Brindley and the Early Engineers IV.
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LONG before the Duke's Canal was finished, Brindley was actively employed in carrying out a still larger enterprise,—a canal to connect the Mersey with the Trent, and both with the Severn,—thus uniting by a grand line of water-communication the ports of Liverpool, Hull, and Bristol.  He had, as we have already seen, made a survey of such a canal, at the instance of Earl Gower, before his engagement as engineer for the Bridgewater undertaking.  Thus, in the beginning of February, 1758, before the Duke's bill had been even applied for, we find him occupied for days together "a bout the novogation," and he then surveyed the country between Longbridge in Staffordshire, and King's Mills in Derbyshire.

    The enterprise, however, made very little progress.  The success of canals in England was as yet entirely problematical; and this was of too formidable a character to be hastily undertaken.  But again, in 1759, we find Brindley proceeding with his survey of the Staffordshire Canal; and in the middle of the following year he was occupied about twenty days in levelling from Harecastle, at the summit of the proposed canal, to Wilden, near Derby.  During that time he had many interviews with Earl Gower at Trentham, and with the Earl of Stamford at Enville, discussing the project.

    The next step taken was the holding of a public meeting at Sandon, in Staffordshire, as to the proper course which the canal should take, if finally decided upon.  Considerable difference of opinion was expressed at the meeting, in consequence of which it was arranged that Mr. Smeaton should be called upon to co-operate with Brindley in making a joint survey and a joint report.

    A second meeting was held at Wolseley Bridge, at which the plans of the two engineers were ordered to be engraved and circulated amongst the landowners and others interested in the project.  Here the matter rested for several years more, without any further action being taken.  Brindley was hard at work upon the Duke's Canal, and the Staffordshire projectors were disposed to wait the issue of that experiment; but no sooner had it been opened, and its extraordinary success become matter of fact, than the project of the canal through Staffordshire was again revived.  The gentlemen of Cheshire and Staffordshire, especially the salt manufacturers of the former county and the earthenware-manufacturers of the latter, now determined to enter into co-operation with the leading landowners in concerting the necessary measures with the object of opening up a line of water-communication with the Mersey and the Trent.

    The earthenware manufacture, though in its infancy, had already made considerable progress; but, like every other branch of industry in England at that time, its further development was greatly hampered by the wretched state of the roads.  Throughout Staffordshire they were as yet, for the most part, narrow, deep, circuitous, miry, and inconvenient; barely passable with rude waggons in summer, and almost impassable, even with pack-horses, in winter.  Yet the principal materials used in the manufacture of pottery, especially of the best kinds, were necessarily brought from a great distance —flint-stones from the south-eastern ports of England, and clay from Devonshire and Cornwall.  The flints were brought by sea to Hull, and the clay to Liverpool.  From Hull the materials were brought up the Trent in boats to Willington; and the clay was in like manner brought from Liverpool up the Weaver to Winsford, in Cheshire.  Considerable quantities of clay were also conveyed in boats from Bristol, up the Severn, to Bridgenorth and Bewdley.  From these various points the materials were conveyed by land-carriage, mostly on the backs of horses, to the towns in the Potteries, where they were worked up into earthenware and china.

    The manufactured articles were returned for export in the same rude way.  Large crates of pot-ware were slung across horses' backs, and thus conveyed to their respective ports, not only at great risk of breakage and pilferage, but also at a heavy cost.  The expense of carriage was not less than a shilling a ton per mile, and the lowest charge was eight shillings the ton for ten miles.  Besides, the navigation of the rivers above mentioned was most uncertain, arising from floods in winter and droughts in summer.  The effect was, to prevent the expansion of the earthenware manufacture, and very greatly to restrict the distribution of the lower-priced articles in common use.

    The same difficulty and cost of transport checked the growth of nearly all other branches of industry, and made living both dear and uncomfortable.  The indispensable article of salt, manufactured at the Cheshire Wiches, was in like manner carried on horses' backs all over the country, and reached almost a fabulous price by the time it was sold two or three counties off.  About a hundred and fifty pack-horses, in gangs, were occupied in going weekly from Manchester, through Stafford, to Bewdley and Bridgenorth, loaded with woollen and cotton cloth for exportation; [p.250] but the cost of the carriage by this mode so enhanced the price, that it is clear that in the case of many articles it must have acted as a prohibition, and greatly checked both production and consumption.  Even corn, coal, lime, and iron-stone were conveyed in the same way, and the operations of agriculture, as of manufacture, were alike injuriously impeded.  There were no shops then in the Potteries, the people being supplied with wares and drapery by packmen and hucksters, or from Newcastle-under-Lyne, which was the only town in the neighbourhood worthy of the name.

    The people of the district in question were quite as rough as their roads.  Their manners were coarse, and their amusements brutal.  Bull-baiting, cock-throwing, and goose-riding were their favourite sports.  When Wesley first visited Burslem, in 1760, the potters assembled to jeer and laugh at him.  They then proceeded to pelt him.  "One of them," he says, "threw a clod of earth which struck me on the side of the head; but it neither disturbed me nor the congregation."  At that time the whole population of the Potteries did not amount to more than about 7,000 souls.  The villages in which they lived were poor and mean, scattered up and down, and the houses were mostly covered with thatch.  Hence the Rev. Mr. Middleton, incumbent of Stone—a man of great shrewdness and quaintness, distinguished for his love of harmless mirth and sarcastic humour—when enforcing the duty of humility upon his leading parishioners, took the opportunity, on one occasion, after the period of which we speak, of reminding them of the indigence and obscurity from which they had risen to opulence and respectability.  He said they might be compared to so many sparrows, for that all of them had been hatched under the thatch.  When the congregation of this gentleman, growing rich, bought an organ and placed it in the church, he persisted in calling it the hurdy-gurdy, and often took occasion to lament the loss of his old psalm-singers.

    The people towards the north were no better, nor were those further south.  When Wesley preached at Congleton, four years later, he said, "even the poor potters [though they had pelted him] are a more civilized people than the better sort (so called) at Congleton."  Arthur Young visited the neighbourhood of Newcastle-under-Lyne in 1770, and found poor-rates high, wages low, and employment scarce.  "Idleness," said he, "is the chief employment of the women and children.  All drink tea, and fly to the parishes for relief at the very time that even a woman for washing is not to be had.  By many accounts I received of the poor in this neighbourhood, I apprehend the rates are burthened for the spreading of laziness, drunkenness, tea-drinking, and debauchery,—the general effect of them, indeed, all over the kingdom." [p.252-1]

    Hutton's account of the population inhabiting the southern portion of the same county is even more dismal.  Between Hales Owen and Stourbridge was a district usually called the Lie Waste, and sometimes the Mud City.  Houses stood about in every direction, composed of clay scooped out into a tenement, hardened by the sun, and often destroyed by the frost.  The males were half-naked, the children dirty and hung over with rags.  "One might as well look for the moon in a coal-pit," says Hutton, "as for stays or white linen in the City of Mud.  The principal tool in business is the hammer, and the beast of burden the ass." [p.252-2]

    The district, however, was not without its sprinkling of public-spirited men who were actively engaged in devising new sources of employment for the population; and, as one of the most effective means of accomplishing this object, opening up the communications, by road and canal, with near as well as distant parts of the country.  One of the most zealous of such workers was the illustrious Josiah Wedgwood.  He was one of those indefatigable men who from time to time spring from the ranks of the common people, and by their energy, skill, and enterprise, not only practically educate the working population in habits of industry, but, by the example of diligence and perseverance which they set before them, largely influence public action in all directions, and contribute in a great measure to form the national character.

    Josiah Wedgwood was born in a humble position in life; and though he rose to eminence as a man of science as well as a manufacturer, he possessed no greater advantages at starting than Brindley himself did.  His grandfather and granduncle were both potters, as was also his father Thomas, who died when Josiah was a mere boy, the youngest of a family of thirteen children.  He began his industrial life as a thrower in a small pot-work, conducted by his elder brother; and he might have continued working at the wheel but for an attack of virulent small-pox, which, being neglected, led to a disease in his right leg, which in a great measure unfitted him for following even that humble employment.  When he returned to his work, most probably before he was sufficiently recovered from his illness, the pain in his limb was such that he had to keep it almost constantly rested upon a stool before him. [p.253]  The disease continued increasing as he advanced in years, and it was greatly aggravated by an unfortunate bruise, which kept him to his bed for months, and reduced him to the last extremity of debility.  At length the disorder reached the knee, and threatened to endanger his life, when amputation was found necessary.  During the enforced leisure of his many illnesses arising from this cause, Wedgwood took to reading and thinking, and turned over in his mind the various ways of making a living by his trade, now that he could no longer work at the potter's wheel.  It has been no less elegantly than truthfully observed by Mr. Gladstone, that

"it is not often that we have such palpable occasion to record our obligations to the small-pox.  But in the wonderful ways of Providence, that disease, which came to him as a twofold scourge, was probably the occasion of his subsequent excellence.  It prevented him from growing up to be the active, vigorous English workman, possessed of all his limbs, and knowing right well the use of them; but it put him upon considering whether, as he could not be that, he might not be something else, and something greater.  It sent his mind inwards; it drove him to meditate upon the laws and secrets of his art.  The result was, that he arrived at a perception and a grasp of them which might, perhaps, have been envied, certainly have been owned, by an Athenian potter." [p.254]



    Wedgwood began operations on his own account by making various ornamental objects out of potter's clay, such as knife-hafts, boxes, and sundry curious little articles for domestic use.  He joined in several successive partnerships with other workmen, but made comparatively small progress until he began business for himself, in 1759, in a humble cottage near the Market House in Burslem, known by the name of the Ivy House.  He there pursued his manufacture of knife-handles and wares, other small wares, striving at the same time to acquire such a knowledge of practical chemistry as might enable him to improve the quality of his work in respect of colour, glaze, and durability.  Success attended Wedgwood's diligent and persistent efforts, and he proceeded from one stage of improvement to another, until at length, after a course of about thirty years' labour, he firmly established a new branch of industry, which not only added greatly to the conveniences of domestic life, but proved a source of remunerative employment to many thousand families throughout England.

    His trade having begun to expand, an extensive demand for his articles sprang up, not only in London, but in foreign countries. [p.256]  But there was this great difficulty in his way, that the roads in his neighbourhood were so bad that he was at the same time prevented from obtaining a sufficient supply of the best kinds of clay and also from disposing of his wares in distant markets.  This great evil weighed heavily upon the whole industry of the district, and Wedgwood accordingly appears to have bestirred himself at an early period in his career to improve the local communications.  In conjunction with several of the leading potters he promoted an application to Parliament for powers to repair and widen the road from the Red Bull, at Lawton, in Cheshire, to Cliff Bank, in Staffordshire.  This line, if formed, would run right through the centre of the Potteries, open them to traffic, and fall at either end into a turnpike road.

    The measure was, however, violently opposed by the people of Newcastle-under-Lyne, on the ground that the proposed new road would enable waggons and packhorses to travel north and south from the Potteries without passing through their town.  The Newcastle innkeepers acted as if they had a vested interest in the bad roads; but the bill passed, and the new line was made, stopping short at Burslem.  This was, no doubt, a great advantage, but it was not enough.  The heavy carriage of clay, coal, and earthenware needed some more convenient means of transport than waggons and roads; and, when the subject of water communication came to be discussed, Josiah Wedgwood at once saw that a canal was the very thing for the Potteries.  Hence he immediately entered with great spirit into the movement again set on foot for the construction of Brindley's Grand Trunk Canal.


