertakings, and he no sooner heard of the work than he displayed an eager desire to enter upon it.  He went to look at the breach shortly after his return, and gave in a tender with a plan for its repair; but on Boswell's being accepted, which was the lowest, he held back until that contractor had tried his best, and failed.  The way was now clear for Perry, and again he offered to stop the breach and execute the necessary works for the sum of £25,000. [p.111]  His offer was this time accepted, and operations were begun early in 1715.  The opening was now of great width and depth, and a lake had been formed on the land from 400 to 500 feet broad in some places, and extending nearly 2 miles in length.  Perry's plan of operations may be briefly explained with the aid of his own map.


    In the first place he sought to relieve the tremendous pressure of the waters against the breach at high tide, by making other openings in the bank through which they might more easily flow into and out of the inland lake, without having exclusively to pass through the gap which it was his object to stop.  He accordingly had two openings, protected by strong sluices, made in the bank a little below the breach, and when these had been opened and were in action he proceeded to stop the breach itself.  He began by driving in a row of strong timber piles across the channel; and they were dovetailed one into the other so as to render them almost impervious to water.  The heads of the piles were not more than from eighteen inches to two feet above low water mark, so that in driving them little or no difficulty would be experienced from the current of ebb or flood.  "Forty feet from this central row of sheeting piles, was constructed on each side, a sort of low coffer-dam-like structure, variously stated as 18 or 20 feet broad, formed of vertical piles and horizontal boarding, and filled with chalk, to prevent the toe of the future embankment from spreading.  On the outside of these foot-wharfs, as Perry calls them, a wall of chalk rubble was made, as a further security.  The dam itself was composed entirely of clayey earth, in layers about 3 feet in height, and scarcements or steps of about 7 feet; and in the course of its erection, care was taken always to shut the sluices already mentioned when, at each successive ebb-tide, the level of the back-water fell to the level of the top of the work in progress.  In this way there was at no time a higher face for the water of the rising tide to flow over.  In fact the unfinished embankment held in the water, over the land it was intended to lay dry, at a depth corresponding to its gradual progress, until finally, when the bank was above high-water line, it was discharged by the sluices, and never re-admitted." [p.112]

    Scarcely had Perry begun the work, and proceeded so far as to exhibit his general design, than Boswell, the former contractor, presented a petition to Parliament against the engineer being allowed to go on, alleging that his scheme was utterly impracticable.  The work being of great importance, and executed at the public expense, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed, when Perry was called before them and examined fully as to the details.  His answers were so explicit, and, on the whole, so satisfactory, that at the close of the examination one of the members thus spoke the sense of the Committee:— "You have answered us like an artist, and like a workman; and it is not only the scheme, but the man, that we recommend."

    Perry was then allowed to proceed, and the work went steadily forward.  About three hundred men were employed in stopping the breach, and it occupied them about five years to accomplish it.  "Perry was proceeding steadily with the dam, which was constructed by successive scarcements about 7 feet broad and 3 feet high; these being supported by piles and planking on the side, and protected by layers of reeds on the top, had been able to resist the action of the tide when it came on.  In this manner he was advancing to completion, when one of his assistants proposed to the parties who had advanced Captain Perry the necessary capital, to set all hands to work at neap tides, and form a narrow wall of earth, unprotected by reeds or planking, and build it so rapidly as to get it above the level of the springs before they should come on, and thus at once exclude the tides from the level.  Unfortunately, the next spring-tide rose to an unexpected height under the influence of a storm from the north-west, and overtopped this narrow dam by about six inches, although Perry used the greatest energy, and heightened the wall of earth by piles and boarding set on edge on the top; but all in vain: the water poured over it, and in the course of two hours the whole dam was swept away, and the dovetailed piles laid bare. This accident was repaired in the winter months, and in June, 1718, the tide was again turned out of the levels; but in September of the same year the dam gave way again, and this time with far greater injury to the work, as upwards of 100 feet of the dovetailed piles were torn up and carried away.  In one place there was about 20 feet greater depth than before the work was begun.  The third dam was completed on the 18th June, 1719, about fourteen years after the accident first occurred."  Thus the opening was at length effectually stopped, and the water drained away by the sluices, leaving the extensive inland lake, which is to this day used by the Londoners as a place for fishing and aquatic recreation." [p.114]


    A good idea of formidable character of the embankments extending along the Thames may be obtained by a visit to this place.  Standing on the top of the bank, which is from 40 to 50 feet above the river level at low water, [p.115] we see on the one side the Thames, with its shipping passing and re-passing, high above the inland level when the tide is up, with the still lake of Dagenham and the far extending flats on the other.  Looking from the lower level on these strong banks extending along the stream as far as the eye can reach, we can only see the masts of sailing ships and the funnels of large steamers leaving behind them long trails of murky smoke,—at once giving an idea of the gigantic traffic that flows along this great water highway, and the enormous labour which it has cost to bank up the lands and confine the river within its present artificial creeks and tributary streams, round islands and about marshes, from London to the mouth of the Thames, are not less than 300 miles in extent.


    It is to be regretted that Perry gained nothing but fame by his great work.  The expense of stopping the breach far exceeded his original estimate; he required more materials than he had calculated upon; and frequent strikes amongst his workmen for advances of wages greatly increased the total cost.  These circumstances seem to have been taken into account by the Government in settling with the engineer, and a grant of £15,000 was voted to him in consideration of his extra outlay.  The landowners interested also made him a present of a sum of £1,000.  But even then he was left a loser; and although the public were so largely benefited by the success of the work, which restored the navigation of the river, and enabled the, adjoining proprietors again to reclaim for purposes of agriculture the drowned lands within the embankment, the engineer did not really receive a farthing's remuneration for his five years' anxiety and labour.

    After this period Perry seems to have been employed on harbour works, more particularly at Rye and Dover; but none of these were of great importance, the enterprise of the country being as yet dormant, and its available capital for public undertakings comparatively limited.  It appears from the Corporation Records of Rye, that in 1724 he was appointed engineer to the proposed new harbour-works there.  The port had become very much silted up, and for the purpose of restoring the navigation it was designed to cut a new channel, with two pier-heads, to form an entrance to the harbour.  The plan further included a large stone sluice and draw-bridge, with gates, across the new channel, about a quarter of a mile within the pier-heads; a wharf constructed of timber along the two sides of the channel, up to the sluice; together with other well-designed improvements.  But the works had scarcely been begun before the Commissioners displayed a strong disposition to job, one of them withdrawing for the purpose of supplying the stone and timber required for the new works at excessive prices, and others forming what was called "the family compact," or a secret arrangement for dividing the spoil amongst them.  The plan of Perry was not fully carried out; and though the pier-heads and stone sluice were built, the most important part of the work, the cutting of the new channel, was only partly executed, when the undertaking was suspended for want of funds.

    From that time forward, Perry's engineering ability was very much confined to making reports as to what things should be done, rather than in being employed to do them.  In 1727 he published his "Proposals for Draining the Fens in Lincolnshire;" and he seems to have been employed there as well as in Hatfield Level, where "Perry's Drain" still marks one of his works.  He was acting as engineer for the adventurers who undertook the drainage of Deeping Fen, in 1732, when he was taken ill and died at Spalding, in the sixty-third year of his age.  He lies buried in the churchyard of that town; and the tombstone placed over his grave bears the following inscription:—

To the Memory of

OHN PERRY Esqr; in 1693

Commander of His Maiesty King Willm's
Ship the Cignet; second Son of Sam' Perry
of Rodborough in Gloucestershire Gent & of
Sarah his Wife; Daughter of Sir Thos Nott; Kt
He was several Years Comptroller of the
Maritime works to Czar Peter in Russia &
on his Return home was Employed by ye
Parliament to stop Dagenham Breach which
he Effected and thereby Preserved the
Navigation of the River of Thames and
Rescued many Private Familys from Ruin
he after departed this Life in this Town &
was here Interred February 13; 1732 Aged
                                     63 Years
This stone was placed over him by the
Order of William Perry of Penthurst in
Kent Esqr his Kindsman and Heir Male




Statue of James Brindley, Etruria Junction, Stoke-on-Trent. [p.118-1]
© Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

IN the preceding memoirs of Vermuyden and Perry, we have found a vigorous contest carried on against the powers of water, the chief object of the engineers being to dam it back by embankments, or to drain it off by cuts and sluices; whilst in the case of Myddelton, on the other hand, we find his chief concern to have been to collect all the water within his reach, and lead it by conduit and aqueduct for the supply of the thirsting metropolis.  The engineer whose history we are now about to relate dealt with water in like manner to Myddelton, but on a much larger scale; directing it into extensive artificial canals, for use as the means of communication between various towns and districts.

    Down to the middle of last century, the trade and commerce of England were comparatively insignificant.  This is sufficiently clear from the wretched state of our road and river communication about that time; for it is well understood that without the ready means of transporting commodities from place to place, either by land or water, commerce is impossible.  But the roads of England were then about the worst in Europe, and usually impassable for vehicles during the greater part of the year. [p.118-2]  Corn, wool, and such like articles, were sent to market on horses' or bullocks' backs, and manure was carried to the field, and fuel conveyed from the forest or the bog, in the same way.  The only coal used in the inland southern counties was carried on horseback in sacks for the supply of the blacksmiths' forges.  The food of London was principally brought from the surrounding country in panniers.  The little merchandise transported from place to place was mostly of a light description,—the cloths of the West of England, the buttons of Birmingham and Macclesfield, the baizes of Norwich, the cutlery of Sheffield, and the tapes, coatings, and fustians of Manchester.


    Articles imported from abroad were in like manner conveyed inland by pack-horse or waggon; and it was then cheaper to bring most kinds of foreign wares from parts to London by sea than to convey them from the inland parts of England to London by road.  Thus, two centuries since, the freight of merchandise from Lisbon to London was no greater than the land carriage of the same articles from Norwich to London; and from Amsterdam or Rotterdam the expense of conveyance was very much less.  It cost from £7 to £9 to convey a ton of goods from Birmingham to London, and £13 from Leeds to London.  It will readily be understood that rates such as these were altogether prohibitory as regarded many of the articles now entering largely into the consumption of the great body of the people.  Things now considered necessaries of life, in daily common use, were then regarded as luxuries, obtainable only by the rich.  The manufacture of pottery was as yet of the rudest kind.  Vessels of wood, of pewter, and even of leather, formed the principal part of the household and table utensils of genteel and opulent families; and we long continued to import our cloths, our linen, our glass, our "Delph" ware, our cutlery, our paper, and even our hats, from France, Spain, Germany, Flanders, and Holland.  Indeed, so long as corn, fuel, wool, iron, and manufactured articles had to be transported on horseback, or in rude waggons dragged over still ruder roads by horses or oxen, it is clear that trade and commerce could make but little progress.  The cost of transport of the raw materials required for food, manufactures, and domestic consumption, must necessarily have formed so large an item as to have in a great measure precluded their use; and before they could be made to enter largely into the general consumption, it was absolutely necessary that greater facilities should be provided for their transport.

    England was not, however, like many other countries less favourably circumstanced, necessarily dependent solely upon roads for the means of transport, but possessed natural water communications, and the means of improving and extending them to an almost indefinite extent.  She was provided with convenient natural havens situated on the margin of the world's great highway, the ocean, and had the advantage of fine tidal rivers, up which fleets of ships might be lifted at every tide into almost the heart of the land.  Very little had as yet been done to take advantage of this great natural water power, and to extend navigation inland either by improving the rivers which might be made navigable, or by means of artificial canals, as had been done in Holland, France, and even Russia, by which those countries had in some parts been rendered in a great measure independent of roads.