    The field was not, however, so clear now as it had been before.  The success of the Duke's canal led to the projection of a host of competing schemes in the county of Chester, and it appeared that Brindley's Grand Trunk project would have to run the gauntlet of a powerful local opposition.  There were two other schemes besides his, which formed the subject of much pamphleteering and controversy at the time, one entering the district by the river Weaver, and another by the Dee.  Neither of these proposed to join the Duke of Bridgewater's canal, whereas the Grand Trunk line was laid out so as to run into his at Preston-on-the-Hill near Runcorn.  As the Duke was desirous of placing his navigation—and through it Manchester, Liverpool, and the intervening districts—in connection with the Cheshire Wiches and the Staffordshire Potteries, he at once threw the whole weight of his support upon the side of Brindley's Grand Trunk.  Indeed, he had himself been partly at the expense of its preliminary survey, as we find from an entry in Brindley's memorandum-book, under date the 12th of April, 1762, as follows: "Worsley—Recd from Mr Tho Gilbert for ye Staffordshire survey, on account, £33 16s. 11d."


Josiah Wedgwood. [p.258]
© Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The Cheshire gentlemen protested against the Grand Trunk scheme, as calculated to place a monopoly of the Staffordshire and Cheshire traffic in the hands of the Duke; but they concealed the fact, that the adoption of their respective measures would have established a similar monopoly in the hands of the Weaver Canal Company, whose line of navigation, so far as it went, was tedious, irregular, and expensive.  Both parties mustered their forces for a Parliamentary struggle, and Brindley exerted himself at Manchester and Liverpool in obtaining support and evidence on behalf of his plan.  The following letter from him to Gilbert, then at Worsley, relates to the rival schemes.

"21 Decr. 1765

    "On Tusdey Sr Georg [Warren] sent Nuton in to Manchester to make what intrest he could for Sir Georg and to gather ye old Navogtors togather to meet Sir Georg at Stoperd to make Head a ganst His Grace

    "I sawe Docter Seswige who sese Hee wants to see you about pamant of His Land in Cheshire

    "On Wednesday ther was not much transpired but was so dark I could carse do aneything

    "On Thursdey Wadgwood of Burslam came to Dunham & sant for mee and wee dined with Lord Gree [Grey] & Sir Hare Mainwering and others  Sir Hare cud not ceep His Tamer [temper]  Mr. Wedgwood came to seliset Lord Gree in faver of the Staffordshire Canal & stade at Mrs Latoune all night & I whith him & on frydey sat out to wate on Mr Edgerton to seliset Him  Hee sase Sparrow and others are indavering to gat ye Land owners consants from Hare Castle to Agden

    "I have ordered Simcock to ye Langth falls of Sanke Navegacion.

    "Ryle wants to have coals sant faster to Alteringham that Hee may have an opertunety dray of ye sale Moor Canal in a bout a weeks time.

    "I in tend being back on Tusdy at fardest."

    The first public movement was made by the supporters of Brindley's scheme.  They held an open meeting at Wolseley Bridge, Staffordshire, on the 30th of December, 1765, at which the subject was fully discussed.  Earl Gower, the lord-lieutenant of the county, occupied the chair; and Lord Grey and Mr. Bagot, members for the county,—Mr. Anson, member for Lichfield, Mr. Thomas Gilbert, the agent for Earl Gower, then member for Newcastle-under-Lyne,—Mr. Wedgwood, and many other influential gentlemen, were present to take part in the proceedings.  Mr. Brindley was called upon to explain his plans, which he did to the satisfaction of the meeting; and these having been adopted, with a few immaterial alterations, it was determined that steps should be taken to apply for a bill conferring the necessary powers in the next session of Parliament.  Mr. Wedgwood put his name down for a thousand pounds towards the preliminary expenses, and promised to subscribe largely for shares besides. [p.260]  The promoters of the measure proposed to designate the undertaking "The Canal from the Trent to the Mersey;" but Brindley, with sagacious foresight, urged that it should be called The Grand Trunk, because, in his judgment, numerous other canals would branch out from it at various points of its course, in like manner as the arteries of the human system branch out from the aorta; and before many years had passed, his anticipations in this respect were fully realized.  The Staffordshire potters were greatly pleased with the decision of the meeting, and on the following evening they assembled round a large bonfire at Burslem, and drank the healths of Lord Gower, Mr. Gilbert, and the other promoters of the scheme, with fervent demonstrations of joy.

    The opponents of the measure also held meetings, at which they strongly declaimed against the Duke's proposed monopoly, and set forth the superior merits of their respective schemes.  One of these was a canal from the river Weaver, by Nantwich, Eccleshall, and Stafford, to the Trent at Wilden Ferry, without touching the Potteries at all.  Another was for a canal from the Weaver at Northwich, passing by Macclesfield and Stockport, round to Manchester, thus completely surrounding the Duke's navigation, and preventing its extension southward into Staffordshire or any other part of the Midland districts.

    But there was also a strong party opposed to all canals whatever—the party of croakers, who are always found in opposition to improved communications, whether in the shape of turnpike roads, canals, or railways.  They prophesied that if the proposed canals were made, the country would be ruined, the breed of English horses would be destroyed, the innkeepers would be made bankrupts, and the pack-horses and their drivers would be deprived of their subsistence.  It was even said that the canals, by putting a stop to the coasting trade, would destroy the race of seamen.  It is a fortunate thing for England that it has contrived to survive these repeated prophecies of ruin.  But the manner in which our countrymen contrive to grumble their way along the high road of enterprise, thriving and grumbling, is one of the peculiar features in our character which perhaps only Englishmen can understand and appreciate.

    It is a curious illustration of the timidity with which the projectors of those days entered upon canal enterprise, that one of their most able advocates, in order to mitigate the opposition of the pack-horse and waggon interest, proposed that "no main trunk of a canal should be carried nearer than within four miles of any great manufacturing and trading town; which distance from the canal would be, sufficient to maintain the same number of carriers and to employ almost the same number of horses as before." [p.261]  But as none of the towns in the Potteries were as yet large manufacturing or trading places, this objection did not apply to them, nor prevent the canals from being carried quite through the centre of what has since become a continuous district of populous manufacturing towns and villages.  The vested interests of some of the larger towns were, however, for this reason, preserved, greatly to their own ultimate injury; and when the canal, to conciliate the local opposition, was so laid out as to leave them at a distance, not many years elapsed before they became clamorous for branches to join the main trunk— but not until the mischief had been done, and a blow dealt to their own trade, in consequence of their being left so far outside the main line of water communication, from which many of them never after recovered.

    It is not necessary to describe the Parliamentary contest upon the Grand Trunk Canal Bill.  There was the usual muster of hostile interests,—the river navigation companies uniting to oppose the new and rival company—the array of witnesses on both sides,—Brindley, Wedgwood, Gilbert, and many more, giving their evidence in support of their own scheme, and a powerful array of the Cheshire gentry and Weaver Navigation Trustees appearing on behalf of the others,—and the whipping-up of votes, in which the Duke of Bridgewater and Earl Gower worked their influence with the Whig party to good purpose.

    Brindley's plan was, on the whole, considered the best.  It was the longest and the most circuitous, but it appeared calculated to afford the largest amount of accommodation to the public.  It would pass through important districts, urgently in need of an improved communication with the port of Liverpool on the one hand, and with Hull on the other.  But it was not so much the connection of those ports with each other that was needed, as a more convenient means of communication between them and the Staffordshire manufacturing districts; and the Grand Trunk system—somewhat in the form of a horse-shoe, with the Potteries lying along its extreme convex part—promised effectually to answer this purpose, and to open up a ready means of access to the coast on both sides of the island.

    A glance at the course of the proposed line will show its great importance.  Starting from the Duke's canal at Preston-on-the-Hill, near Runcorn, it passed southwards by Northwich and Middlewich, through the great salt-manufacturing districts of Cheshire, to the summit at Harecastle.  It was alleged that the difficulties presented by the long tunnel at that point were so great that it could never be the intention of the projectors of the canal to carry their "chimerical idea," as it was called, into effect.  Brindley however insisted, not only that the tunnel was practicable, but that, if the necessary powers were granted, he would certainly execute it. [p.263]  Descending from the summit level into the valley of the Trent, the canal proceeded southwards through the Pottery districts, passing close to Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, and Lane End.  It then passed onward, still south, by Trentham, Stone, and Shutborough, to Haywood, where it joined the canal projected to unite the Severn with the Mersey.  Still following the valley of the Trent, the canal near Rugeley, turning sharp round, proceeded in a north-easterly direction, nearly parallel with the river, passing Burton and Ashton, to a junction with the main stream at Wilden Ferry, a little above where the Derwent falls into the Trent near Derby.  From thence there was a clear line of navigation, by Nottingham, Newark, and Gainsborough, to the Humber.  Provided this admirable project could be carried out, it appeared likely to meet all the necessities of the case.  Ample evidence was given in support of the allegations of its promoters; and the result was, that Parliament threw out the bills promoted by the Cheshire gentlemen on behalf of the old river navigation interest, and the Grand Trunk Canal Act passed into law.  At the same time another important Act was passed, empowering the construction of the Wolverhampton Canal, from the river Severn, near Bewdley, to the river Trent, near Haywood Mill; thus uniting the navigation of the three rivers which had their termini at the ports of Liverpool, Hull, and Bristol, on the opposite sides of the island.


    There was great rejoicing at Burslem on the news arriving at that place of the passing of the bill; and very shortly after, on the 26th of July, 1766, the works were formally commenced by Josiah Wedgwood on the declivity of Bramhills, in a piece of land within a few yards of the bridge which crosses the canal at that place.  Brindley was present at the ceremony, when due honours were paid him by the assembled potters.  After Mr. Wedgwood had cut the first sod, many of the leading persons of the neighbourhood followed his example, putting their hand to the work by turns, and each cutting a turf or wheeling a barrow of earth in honour of the occasion.  It was, indeed, a great day for the Potteries, as the event proved.  In the afternoon a sheep was roasted whole in Burslem market-place, for the good of the poorer class of potters; a feu de joie was fired in front of Mr. Wedgwood's house, and sundry other demonstrations of local rejoicing wound up the day's proceedings.

    Wedgwood was of all others the most strongly impressed with the advantages of the proposed canal.  He knew and felt how much his trade had been hindered by the defective communications of the neighbourhood, and to what extent it might be increased provided a ready means of transit to Liverpool, Hull, and Bristol could be secured; and, confident in the accuracy of his anticipations, he proceeded to make the purchase of a considerable estate in Shelton, intersected by the canal, on the banks of which he built the celebrated Etruria—the finest manufactory of the kind up to that time erected in England, alongside of which he built a mansion for himself and cottages for his workpeople.  He removed his works thither from Burslem, partially in 1769, and wholly in 1771, shortly before the works of the canal had been completed.

    The Grand Trunk was the most formidable undertaking of the kind that had yet been attempted in England.  Its whole length, including the junctions with the Birmingham Canal and the river Severn, was 139½ miles.  In conformity with Brindley's practice, he laid out as much of the navigation as possible upon a level, concentrating the locks in this case at the summit, near Harecastle, from which point the waters fell in both directions, north and south.  Brindley's liking for long flat reaches of dead water made him keep clear of rivers as much as possible.  He likened water in a river flowing down a declivity, to a furious giant running along and overturning everything; whereas (said he) "if you lay the giant flat upon his back, he loses all his force, and becomes completely passive, whatever his size may be."  Hence he contrived that from Middlewich, a distance of seventeen miles, to the Duke's Canal at Preston Brook, there should not be a lock; but goods might be conveyed from the centre of Cheshire to Manchester, for a distance of about seventy miles, along one uniform water level.  He carried out the same practice, in like manner, on the Trent side of Harecastle, where he laid out the canal in as many long lengths of dead water as possible.

    The whole rise of the canal from the level of the Mersey, including the Duke's locks at Runcorn, to the summit at Harecastle, is 395 feet; and the fall from thence to the Trent at Wilden is 288 feet 8 inches.  The locks of the Grand Trunk proper, on the northern side of Harecastle, are thirty-five, and on the southern side forty.  The dimensions of the canal, as originally constructed, were twenty-eight feet in breadth at the top, sixteen at the bottom, and four and a half feet in depth; but from Wilden to Burton, and from Middlewich to Preston-on-the-Hill, it was thirty-one feet broad at the top, eighteen at the bottom, and five and a half feet deep, so as to be navigable by large barges; and the locks at those parts of the canal were of correspondingly large dimensions.  The width was afterwards made uniform throughout.  The canal was carried over the river Dove on an aqueduct of twenty-three arches, approached by an embankment on either side—in all a mile and two furlongs in length.  There were also aqueducts over the Trent, which it crosses at four different points—one of these being of six arches of twenty-one feet span each—and over the Dane and other smaller streams.  The number of minor aqueducts was about 160, and of road-bridges 109.


Dove Aqueduct: crossing the River Dove, Trent & Mersey Canal. [p.266]
© Copyright Alan Murray-Rust and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Croxton Aqueduct: crossing the River Dane, Trent & Mersey Canal.
© Copyright Mike W Hallett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    But the most formidable works on the canal were the tunnels, of which there were five—the Harecastle, 2,880 yards long; the Hermitage, 120 yards; the Barnton, 560 yards; the Saltenford, 350 yards; and the Preston-on-the Hill, 1,241 yards.  The Harecastle tunnel (subsequently duplicated by Telford) was constructed only nine feet wide and twelve feet high; [p.267] but the others were seventeen feet four inches high, and thirteen feet six inches wide.  The most extensive ridge of country to be penetrated was at Harecastle, involving by far the most difficult work in the whole undertaking.  This ridge is but a continuation of the high ground, forming what is called the "back-bone of England," which extends in a south-westerly direction from the Yorkshire mountains to the Wrekin in Shropshire.  The flat county of Cheshire, which looks almost as level as a bowling-green when viewed from the high ground near New Chapel, seems to form a deep bay in the land, its innermost point being almost immediately under the village of Harecastle; and from thence to the valley of the Trent the ridge is at the narrowest.  That Brindley was correct in determining to form his tunnel at this point has since been confirmed by the survey of Telford, who there constructed his parallel tunnel for the same canal, and still more recently by the engineers of the North Staffordshire Railway, who have also formed their railway tunnel almost parallel with the line of both canals.

    When Brindley proposed to cut a navigable way under this ridge, it was declared to be chimerical in the extreme.  The defeated promoters of the rival projects continued to make war upon it in pamphlets, and in the exasperating language of mock sympathy proclaimed Brindley's proposed tunnel to be "a sad misfortune," [p.268-2] inasmuch as it would utterly waste the capital raised by the subscribers, and end in the inevitable ruin of the concern.  Some of the small local wits spoke of it as another of Brindley's, "Air Castles;" but the allusion was not a happy one, as his first "castle in the air," despite all prophecies to the contrary, had been built, and continued to stand firm at Barton; and judging by the issue of that undertaking, it was reasonable to infer that he might equally succeed in this, difficult though it was on all hands admitted to be.



    The Act was no sooner passed than Brindley set to work to execute the impossible tunnel.  Shafts were sunk from the hill-top at different points down to the level of the intended canal.  The stuff was drawn out of the shafts in the usual way by horse-gins; and so long as the water was met with in but small quantities, the power of windmills and watermills working pumps over each shaft was sufficient to keep the excavators at work.  But as the miners descended and cut through the various strata of the hill on their downward progress, water was met with in vast quantities; and here Brindley's skill in pumping machinery proved of great value.  The miners were often drowned out, and as often set to work again by his mechanical skill in raising water.  He had a fire-engine, or atmospheric steam-engine; of the best construction possible at that time, erected on the top of the hill, by the action of which great volumes of water were pumped out night and day.

    This abundance of water, though it was a serious hinderance to the execution of the work, was a circumstance on which Brindley had calculated, and indeed depended, for the supply of water for the summit level of his canal.  When the shafts had been sunk to the proper line of the intended waterway, the excavation then proceeded in opposite directions, to meet the other driftways which were in progress.  The work was also carried forward at both ends of the tunnel, and the whole line of excavation was at length united by a continuous driftway—it is true, after long and expensive labour—when the water ran freely out at both ends, and the pumping apparatus on the hilltop was no longer needed.  At a general meeting of the Company, held on the 1st October, 1768, after the works had been in progress about two years, it appeared from the report of the Committee that four hundred and nine yards of the tunnel were cut and vaulted, besides the vast excavations at either end for the purpose of reservoirs; and the Committee expressed their opinion that the work would be finished without difficulty.


Harecastle Tunnels — North Entrances. [p.269]
© Copyright Maurice Pullin and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Active operations had also been in progress at other parts of the canal.  About six hundred men in all were employed, and Brindley went from point to point superintending and directing their labours.  A Burslem correspondent, in September, 1767, wrote to a distant friend thus:—

"Gentlemen come to view our eighth wonder of the world, the subterraneous navigation, which is cutting by the great Mr. Brindley, who handles rocks as easily as you would plum-pies, and makes the four elements subservient to his will.  He is as plain a looking man as one of the boors of the Peak, or as one of his own carters; but when he speaks, all ears listen, and every mind is filled with wonder at the things he pronounces to be practicable.  He has cut a mile through bogs, which he binds up, embanking them with stones which he gets out of other parts of the navigation, besides about a quarter of a mile into the hill Yelden, on the side of which he has a pump worked by water, and a stove, the fire of which sucks through a pipe the damps that would annoy the men who are cutting towards the Centre of the hill.  The clay he cuts out serves for bricks to arch the subterraneous part, which we heartily wish to see finished to Wilden Ferry, when we shall be able to send Coals and Pots to London, and to different parts of the globe."

    In the course of the first two years' operations, twenty-two miles of the navigation had been cut and finished, and it was expected that before eighteen months more had elapsed the canal would be ready for traffic by water between the Potteries and Hull on the one hand, and Bristol on the other.  It was also expected that by the same time the canal would be ready for traffic from the north end of Harecastle Tunnel to the river Mersey.  The execution of the tunnel, however, proved so tedious and difficult, and the excavation and building went on so slowly, that the Committee could not promise that it would be finished in less than five years from that time.  As it was, the completion of the Harecastle Tunnel occupied nine years more; and it was not finished until the year 1777, by which time the great engineer had finally rested from all his labours.

    It is scarcely necessary to describe the benefits which the canal conferred upon the inhabitants of the districts through which it passed.  As we have already seen, Staffordshire and the adjoining counties had been inaccessible during the chief part of each year.  The great natural wealth which they contained was of little value, because it could with difficulty be got at; and even when reached, there was still greater difficulty in distributing it.  Coal could not be worked at a profit, the price of land-carriage so much restricting its use, that it was placed altogether beyond the reach of the great body of consumers.

    It is difficult now to realise the condition of poor people situated in remote districts of England less than a century ago.  In winter time they shivered over scanty wood-fires, for timber was almost as scarce and as dear as coal.  Fuel was burnt only at cooking times, or to cast a glow about the hearth in the winter evenings.  The fireplaces were little apartments of themselves, sufficiently capacious to enable the whole family to sit within the wide chimney, where they listened to stories or related to each other the events of the day.  Fortunate were the villagers who lived hard by a bog or a moor, from which they could cut peat or turf at will.  They ran all risks of ague and fever in summer, for the sake of the ready fuel in winter.  But in places remote from bogs, and scantily timbered, existence was scarcely possible; and hence the settlement and cultivation of the country were in no slight degree retarded until comparatively recent times, when better communications were opened up.

    When the canals were made, and enabled coals to be readily conveyed along them at comparatively moderate rates, the results were immediately felt in the increased comfort of the people.  Employment became more abundant, and industry sprang up in their neighbourhood in all directions.  The Duke's canal, as we have seen, gave the first great impetus to the industry of Manchester and that district.  The Grand Trunk had precisely the same effect throughout the Pottery and other districts of Staffordshire; and their joint action was not only to employ, but actually to civilize the people.  The salt of Cheshire could now be manufactured in immense quantities, readily conveyed away, and sold at a comparatively moderate price in all the midland districts of England.  The potters of Burslem and Stoke, by the same mode of conveyance, received their gypsum from Northwich, their clay and flints from the seaports now directly connected with the canal, and returned their manufactures by the same route.  The carriage of all articles being reduced to about one-fourth of their previous rates, [p.272] articles of necessity and comfort, such as had formerly been unknown except amongst the wealthier classes, came into common use amongst the people.  Employment increased, and the difficulties of subsistence diminished.  Led by the enterprise of Wedgwood and others like him, new branches of industry sprang up, and the manufacture of earthenware, instead of being insignificant and comparatively unprofitable, which it was before his time, became a staple branch of English trade.  Only about ten years after the Grand Trunk Canal had been opened, Wedgwood stated in evidence before the House of Commons, that from 15,000 to 20,000 persons were then employed in the earthenware-manufacture alone, besides the large number of labourers employed in digging coals for their use, and the still larger number occupied in providing materials at distant parts, and in the carrying and distributing trade by land and sea.  The annual import of clay and flints into Staffordshire at that time was from fifty to sixty thousand tons; and yet, as Wedgwood truly predicted, the trade was but in its infancy.  The tonnage outwards and inwards at the Potteries is now upwards of three hundred thousand tons a-year.


Dudson Pottery, Hanley [p.273-1]
© Copyright Steven Birks and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Bottle Kiln at Dudson Pottery, Hanley.
© Copyright Steven Birks and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The moral and social influences exercised by the canals upon the Pottery districts were not less remarkable.  From a half-savage, thinly-peopled district of some 7,000 persons in 1760, partially employed and ill-remunerated, we find them increased, in the course of some twenty-five years, to about treble the population, abundantly employed, prosperous, and comfortable. [p.273-2]  Civilization is doubtless a plant of very slow growth, and does not necessarily accompany the rapid increase of wealth.  On the contrary, higher earnings, without improved morale, may only lead to wild waste and gross indulgence.  But the testimony of Wesley to the improved character of the population of the Pottery district in 1781, within a few years after the opening of Brindley's Grand Trunk Canal, is so remarkable, that we cannot do better than quote it here; and the more so, as we have already given the account of his first visit in 1760, on the occasion of his being pelted.  "I returned to Burslem," says Wesley; "how is the whole face of the country changed in about twenty years!  Since which, inhabitants have continually flowed in from every side.  Hence the wilderness is literally become a fruitful field.  Houses, villages, towns, have sprung up, and the country is not more improved than the people."