    It is true, public attention had from time to time been directed to the improvement of rivers and the cutting of canals, but excepting a few isolated attempts, little had been done towards carrying the numerous suggested plans in different parts of the country into effect.  If we except some of the wider drains in the Fens, which were in certain cases made available for purposes of navigation, though to a very limited extent, the first canal was that constructed by John Trew, at Exeter, in 1566.  In early times the tide carried vessels up to that city, but the Countess of Devon took the opportunity of revenging herself upon the citizens for some affront they had offered to her, by erecting a weir across the Exe at Topsham in 1284, which had the effect of closing the river to sea-going vessels.  This continued until the reign of Henry VIII., when authority was granted by Parliament to cut a canal about three miles in length along the west side of the river, from Exeter to Topsham.  The work was executed by Trew, and it is a curious circumstance that it contained the first lock constructed in England,—though locks are said to have been used in the Brenta in 1488, and were shortly after adopted in the Milan canals.  John Trew was a native of Glamorganshire; and though be must have been a man of skill and enterprise, like many other projectors of improvements and benefactors of mankind, he seems to have realised only loss and mortification by his work.  In consequence of an alleged failure on his part in carrying out the agreement for executing the canal, the Mayor and Chamber of the city disputed his claims, and he became involved in ruinous litigation.  In a letter written by him to Lord Burleigh, in which he relates his suit against the Chamber of Exeter, Trew draws a sad picture of the state to which he was reduced.  "The varyablenes of men," says he, "and the great injury done unto me, brought me in such case that I wyshed my credetours sattisfyd and I away from earth: what becom may of my poor wyf and children, who lye in great mysery, for that I have spent all."  [p.121-1]  He then proceeded to recount "the things whearin God hath given (him) exsperyance;" relating chiefly to mining operations, and various branches of civil and even military engineering.  It is satisfactory to add that in 1573 the harassing suit was brought to a conclusion, and Trew granted the Corporation a release on their agreeing to pay him a sum of £224, and thirty pounds a year for life. [p.121-2]

    In the reign of James I. several Acts of Parliament were passed, giving powers to improve rivers, so as to facilitate the passage of boats and barges carrying merchandise.  Thus, in 1623, Sir Hugh Myddelton was engaged upon a Committee on a bill then under consideration "for the making of the river of Thames navigable to Oxford."  In the same year Taylor, the water poet, pointed out to the inhabitants of Salisbury that their city might be effectually relieved of its poor by having their river made navigable from thence to Christchurch.  The progress of improvement, however, must have been slow; as urgent appeals, on the same subject, continued to be addressed to Parliament and the public for a century later.

    In 1656 we find one Francis Mathew addressing Cromwell and his Parliament on the immense advantage of opening up a water-communication between London and Bristol.  But he only proposed to make the rivers Isis and Avon navigable to their sources, and then either to connect their heads by means of a short sasse or canal of about three miles across the intervening ridge of country, or to form a fair stone causeway between the heads of the two rivers, across which horses or carts might carry produce between the one and the other.  His object, it will be observed, was mainly the opening up of the existing rivers; "and not," he says, "to have the old channel of any river to be forsaken for a shorter passage."  Mathew fully recognised the formidable character of his project, and considered it quite beyond the range of private enterprise, whether of individuals or of any corporation, to undertake it; but he ventured to think that it might not be too much for the power of the State to construct the three miles of canal and carry out the other improvements suggested by him, with a reasonable prospect of success.  The scheme was, however, too bold for Mathew's time, and a century elapsed before another canal was made in England.

    A few years later, in 1677, a curious work was published by Andrew Yarranton, [p.122] in which he pointed out what the Dutch had accomplished by means of inland navigation, and what England ought to do as the best means of excelling the Dutch without fighting them.  The main purpose of his scheme was the improvement of our rivers so as to render them navigable and the inland country thus more readily accessible to commerce.  For, in England, said he, there are large rivers well situated for trade, great woods, good wool and large beasts, with plenty of iron stone, and pit coals, with lands fit to bear flax, and with mines of tin and lead; and besides all these things in it, England has a good air.  But to make these advantages available, the country, he held, must be opened up by navigation.  First of all, he proposed that the Thames should be improved to Oxford, and connected with the Severn by the Avon to Bristol—these two rivers, he insisted, being the master rivers of England.  When this has been done, says Mr. Yarranton, all the great and heavy carriage from Cheshire, all Wales, Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Bristol, will be carried to London and re-carried back to the great towns, especially in the winter time, at half the rates they now pay, which will much promote and advance manufactures in the counties and places above named.  "If I were a doctor," he says,

"and could read a Lecture of the Circulation of the Blood, I should by that awaken all the City: For London is as the Heart is in the Body, and the great Rivers are as its Veins; let them be stopt, there will then be great danger either of death, or else such Veins will apply themselves to feed some other part of the Body, which it was not properly intended for: For I tell you, Trade will creep and steal away from any place, provided she may be better treated elsewhere." But he goes on—"I hear some say, You projected the making Navigable the River Stoure in Worcestershire: what is the reason it was not finished?  I say it was my projection, and I will tell you the reason it was not finished.  The River Stoure and some other Rivers were granted by an Act of Parliament to certain Persons of Honour, and some progress was made in the work; but within a small while after the Act passed it was let fall again.  But it being a brat of my own, I was not willing it should be Abortive; therefore I made offers to perfect it, leaving a third part of the Inheritance to me and my heirs for ever, and we came to an agreement.  Upon which I fell on, and made it compleatly Navigable from Sturbridge to Kederminster; and carried down many hundred Tuns of Coales, and laid out near one thousand pounds, and then it was obstructed for Want of Money, which by Contract was to be paid."

    There is no question that this "want of money" was the secret of the little progress made in the improvement of the internal communications of the country, as well as the cause of the backward state of industry generally.  England was then possessed of little capital and less spirit, and hence the miserable poverty, starvation, and beggary which prevailed to a great extent amongst the lower classes of society at the time when Mr. Yarranton wrote, and which he so often refers to in the course of his book.  For the same reason most of the early Acts of Parliament for the improvement of navigable rivers remained a dead letter: there was not money enough to carry them out, modest though the projects usually were.  Among the few schemes which were actually carried out about the beginning of the eighteenth century, was the opening up of the navigation of the rivers Aire and Calder, in Yorkshire.  Though a work of no great difficulty, Thoresby speaks of it in his diary as one of vast magnitude.  It was, however, of much utility, and gave no little impetus to the trade of that important district.

    It was, indeed, natural that the demand for improvements in inland navigation should arise in those quarters where the communications were the most imperfect and where good communications were most needed, namely, in the manufacturing districts of the north of England.  On the western side of the island Liverpool was then rising in importance, and the necessity became urgent for opening up its water communications with the interior.  By the assistance of the tide, vessels were enabled to reach as high up the Mersey as Warrington; but there they were stopped by the shallows, which it was necessary to remove to enable them to reach Manchester and the adjacent districts.  Accordingly, in 1720, an Act was obtained empowering certain persons to take steps to make navigable the rivers Mersey and Irwell from Liverpool to Manchester.  This was effected by the usual contrivance of wears, locks, and flushes, and a considerable improvement in the navigation was thereby effected.  Acts were also passed for the improvement of the Weaver navigation, the Douglas navigation, and the Sankey navigation, all in the same neighbourhood; and the works carried out proved of much service to the district.


Anderton Boat Lift, Weaver Navigation. [p.125]
Picture Wikipedia.

    But these improvements, it will be observed, were principally confined to clearing out the channels of existing rivers, and did not contemplate the making of new and direct navigable cuts between important towns or districts.  It was not until about the middle of last century that English enterprise was fairly awakened to the necessity of carrying out a system of artificial canals throughout the kingdom; and from the time when canals began to be made, it will be found that the industry of the nation made a sudden start forward.  Abroad, monarchs had stimulated like undertakings, and drawn largely on the public resources for the purpose of carrying them into effect; but in England such projects are usually left to private enterprise, which follows rather than anticipates the public wants.  In the upshot, however, the English system, as it may be termed—which is the outgrowth in a great measure of individual energy—does not prove the least efficient; for we shall find that the English canals, like the English railways, were eventually executed with a skill, despatch, and completeness, which imperial enterprise, backed by the resources of great states, was unable to surpass or even to equal.  How the first English canals were made, how they prospered, and how the system extended, will appear from the following biography of James Brindley, the father of canal engineering in England.

    In the third year of the reign of George I., whilst the British Government were occupied in extinguishing the embers of the Jacobite rebellion which had occurred in the preceding year, the first English canal engineer was born in a remote hamlet in the High Peak of Derby, in the midst of a rough country, then inhabited by quite as rough a people.

    The nearest town of any importance was Macclesfield, where a considerable number of persons were employed, about the middle of last century, in making wrought buttons in silk, mohair, and twist—such being then the staple trade of the place.  Those articles were sold throughout the country by pedestrian hawkers, most of whom lived in the wild region called "The Flash," from a hamlet of that name situated between Buxton, Leek, and Macclesfield.  They squatted on the waste lands and commons in the district, and were notorious for their wild, half-barbarous manners, and brutal pastimes.  Travelling about from fair to fair, and using a cant or slang dialect, they became generally known as "Flash men," and the name still survives.  Their numbers so grew, and their encroachments on the land became so great, that it became imperatively necessary to root them out; but for some time no bailiff was met with sufficiently bold to attempt to serve a writ in the district.  At last an officer was found who undertook to arrest several of them, and other landowners, taking courage, followed the example.  Those who refused to become tenants left, to squat elsewhere; and the others then consented to settle down to the cultivation of their farms.  Another set of travelling rogues belonging to the same neighbourhood was known as the "Broken Cross Gang," from a place called Broken Cross, situated to the south-east of Macclesfield.  Those fellows consorted a good deal with the Flash men, frequenting markets and travelling from fair to fair, practising the pea-and-thimble trick, and enticing honest country people into the temptation of gambling.  They proceeded to more open thieving and pocket-picking, until at length the magistrates of the district took active measures to root them out of Broken Cross, and the gang became broken up.  Such was the district, and such the population, in the neighbourhood of which our hero was born.


    James Brindley first saw the light in a humble cottage standing about midway between the hamlet of Great Rocks and that of Tunstead, in the liberty of Thornsett, some three miles to the north-east of Buxton.  The house in which he was born, in the year 1716, has long since fallen to ruins—the Brindley family having been its last occupants.  The walls stood for some time after the roof had fallen in, and at length the materials were removed to build cowhouses; but in the middle of the ruin there grew up a young ash tree, forcing up one of the flags of the cottage floor.  It looked so healthy and thriving a plant, that the labourer employed to remove the stones for the purpose of forming the pathway to the neighbouring farm-house, spared the seedling, and it grew up into the large and flourishing tree, six feet nine inches in girth, standing in the middle of the Croft, and now known as "Brindley's Tree."  This ash tree is Nature's own memorial of the birth-place of the engineer, and it is the only one as yet erected in commemoration of his genius.



    Although the enclosure is called Brindley's Croft, this name was only given to it of late years by its tenant, in memory of the engineer who was born there.  The statement made in Mr. Henshall's memoir of Brindley, [p.129] to the effect that Brindley's father was the freehold owner of his croft, does not appear to have any foundation; as the present owner of the property, Dr. Fleming, informs us that it was purchased, about the beginning of the present century, from the heirs of the last of the Heywards, who became its owners in 1688.  No such name as Brindley occurs in any of the title-deeds belonging to the property; and it is probable that the engineer's father was an under-tenant, and merely rented the old cottage in which our hero was born.  There is no record of his birth, nor does the name of Brindley appear in the register of the parish of Wormhill, in which the cottage was situated; but registers in those days were very imperfectly kept, and part of that of Wormhill has been lost.