IT is related of Brindley that, on one occasion, when giving evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons, in which he urged the superiority of canals over rivers for purposes of inland navigation, the question was asked by a member, "Pray, Mr. Brindley, what then do you think is the use of navigable rivers?"  "To make canal navigations, to be sure," was his instant reply.  It is easy to understand the gist of the engineer's meaning.  For purposes of trade he regarded regularity and certainty of communication as essential conditions of any inland navigation; and he held that neither of these could be relied upon in the case of rivers, which are in winter liable to interruption by floods, and in summer by droughts.  In his opinion, a canal, with enough of water always kept banked up, or locked up where the country would not admit of the level being maintained throughout, was absolutely necessary to satisfy the requirements of commerce.  Hence he held that one of the great uses of rivers was to furnish a supply of water for canals.  It was only another illustration of the "nothing like leather" principle; Brindley's head being so full of canals, and his labours so much confined to the making of canals, that he could think of little else.

    In connection with the Grand Trunk—which proved, as Brindley had anticipated, to be the great aorta of the canal system of the midland districts of England—numerous lines were projected and afterwards carried out under our engineer's superintendence.  One of the most important of these was the Wolverhampton Canal, connecting the Trent with the Severn, and authorised in the same year as the Grand Trunk itself.  It is now known as the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, passing close to the towns of Wolverhampton and Kidderminster, and falling into the Severn at Stourport.  This branch opened up several valuable coal-fields, and placed Wolverhampton and the intermediate districts, now teeming with population and full of iron manufactories, in direct connection with the ports of Liverpool, Hull, and Bristol.  Two years later, in 1768, three more canals, laid out by Brindley, were authorised to be constructed: the Coventry Canal to Oxford, connecting the Grand Trunk system by Lichfield with London and the navigation of the Thames; the Birmingham Canal, which brought the advantages of inland navigation to the very doors of the central manufacturing town in England; and the Droitwich Canal, to connect that town by a short branch with the river Severn.  In the following year a further Act was obtained for a canal laid out by Brindley, from Oxford to the Coventry Canal at Longford, eighty-two miles in length.


The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal near Stourton. [p.276-1]
© Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    These were highly important works; and though they were not all carried out strictly after Brindley's plans, they nevertheless formed the groundwork of future Acts, and laid the foundations of the midland canal system.  Thus, the Coventry Canal was never fully carried out after Brindley's designs; a difference having arisen between the engineer and the Company during the progress of the undertaking, in consequence, as is supposed, of the capital provided being altogether inadequate to execute the works considered by Brindley as indispensable.  He probably foresaw that there would be nothing but difficulty, and very likely there might be discredit attached to himself by continuing connected with an undertaking the proprietors of which would not provide him with sufficient means for carrying it forward to completion; and though he finished the first fourteen miles between Coventry and Atherstone, he shortly after gave up his connection with the undertaking, and it remained in an unfinished state for many years, in consequence of the financial difficulties in which the Company had become involved through the insufficiency of their capital.  The connection of the Coventry Canal with the Grand Trunk was afterwards completed, in 1785, by the Birmingham and Fawley and Grand Trunk Companies conjointly, and the property eventually proved of great value to all parties concerned.


Coventry Basin, with statue of Brindley. [p.276-2]
© Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The Droitwich Canal, though only a short branch five and a half miles in length, was a very important work, opening up as it did an immense trade in coal and salt between Droitwich and the Severn.  The works of this navigation were wholly executed by Brindley, and are considered superior to those of any others on which he was engaged.  Whilst residing at Droitwich, we find our engineer actively engaged in pushing on the subscription to the Birmingham Canal, the capital of which was taken slowly.  Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham, was one of the most active promoters of the scheme, and Josiah Wedgwood also bestirred himself in its behalf.  In a letter written by him about this time, we find him requesting one of his agents to send out plans to gentlemen whom he names, in the hope of completing the subscription-list. [p.277]  Brindley did not live to finish the Birmingham Canal; it was carried out by his successors,—partly by his pupil, Mr. Whitworth, and partly by Smeaton and Telford.  Brindley's plan was, as usual, to cut the canal as flat as possible, to avoid the necessity for lockage; but his successors, in order to relieve the capital expenditure, as they supposed, constructed it with a number of locks to carry it over the summit at Smithwick.  Shortly after its opening, however, the Company found reason to regret their rejection of Mr. Brindley's advice, and they lowered the summit by cutting a tunnel, as he had originally recommended, thereby incurring an extra expense of about £30,000.


Droitwich Barge Canal at Porter's Mill. [p.278]
© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence.

    Another of Brindley's canals, authorised in 1769, was that between Chesterfield and the river Trent, at Stockwith, about forty-six miles in length, intended for the transport of coal, lime, and lead from the rich mineral districts of Derbyshire, and the return trade of deals, corn, and groceries to the same districts.  It would appear that Mr. Grundy, another engineer, of considerable reputation in his day, was consulted about the project, and that he advised a much more direct route than that pointed out by Brindley, who looked to the accommodation of the existing towns, rather than shortness of route, as the main thing to be provided for.  Brindley, in this respect, took very much the same view in laying out his canals as was afterwards taken by George Stephenson—a man whom he resembled in many respects—in laying out railways.  He would rather go round an obstacle in the shape of an elevated range of country, than go through it, especially if in going round and avoiding expense he could accommodate a number of towns and villages.  Besides, by avoiding the hills and following the course of the valleys, along which the population usually lies, he avoided expense of construction and secured flatness of canal; just as Stephenson secured flatness of railway gradient.  Although the length of canal to be worked was longer, yet the cost of tunnelling and lockage was avoided.  The population of the district was also fully accommodated, which could not have been accomplished by the more direct route through unpopulated districts or under barren hills.  The proprietors of the Chesterfield Canal concurred in Brindley's view, adopting his plan in preference to Grundy's, and it was accordingly carried into effect.  This navigation was, nevertheless, a work of considerable difficulty, proceeding, as it did, across a very hilly country, the summit tunnel at Hartshill being 2,850 yards in extent.  Like many of Brindley's other works projected about this time, it was finished by his brother-in-law, Mr. Henshall, and opened for traffic several years after the great engineer's death. [p.279]

    The whole of these canals were laid out by Brindley, though they were not all executed by him, nor precisely after his plans.  No record of any kind has been preserved of the manner in which the works were carried out.  Brindley himself made few reports, and these merely stated results, not methods; yet he had doubtless many formidable difficulties to encounter, and must have overcome them by the adoption of those ingenious expedients, varying according to the circumstances of each case, in which he was always found so fertile.  He had no treasury of past experience, as recorded in books, to consult, for he could scarcely read English; and certainly he could neither read French nor Italian, in which languages the only engineering works of any value were then written; nor had he any store of native experience to draw from he himself being the first English canal engineer of eminence, and having all his methods and expedients to devise for himself.

    It would doubtless have been most interesting could we have had some authentic record of this strong original man's struggles with opposition and difficulty, and the means by which be contrived not only to win persons of high station to support him with their influence but also with their purses, at a time when money was comparatively a much rarer commodity than it is now.  "That want of records, journals, and memoranda," says Mr. Hughes, "which is ever to be deplored when we seek to review the progress of engineering works, is particularly felt when we have to look back upon those undertakings which first called for the exercise of engineering skill in many new and untried departments.  In Brindley's day, the entire absence of experience derived from former works, the obscure position which the engineer occupied in the scale of society, the imperfect communication between the profession in this country and the engineers and works of other countries, and, lastly, the backward condition of all the mechanical arts and of the physical sciences connected with engineering, may all be ranked in striking contrast with the vast appliances which are placed at the command of modern engineers." [p.280]

    Moreover, the great canal works upon which Brindley was engaged during the later part of his career, were as yet scarcely appreciated as respects the important influences which they were calculated to exercise upon society at large.  The only persons who seem to have regarded them with interest were far-sighted men like Josiah Wedgwood, who saw in them the means not only of promoting the trade of his own county, but of developing the rich natural resources of the kingdom, and diffusing amongst the people the elements of comfort, intelligence, and civilization.  The literary and scientific classes as yet took little or no interest in them.  The most industrious and observant literary man of the age, Dr. Johnson, though he had a word to say upon nearly every subject, never so much as alluded to them, though all Brindley's canals were finished in Johnson's lifetime, and he must have observed the works in progress when passing on his various journeys through the midland districts.  The only reference which he makes to the projects set on foot for opening up the country by means of better roads, was to the effect, that whereas there were before cheap places and dear places, now all refuges were destroyed for elegant or genteel poverty.

    Before leaving this part of the subject, it is proper to state that during the latter part of Brindley's life, whilst canals were being projected in various directions, he was, on many occasions, called upon to give his opinion as to the plans which other engineers had prepared.  Among the most important of the new projects on which he was thus consulted were, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal; the improvement of the navigation of the Thames to Reading; the Calder Navigation; the Forth and Clyde Canal; the Salisbury and Southampton Canal; the Lancaster Canal; and the Andover Canal.  Many of these schemes were of great importance in a national point of view.  The Leeds and Liverpool Canal, for instance, brought the whole manufacturing district of Yorkshire along the valley of the Aire into communication with Liverpool and the intermediate districts of Lancashire.  The advantages of this navigation to Leeds, Bradford, Keighley, and the neighbouring towns, are felt to this day, and their extraordinary prosperity is doubtless in no small degree attributable to the facilities which the canal has provided for the ready conveyance of raw materials and manufactured produce between those places and the towns and sea-ports of the west.  Brindley surveyed and laid out the whole line of this navigation, 130 miles in length, and he framed the estimate on which the Company proceeded to Parliament for their bill.  On the passing of the Act in 1768-9, the Directors appointed him their engineer; but, being almost overwhelmed with other business at the time, and feeling that he could not give the proper degree of personal attention to carrying out so extensive an undertaking, he was under the necessity of declining the appointment.  The works were immediately begun at both ends of the canal, and portions were speedily made use of; but the difficulty and expensiveness of the remaining works greatly delayed their execution, and the canal was not finished until the year 1816.  Twenty miles, extending from near Bingley to the neighbourhood of Bradford, were opened on 21st March, 1774.  A correspondent of 'Williamson's Liverpool Advertiser' thus describes the opening:

"From Bingley and about three miles down, the noblest works of the kind that perhaps are to be found in the universe are exhibited, namely, a five-fold, a three-fold, a two-fold, and a single lock, making together a fall of 120 feet; a large aqueduct-bridge of seven arches over the river Aire, and an aqueduct on a large embankment over Shipley valley.  Five boats of burden passed the grand lock, the first of which descended through a fall of sixty-six feet in less than twenty-nine minutes.  This much wished-for-event was welcomed with ringing of bells, a band of music, the firing of guns by the neighbouring militia, the shouts of spectators, and all the marks of satisfaction that so important an acquisition merits."

On the 21st October of the same year the following paragraph appeared:—

"The Liverpool end of the canal was opened from Liverpool to Wigan on Wednesday, the 19th instant, with great festivity and rejoicings.  The water had been led into the basin the evening before.  At nine A.M. the proprietors sailed up the canal in their barge, preceded by another with music, colours flying, &c., and returned to Liverpool about one.  They were saluted with two royal salutes of twenty-one guns each, besides the swivels on board the boats, and welcomed with the repeated shouts of the numerous crowds assembled on the banks, who made a most cheerful and agreeable sight.  The gentlemen then adjourned to a tent, on the quay, where a cold collation was set out for themselves and their friends.  From thence they went in procession to George's coffee-house, where an elegant dinner was provided.  The workmen, 215 in number, walked first, with their tools on their shoulders, and cockades in their hats, and were afterwards plentifully regaled at a dinner provided for them.  The bells rang all day, and the greatest joy and order prevailed on the occasion."

    Brindley being now the recognised head of his profession, and the great authority on all questions of navigation, he was, in 1770, employed by the Corporation of London to make a survey of the Thames above Battersea, with the object of having it improved for purposes of navigation.  As usual, Brindley strongly recommended the construction of a canal in preference to carrying on the navigation by the river, where it was liable to be interrupted by the tides and floods, or by the varying deposits of silt in the shallow places.  In his first report to the Common Council, dated the 16th of June, 1770, he pointed out that the cost of hauling the barges was greatly in favour of the canal.  For example, he stated that the expense of taking a vessel of 100 or 120 tons from Isleworth to Sunning, and back again to Isleworth, was £80, and sometimes more; whilst the cost by the canal would only be £16.  The saving in time would be still greater, for the double voyage might easily be performed in fifteen hours; whereas by the river the boats were sometimes three weeks in going up, and almost as much in coming down.  He estimated that there would be a saving to the public of at least £64 on every voyage, besides the saving of time in performing it.  After making a further detailed examination of the district, and maturing his views on the whole subject, he sent in a report, accompanied by a profile of the river about seven feet long, which is still to be seen amongst the records of the Corporation of London.  His plan was not, however, carried out; the proposal to construct a canal parallel with the Thames having been abandoned so soon as the Grand Junction Canal was undertaken.

    These and numerous other schemes in various parts of the country—at Stockton, at Leeds, at Cambridge, at Chester, at Salisbury and Southampton, at Lancaster, and in Scotland—fully occupied the attention of Brindley; in addition to which, there was the personal superintendence which he must necessarily give to the canals in active progress, and for the execution of which he was responsible.  In fact, there was scarcely a design of a canal navigation set on foot throughout the kingdom during the later years of his life, on which he was not consulted, and the plans of which he did not entirely make, revise, or improve.

    In addition to his canal works, Brindley was also consulted as to the best means of draining the low lands in different parts of Lincolnshire, and the Great Level in the neighbourhood of the Isle of Ely.  He supplied the corporation of Liverpool with a plan for cleansing the docks and keeping them clear of mud, which is said to have proved very effective; and he pointed out to them an economical method of building walls against the sea without mortar, which long continued to be employed with complete success.  In such cases he laid his plans freely open to the public, not seeking to secure them by patent, nor shrouding his proceedings in any mystery.  He was perfectly open with professional men, harbouring no petty jealousy of rivals.  His pupils had free access to all his methods, and he took a pride in so training them that they should reflect credit on the engineer's profession, then rising into importance, and be enabled, after he left the rising scene, to carry on those great industrial enterprises which he probably foresaw clearly enough in England's future.

    It will be observed, from what we have said, that Brindley's engagements as an engineer extended over a very wide district.  Even before his employment by the Duke of Bridgewater, he was under the necessity of travelling great distances to fit up water-mills, pumping-engines, and manufacturing machinery of various kinds, in the counties of Stafford, Cheshire, and Lancashire.  But when he had been appointed to superintend the construction of the Duke's canals, his engagements necessarily became of a still more engrossing character, and he had very little leisure left to devote to the affairs of private life.  He lived principally at inns, in the immediate neighbourhood of his work; and though his home was at Leek, he sometimes did not visit it for weeks together.

    Brindley had very little time for friendship, and still less for courtship.  Nevertheless, he did contrive to find time for marrying, though at a comparatively advanced period of his life.  In laying out the Grand Trunk Canal, he was necessarily brought into close connection with Mr. John Henshall, of the Bent, near New Chapel, land-surveyor, who assisted him in making the survey.  He visited Henshall at his house in September, 1762, and then settled with him the preliminary operations.  During his visits Brindley seems to have taken a special liking for Mr. Henshall's daughter Anne, then a girl at school, and when he went to see her father, he was accustomed to take a store of gingerbread for Anne in his pocket.  She must have been a comely girl, judging by the portrait of her as a woman, which we have seen.

    In due course of time, the liking ripened into an attachment; and shortly after the girl had left school, at the age of only nineteen, Brindley proposed to her, and was accepted.  By that time he was close upon his fiftieth year, so that the union may possibly have been quite as much a matter of convenience as of love on his part.  He had now left the Duke's service for the purpose of entering upon the construction of the Grand Trunk Canal, and with that object resolved to transfer his home to the immediate neighbourhood of Harecastle, as well as of his colliery at Golden Hill.  Shortly after the marriage, the old mansion of Turnhurst fell vacant, and Brindley with his young wife became its occupants.  The marriage took place on the 8th December, 1765, in the parish church of Wolstanton, Brindley being described in the register as "of the parish of Leek, engineer;" but from that time until the date of his death his home was at Turnhurst.



    The house at Turnhurst was a comfortable, roomy, old-fashioned dwelling, with a garden and pleasure-ground behind, and a little lake in front.  It was formerly the residence of the Bellot family, and is said to have been the last mansion in England in which a family fool was maintained.  Sir Thomas Bellot, the last of the name, was a keen sportsman, and the panels of several of the upper rooms contain pictorial records of some of his exploits in the field.  In this way Sir Thomas seems to have squandered his estate, and it shortly after became the property of the Alsager family, from whom Brindley rented it.  A little summer-house, standing at the corner of the outer courtyard, is still pointed out as Brindley's office, where he sketched his plans and prepared his calculations.  As for his correspondence, it was nearly all conducted, subsequent to his marriage, by his wife, who, notwithstanding her youth, proved a most clever, useful, and affectionate partner.

    Turnhurst was conveniently near to the works then in progress at Harecastle Tunnel, which was within easy walking distance, whilst the colliery at Golden Hill was only a few fields off.  From the elevated ground at Golden Hill, the whole range of high ground may be seen under which the tunnel runs—the populous Pottery towns of Tunstall and Burslem filling the valley of the Trent towards the south.  At Golden Hill, Brindley carried out an idea which he had doubtless brought with him from Worsley.  He and his partners had an underground canal made from the main line of the Harecastle Tunnel into their coal-mine, about a mile and a half in length; and by that tunnel the whole of the coal above that level was afterwards worked out, and conveyed away for sale in the Pottery and other districts, to the great profit of the owners and much to the convenience of the public.

    These various avocations involved a great amount of labour as well as anxiety, and probably considerable tear and wear of the vital powers.  But we doubt whether mere hard work ever killed any man, or whether Brindley's labours, extraordinary though they were, would have shortened his life, but for the far more trying condition of the engineer's vocation—irregular living, exposure in all weathers, long fasting, and then, perhaps, heavy feeding when the nervous system was exhausted, together with habitual disregard of the ordinary conditions of physical health.  These are the main causes of the shortness of life of most of our eminent engineers, rather than the amount and duration of their labours.  Thus the constitution becomes strained, and is ever ready to break down at the weakest place.  Some violation of the natural laws more flagrant than usual, or a sudden exposure to cold or wet, merely presents the opportunity for an attack of disease which the ill-used physical system is found unable to resist.

    Such an accidental exposure unhappily proved fatal to Brindley.  While engaged one day in surveying a branch canal between Leek and Froghall, he got drenched near Ipstones, and went about for some time in his wet clothes.  This he had often before done with impunity, and he might have done so again; but, unfortunately, he was put into a damp bed in the inn at Ipstones, and this proved too much for his constitution, robust though he naturally was.  He became seriously ill, and was disabled from all further work.  Diabetes shortly developed itself, and, after an illness of some duration, he expired at his house at Turnhurst, on the 27th of September, 1772, in the fifty-sixth year of his age, and was interred in the burying-ground at New Chapel, a few fields distant from his dwelling.

    James Brindley was probably one of the most remarkable instances of self-taught genius to be found in the whole range of biography.  The impulse which he gave to social activity, and the ameliorative influence which he exercised upon the condition of his countrymen, seem out of all proportion to the meagre intellectual culture which he had received in the course of his laborious and active career.  We must not, however, judge him merely by the literary test.  It is true, he could scarcely read, and he was thus cut off, to his own great loss, from familiar intercourse with a large class of cultivated minds, living and dead; for he could with difficulty take part in the conversation of educated men, and he was unable to profit by the rich stores of experience treasured up in books.  Neither could he write, except with difficulty and inaccurately, as we have shown by the extracts above quoted from his note-books, which are still extant.

    Brindley was, nevertheless, a highly-instructed man in many respects.  He was full of the results of careful observation, ready at devising the best methods of overcoming material difficulties, and possessed of a powerful and correct judgment in matters of business.  When any emergency arose, his quick invention and ingenuity, cultivated by experience, enabled him almost at once unerringly to suggest the best means of providing for it.  His ability in this way was so remarkable, that those about him attributed the process by which he arrived at his conclusions rather to instinct than reflection—the true instinct of genius.  "Mr. Brindley," said one of his contemporaries, "is one of those great geniuses whom Nature sometimes rears by her own force, and brings to maturity without the necessity of cultivation.  His whole plan is admirable, and so well concerted that he is never at a loss; for, if any difficulty arises, he removes it with a facility which appears so much like inspiration, that yon would think Minerva was at his fingers' ends."

    His mechanical genius was indeed most highly cultivated.  From the time when he bound himself apprentice to the trade of a millwright—impelled to do so by the strong bias of his nature—he had been undergoing a course of daily and hourly instruction.  There was nothing to distract his attention, or turn him from pursuing his favourite study of practical mechanics.  The training of his inventive faculty and constructive skill was, indeed, a slow but a continuous process; and when the time and the opportunity arrived for turning these to account—when the silk-throwing machinery of the Congleton mill, for instance, had to be perfected and brought to the point of effectively performing its intended work—Brindley was found able to take it in hand and carry out the plan, when even its own designer had given it up in despair.  But it must also be remembered that this extraordinary ability of Brindley was in a great measure the result of close observation, pains-taking study of details, and the most indefatigable industry.

    The same qualities were displayed in his improvements of the steam-engine, and his arrangements to economise power in the pumping of water from drowned mines.  It was often said of his works, as was said of Columbus's discovery, "How easy! how simple!" but this was after the fact.  Before he had brought his fund of experience and clearness of vision to bear upon a difficulty, every one was equally ready to exclaim "How difficult! how absolutely impracticable!"  This was the case with his "castle in the air," the Barton Viaduct—such a work as had never before been attempted in England, though now any common mason would undertake it.  It was Brindley's merit always to be ready with his simple, practical expedient; and he rarely failed to effect his purpose, difficult although at first sight its accomplishment might seem to be.

    Like men of a similar stamp, Brindley had great confidence in himself and in his powers and resources.  Without this, it had been impossible for him to have accomplished so much as he did.  It is said that the King of France, hearing of his wonderful genius, and the works he had performed for the Duke of Bridgewater at Worsley, expressed a desire to see him, and sent a message inviting him to view the Grand Canal of Languedoc.  But Brindley's reply was characteristic: "I will have no journeys to foreign countries," said he, "unless to be employed in surpassing all that has been already done in them."

    His observation was remarkably quick.  In surveying a district, he rapidly noted the character of the country, the direction of the hills and the valleys, and, after a few journeys on horseback, he clearly settled in his mind the best line to be selected for a canal, which almost invariably proved to be the right one.  In like manner he would estimate with great rapidity the fall of a brook or river while walking along the banks, and thus determined the height of his cuttings and embankments, which he afterwards settled by a more systematic survey.  In these estimates he was rarely, if ever, found mistaken.