    It is probable that Brindley's father maintained his family by the cultivation of his little croft, and that he was not much, if at all, above the rank of a cottier.  It is indeed recorded of him that he was by no means a steady man, and was fonder of sport than of work.  He went shooting and hunting, when he should have been labouring; and if there was a bull-running within twenty miles, he was sure to be there.  The Bull Ring of the district lay less than three miles off, at the north end of Long Ridge Lane, which passed almost by his door; and of that place of popular resort Brindley's father was a regular frequenter.  These associations led him into bad company, and very soon reduced him to poverty.  He neglected his children, not only setting before them a bad example, but permitting them to grow up without education.  Fortunately, Brindley's mother in a great measure supplied the father's shortcomings; she did what she could to teach them what she knew, though that was not much; but, perhaps more important still, she encouraged them in the formation of good habits by her own steady industry. [p.130]

    The different members of the family, of whom James was the eldest, were thus under the necessity of going out to work at a very early age to provide for the family wants.  James worked at any ordinary labourer's employment which offered until he was about seventeen years old.  His mechanical bias had, however, early displayed itself, and he was especially clever with his knife, making models of mills, which he set to work in little mill-streams of his contrivance.  It is said that one of the things in which he took most delight when a boy, was to visit a neighbouring grist-mill and examine the water-wheels, cog-wheels, drum-wheels, and other attached machinery, until he could carry away the details in his head; afterwards imitating the arrangements by means of his knife and such little bits of wood as he could obtain for the purpose.  We can thus readily understand how he should have turned his thoughts in the direction in which we afterwards find him employed, and that, encouraged by his mother, he should have determined to bind himself, on the first opportunity that offered, to the business of a millwright.

    The demands of trade were so small at the time, that Brindley had no great choice of masters; but at the village of Sutton, near Macclesfield, there lived one Abraham Bennett, a wheelwright and millwright, to whom young Brindley offered himself as apprentice; and in the year 1733, after a few weeks' trial, he became bound to that master for the term of seven years.  Although the employment of millwrights was then of a very limited character, they obtained a great deal of valuable practical information whilst carrying on their business.  The millwrights were as yet the only engineers.  In the course of their trade they worked at the foot-lathe, the carpenter's bench, and the anvil, by turns; thus cultivating the faculties of observation and comparison, acquiring practical knowledge of the strength and qualities of materials, and dexterity in the handling of tools of many different kinds.  In country places, where division of labour could not be carried so far as in the larger towns, the millwright was compelled to draw largely upon his own resources, and to devise expedients to meet pressing emergencies as they arose.  Necessity thus made them dexterous, expert, and skilful in mechanical arrangements, more particularly those connected with mill-work, steam-engines, pumps, cranes, and such like.  Hence millwrights in those early days were looked upon as a very important class of workmen.  The nature of their business tended to render them self-reliant, and they prided themselves on the importance of their calling.  On occasions of difficulty the millwright was invariably resorted to for help; and as the demand for mechanical skill arose, in course of the progress of manufacturing and agricultural industry, the men trained in millwrights' shops, such as Brindley, Meikle, Rennie, and Fairbairn, were borne up by the force of their practical skill and constructive genius into the highest rank of skilled and scientific engineering.

    Brindley, however, only acquired his skill by slow degrees.  Indeed, his master thought him slower than most lads, and even stupid.  Bennett, like many well-paid master mechanics at that time, was of intemperate habits, and gave very little attention to his apprentice, leaving him to the tender mercies of his journeymen, who were for the most part a rough and drunken set.  Much of the lad's time was occupied in running for beer, and when he sought for information he was often met with a rebuff.  Skilled workmen were then very jealous of new hands, and those who were in any lucrative employment usually put their shoulders together to exclude outsiders.  Brindley had thus to find out nearly everything for himself, and he only worked his way to dexterity through a succession of blunders.

    He was frequently left in sole charge of the wheelwrights' shop—the men being absent at jobs in the country, and the master at the public-house, from which he could not easily be drawn.  Hence, when customers called at the shop to get any urgent repairs done, the apprentice was under the necessity of doing them in the best way he could, and that often very badly.  When the men came home and found tools blunted and timber spoiled, they abused Brindley and complained to the master of his bungling apprentice's handiwork, declaring him to be a mere "spoiler of wood."  On one occasion, when Bennett and the journeymen were absent, he had to fit in the spokes of a cartwheel, and was so intent on completing his job that he did not find out that he had fitted them all in the wrong way until he had applied the gauge-stick.  Not long after this occurrence, Brindley was left by himself in the shop for an entire week, working at a piece of common enough wheelwright's work, without any directions; and he made such a "mess" of it, that on the master's return he was so enraged, that he threatened, there and then, to cancel the indentures and send the young man back to farm-labourer's work, which Bennett declared was the only thing for which he was fit.

    Brindley had now been two years at the business, and in his master's opinion had learnt next to nothing; though it shortly turned out that, notwithstanding the apprentice's many blunders, he had really groped his way to much valuable practical information on matters relating to his trade.  Bennett's shop would have been a bad school for an ordinary youth, but it proved a profitable one for Brindley, who was anxious to learn, and determined to make a way for himself if he could not find one.  He must have had a brave spirit to withstand the many difficulties he had to contend against, to learn dexterity through blunders, and success through defeats.  But this is necessarily the case with all self-taught workmen; and Brindley was mainly self-taught, as we have seen, even in the details of the business to which he had bound himself apprentice.

    In the autumn of 1735 a small silk-mill at Macclesfield, the property of Mr. Michael Daintry, sustained considerable injury from a fire at one of the gudgeons inside the mill, and Bennett was called upon to execute the necessary repairs.  Whilst the men were employed at the shop in executing the new work, Brindley was sent to the mill to remove the damaged machinery, under the directions of Mr. James Milner, the superintendent of the factory.  Milner had thus frequent occasion to enter into conversation with the young man, and was struck with the pertinence of his remarks as to the causes of the recent fire and the best means of avoiding similar accidents in future.  He even applied to Bennett, his master, to permit the apprentice to assist in executing the repairs of certain parts of the work, which was reluctantly assented to.  Bennett closely watched his "bungling apprentice," as he called him; but Brindley, encouraged by the superintendent of the mill, succeeded in satisfactorily executing his allotted portion of the repairs, not less to the surprise of his master than to the mortification of his men.  Many years after, Brindley, in describing this first successful piece of mill-work which he had executed, observed, "I can yet remember the delight which I felt when my work was fixed and fitted complete; though I could not understand why my master and the other workmen, instead of being pleased, seemed to be dissatisfied with the insertion of every fresh part in its proper place."

    The completion of the job was followed by the usual supper and drink at the only tavern in the town, then on Parsonage Green.  Brindley's share in the work was a good deal ridiculed by the men when the drink began to operate; on which Mr. Milner, to whose intercession his participation in the work had been entirely attributable, interposed and said, "I will wager a gallon of the best ale in the house, that before the lad's apprenticeship is out he will be a cleverer workman than any here, whether master or man."  We have not been informed whether the wager was accepted; but it was long remembered, and Brindley was so often taunted with it by the workmen, that he was not himself allowed to forget that it had been offered.  Indeed, from that time forward, he zealously endeavoured so to apply himself as to justify the prediction, for it was nothing less, of his kind friend Mr. Milner; and before the end of his third year's apprenticeship his master was himself constrained to admit that Brindley was not the "fool" and the "blundering blockhead" which he and his men had so often called him.

    Very much to the chagrin of the latter, and to the surprise of Bennett himself, the neighbouring millers, when sending for a workman to execute repairs in their machinery, would specially request that "the young man Brindley" should be sent them in preference to any other of the workmen.  Some of them would even have the apprentice in preference to the master himself.  At this Bennett was greatly surprised, and, quite unable to understand the mystery, he even went so far as to inquire of Brindley where he had obtained his knowledge of mill-work!  Brindley could not tell; it "came natural-like;" but the whole secret consisted in Brindley working with his head as well as with his hands.  The apprentice had already been found peculiarly expert in executing mill repairs, in the course of which he would frequently suggest alterations and improvements, more especially in the application of the water-power, which no one had before thought of, but which proved to be founded on correct principles, and worked to the millers' entire satisfaction.  Bennett, on afterwards inspecting the gearing of one of the mills repaired by Brindley, found it so securely and substantially fitted, that he even complained to him of his style of work.  "Jem," said he, "if thou goes on i' this foolish way o' workin', there will be very little trade left to be done when thou comes oot o' thy time: thou knaws firmness o' wark's th' ruin o' trade."  Brindley, however, gave no heed whatever to the unprincipled suggestion, and considered it the duty and the pride of the mechanic always to execute the best possible work.

    Among the other jobs which Brindley's master was employed to execute about this time, was the machinery of a new paper-mill proposed to be erected on the river Dane.  The arrangements were to be the same as those adopted in the Smedley paper-mill on the Irk, and at Throstle-Nest, on the Irwell, near Manchester; and Bennett went over to inspect the machinery at those places.  But Brindley was afterwards of opinion that he must have inspected the taverns in Manchester much more closely than the paper-mills in the neighbourhood; for when he returned, the practical information he brought with him proved almost a blank.  Nevertheless, Bennett could not let slip the opportunity of undertaking so lucrative a piece of employment in his special line, and, ill-informed though he was, he set his men to work upon the machinery of the proposed paper-mill.

    It very soon appeared that Bennett was altogether unfitted for the performance of the contract which he had undertaken.  The machinery, when made, would not fit; it would not work; and, what with drink and what with perplexity, Bennett soon got completely bewildered.  Yet to give up the job altogether would be to admit his own incompetency as a mechanic, and must necessarily affect his future employment as a millwright.  He and his men, therefore, continued distractedly to persevere in their operations, but without the slightest appearance of satisfactory progress.

    About this time an old hand, who happened to be passing the place at which the men were at work, looked in upon them and examined what they were about, as a mere matter of curiosity.  When he had done so, he went on to the nearest public-house and uttered his sentiments on the subject very freely.  He declared that the job was a farce, and that Abraham Bennett was only throwing his employer's money away.  The statement of what the "experienced hand" had said, was repeated until it came to the ears of young Brindley.  Concerned for the honour of his shop as well as for the credit of his master—though he probably owed him no great obligation on the score either of treatment or instruction—Brindley formed the immediate resolution of attempting to master the difficulty so that the work might be brought to a satisfactory completion.

    At the end of the week's work Brindley left the mill without saying a word of his intention to any one, and instead of returning to his master's house, where he lodged, he took the road for Manchester.  Bennett was in a state of great alarm lest he should have run away; for Brindley, now in the fourth year of his apprenticeship, had reached the age of twenty-one, and the master feared that, taking advantage of his legal majority, he had left his service never to return.  A messenger was despatched in the course of the evening to his mother's house; but he was not there.  Sunday came and passed—still no word of young Brindley: he must have run away!

    On Monday morning Bennett went to the paper-mill to proceed with his fruitless work; and lo! the first person he saw was Brindley, with his coat off, working away with greater energy than ever.  His disappearance was soon explained.  He had been to Smedley Mill to inspect the machinery there with his own eyes, and clear up his master's difficulty.  He had walked the twenty-five miles thither on the Saturday night, and on the following Sunday morning he had waited on Mr. Appleton, the proprietor of the mill, and requested permission to inspect the machinery.  With an unusual degree of liberality Mr. Appleton gave the required consent, and Brindley spent the whole of that Sunday in the most minute inspection of the entire arrangements of the mill.  He could not make notes, but he stored up the particulars carefully in his head; and believing that he had now thoroughly mastered the difficulty, he set out upon his return journey, and walked the twenty-five miles back to Macclesfield again.

    Having given this proof of his determination, as he had already given of his skill in mechanics, Bennett was only too glad to give up the whole conduct of the contract thenceforth to his apprentice; Brindley assuring him that he should now have no difficulty in completing it to his satisfaction.  No time was lost in revising the whole design; many parts of the work already fixed were rejected by Brindley, and removed; others, after his own design, were substituted; several entirely new improvements were added; and in the course of a few weeks the work was brought to a conclusion, within the stipulated time, to the satisfaction of the proprietors of the mill.

    There was now no longer any question as to the extraordinary mechanical skill of Bennett's apprentice.  The old man felt that he had been in a measure saved by young Brindley, and thenceforth, during the remainder of his apprenticeship, he left him in principal charge of the shop.  For several years after, Brindley maintained his old master and his family in respectability and comfort; and when Bennett died, Brindley carried on the concern until the work in hand had been completed and the accounts wound up; after which he removed from Macclesfield to begin business on his own account at the town of Leek, in Staffordshire.




BRINDLEY had now been nine years at his trade, seven as apprentice and two as journeyman; and be began business as a wheelwright at Leek at the age of twenty-six.  He had no capital except his skill, and no influence except that which his character as a steady workman gave him.  Leek was not a manufacturing place at the time when Brindley began business there in 1742.  It was but a small market town, the only mills in the neighbourhood being a few grist-mills driven by the streamlets flowing into the waters of the Dane, the Churnet, and the Trent.  These mills usually contained no more than a single pair of stones, and they were comparatively rude and primitive in their arrangement and construction.

    Brindley at first obtained but a moderate share of employment.  His work was more strongly done, and his charges were consequently higher, than was customary in the district; and the agricultural classes were as yet too poor to enable them to pay the prices of the best work.  He gradually, however, acquired a position, and became known for his skill in improving old machinery or inventing such new mechanical arrangements as might be required for any special purpose.  He was very careful to execute the jobs which were entrusted to him within the stipulated time, and he began to be spoken of as a thoroughly reliable workman.  Thus his business gradually extended to other places at a distance from Leek, and more especially into the Staffordshire Pottery districts, about to rise into importance under the fostering energy of Josiah Wedgwood.

    At first Brindley kept neither apprentices nor journeymen, but felled his own timber and cut it up himself, with such assistance as he could procure on the spot.  As his business increased he took in an apprentice, and then a journeyman, to carry on the work in the shop while he was absent; and he was often called to a considerable distance from home, more particularly for the purpose of being consulted about any new machinery that was proposed to be put up.  Nor did he confine himself to mill-work.  He was ready to undertake all sorts of machinery connected with the pumping of water, the draining of mines, the smelting of iron and copper, and the various mechanical arrangements connected with the manufactures rising into importance in the adjoining counties of Cheshire and Lancashire.  Whenever he was called upon in this way, he endeavoured to introduce improvements; and to such an extent did he carry this tendency, that he became generally known in the neighbourhood by the name of "The Schemer."

    A number of Brindley's memoranda books [p.139] are still in existence, which show the varied nature of his employment during this early part of his career.  It appears from the entries made in them, that he was not only employed in repairing and fitting up silk-throwing mills at Macclesfield, all of which were then driven by water, but also in repairing corn-mills at Congleton, Newcastle-under-Lyne, and various other places, besides those in the immediate neighbourhood of Leek, where he lived.  We believe the pocket memoranda books, to which we refer, were the only records which Brindley kept of his early business transactions; the rest he carried in his memory, which by practice became remarkably retentive.  Whilst working as an apprentice at Macclesfield, he had taught himself the art of writing; but he never mastered it thoroughly, and to the end of his life he wrote with difficulty, and almost illegibly.  His spelling was also very bad; and what with the bad spelling and what with the hieroglyphics in which he wrote, it is sometimes very difficult to decypher the entries made by him from time to time in his books.


    We find him frequently at Trentham.  On one occasion he makes entry of a "Loog of Daal 20 foot long;" at another time he is fitting a pump for "Arle Gower," the Earl being one of Brindley's first patrons.  The log of deal, it afterwards appears, was required for the flint-mill of a Mr. Tibots—"a mow [new?] invontion," as Brindley enters it in his book—of which more hereafter.  On May 18, 1755, he enters "Big Tree to cut 1 day," and he seems to have felled the tree, and, some months after, to have cut it up himself, entering so many days at two shillings a day for the labour.  When he had to travel some distance, he set down sixpence a day extra for expenses.  Thus on one occasion he makes this entry: "For Mr. Kent corn mill of Codan looking out a shaft neer Broun Edge 1 day 0: 2: 6."

    Between Leek and Trentham lay the then small pottery village of Burslem, which Brindley had frequent occasion to pass through in going to and from his jobs for the Earl.  The earthenware then manufactured at Burslem was of a very inferior sort, consisting almost entirely of brown vessels; and the quantity turned out was so small that it was hawked about on the backs of the potters themselves, or sold by higglers, who carried it from village to village in the panniers of their donkeys.  The brothers Elers, the Dutchmen, erected a potwork of an improved kind near Burslem, at the beginning of the century, in which they first practised the art of salt-glazing, brought by them from Holland.

    The next improvement introduced was the use of powder of flints, used at first as a wash or dip, and afterwards mixed with tobacco-pipe clay, from which an improved ware was made, called "Flint potters."  The merit of introducing this article is usually attributed to William Astbury, of Shelton, who, when on a journey to London, stopping at an inn at Dunstable, noticed the very soft and delicate nature of some burnt flint-stones when mixed with water (the hostler having used the powdered flint as a remedy for a disorder in his horses' eyes), and from thence he is said to have conceived the idea of applying it to the purposes of his trade.  In first using the calcined flints, Mr. Astbury's practice was to have them pounded in an iron mortar until perfectly levigated; and being but sparingly used, this answered the demand for some time.  But when the use of flint became more common, this tedious process would no longer suffice.

    The brothers John and Thomas Wedgwood carried on the pottery business in a very small way, but were nevertheless hampered by an insufficient supply of flint powder, and it was found necessary to adopt some means of increasing it.  In their emergency the potters called "The Schemer" to their aid; and hence we find him frequently occupied in erecting flint-mills, in Burslem and the neighbourhood, from that time forward.  The success which attended his efforts brought Brindley not only fame, but business.

    It happened that, while thus occupied, Mr. John Edensor Heathcote, owner of the Clifton estate near Manchester, became married to one of the daughters of Sir Nigel Gresley, of Knypersley, in the neighbourhood of Burslem, and that the marriage festivities were in progress, when the remarkable ingenuity of the young millwright of Leek was accidentally mentioned in the hearing of Mr. Heathcote one day at dinner.  The Manchester man, in the midst of pleasure, did not forget business; and it occurred to him that this ingenious mechanic might be of use in contriving some method for clearing his Clifton coal-mines of the water by which they had so long been drowned.  The old methods of the gin-wheel and tub, and the chain-pump, had been tried, but entirely failed to keep the water under: if this Brindley could but do anything to help him in his difficulty, he would employ him at once; at all events, he would like to see the man.

    Brindley was accordingly sent for, and the whole case was laid before him.  Mr. Heathcote described as minutely as possible the nature of the locality, the direction in which the strata lay, and exhibited a plan of the working of the mines.  Brindley was perfectly silent for a long time, seemingly absorbed in a consideration of the difficulties to be overcome; but at length his countenance brightened, his eyes sparkled, and he briefly pointed out a method by which he thought he should be enabled, at no great expense, effectually to remedy the evil.  His explanations were considered so satisfactory, that he was at once directed to proceed to Clifton, with full powers to carry out his proposed plan of operations.  This was, to call to his aid the fall of the river Irwell, which formed one boundary of the estate, and pump out the water from the pits by means of the greater power of the water in the river.

    With this object Brindley contrived and executed his first tunnel, which he drove through the solid rock for a distance of six hundred yards, and in this tunnel he led the river on to the breast of an immense water-wheel fixed in a chamber some thirty feet below the surface of the ground, from the lower end of which the water, after exercising its power, flowed away into the lower level of the Irwell.  The expedient, though bold, was simple, and it proved effective.  The machinery was found fully equal to the emergency; and in a very short time Brindley's wheel and pumps, working night and day, so cleared the mine of water as to enable the men to get the coal in places from which they had long been completely "drowned out."

    We are not informed of the remuneration which the engineer received for carrying out this important work; but from the entries in his memorandum book it is probable that all he obtained was only his workman's wage of two shillings a day.  Notwithstanding his ingenuity and hardworking energy, Brindley never seems, during the early part of his career, to have earned more than about one-third the wage of skilled mechanics in our own time; and from the insignificant sums charged by him for expenses, it is clear that he was satisfied to live in the fashion of an ordinary labourer.  What modern engineers will receive ten guineas a day for doing, he, with his strong original mind, was quite content to do for two shillings.  But eminent constructive skill seems to have been lightly appreciated in those days, if we may judge by the money value attached to it. [p.143]  To this, however, it must be added, that at the time of which we speak, the people of the country were comparatively poor—manufacturers as well as landowners.

    In Macclesfield and the neighbourhood, where the inventions of men such as Brindley have issued in so extraordinary a development of wealth, the operations of trade were as yet in their infancy, and had numerous obstructions and difficulties to contend against.  Perhaps the greatest difficulty of all was the absence of those facilities for transport between one district and another, without which the existence of trade is simply impossible; but we shall shortly find Brindley also entering upon this great work of opening up the internal communications of the country, with an extraordinary degree of ability and success.

    By the middle of last century, Macclesfield and the neighbouring towns were gradually rising out of the small button-trade, and aiming at greater things in the way of manufacture.  In 1755 Mr. N. Pattison of London, Mr. John Clayton, and a few other gentlemen, entered into a partnership to build a new silk-mill at Congleton, in Cheshire, on a larger scale than had yet been attempted in that neighbourhood.  Brindley was employed to execute the water-wheel and the commoner sort of mill-work about the building; but the smaller wheels and the more complex parts of the machinery, with which it was not supposed Brindley could be acquainted, were entrusted to a master joiner and millwright, named Johnson, who also superintended the progress of the whole work.

    The superintendent required Brindley to work after his mere verbal directions, without the aid of any plan; and Brindley was not even allowed to inspect the models of the machinery required for the proposed mill.  He thus worked at a great disadvantage, and the operations connected with the construction of the intended machinery were very shortly found in a state of complete muddle. The proprietors had reason to suspect that their superintendent was not equal to the enterprise which he had undertaken.  At first he endeavoured to assure them that all was going right; but at last, after various efforts, he was obliged to confess his incompetency and his inability to complete the work.

    The proprietors, becoming alarmed, then sent for Brindley and told him of their dilemma.  "Would he undertake to complete the works?"  He asked to see the model and plans which the superintendent engineer had proposed to follow out.  But on being applied to, the latter positively refused to submit his designs to a common millwright, as he alleged Brindley to be.  The proprietors were almost in despair, and their only reliance now was on Brindley's genius.  "Tell me," he said, "what is the precise operation that you wish to perform, and I will endeavour to provide you with the requisite machinery for doing it; but you must let me carry out the work in my own way."  To this they were only too glad to assent; and having been furnished with the necessary powers, he forthwith set to work.

    His intelligent observation of the process of manufacture in the various mills he had inspected, his intimate practical knowledge of machinery of all kinds then in use, and his fertility of resources in matters of mechanical arrangement, enabled him to perform even more than he had promised; and he not only finished the mill to the complete satisfaction of its owners, but added a number of new and skilful improvements in detail, which afterwards proved of the greatest value.  For instance, he adapted lifts to each set of rollers and swifts, by means of which the silk could be wound upon the bobbins equably, instead of in wreaths as in other mills; and he so arranged the shafting as to throw out of gear and stop either the whole or any part of the machinery at will—an arrangement subsequently adopted in the throstle of the cotton-spinning machine, and, though common enough now, then thought perfectly marvellous.  And, in order that the tooth-and-pinion wheels should fit with perfect precision, he expressly invented machinery for their manufacture—a thing that had not before been attempted—all such wheels having, until then, been cut by hand, at great labour and cost.  By means of this new machinery, as much work, and of a far better description, could be cut in a day as had before occupied at least a fortnight.  The result was, that the new silk-mill, when finished, was found to be one of the most complete and economical arrangements of manufacturing machinery that had up to that time been erected in the neighbourhood.