    His brother-in-law, Mr. Henshall, has said of him,

"when any extraordinary difficulty occurred to Mr. Brindley in the execution of his works, having little or no assistance from books or the labours of other men, his resources lay within himself.  In order, therefore, to be quiet and uninterrupted whilst he was in search of the necessary expedients, he generally retired to his bed; [p.291] and he has been known to be there one, two, or three days, till he had attained the object in view.  He would then get up and execute his design, without any drawing or model.  Indeed, it was never his custom to make either, unless he was obliged to do it to satisfy his employers.  His memory was so remarkable that he has often declared that he could remember, and execute, all the parts of the most complex machine, provided he had time, in his survey of it, to settle in his mind the several parts and their relations to each other.  His method of calculating the powers of any machine invented by him was peculiar to himself.  He worked the question for some time in his head, and then put down the results in figures.  After this, taking it up again at that stage, he worked it further in his mind for a certain time, and set down the results as before.  In the same way he still proceeded, making use of figures only at stated parts of the question.  Yet the ultimate result was generally true, though the road he travelled in search of it was unknown to all but himself, and perhaps it would not have been in his power to have shown it to another." [p.292]

    The statement about his taking to bed to study his more difficult problems is curiously confirmed by Brindley's own note-book, in which he occasionally enters the words "lay in bed," as if to mark the period, though he does not particularise the object of his thoughts on such occasions.  It was a great misfortune for Brindley, as it must be to every man, to have his mental operations confined exclusively within the limits of his profession.  Anthony Trollope well observes, that "industry is a good thing, and there is no bread so sweet as that which is eaten in the sweat of a man's brow; but the sweat that is ever running makes the bread bitter."  Brindley thought and lived mechanics, and never rose above them.  He found no pleasure in anything else; amusement of every kind was distasteful to him; and his first visit to the theatre, when in London, was also his last.  Shut out from the humanising influence of books, and without any taste for the politer arts, his mind went on painfully grinding in the mill of mechanics.  "He never seemed in his element," said his friend Bentley, "if he was not either planning or executing some great work, or conversing with his friends upon subjects of importance."  To the last he was full of projects and full of work; and then the wheels of life came to a sudden stop, when he could work no longer.

    It is related of him that, when dying, some eager canal undertakers insisted on having an interview with him.  They had encountered a serious difficulty in the course of constructing their canal, and they must have the advice of Mr. Brindley on the subject.  They were introduced to the apartment where he lay scarce able to gasp, yet his mind was clear.  They explained their difficulty—they could not make their canal hold water.  "Then puddle it," said the engineer.  They explained that they had already done so.  "Then puddle it again—and again."  This was all he could say, and it was enough.

    It remains to be added that, in his private character, Brindley commanded general respect and admiration.  His integrity was inflexible; his manner, though rough and homely, was kind; and his conduct unimpeachable. [p.293] He was altogether unassuming and unostentatious, and dressed and lived with great plainness.  His was the furthest possible from a narrow or jealous temper, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than to assist others with their inventions, and to train up a generation of engineers in his pupils, qualified to carry out the works he had himself designed, when he should be no longer able to conduct them.  The principal undertakings in which he was engaged up to the time of his death were carried on by his brother-in-law, Mr. Henshall [Ed.—Hugh Henshall: b. Newchapel, Staffs., 1734; d. Longport, 1816], formerly his clerk of the works on the Grand Trunk Canal, and by his able pupil, Mr. Robert Whitworth [Ed.—b. Sowerby, 1734; d. Halifax, 1799], for both of whom he had a peculiar regard, and of whose integrity and abilities he had the highest opinion.

    Brindley left behind him two daughters, one of whom, Susannah, married Mr. Bettington, of Bristol, merchant, afterwards the Honourable Mr. Bettington, of Brindley's Plains, Van Diemen's Land, where their descendants still live.  His other daughter, Anne, died unmarried, on her passage home from Sydney, in 1838.  His widow, still young, married again, and died at Longport in 1826 [Ed.—see conflicting information on this—p.286].  Brindley had the sagacity to invest a considerable portion of his savings in Grand Trunk shares, the great increase in the value of which, as well as of his colliery property at Golden Hill, enabled him to leave his family in affluent circumstances.

    Before finally dismissing the subject of Brindley's canals, we may briefly allude to the influence which they exercised upon the enterprise as well as the speculation of the time.  "When these fellows," says Sheridan in the 'Critic,' "have once got hold of a good thing, they do not know when to stop."  This might be said of the speculative projectors of canals, as afterwards of railways.  The commercial success which followed the opening of the, Duke's Canal, and shortly after it the Grand Trunk, soon infected the whole country, and canal schemes were projected in great numbers for the accommodation even of the most remote and unlikely places.

    In those districts where the demand for improved water communication grew out of an actual want—as, for instance, where it was necessary to open up a large coal-field for the supply of a population urgently in need of fuel—or where two large towns, such as Manchester and Liverpool, required to be provided with a more cheap and convenient means of trading intercourse than had formerly existed—or where districts carrying on extensive and various manufactures, such as Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and the Potteries, needed a more ready means of communication with other parts of the kingdom—there was no want of trade for the canals; and those constructed for such purposes very soon had as much traffic as they could carry.  The owners of land discovered that their breed of horses was not destroyed, and that their estates were not so cut up as to be rendered useless, as many of them had prognosticated.  On the contrary, the demand for horses to carry coals, lime, manure, and goods to and from the canal depots, rapidly increased.  The canals meandering through their green fields were no such unsightly objects after all, and they very soon found that inasmuch as the new waterways readily enabled agricultural produce to reach good markets in the large towns, they were likely even to derive considerable pecuniary advantages from their formation.

    Another objection alleged against canals, on public grounds, was alike speedily disproved.  It was said that inland navigation, by reason of its greater cheapness, ease, and certainty, must necessarily diminish the coasting trade, and consequently discourage the training of seamen, who formed the constitutional bulwark of the kingdom.  But the extraordinarily rapid growth of the shipping-trade of Liverpool, and the vastly increased number of seagoing vessels required to accommodate the traffic converging on that seaport, very soon showed that canals, instead of diminishing, were calculated immensely to promote the naval power and resources of England.  Thus it was found that in the thirty years which elapsed subsequent to the opening of the Duke's Canal between Worsley and Manchester,—during which time the navigation had also been opened to the Mersey, and the Grand Trunk and other main canals had been constructed, connecting the principal inland towns with the seaports,—the tonnage of English ships had increased threefold, and the number of sailors been more than doubled.

    So great an impulse had thus been given to the industry of the country, and it had become so clear that facility of communication must be an almost unmixed good, that a desire for the extension of canals sprang up in all districts; and instead of being resisted and denounced, they became everywhere the rage.  They were advocated in pamphlets in newspapers, and at public meetings.  One enthusiastic pamphleteer, advocating the formation of a canal between Kendal and Manchester, denounced the wretched state of the turnpike-roads, which were maintained by "an enormous tax," and exclaimed, "May we all scorn to plod through the dirt as we long have done at so large an expense; and for the support of our drooping manufactories, let canals be made through the whole nation as common as the public highways." [p.296]

    There seemed, indeed, to be every probability that this desire would be shortly fulfilled; for so soon as the canals which had been made began to pay dividends, the strong motive of personal gain became superadded to that of public utility.  The rapid increase of wealth which they promoted served to stimulate the projection of new schemes; and in a very few years after Brindley's death we find an immense number of Navigation Acts receiving the sanction of the legislature, and canal works in progress in all parts of the country.  The shares were quoted upon 'Change, where they became the subject of commerce, and very shortly of wild speculation.

    By the year 1792, the country was in a perfect ferment about canal shares.  Notices of eighteen new canals were published in the 'Gazette' of the 18th August in that year.  The current premiums on single shares in those companies for which Acts had been obtained were as follows: Grand Trunk, £350; Birmingham and Fawley, £1,170; Coventry, £350; Leicester, £155; and so on.  There was a rush to secure allotments in the new schemes, and the requisite capitals were at once eagerly subscribed.  At the first meeting, held in 1790, of the promoters of the Ellesmere Canal, 112 miles in extent, to connect the Mersey, the Dee, and the Severn, applications were made for four times the disposable number of shares.

    A great number of worthless and merely speculative schemes were thus set on foot, which brought ruin upon many, and led to waste both of labour and capital.  But numerous sound projects were at the same time launched, and an extraordinary stimulus was given to the prosecution of measures, too long delayed, for effectually opening up the communications of the country.  The movement extended to Scotland, where the Forth and Clyde Canal, and the Crinan Canal, were projected; and to Ireland, where the Grand Canal and Royal Canal were undertaken.  But, as Arthur Young pithily remarked, in reference to these latter projects, "a history of public works in Ireland would be a history of jobs."

    In the course of the four years ending in 1794, not fewer than eighty-one Canal and Navigation Acts were obtained: of these, forty-five were passed in the two latter years, authorising the expenditure of not less than £5,300,000.  As in the case of the railways at a subsequent period, works which might, without pressure upon the national resources, easily have been executed if spread over a longer period, were undertaken all at once; and the usual consequences followed, of panic, depreciation, and loss.

    But though individuals lost, the public were eventually the gainers.  Many projects fell through, but the greater number were commenced, and after passing through the usual financial difficulties, were finished and used for traffic.  The country became thoroughly opened up in all directions by about 2,600 miles of navigable canals in England, 276 miles in Ireland, and 225 miles in Scotland.  The cost of executing these great water-ways is estimated to have amounted to about fifty millions sterling.  There was not a place in England south of Durham, more than fifteen miles from water communication; and most of the large towns, especially in the manufacturing districts, were directly accommodated with the means of easy transport of their goods to the principal markets.  "At the beginning of the present century," says Dr. Aiken, writing in 1795, "it was thought a most arduous task to make a high road practicable for carriages over the hills and moors which separate Yorkshire from Lancashire, and now they are pierced through by three navigable canals!"

    Notwithstanding the great additional facilities for conveyance of merchandise which have been provided of late years by the construction of railways, a very large proportion of the heavy carrying trade of the country still continues to be conducted upon canals.  It was indeed at one time proposed, during the railway mania, and that by a somewhat shrewd engineer, to fill up the canals and make railways of them.  It was even predicted, during the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, that "within twelve months of its opening, the Bridgewater Canal would be closed, and the place of its waters be covered over with rushes."  But canals have stood their ground, even against railways; and the Duke's Canal, instead of being closed, continues to carry as much traffic as ever.  It has lost the conveyance of passengers by the fly-boats, [p.298] it is true; but it has retained and in many respects increased its traffic in minerals and merchandise.  The canals have stood the competition of railways far more successfully than the old turnpike-roads, though these too are still, in their way, as indispensable as canals and railways themselves.  Not less than twenty millions of tons of traffic are estimated to be carried annually upon the canals of England alone, and this quantity is steadily increasing.  In 1835, before the opening of the London and Birmingham Railway, the through tonnage carried on the Grand Junction Canal was 310,475 tons; and in 1845, after the railway had been open for ten years, the tonnage carried on the canal had increased to 480,626 tons.  At a meeting of proprietors of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, held in October, 1860, the chairman said, "the receipts for the last six months were, with one exception, the largest they had ever had."

    Railways are a great invention, but in their day canals were as highly valued, and indeed quite as important; and it is fitting that the men by whom they were constructed should not be forgotten.  We may be apt to think lightly of the merits and achievements of the early engineers, now that works of so much greater magnitude are accomplished without difficulty.  The appliances of modern mechanics enable men of this day to dwarf by comparison the achievements of their predecessors, who had obstructions to encounter which modern engineers know nothing of.  The genius of the older men now seems slow, although they were the wonder of their own age.  The canal, and its barges tugged along by horses, may appear a cumbersome mode of communication, beside the railway and the locomotive with its power and speed.  Yet canals still are, and will long continue to form, an essential part of our great system of commercial communication,—as much so as roads, railways, or the ocean itself.