    After the Congleton silk-mill had been completed, we find Brindley engaged in erecting flint-mills in the Potteries, of a more powerful and complete kind than any that had before been tried, but which were rendered necessary by the growing demands of the earthenware-manufacture.  One of the largest was that erected for Mr. Thomas Baddely, at a place called Machins' of the Mill, near Tunstall.  We find these entries in Brindley's pocketbook:—"March 15, 1757.  With Mr. Badley to Matherso about a now flint mill upon a windey day 1 day 3s. 6d.  March 19 draing a plann 1 day 2s. 6d.  March 23 draing a plann and to sat out the wheel race 1 day 4s."

    This new mill was driven by water-power, and the wheel both worked the pumping apparatus by which the adjoining coal-mine was drained, and the stamping machinery for pounding and grinding the flints.  The wheel, which was of considerable diameter, was fixed in a chamber below the surface of the ground, and the water was conveyed to it from the mill-pool through a small trough opening upon it at its breast, which kept the paddle-boxes of the descending part constantly filled, without any waste whatever, and thus, by the rotation of the wheel, the pumps and stampers were effectually worked.  The main shaft was more than two hundred yards from the mill; and to work the pumps Brindley invented the slide rods, which were moved horizontally by a crank at the mill, and gave power to the upright arm of a crank-lever, whose axis was at the angle, and the lift at the other extremity.  In course of time, as improvements were introduced in the grinding of flints, the stamping apparatus was detached from the machinery; but this water-wheel continued its constant and useful operation of pumping out the mines for full forty years after the death of its inventor; and when it was at length broken up, about the year 1812, the pump-trees, which consisted of wooden staves firmly bound together with ashen hoops, were found to be lined with cow-hides, the working buckets being also covered with leather—a contrivance of which the like, it is believed, has not before been recorded. [p.147]

    About the same time Brindley was requested by Mr. John Wedgwood to erect a windmill for a similar purpose on an elevated site adjoining the town of Burslem, called The Jenkins; this being one of the first, if not the very first, experiments made of the plan of grinding the calcined flints in water, which in this case was pumped by the action of the machinery from a well situated within the mill itself.  This invention, which was of considerable importance, has by some been attributed to Brindley, whose ingenious mind was ever ready to suggest improvements in whatever process of manufacture came under his notice.  It was natural that he should closely watch the operation of flint-grinding, having to construct and repair the greater part of the machinery used in the process; and he could not fail to notice the distressing consequences resulting from inhaling the fine particles with which the air of the flint-mills was laden.  Hence the probability of his suggesting that the flints should be ground in water, as calculated not only to prevent waste and preserve the purity of the air, but also to facilitate the operation of grinding,—a simple enough suggestion, but, as the result proved, a most valuable one.

    With this object he invented an improved mill, which consisted of a large circular vat, about thirty inches deep, having a central step fixed in the bottom, to carry the axis of a vertical shaft.  The moving power was applied to this shaft by a crown cog-wheel placed on the top.  At the lower part of the shaft, at right angles to it, were four arms, upon which the grinding-stones were fixed, large blocks of stone of the same kind being likewise placed in the vat.  These stones were a very hard silicious mineral, called "Chert," found in abundance in the neighbourhood of Bakewell, in Derbyshire.  The broken flints being introduced to the vat and completely covered with water, the axis was made to revolve with great velocity, when the calcined flints were quickly reduced to an impalpable powder.  This contrivance of Brindley's proved of great value to Wedgwood, and it was shortly after adopted throughout the Potteries, and continues in use to this day.

    Being thus extensively occupied in the invention and erection of machinery driven by one power or another, it was natural that Brindley's attention should have been attracted to the use of steam power in manufacturing operations.  Wind and water had heretofore been almost the exclusive agents employed for the purpose; but farseeing philosophers and ingenious mechanics had for centuries been feeling their way towards the far greater power derived from the pent-up force of vaporised water; and engines had actually been contrived which rendered it likely that the problem would ere long be solved, and a motive agent invented, which should be easily controllable, and independent alike of wind, tides, and waterfalls.  Reserving for another place the history of the successive stages of this great invention, it will be sufficient for our present purpose merely to indicate, briefly, the direction of Brindley's labours in this important field.

    It appears that Newcomen had as early as the year 1711 erected an atmospheric engine for the purpose of drawing water from a coal mine in the neighbourhood of Wolverhampton; and after considerable difficulties had been experienced in its construction and working, the engine was at length pronounced the most effective and economical that had yet been tried.  Other engines of a similar kind were shortly after erected in the coal districts of the north of England, in the tin and copper mines of Cornwall, and in the lead mines of Cumberland, for the purpose of pumping water from the pits.

    Brindley, like other contrivers of power, felt curious about this new invention, and proceeded to Wolverhampton to study one of Newcomen's engines erected there.  He was greatly struck by its appearance, and, with the irrepressible instinct of the inventor, immediately set about contriving how it might be improved.  He found the consumption of coal so great as to preclude its use excepting where coal was unusually abundant and cheap, as, for instance, at the mouth of a coal-pit, where the fuel it consumed was the produce and often the refuse of the mine itself; and he formed the opinion that unless the consumption of coal could be reduced, the extended use of the steam-engine was not practicable, by reason of its dearness, as compared with the power of horses, wind, or water.

    With this idea in his head, he proceeded to contrive an improved engine, the main object of which was to ensure greater economy in fuel.  In 1756 we find him erecting a steam-engine for one Mr. Broade, at Fenton Vivian, in Staffordshire, in which he adopted the expedient, afterwards tried by James Watt, of wooden cylinders made in the manner of coopers' ware, instead of cylinders of iron.  He also substituted wood for iron in the chains which worked at the end of the beam.  Like Watt, however, he was under the necessity of abandoning the wooden cylinders; but he surrounded his metal cylinders with a wooden case, filling the intermediate space with wood-ashes; and by this means, and using no more injection of cold water than was necessary for the purpose of condensation, he succeeded in reducing the waste of steam by almost one-half.

    Whilst busy with Mr. Broade's engine, we find from the entries in his pocket-book that Brindley occasionally spent several days together at Coalbrookdale, in superintending the making of the boiler-plates, the pipes, and other iron-work.  Returning to Fenton Vivian, be proceeded with the erection of his engine-house and the fitting of the machinery, whilst, during five days more, he appears to have been occupied in making the hoops for the cylinders.  It takes him five days to get the "great leavor fixed," thirty-nine days to put the boiler together, and thirteen days to get the pit prepared; and as he charges only workmen's wages for those days, we infer that the greater part of the work was done by his own hands.  He even seems to have himself felled the requisite timber for the work, as we infer from the entry in his pocket-book of "falling big tree 3½ days."

    The engine was at length ready after about a year's work, and was set a-going in November, 1757, after which we find these significant entries: "Bad louk [luck] five days;" then, again, "Bad louk " for three days more; and, after that, "Midlin louk;" and so on with "Midlin louk" until the entries under that head come to an end.  In the spring of the following year we find him again striving to get his "engon at woork," and it seems at length to have been fairly started on the 19th of March, when we have the entry "Engon at woork 3 days."  There is then a stoppage of four days, and again the engine works for seven days more, with a sort of "loud cheer" in the words added to the entry, of "driv a-Heyd!"  Other intervals occur, until, on the 16th of April, we have the words "at woor good ordor 3 days," when the entries come to a sudden close.

    The engine must certainly have given Brindley a great deal of trouble, and almost driven him to despair, as we now know how very imperfect an engine with wooden hooped cylinders must have been; and we are not therefore surprised at the entry which he honestly makes in his pocket-book on the 21st of April, immediately after the one last mentioned, when the engine had, doubtless, a second time broken down, "to Run about a Drinking, 0: 1: 6."  Perhaps he intended the entry to stand there as a warning against giving way to future despair; for he underlined the words, as if to mark them with unusual emphasis. [p.151-1]

    Brindley did not remain long in this mood, but set to work upon the contrivance and erection of another engine upon a new and improved plan.  What his plan was, may be learnt from the specification lodged in the Patent Office, on the 26th December, 1758, by "James Brindley, of Leek, in the county of Stafford, Millwright." [p.151-2]  In the arrangement of this new steam-engine he provided that the boiler should be made of brick or stone arched over, and the stove over the fire-place of cast-iron, fixed within the boiler.  The feeding-pipe for the boiler was to be made with a clack, opening and shutting by a float upon the surface of the water in the boiler, which would thus be self-feeding.  The great chains for the segments at the extremity of the beams were of wood; and the pumps were also of wooden staves strongly hooped together.

    Brindley, as a millwright, seems to have long retained his early predilection for wood, and to have preferred it to iron wherever its use was practicable.  His plans were, however, subjected to modification and improvement from time to time, as experience suggested; and in the course of a few years, brick, stone, and wood were alike discarded in favour of iron; until, in 1763, we find Brindley erecting a steam-engine for the Walker Colliery, at Newcastle, wholly of iron, manufactured at Coalbrookdale, which was pronounced the most "complete and noble piece of ironwork" that had up to that time been produced. [p.152]  But by this time Brindley's genius had been turned in another direction; the invention of the steam-engine being now safe in the hands of Watt, who was perseveringly occupied in bringing it to completion.




VERY little had as yet been done to open up the inland navigation of England, beyond dredging and clearing out in a very imperfect manner the channels of some of the larger rivers, so as to admit of the passage of small barges.  Several attempts had been made in Lancashire and Cheshire, as we have already shown, to open up the navigation of the Mersey and the Irwell from Liverpool to Manchester.  There were similar projects for improving the Weaver from Frodsham, where it joins the Mersey, to Winford Bridge above Northwich; and the Douglas, from the Ribble to Wigan. About the same time like schemes were started in Yorkshire, with the object of opening up the navigation of the Aire and Calder to Leeds and Wakefield, and of the Don from Doncaster to near Sheffield.

    One of the Acts passed by Parliament in 1737 is worthy of notice, as the forerunner of the Bridgewater Canal enterprise: we allude to the Act for making navigable the Worsley Brook to its junction with the river Irwell, near Manchester.  A similar Act was obtained in 1755, for making navigable the Sankey Brook from the Mersey, about two miles below Warrington, to St. Helens, Gerrard Bridge, and Penny Bridge.  In this case the canal was constructed separate from the brook, but alongside of it; and at several points locks were provided to adapt the canal to the level of the lands passed through.

    The same year in which application was made to Parliament for powers to construct the Sankey Canal, the Corporation of Liverpool had under their consideration a much larger scheme—no less than a canal to unite the Trent and the Mersey, and thus open a water-communication between the ports of Liverpool and Hull.  It was proposed that the line should proceed by Chester, Stafford, Derby, and Nottingham.  A survey was made, principally at the instance of Mr. Hardman, a public spirited merchant of Liverpool, and for many years one of its representatives in Parliament.  Another survey was shortly after made at the instance of Earl Gower, afterwards Marquis of Stafford, and it was probably in making this survey that Brindley's attention was first directed to the business of canal engineering.


Sankey Canal. [p.154]
Former lock section which has been kept as a feature, just to the north of M62 motorway, Winwick.
© Copyright A Whitmore and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    We find his first entry relating to the subject made on the 5th of February, 1758 —"novocion [navigation] 5 days;" the second, a little better spelt, on the 19th of the same month—"a bout the novogation 3 days;" and afterwards— "surveing the novogation from Long bring to Kinges Milks 12 days ½."  It does not, however, appear that the scheme made much progress, or that steps were taken at that time to bring the measure before Parliament; and Brindley continued to pursue his other employments, more especially the erection of "fire-engines " after his new patent.  This continued until the following year, when we find him in close consultation with the Duke of Bridgewater relative to the construction of his proposed canal from Worsley to Manchester.

    The early career of this distinguished nobleman was of a somewhat remarkable character.  He was born in 1736, the fifth and youngest son of Scroop, third Earl and first Duke of Bridgewater, by Lady Rachel Russell.  He lost his father when only five years old, and all his brothers died by the time that he had reached his twelfth year, at which early age he succeeded to the title of Duke of Bridgewater.  He was a weak and sickly child, and his mental capacity was thought so defective, that steps were even in contemplation to set him aside in favour of the next heir to the title and estates.  His mother seems almost entirely to have neglected him.  In the first year of her widowhood she married Sir Richard Lyttleton, and from that time forward took the least possible notice of her boy.

    The young Duke did not give much promise of surviving his consumptive brothers, and his mind was considered so incapable of improvement, that he was left in a great measure without either domestic guidance or intellectual discipline and culture.  Horace Walpole writes to Mann in 1761: "You will be happy in Sir Richard Lyttleton and his Duchess; they are the best-humoured people in the world."  But the good humour of this handsome couple was mostly displayed in the world of gay life, very little of it being reserved for home use.  Possibly, however, it may have been even fortunate for the young Duke that he was left so much to himself, to profit by the wholesome neglect of special nurses and tutors, who are not always the most judicious in their bringing up of delicate children.

    At seventeen, the young Duke's guardians, the Duke of Bedford and Lord Trentham, finding him still alive and likely to live, determined to send him abroad on his travels—the wisest thing they could have done.  They selected for his tutor the celebrated traveller, Robert Wood, author of the well-known work on Troy, Baalbec, and Palmyra; afterwards appointed to the office of Under-Secretary of State by the Earl of Chatham.  Wood was an accomplished scholar, a persevering traveller, and withal a man of good business qualities.  His habits of intelligent observation could not fail to be of service to his pupil, and it is not unnatural to suppose that the great artificial watercourses and canals which they saw in the course of their travels had some effect in afterwards determining the latter to undertake the important works of a similar character by which his name became so famous.  "While passing through the south of France, the Duke was especially interested by his inspection of the Grand Canal of Languedoc, a magnificent work executed under great difficulties, and which had promoted in an extraordinary degree the prosperity of that part of the kingdom. [p.156-1]  Proceeding into Italy, the Duke and his companion inspected all that was worthy of being seen there, including the picture galleries at Florence, Venice, and Rome.  During their visit Mr. Wood sat to Menge for his portrait, which still forms part of the Bridgewater collection.  The Duke also purchased works of sculpture at Rome; but that he himself entertained no great enthusiasm for art is evident from the fact related by the late Earl of Ellesmere, that these works remained in their original packing-cases until after his death. [p.156-2]

    Returned to England, he seems to have led the usual life of a gay young nobleman of the time, with plenty of money at his command.  In 1756, when only twenty years old, he appears from the 'Racing Calendar' to have kept race-horses; occasionally riding them in matches himself.  Though in after life a very bulky man, he was so light as a youth, that on one occasion Lord Ellesmere says a bet was jokingly offered that he would be blown off his horse.  Dressed in a livery of blue silk and silver, with a jockey cap, he once rode a race against His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, on the long terrace at the back of the wood in Trentham Park, the seat of his relative, Earl Gower.  During His Royal Highness's visit, the large old green-house, since taken down, was hastily run up for the playing of skittles; and prison bars and other village games were instituted for the recreation of the guests.  Those occupations of the Duke were varied by an occasional visit to his racing-stud at Newmarket, where he had a house for some time, and by the usual round of London gaieties during the season.

    A young nobleman of tender age, moving freely in circles where were to be seen some of the finest specimens of female beauty in the world, could scarcely be expected to pass heart-whole; and hence the occurrence of the event in his London life which, singularly enough, is said to have driven him in a great measure from society, and induced him to devote himself to the construction of canals!  We find various allusions in the letters of the time to the intended marriage of the young Duke of Bridgewater.  One rumour pointed to the only daughter and heiress of Mr. Thomas Revell, formerly M.P. for Dover, as the object of his choice.  But it appears that the lady to whom he became the most strongly attached was one of the Gunnings—the comparatively portionless daughters of an Irish gentleman, who were then the reigning beauties at Court.  The object of the Duke's affection was Elizabeth, the youngest daughter, and perhaps the most beautiful of the three.  She had been married to the fourth Duke of Hamilton, in Keith's' Chapel, Mayfair, in 1752, "with a ring of the bed-curtain, half-an-hour after twelve at night," [p.157] but the Duke dying shortly after, she was now a gay and beautiful widow, with many lovers in her train.  In the same year in which she had been clandestinely married to the Duke of Hamilton, her eldest sister was married to the sixth Earl of Coventry.

    The Duke of Bridgewater paid his court to the young widow, proposed, and was accepted.  The arrangements for the marriage were in progress, when certain rumours reached his ear reflecting upon the character of Lady Coventry, his intended bride's elder sister, who was certainly more fair than she was wise.  Believing the reports, he required the Duchess to desist from further intimacy with her sister, a condition which her high spirit would not brook, and, the Duke remaining firm, the match was broken off.  From that time forward he is said never to have addressed another woman in the language of gallantry. [p.158]

    The Duchess of Hamilton, however, did not remain long a widow.  In the course of a few months she was engaged to, and afterwards married, John Campbell, subsequently Duke of Argyll.  Horace Walpole, writing of the affair to Marshal Conway, January 28th, 1759, says: "You and M. de Bareil do not exchange prisoners with half as much alacrity as Jack Campbell and the Duchess of Hamilton have exchanged hearts. . . . It is the prettiest match in the world since yours, and everybody likes it but the Duke of Bridgewater and Lord Conway.  What an extraordinary fate is attached to these two women!  Who could have believed that a Gunning would unite the two great houses of Campbell and Hamilton?  For my part, I expect to see my Lady Coventry Queen of Prussia.  I would not venture to marry either of them these thirty years, for fear of being shuffled out of the world prematurely to make room for the rest of their adventures."

    The Duke, like a wise man, sought consolation for his disappointment by entering into active and useful occupation.  Instead of retiring to his beautiful seat at Ashridge, we find him straightway proceeding to his estate at Worsley, on the borders of Chat Moss, in Lancashire, and conferring with John Gilbert, his land-steward, as to the practicability of cutting a canal by which the coals found upon his Worsley estate might be readily conveyed to  market at Manchester.


    Manchester and Liverpool at that time were improving towns, gradually rising in importance and increasing in population.  The former place had long been noted for its manufacture of coarse cottons, or "coatings," made of wool, in imitation of the goods known on the Continent by that name.  The Manchester people also made fustians, mixed stuffs, and small wares, amongst which leather-laces for women's bodices, shoe-ties, and points were the more important.  But the operations of manufacture were still carried on in a clumsy way, entirely by hand.  The wool was spun into yarn by means of the common spinning wheel, for the spinning-jenny had not yet been invented, and the yarn was woven into cloth by the common hand-loom.  There was no whirr of engine-wheels then to be heard; for Watt's steam-engine had not yet come into existence.  The air was free from smoke, except that which arose from household fires, and there was not a single factory-chimney in Manchester.

    In 1724, Dr. Stukeley says Manchester contained no fewer than 2,400 families, and that their trade was "incredibly large" in tapes, ticking, girth-webb, and fustians.  In 1757 the united population of Manchester and Salford was only 20,000; [p.160] it is now, after the lapse of a century, 460,000!  The Manchester manufacturer was then a very humble personage compared with his modern representative.  He was part chapman, part weaver, and part merchant—working hard, living frugally, principally on oatmeal, and usually contriving to save a little money.

    Dr. Aikin, writing in 1795, thus described the Manchester manufacturer in the first half the eighteenth century: "An eminent manufacturer in that age," said he, "used to be in his warehouse before six in the morning, accompanied by his children and apprentices.  At seven they all came in to breakfast, which consisted of one large dish of water-pottage, made of oatmeal, water, and a little salt, boiled thick, and poured into a dish.  At the side was a pan or basin of milk, and the master and apprentices, each with a wooden spoon in his hand, without loss of time, dipped into the same dish, and thence into the milk-pan, and as soon as it was finished they all returned to their work."  What a contrast to the "eminent manufacturer" of our own day!


    As trade increased, its operations became more subdivided, and special classes and ranks began to spring into importance.  The manufacturers sent out riders to take orders, and gangs of chapmen with pack-horses to distribute the goods and bring back wool, which they either used up themselves, or sold to makers of worsted yarn at Manchester, or to the clothiers of Rochdale, Saddleworth, or the West Riding of Yorkshire.  Mr. Walker, author of the 'Original,' left the following interesting reminiscence of the dealings of Manchester men with the inhabitants of the Fen districts:—

"I have by tradition," said he, "the following particulars of the mode of carrying on the home trade by one of the principal merchants of Manchester, who was born at the commencement of the last century, and who realised a sufficient fortune to keep a carriage when not half a dozen were kept in the town by persons connected with business.  He sent the manufactures of the place into Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and the intervening counties, and principally took in exchange feathers from Lincolnshire, and malt from Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire.  All his commodities were conveyed on pack-horses, and he was from home the greater part of every year, performing his journeys entirely on horseback.  His balances were received in guineas, and were carried with him in his saddle-bags.  He was exposed to the vicissitudes of the weather, to great labour and fatigue, and to constant danger.  In Lincolnshire he travelled chiefly along bridle-ways through fields where frequent gibbets warned him of his perils, and where flocks of wild fowl continually darkened the air.  Business carried on in this manner required a combination of personal attention, courage, and physical strength, not to be hoped for in a deputy; and a merchant then led a much more severe and irksome life than a bagman afterwards, and still more than a traveller of the present day.  In the earlier days of the merchant above mentioned, the wine merchant who supplied Manchester, resided at Preston, then always called Proud Preston, because exclusively inhabited by gentry.  The wine was carried on horses, and a gallon was considered a large order.  Men in business confined themselves generally to punch and ale, using wine only as a medicine, or on extraordinary occasions; so that a considerable tradesman somewhat injured his credit amongst his neighbours by being so extravagant as to send to a tavern for wine, to entertain a London customer." [p.162]

    The roads out of Manchester in different directions, like those in most districts throughout the kingdom, were in a very neglected state, being for the most part altogether impracticable for waggons.  Hence the use of pack-horses was an absolute necessity; and the roads were but ill-adapted even for them.  Indeed, it was more difficult then to reach a village twenty miles out of Manchester than it is to make the journey from thence to London now.  The only coach to London plied but every second day, and it was four days and a half in making the journey, there being a post only three times a week. [p.163] The roads in most districts of Lancashire were what were called "mill roads," along which a horse with a load of oats upon its back might proceed towards the mill where they were to be ground.  There was no private carriage kept by any person in business in Manchester until the year 1758, when the first was set up by some specially luxurious individual.  But wealth led to increase of expenditure, and Aikin mentions that there was "an evening club of the most opulent manufacturers, at which the expenses of each person were fixed at fourpence-halfpenny—fourpence for ale, and a halfpenny for tobacco."  The progress of luxury was further aided by the holding of a dancing assembly once a week in a room situated about the middle of King Street, now a busy thoroughfare, the charge for admission to the nightly ball being half-a-crown the quarter.  The ladies had their maids to wait for them with lanterns and pattens, and to conduct them home; "nor," adds Aikin, "was it unusual for their partners also to attend them."