Pierre-Paul Riquet (1609?-1680):
French engineer and canal-builder.
Picture Wikipedia.

THE Canal du Midi, more commonly known as the Grand Canal of Languedoc, was one of the most important works of the kind at the time at which it was executed, though it has since been surpassed by many canals in France, as well as in England and other countries.  It was commenced in 1666, about a hundred years before Brindley began the Bridgewater Canal, and it was finished in 1681.  The magnitude and importance of the work will be understood from the following brief statement of facts.

    The canal crosses the isthmus which connects France with Spain, along the valley between the Pyrenees and the Rhone, and extends from the Garonne at Toulouse (which is navigable from thence to the Bay of Biscay) to Cette on the shores of the Mediterranean, thus uniting that sea with the Atlantic Ocean.  The length of the navigation, from Toulouse to Cette, is about 158 English miles, including its passage through Lake Than, near Cette, where, in consequence of the shallowness of the lake, it is confined for a considerable distance within artificial dykes.  The canal is carried along its course over rivers, and under hills, by means of numerous aqueducts, bridges, and tunnels.  From the Garonne to the summit it rises 207 feet by twenty-six locks; the summit level is 31 miles, after which it descends by thirty-seven locks into the Aude near Carcassonne.  It then proceeds along the north side of that river, passing over several streams, and descending by twenty-two locks into Lake Than.  There are other locks in the neighbourhood of Toulouse and Cette; the whole number being above a hundred.  The fall from the summit at Naurouse to the Mediterranean is 6,21½ feet; a fact of itself which bespeaks the formidable character of the undertaking.

    The Grand Canal of Languedoc was constructed by Pierre-Paul Riquet de Bonrepos, a man of extraordinary force of character, bold yet prudent, enterprising and at the same time sagacious and patient, possessed by an inexhaustible capacity for work, and endowed with a faculty for business, as displayed in his organization of the labours of others, amounting to genius.  Yet Riquet, like Brindley, was for the most part self-taught, and was impelled by his instincts rather than by his education to enter upon the construction of canals, which eventually became the great business of his life.  Presuming that an account of the "French Brindley" will not be uninteresting to English readers, we append the following summary of Riquet's career in connection with the great enterprise in question.


    The union of the Mediterranean with the Atlantic by means of a navigable canal across the South of France had long formed the subject of much curious speculation.  The design of such a work will be found clearly sketched out in the 'Mémoires de Sully;' but the project seemed to be so difficult of execution, that no steps were taken to carry it into effect until it was vigorously taken in hand by Riquet in the reign of Louis XIV.  Though descended from a noble stock (the Arrighetti or Riquetti of Florence, to a branch of which Riquetti Marquis de Mirabeau belonged), Riquet, at the time he took the scheme in hand, was only a simple exciseman (homme de gabelle).  His place of residence was at the village of Bonrepos, situated near the foot of the Montague Noire, where he owned some property.

    France is there at about its narrowest part, and it had naturally occurred to those who speculated on the subject of a canal, that it would be of great public importance if by such means the large navigable river, the Garonne, which flowed into the Western Ocean, could be united to the smaller river, the Aude, which flowed into the Mediterranean.  Both had their sources in the Pyrenees, and in one part of their course the rivers were only about fourteen leagues apart.  The idea of joining them was thus perfectly simple.  The great difficulty was in the execution of the work, the levels being different, and the intervening country rocky and mountainous.  The deputies from Languedoc to the States General of Paris had at various times brought the subject of the proposed canal under the notice of the Government, and engineers were even sent into the locality to report as to the feasibility of the scheme; but the result of their examination only served to confirm the general impression which prevailed as to the impracticable character of the undertaking.

    The situation of Riquet's property at the Montague Noire probably had the effect of directing his attention to the subject of the proposed canal.  Though the king had made him a tax-gatherer, nature had made him a mathematician; and his studies having taken a practical turn, he gradually went from geometry to levelling and surveying.  His instruments and appliances were of the simplest sort, but they proved sufficient for his purpose.  The Chancellor d'Aguesseau, in the memoir of his father, who personally knew Riquet, says of him that "the only instrument he then possessed was a wretched compass of iron; and it was this, with very little instruction and assistance, that led him, guided mainly by his powerful natural instinct, which often avails more than science, to form the daring conception of uniting the Ocean with the Mediterranean." [p.303-1]

    He carefully examined the course of the streams in his neighbourhood, trying to find out some practicable method of uniting the Garonne and the Aude, but more especially some means of supplying the upper levels of the Canal which he had in his mind's eye with sufficient water for purposes of navigation.  With those objects he made many surveys of the adjacent country, until he knew almost every foot of the ground for thirty miles round.  In the mean time he hired one Pierre, the son of a well-sinker of Revel, to dig a number of experimental little canals under his direction, in his gardens at Bonrepos, where they are still to be seen.  These miniature works included conduits, sluices, locks, and even a model tunnel through a hill.

    At length, in the year 1662, he brought his plans under the notice of the famous Minister Colbert.  Addressing him from the village of Bonrepos, Riquet said, "You will be surprised that I should address you on a matter about which I might be supposed to know nothing, and that an exciseman should mix himself up with river surveying.  But you will excuse my presumption when I inform you that it is by the order of the Archbishop of Toulouse that I write to you." [p.303-2]  He then proceeded to state that, having made a particular study of the subject, he had formed definite plans for carrying into effect the proposed canal, of which he enclosed a description, though in a very imperfect form; "for," he added, "not having learnt Greek nor Latin, and scarce knowing how to speak French, it is not possible for me to explain myself without stammering."  Pointing out the great advantages to the nation of the proposed canal, the time and the money that would be saved by enabling French ships to avoid the long voyage between the west coast and the Mediterranean by the Straits of Gibraltar, while the resources of the rich districts of Languedoc and Guienne would be freely opened up to the operations of commerce, Riquet concluded by stating that when he had the pleasure of learning that the project met with the general approval of the Minister, he would send him the details of his plans, the number of locks it would be necessary to provide, together with his calculations of the exact length, breadth, depth, and other particulars of the proposed canal.

    Colbert, at that time Controller-General of Finance, was actively engaged in opening up new sources of wealth to France, and Riquet's plan at once attracted his attention and excited his admiration.  He lost no time in bringing it under the notice of Louis XIV., whose mind was impressed by all undertakings which bore upon them the stamp of greatness.  The king saw that Riquet's enterprise, if carried out, was calculated to add to the glory of his reign; and he resolved to assist it by all the means in his power.  By his order, a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the scheme, examine on the spot the direction of the proposed navigation, and report the result.

    Meanwhile Riquet was not idle.  He walked over the entire line of the intended canal several times, correcting, amending, and perfecting the details of his plans with every possible care.  "I have gone everywhere, all over the ground," he wrote to the Archbishop, "with level, compass, and measuring line, so that I am perfectly acquainted with the route, the various lengths, the locks that will be required, the nature of the soil, whether rock or pasture, the elevations, and the number of hills along the line of navigation.  In a word, my Lord, I am ignorant of no point of detail in the project, and the plan which I am prepared to submit will be faithful, being made on the ground, and with full knowledge of the subject."  His survey finished, Riquet proceeded to Paris to see Colbert, to whom he was introduced by his friend the Archbishop; and after many conferences, Riquet returned to Languedoc to prepare for the inspection of the proposed line of navigation by the Commission.  Their labours extended over two months, beginning at Toulouse and ending at Beziers. [p.305]  The result of the investigation was favourable to Riquet's plan, which was pronounced practicable, with certain modifications, more particularly as respected the water-supply; and the Commissioners further recommended the extension of the proposed canal to a harbour at Cette.

    A long correspondence ensued between Riquet and Colbert as to the details of the scheme.  Riquet disputed the conclusions of the Commissioners as to the alleged difficulty of constructing the works near Pierre de Naurouse intended for the supply of water to the canal; and, to show his confidence in his own plans, he boldly offered to construct the conduit there at his own risk and cost: "in undertaking to do which," said he, "I risk both honour and goods; for if I fail in satisfactorily performing the work, I shall pass for a mere visionary, and at the same time lose a considerable sum of money."  So much difference of opinion prevailed upon this point,—the men of science alleging the inadequacy of Riquet's plans, and Riquet himself urging their perfect sufficiency,—that Colbert resolved that until this point was decided, no further step should be taken to authorize the canal itself to be proceeded with.

    But in order that Riquet might have an opportunity of vindicating the soundness of his plans, and not improbably with a view to test his practical ability to carry out the larger works of excavation and construction, letters patent were issued entrusting him to proceed with the necessary trench or conduit to enable some experience to be obtained of the inclination of the ground and the probability or otherwise of obtaining an adequate supply of water for the navigation.

    Riquet, with his usual promptitude, immediately began the execution of this work.  The rapidity with which he proceeded surprised everybody; and the conduit was very speedily finished to the entire satisfaction of the Government inspectors.  Having given this proof of his practical skill, and demonstrated the possibility of supplying sufficient water to the summit level, the king determined on authorizing Riquet to proceed with the construction of the canal.

    The question of providing the requisite money for the purpose formed the next important subject of consideration.  As the province of Languedoc would derive the principal advantages from the navigation being opened out, it was proposed at the assembly of the States, in 1665, that that province should contribute a certain proportion of the cost, on condition that the king should provide the remainder.  Notwithstanding, however, the great advantages to the province of the construction of the canal, the States of Languedoc would not untie their purse-strings; and they declared (26th February, 1666) that they would neither then nor thereafter contribute towards its cost.  On the other hand, the royal treasury had become almost exhausted, and any new expense could with difficulty be borne by it.

    Riquet's demonstration of the possibility of uniting the Mediterranean with the ocean had therefore thus far been in vain.  But he had fairly committed himself to the enterprise, and he was not the man now to turn back.  Having had the courage to conceive the design, he urged the Government to allow the work to proceed; and he suggested a method by which in his opinion the means might be provided without unnecessarily burdening the public treasury.  He offered to construct the works upon the first division of the canal, from Toulouse to Trebes near the river Aude, within a period of eight years, for the sum of 3,630,000 livres; and in payment of this sum he proposed to the king that he should grant him the sole farming of the taxes in Languedoc, Roussillon, Conflans, and Cerdagne during six years, on the same terms at which they were then held, and also that the offices of Controllers of peasants'-tax (des tailles), of tradesmen's-tax, and of rights over the salt-works of Pecais, should at the same time be assigned to him.  This was a bold offer; but the Council of State accepted it, and the necessary legal powers were accordingly granted to Riquet, upon which measures were taken to enable him to proceed with the works.

    The plans which Riquet had prepared were revised and settled by M. Cavalier, the Commissaire-Général of Fortifications, who acted on behalf of the king.  Riquet's plans had been prepared with such care, that in his specification Cavalier for the most part adopted them, only altering the dimensions, [p.306] which were somewhat increased.  The King's Engineer was careful not to define too rigidly the manner in which the works were to be carried out.  He did not even trace a definite line to be followed, but merely marked the general limits within which the canal was to run.  He foresaw that, with experience, many modifications might be found necessary in the progress of the works, and he preferred leaving the management of the details as much as possible to the skill and judgment of the contracting engineer. [p.307]

    Riquet had now to display his genius in a new sphere.  Hitherto he had exhibited himself mainly as a designer; he had drawn plans, advocated and explained them to others, and transacted the part of a diplomatist in getting them adopted.  Though his execution of the conduit near Pierre de Naurouse had enabled him to give satisfactory proofs of his engineering skill, the work he was now about to enter upon was of a much more formidable character, calling for the exercise of a varied class of practical qualities.  He had to direct the labours of a very large number of men, to select the most suitable persons to superintend their various operations, and meanwhile to give his continuous attention to the carrying out of his plans, which, as in the case of all great undertakings, required constant modification according to the many unforeseen circumstances which from time to time occurred in the course of their execution.