    The imperfect state of the communications leading to and from Manchester rendered it a matter of some difficulty at certain seasons to provide food for so large a population.  In winter, when the roads were closed, the place was in the condition of a beleaguered town; and even in summer, the land about Manchester itself being comparatively sterile, the place was badly supplied with fruit, vegetables, and potatoes, which, being brought from considerable distances slung across horses' backs, were so dear as to be beyond the reach of the mass of the population.  The distress caused by this frequent dearth of provisions was not effectually remedied until the canal navigation became completely opened up.  Thus a great scarcity of food occurred in Manchester and the neighbourhood in 1757, which the common people attributed to the millers and corn-dealers; and unfortunately the notion was not confined to the poor who were starving, but was equally entertained by the well-to-do classes who had enough to eat.  An epigram by Dr. Byrom, the town clergyman, written in 1737, on two millers (tenants of the School corn-mills), who, from their spare habits, had been nicknamed "Skin" and "Bone," was now revived, and tended to fan the popular fury.  It ran thus:—

"Bone and Skin, two millers thin,
     Would starve the town, or near it;
 But be it known to Skin and Bone,
     That Flesh and Blood can't bear it."

The popular hunger and excitement increasing, at length broke out in open outrage; and a riot took place in 1758, long after remembered in Manchester as the "Shude Hill fight," in which unhappily several lives were lost.

    For the same reasons, the supply of coals was but scanty in winter; and though abundance of the article lay underground, within a few miles of Manchester, in nearly every direction, those few miles of transport, in the then state of the roads, were an almost insurmountable difficulty.  The coals were sold at the pit mouth at so much the horse-load, weighing 280 lbs., and measuring two baskets, each thirty inches by twenty, and ten inches deep; that is, as much as an average horse could carry on its back. [p.164]  The price of the coals at the pit mouth was 10d. the horse-load; but by the time the article reached the door of the consumer in Manchester, the price was usually more than doubled, in consequence of the difficulty and cost of conveyance.  The carriage alone amounted to about nine or ten shillings the ton.

    There was as yet no connection of the navigation of the Mersey and Irwell with any of the collieries situated to the eastward of Manchester, by which a supply could reach the town in boats; and although the Duke's collieries were only a comparatively short distance from the Irwell, the coals had to be carried on horses' backs or in carts from the pits to the river to be loaded, and after reaching Manchester they had again to be carried to the doors of the consumers,—so that there was little if any saving to be effected by that route.  Besides, the minimum charge insisted on by the Mersey Navigation Company of 3s. 4d. a ton for even the shortest distance, proved an effectual barrier against any coal reaching Manchester by the river.

    The same difficulty stood in the way of the transit of goods between Manchester and Liverpool.  By road the charge was 40s. a ton, and by river 12s. a ton; that between Warrington and Manchester being 10s. a ton: besides, there was great risk of delay, loss, and damage by the way.  Some idea of the tediousness of the river navigation may be formed from the fact, that the boats were dragged up and down stream exclusively by the labour of men, and that horses and mules were not employed for this purpose until after the Duke's canal had been made.  It was, indeed, obvious that unless some means could be devised for facilitating and cheapening the cost of transport between the seaport and the manufacturing towns, there was little prospect of any considerable further development being effected in the industry of the district.

    Such was the state of things when the Duke of Bridgewater turned his attention to the making of a water-road for the passage of his coal from Worsley to Manchester.  The Old Mersey Company would give him no facilities for sending his coals by their navigation, but levied the full charge of 3s. 4d. for every ton he might send to Manchester by river even in his own boats.  He therefore perceived that to obtain a vend for his article, it was necessary he should make a way for himself; and it became obvious to him that if he could but form a canal between the two points, he would at once be enabled to secure a ready sale for all the coals that he could raise from his Worsley pits.

    We have already stated that, as early as 1737, an Act had been obtained by the Duke's father, giving power to make the Worsley Brook navigable from the neighbourhood of the pits to the Irwell.  But the enterprise, and its cost, appear to have been too formidable; so the powers of the Act were allowed to expire without anything being done to carry them out.  The young Duke now determined to revive the Act in another form, and in the early part of 1759 he applied to Parliament for the requisite powers to enable him to cut a navigable canal from Worsley Mill eastward to Salford, and to carry the same westward to a point on the river Mersey, called Hollin Ferry.  He introduced into the bill several important concessions to the inhabitants of Manchester.  He bound himself not to exceed the freight of 2s. 6d. per ton on all coals brought from Worsley to Manchester, and not to sell the coal so brought from the mines to that town at more than 4d. per hundred, which was less than half the then average price.  It was clear that, if such a canal could be made and the navigation opened as proposed, it would prove a great public boon to the inhabitants of Manchester.  The bill was accordingly well supported, and it passed the legislature without opposition, receiving the Royal assent in March, 1759.

    The Duke gave further indications of his promptitude and energy, in the steps which he adopted to have the works carried out without loss of time.  He had no intention of allowing the powers of this Act to remain a dead letter, as the former had done.  Accordingly, no sooner had it passed than he set out for his seat at Worsley to take the requisite measures for constructing the canal.  The Duke was fortunate in having for his land-agent a very shrewd, practical, and enterprising person, in John Gilbert, whom he consulted on all occasions of difficulty.

    Mr. Gilbert was the brother of Thomas Gilbert, the originator of the Gilbert Unions, then agent to the Duke's brother-in-law, Lord Gower.  That nobleman had for some time been promoting the survey of a canal to unite the Mersey and the Trent, on which Brindley had been employed, and thus became known to Gilbert as well as to his brother.  We find from an entry in Brindley's pocketbook that the millwright had sundry interviews with Thomas Gilbert on matters of business previous to the passing of the first Bridgewater Canal Bill, though there is no evidence that he was employed in making the survey.  Indeed, it is questionable whether any survey was made of the first scheme.  Engineering projects were then submitted to Parliamentary Committees in a very rough state.  Levels were guessed at rather than surveyed and calculated; and merely general powers were taken enabling such property to be purchased as might by possibility be required for the execution of the works.  In the case of the Bridgewater Canal, the prices of land and compensation for damage were directed to be assessed by a local committee appointed by the Act for the purpose.

    When the Duke proceeded to consider with Gilbert the best mode of carrying out the proposed canal, it appeared clear to them that the plan originally contemplated was faulty in many respects, and that an application must be made to Parliament for further powers. By the original Act it was intended to descend from the level of the coal-mines at Worsley by a series of locks into the river Irwell.  This, it was found, would necessarily involve a heavy cost both in the construction and working of the canal, as well as considerable delay in the conduct of the traffic, which it was most desirable to avoid.  Neither the Duke nor Gilbert had any practical knowledge of engineering; nor, indeed, were there many men in the the country at that time who knew much of the subject; for it must be remembered that this canal of the Duke's was the very first project in England for cutting a navigable trench through the dry land, and carrying merchandise in it across the country, independent of the course of the existing streams.


    It was in this emergency that Gilbert advised the Duke to call to his aid James Brindley, whose fertility of resources and skill in overcoming mechanical difficulties had long been the theme of general admiration in his own district.  Doubtless the Duke was as much impressed by the native vigour and originality of the unlettered genius introduced to him by his agent, as were all with whom he was brought in contact.  Certain it is that Duke showed his confidence in Brindley by entrusting him with the conduct of the proposed work; and, as the first step, he was desired to go over the ground at once, and give his opinion as to the best plan to be adopted for carrying it out with despatch.


    Brindley, accordingly, after making what he termed an "ochilor [ocular] servey or a rieconitoring," speedily formed his conclusion, and came back to the Duke with his advice.  It was that, instead of carrying the canal down into the Irwell by a flight of locks, and so up again on the other side to the proposed level, it should be carried right over the river, and constructed upon one uniform level throughout.  But this, it was clear, would involve a series of formidable works, the like of which had not before been attempted in England.  In the first place, the low ground on the north side of the Irwell would have to be filled up by a massive embankment, and to be united with the land on the other bank by means of a large aqueduct of stone.  Would it be practicable or possible to execute works of such magnitude?  Brindley expressed so strong and decided an opinion of their practicability, that the Duke was won over to his views, and determined again to go to Parliament for the requisite powers to enable him to carry out the design.


Worsley Old Hall in 2005. [p.170]
© Copyright Tony Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Many were the deliberations which took place about this time between the Duke, Gilbert, and Brindley, in the Old Hall at Worsley, where the Duke had now taken up his abode.  We find from Brindley's pocket-book memoranda, that in the month of July, 1759, he had taken up his temporary quarters at the Old Hall; and from time to time, in the course of the same year, while the details of the plan were being prepared with a view to the intended application to Parliament, he occasionally stayed with the Duke for weeks together.  He made a detailed survey of the new line, and at the same time, in order to facilitate the completion of the undertaking when the new powers had been obtained, he proceeded with the construction of the sough or level at Worsley Mill, and such other portions of the work as could be executed under the original powers.

    During the same period Brindley travelled backwards and forwards a great deal, on matters connected with his various business in the Pottery district.  We find, from his private record, that he was occupied at intervals in carrying forward his survey of the proposed canal through Staffordshire, visiting with this object the neighbourhood of Newcastle-under-Lyne, Lichfield, and Tamworth.  He also continued to give his attention to mills, water-wheels, cranes, and fire-engines, which he had erected or which required repairs, in various parts of the same district.  In short, he seems at this period to have been fully employed as a millwright; and although, as we have seen, the remuneration which he received for his skill was comparatively small, being a man of frugal habits he had saved a little money; for about this time we find him able to raise a sum of £543. 6s. 8d., being his fourth share of the purchase-money of the Turnhurst estate, situated near Golden Hill, in the county of Stafford.

    The principal part of this sum was no doubt borrowed, as appears by his own memoranda, from his friend Mr. Launcelot, of Leek; but the circumstance proves that, amongst his townsmen and neighbours, who knew him best, he stood in good credit and repute.  His other partners in the purchase were Mr. Thomas Gilbert (Earl Gower's agent), Mr. Henshall (afterwards his brother-in-law), and his brother John Brindley.  The estate was understood to be full of minerals, the knowledge of which had most probably been obtained by Brindley in the course of his surveying of the proposed Staffordshire canal; and we shall afterwards find that he turned the purchase to good account.

    At length the new plans of the canal from Worsley to Manchester were completed and ready for deposit; and on the 23rd of January, after a visit to the Duke and Gilbert at the Hall, we find the entry in Brindley's pocket-book of "Sot out for London."  On the occasion of his visits to London, Brindley adopted the then most convenient method of travelling on horseback, the journey usually occupying five days.  We find him varying his route according to the state of the weather and of the roads.  In summer he was accustomed to go by Coventry, but in winter he made for the Great North Road by Northampton, which was usually in better condition for winter travelling.

    The second Act passed like the first, without opposition, early in the session of 1760.  It enabled the Duke to carry his proposed canal over the river Irwell, near Barton Bridge, some five miles westward of Manchester, by means of a series of arches, and to vary its course accordingly; whilst it further authorised him to extend a short branch to Longford Bridge, near Stretford,—that to Hollin Ferry, authorised by the original Act, being abandoned.  In the mean time the works near Worsley had been actively pushed forward, and considerable progress had been made by the time the additional powers had been obtained.  That part of the canal which lay between Worsley Mill and the public highway leading from Manchester to Warrington had been cut; the sough or level between Worsley Mill and Middlewood, for the purpose of supplying water to the canal, was considerably advanced; and operations had also been begun in the neighbourhood of Salford and on the south of the river Irwell.

    The most difficult part of the undertaking, however, was that authorised by the new Act; and the Duke looked forward to its execution with the greatest possible anxiety.  Although aqueducts of a far more formidable description had been executed abroad, nothing of the kind had until then been projected in this country; and many regarded the plan of Brindley as altogether wild and impracticable.  The proposal to confine and carry a body of water within a water-tight trunk of earth upon the top of an embankment across the low grounds on either side of the Irwell, was considered foolish and impossible enough; but to propose to carry ships upon a lofty bridge, over the heads of other ships navigating the Irwell which flowed underneath, was laughed at as the dream of a madman.  Brindley, by leaving the beaten path, thus found himself exposed to the usual penalties which befall originality and genius.