    Anxious to proceed with the greatest despatch, Riquet began with the organization of his staff of workmen and superintendents.  He divided them into a number of distinct groups, appointing a chef d'attelier to each, under whom were five brigadiers, each brigadier having the direction of fifty workmen.  These groups were again combined in departments, a controller-general being appointed over each, and under him were travelling controllers, who received the reports of the brigadiers and chefs d'atteliers, and thus effectually maintained and concentrated the operations of the workpeople, who sometimes numbered from eleven to twelve thousand.

    Before Riquet had proceeded far with his enterprise, he experienced a difficulty which has proved the bane of many a grand scheme—want of money!  The produce of the taxes above referred to was not sufficient to enable him to push on the works with vigour; but, rather than they should be delayed, he himself incurred heavy debts, selling or mortgaging all his available property to raise the requisite means.  Notwithstanding the early decision of the States of Languedoc not to contribute towards the cost of constructing the canal, Riquet again and again made urgent appeals to them for help, but for some time in vain.  Several grants had been made from the royal treasury to enable the contract to proceed, but Louis XIV. having become engaged in one of his expensive wars, was no longer able to contribute; and Riquet, having come to the end of his own resources, began to fear lest the canal works should be brought to a complete standstill.

    Colbert continued his fast friend and supporter, and took the most lively interest in the prosecution of the undertaking.  His name was indeed a tower of strength, and his influence was in itself equal to a large capital.  Of this Riquet on one occasion made very adroit use, for the purpose of inducing the States of Languedoc at length to take part in his enterprise.  It is said that, in order to impress upon their minds the confidence reposed in him by the great Minister, and thus to enhance his credit with them, he persuaded Colbert to allow him to try the following ruse.  He asked to be permitted to enter his cabinet while he was engaged with the farmers-general of the province in discussing the renewal of their leases.  Colbert consented; and while thus occupied, Riquet turned the key of the room-door, and entered and sat down, without saying a word to any one, and without any one speaking to him.  The farmers-general looked at Riquet, then at the Minister, who took no heed of him, and then at each other.  Strange that Colbert should place such confidence in Riquet as to permit him thus to enter his private chamber at pleasure!  A second meeting of the same kind took place, and again Riquet entered as before.  After the interview was over, the farmers spoke to Riquet of his canal, and its great utility; and ended by offering to lend him 200,000 livres.  Riquet, however, listened to the proposal very coolly, without accepting it.  At the end of a third interview with the Minister, at which Riquet was present as before, the farmers raised their terms, and offered to lend him 500,000 livres.  Riquet replied that he could do nothing without the sanction of the Minister; and re-entering the cabinet of Colbert, he related to him what had passed.  The Minister was very much amused at Riquet's adroitness, and readily gave his sanction to the proposed loan. [p.308]

    This advance proved the beginning of a series of loans of great magnitude advanced to Riquet by the States of Languedoc to enable him to complete the canal.  Though they were slow to believe in the practicability of the scheme, and for some time regarded it as impossible, their views changed when they saw the first part of the canal completed from Toulouse to Trebes, and opened for the purposes of navigation.  They were then ready to recognize its great public uses, and from that time forward they exerted themselves to raise the necessary money to enable it to be completed to its junction with the Mediterranean at the port of Cette.

    But Riquet had numerous difficulties to encounter besides those arising from want of money in the course of his undertaking.  The prosecution of the works involved constant anxiety and unremitting labour.  One of his greatest troubles was the conciliation of the owners of the land through which the canal passed, many of whom were extremely hostile to the enterprise, and feared that it would inflict irreparable injury upon their property.  Worse than all was the malice, misrepresentation, and calumny that pursued him.  He was denounced as an impostor, attempting to do an impossible thing; he was wasting public money upon a work which, even if finished, could never be of any use.  Before he began the canal, it was predicted that water enough could never be collected to supply the summit level; and after that difficulty had been satisfactorily solved, local detraction was directed against the works.  "Indeed," writes M. de Froidour to M. de Barillon, "the people of the locality are so agreed in decrying them that the wonder is to find a person who has not arrived at the foregone conclusion that this enterprise can never succeed." [p.309]

    Notwithstanding the alleged uselessness of the canal, the insufficiency of the works, and the prophecies of its failure even if completed, Riquet bravely bore up, amidst toil, and disappointments, and bodily suffering.  He never lost hope or courage, but persevered through all.  Writing to Colbert in April, 1667, he said, "I now know the strong as well as the weak points of my work better than I before knew them; and I can assure you in all truth that it would not be easy to imagine a grander or more useful undertaking; I have all the water-supply that I require, and the invention of my reservoirs will furnish me during summer with sufficient to render the navigation perpetual."

    At another time he wrote to Colbert:—"My enterprise is the dearest of my offspring: I look chiefly to the glory of it, and your satisfaction, not my profit; for though I wish to leave the honour to my children, I have no ambition to leave them great wealth."  And again—"My object is not to enrich myself, but to accomplish a useful work, and prove the soundness of my design, which most people have hitherto regarded as impossible."

    About the beginning of 1670, after three years' labour, part of the canal was opened, from Toulouse to Duperier, and used for the transport of materials.  This was a comparatively easy section of the undertaking.  But Riquet was desirous of exhibiting the practical uses of the canal at the earliest possible period, not only for the purpose of mitigating the popular opposition, but of encouraging the king, Colbert, and the States-General, to support him with the necessary means to complete the remainder of the navigation from Trebes to Cette.  Two years later, a further portion was finished and opened for public traffic.  The Archbishop embarked at Naurouse, and sailed along the new canal down to Toulouse.  Four large barques ascended from the Garonne to Naurouse, and returned freighted with provisions and merchandise.  The merchants of Gaillac, who had before been unable to send their wines to Bordeaux for sale, were now enabled to do so, and they established a packet-boat which regularly went between Naurouse and Toulouse three times a week.

    The remaining portions of the canal were in full progress.  The basins, the conduits, the locks, were all well advanced as far as Castelnaudary, and Riquet was vigorously grappling with and successively overcoming the great difficulties which occurred in the construction of the works between that place and the Mediterranean.  Not the least among the number of his obstructions were the quarrels between the two Commissioners appointed by the king on the one hand, and by the States of Languedoc on the other, to superintend the execution of the undertaking.  Each represented particular local interests, and whilst one desired to keep the canal to the north, the other wished it to proceed more to the south by way of Narbonne.  Between their contentions, Riquet had sometimes a difficult course to steer.  Thus, at Malpas, where it was necessary to carry the canal by a tunnel under the hill of Enserune, both Commissioners pronounced the work to be impracticable, because the hill appeared to consist chiefly of a sandy stuff permeable to water, and apt to give way.  But they were far from agreed as to the remedy, each urging upon Riquet the adoption of an opposite course, one that he should carry the canal northward by Maureillan, the other that he should carry it southward by Nissan and Vendres.  They both wrote to Colbert, pointing out that Riquet's plan could never be carried out; that the scheme threatened to prove a total failure, because his work had run its head into a sand-hill, at a point where it had a lake on each side of it, from twenty-five to thirty feet below its level.  In the mean time the Commissioners gave Riquet orders to suspend the further prosecution of the works.

    Riquet put the orders in his pocket, and coolly resolved to carry out his own plan.  To conceal his design, he pretended to abandon the trench leading to the mountain, and sent the workmen to that part of the canal which lay between Beziers and Agde.  He then privily set a number of excavators to work upon the mountain-side near Malpas, and in six days he had vanquished the "impossibility," and cut a clear passage through it for his canal!  When the work was finished, he sent invitations to the Cardinal de Bonzy and to the two Commissioners to come and inspect what he had done.  Greatly to their surprise, he led them right through his tunnel, lit up with flambeaux; and his triumph was complete.

    It was not so easy to overcome the constantly recurring difficulties occasioned by the want of money.  Nothing but money would satisfy his thousands of workmen and work-women (for of the latter about six hundred were employed), and he was often put to the greatest straits for want of it.  We find him, in 1675, writing to Colbert in very urgent terms.  Unless supplied with funds, he represented that it would be impossible for him to go on.  "People tell me," said he, "that I am only digging a canal in which to drown myself and my family."  The king ordered a remittance to be sent to Riquet, but it was insufficient for his purposes.  The costly harbour works at Cette were now in full progress, absorbing a great deal of money; and Riquet's creditors grew more and more clamorous.  Colbert urged the States of Languedoc to give him more substantial help, and they complied so far as to vote him a loan of 300,000 livres.  But this money was only to be advanced at different and remote periods.  Thus it did little to help him either in credit or in funds.  "I am doing everything that is possible," he again wrote to Colbert, on the 21st of January, 1679, "to find persons that will lend me money to enable me to finish the canal in the course of the present year.  But I am so overwhelmed with debt, that nobody will trust me, so that I am under the necessity of again having recourse to you, and informing you of my needs; you will see what they are by the enclosed statement; I venture to ask that you will state your wishes alongside of each item, so that I may be put in a position to bring my enterprise to a successful termination: it is my passion, and I shall be in despair if I cannot finish it, Time flies; and once lost, it can never be recovered."

    Riquet had indeed reason to be apprehensive that he might not live to complete his work.  The strain upon his mind and body for the fifteen years during which the canal was in progress had been very great, and he had more than one serious attack of illness.  But still the enterprise went forward.  The organization established by him was so perfect that his occasional absence from this cause was scarcely felt; besides, his eldest son was now in a manner competent to supply his place.

    The third portion of the undertaking, consisting of the harbour and sea entrance to the canal at Cette, was being vigorously pushed on, and the canal was almost ready for opening throughout from one end of it to the other, when, worn out by toil and disease, Riquet breathed his last, without having the satisfaction of seeing his glorious work brought to completion.  The canal was finished under the superintendence of his son, and was opened for public traffic about six months after Riquet's death.

    The total cost of the canal was about sixteen million livres, equal to £1,320,000 sterling.  Riquet sank all his own means in it, and when he died it was found that his debts amounted to more than two million livres.  To defray them, his representatives sold the principal part of the property he held in the concern, and it was not until the year 1724, forty years after the navigation had been opened, that it began to yield a revenue to Riquet's heirs.

    As in the case of many other great works, Riquet's merits have not been left undisputed.  Thirty years after his death, a claim was set up on behalf of one of his assistants, M. Andreossy, as having been the designer of the canal; while, more recently, a like claim has been made on behalf of M. Cavalier, the king's engineer.  Although all contemporary witnesses had died before Riquet's merits, till then undisputed, were thus called in question, happily the Archives of the canal as well as the Colbert correspondence survive to prove that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, Riquet was not only the inventor and the designer, but the constructor, of the Grand Canal of Languedoc.

    It must, however, be admitted that the genius of this great engineer has received but slight recognition among his own countrymen, there not being a single tolerable memoir of Riquet to be found in the whole range of French literature.  To this, however, it might be rejoined, that only a few years since the same thing might have been said of our own Brindley.


Canal du Midi in Southern France.
Picture Wikipedia.




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