    The Duke was expostulated with by his friends, and strongly advised not to throw away his money upon so desperate an undertaking.  Who ever heard of so large a body of water being carried over another in the manner proposed?  Brindley was himself appealed to; but he could only repeat his conviction as to the entire practicability of his design.  At length, by his own desire and to allay the Duke's apprehensions, another engineer was called in and consulted as to the scheme.  To Brindley's surprise and dismay, the person consulted concurred in the view so strongly expressed by the public.  He characterised the plan of the Barton aqueduct and embankment as instinct with recklessness and folly; and after expressing his unqualified opinion as to the impracticability of executing the design, he concluded his report to the Duke thus: "I have often heard of castles in the air; but never before saw where any of them were to be erected." [p.173-1]

    It is to the credit of his Grace that, notwithstanding these strong adverse opinions, he continued to give his confidence to the engineer whom he had selected to carry out the work.  Brindley's common-sense explanations, though they might not remove all his doubts, nevertheless determined the Duke to give him the full opportunity of carrying out his design; and he was accordingly authorised to proceed with the erection of his "castle in the air."  Its progress was watched with great interest, and people flocked from all parts to see it.


    The Barton aqueduct is about two hundred yards in length and twelve yards wide, the centre part being sustained by a bridge of three semicircular arches, the middle one being of sixty-three feet span.  It carries the canal over the Irwell at a height of thirty-nine feet above the river—this head-room being sufficient to enable the largest barges to pass underneath without lowering-their masts.  The bridge is entirely of stone blocks, those on the faces being dressed on the front, beds, and joints, and cramped with iron.  The canal, in passing over the arches, is confined within a puddled [p.174-1] channel to prevent leakage, and is in as good a state now as on the day on which it was completed.  Although the Barton aqueduct has since been thrown into the shade by the vastly greater works of modern engineers, it was unquestionably a very bold and ingenious enterprise, if we take into account the time at which it was erected.  Humble though it now appears, it was the parent of the magnificent aqueducts of Rennie and Telford, and of the viaducts of Stephenson and Brunel, which rival the greatest works of any age or country.


The Barton Swing Aqueduct. [p.173-2]
© Copyright Andrew Whale and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Barton Swing Aqueduct. [p.173-2]
© Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The embankments formed across the low grounds on either side of the Barton viaduct were also considered very formidable works at that day.  A contemporary writer speaks of the embankment across Stretford Meadows as an amazing bank of earth 900 yards long, 112 feet in breadth across the base, 24 feet at top, and 17 feet high.  The greatest difficulty anticipated, was the holding of so large a body of water within a hollow channel formed of soft materials.  It was supposed at first that the water would soak through the bank, which its weight would soon burst, and wash away all before it.  But Brindley, in the course of his experience, had learnt something of the powers of clay-puddle to resist the passage of water.  He had already succeeded in stopping the breaches of rivers flowing through low grounds by this means; and the thorough manner in which he finished the bed of this canal, and made it impervious to water, may be cited as a notable illustration of the engineer's practical skill, taking into account the early period at which this work was executed.


Puddling a canal [p.174-2]
Picture Wikipedia.

    Not the least difficult part of the undertaking was the formation of the canal across Trafford Moss, where the weight of the embankment pressed down and "blew up" the soft oozy stuff on each side; but the difficulty was again overcome by the engineer's specific of clay-puddle, which proved completely successful.  Indeed, the execution of these embankments by Brindley was regarded at the time as something quite as extraordinary in their way as the erection of the Barton aqueduct itself.

    The rest of the canal between Longford and Manchester, being mostly on sidelong ground, was cut down on the upper side and embanked up on the other by means of the excavated earth.  This was comparatively easy work; but a matter of greater difficulty was to accommodate the streams which flowed across the course of the canal.  This was, however, provided for in a highly ingenious manner.  For instance, a stream called Cornbrook was found too high to pass under the canal at its natural level.  Accordingly, Brindley contrived a weir, over which the stream fell into a large basin, from whence it flowed into a smaller one open at the bottom.  From this point a culvert, constructed under the bed of the canal, carried the waters across to a well situated on its further side, where the waters rising up to their natural level, again flowed away in their proper channel.  A similar expedient was adopted at the Manchester terminus of the canal, at the point at which it joined the waters of the Medlock.

    It was a principle of Brindley's never to permit the waters of any river or brook to intermix with those of the canal except for the purpose of supply; as it was clear that in a time of flood such intermingling would be a source of great danger to the navigation.  In order, therefore, to provide for the free passage of the Medlock without causing a rush into the canal, a weir was contrived 366 yards in circumference, over which its waters flowed into a lower level, and from thence into a well several yards in depth, down which the whole river fell.  It was received at the bottom in a subterranean passage, by which it passed into the river Irwell, near at hand.  The weir was very ingeniously contrived, though it was afterwards found necessary to make considerable alterations and improvements in it, as experience suggested, in order effectually to accommodate the flood-waters of the Medlock.  Arthur Young, when visiting the canal, shortly after it was opened up to Manchester, says, "The whole plan of these works shows a capacity and extent of mind which foresees difficulties, and invents remedies in anticipation of possible evils.  The connection and dependence of the parts upon each other are happily imagined; and all are exerted in concert, to command by every means the wished-for success." [p.177]

    Brindley's labours, however, were not confined to the construction of the canal, but his attention seems to have been equally directed to the contrivance of the whole of the arrangements and machinery by which it was worked.  The open navigation between Worsley Mill and Manchester was 10¼ miles in length.  A large basin was excavated at the former place, of sufficient capacity to contain a great many boats, and to serve as a head for the navigation.

    It is at Worsley Basin that the canal enters the bottom of the hill by a subterranean channel which extends for a great distance,—connecting the different workings of the mine,—so that the coals can be readily transported in boats to their place of sale.  A representation of the basin is given in the annexed cut.  It lies at the base of a cliff of sandstone, some hundred feet in height, overhung by luxuriant foliage, beyond which is seen the graceful spire of Worsley church.  In contrast to this scenic beauty above, lies the almost stagnant pool beneath.  The barges [p.178] laden with coal emerge from the mine through the two low, semi-circular arches opening at the base of the rock, such being the entrances to the underground workings.  The smaller aperture is the mouth of a canal of only half a mile in length, serving to prevent the obstruction which would be caused by the entrance and egress of so many barges through a single passage.  The other archway is the entrance of a wider channel, extending nearly six miles in the direction of Bolton, from which various other canals diverge in different directions.


    In Brindley's time, this subterranean canal, hewn out of the rock, was only about a mile in length, but it now extends to nearly forty miles in all directions underground.  Where the tunnel passed through earth or coal, the arching was of brickwork; but where it passed through rock, it was simply hewn out.  This tunnel acts not only as a drain and water-feeder for the canal itself, but as a means of carrying the facilities of the navigation through the very heart of the collieries; and it will readily be seen of how great a value it must have proved in the economical working of the navigation, as well as of the mines, so far as the traffic in coals was concerned.

    At every point Brindley's originality and skill were at work.  He invented the cranes for the purpose of more readily loading the boats with the boxes filled with the Duke's "black diamonds."  He also contrived and laid down within the mines a system of underground railways, all leading from the face of the coal, where the miners worked, to the wells which he had made at different points in the tunnels, through which the coals were shot into the boats waiting below to receive them.  At Manchester, where they were unloaded for sale, the contrivances which he employed were equally ingenious.  It was at first intended that the canal should terminate at the foot of Castle Hill, up which the coals were dragged by their purchasers from the boats in wheelbarrows or carts.  But the toil of dragging the loads up the hill was found very great; and, to remedy the inconvenience, Brindley contrived to extend the canal for some way into the hill, opening a shaft from the surface of the ground down to the level of the water.  The barges having made their way to the foot of this shaft, the boxes of coal were hoisted to the surface by a crane, worked by a box water-wheel of 30 feet diameter and 4 feet 4 inches wide, driven by the waterfall of the river Medlock.  In this contrivance Brindley was only adopting a modification of the losing and gaining bucket, moved on a vertical pillar, which he had before successfully employed in drawing water out of coal-mines.  By these means the coals were rapidly raised to the higher ground, where they were sold and distributed, greatly to the convenience of those who came to purchase them.

    Brindley's practical ability was equally displayed in planning and building a viaduct or in fitting up a crane—in carrying out an embankment or in contriving a coal-barge.  The range and fertility of his constructive genius were extraordinary.  For the Duke, he invented water-weights at Rough Close, riddles to wash coal for the forges, raising dams, and numerous other contrivances of well-adapted mechanism.  At Worsley he erected a steam-engine for draining those parts of the mine which were beneath the level of the canal, and consequently could not be drained into it; and he is said to have erected, at a cost of only £150, an engine which until that time no one had known how to construct for less than £500.  At the mouth of one of the mines he erected a water-bellows for the purpose of forcing fresh air into the interior, and thus ventilating the workings. [p.181]  At the entrance of the underground canal he designed and built a mill of a new construction, driven by an over-shot wheel twenty-four feet in diameter, which worked three pair of stones for grinding corn, besides a dressing or boulting mill, and a machine for sifting sand and mixing mortar.

    Brindley's quickness of observation and readiness in turning circumstances to advantage were equally displayed in the mode by which he contrived to obtain an ample supply of lime for building purposes during the progress of the works.  We give the account as related by Arthur Young:—

"In carrying on the navigation," he observes, "a vast quantity of masonry was necessary for building aqueducts, bridges, warehouses, wharves, &c., and the want of lime was felt severely.  The search that was made for matters that would burn into lime was for a long time fruitless.  At last Mr. Brindley met with a substance of a chalky kind, which, like the rest, he tried; but found (though it was of a limestone nature—lime-marl, which was found along the sides of the canal, about a foot below the surface) that, for want of adhesion in the parts, it would not make lime.  This most inventive genius happily fell upon an expedient to remedy this misfortune.  He thought of tempering this earth in the nature of brick-earth, casting it in moulds like bricks, and then burning it; and the success was answerable to his wishes.  In that state it burnt readily into excellent lime; and this acquisition was one of the most important that could have been made.  I have heard it asserted more than once that this stroke was better than twenty thousand pounds in the Duke's pocket; but, like most common assertions of the same kind, it is probably an exaggeration.  However, whether the discovery was worth five, ten, or twenty thousand, it certainly was of noble use, and forwarded all the works in an extraordinary manner." [p.182-1]

    It has been stated that Brindley's nervous excitement was so great on the occasion of the letting of the water into the canal, that he took to his bed at the Wheatsheaf, in Stretford, and lay there until all cause for apprehension was over.  The tension on his brain must have been great, with so tremendous a load of work and anxiety upon him; but that he "ran away," [p.182-2] as some of his detractors have alleged, is at variance with the whole character and history of the man.


Bridgewater Canal at Worsley Junction. [p183]
© Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The Duke's canal, when finished, was for a long time regarded as the wonder of the neighbourhood.  Strangers flocked from a distance to see Brindley's "castle in the air;" and contemporary writers spoke in glowing terms of the surprise with which they saw several barges of great burthen drawn by a single mule or horse along "a river hung in the air," over another river flowing underneath, by the side of which some ten or twelve men might be seen slowly hauling a single barge against the stream.  A lady who writes a description of the work in 1765, speaks of it as "perhaps the greatest artificial curiosity in the world;" and she states that "crowds of people, including those of the first fashion, resort to it daily."

    The chief importance of the work, however, consisted in its valuable uses.  Manchester was now regularly and cheaply supplied with coals.  The average price was at once reduced by one-half—from 7d. the cwt. to 3½d. (six score being given to the cwt.)—and the supply was regular instead of intermitting, as it had formerly been.  But the full advantages of this improved supply of coals were not experienced until many years after the opening of the canal, when the invention of the steam-engine, and its extensive employment as a motive power in all manufacturing operations, rendered a cheap and abundant supply of fuel of vital importance to the growth and prosperity of Manchester and its neighbourhood.


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