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Although he could write only with difficulty because of his lack of education, James Brindley was a man of genius in mechanical affairs. To him Great Britain owed the complex system of canals which contributed so much to the growth of industry


James BrindleyTHE term millwright, though now almost obsolete, denotes one who, in the early days of engineering, was the only practical engineer. With nothing but hardly-won experience to guide him, he had to take a turn now at the forge, now at the foot lathe, now at the carpenter’s bench. Such work would not be held to-clay as qualifying a man to practise as a civil engineer, certainly not to undertake work which had not been attempted before in Great Britain. Yet, it was to a millwright, James Brindley, that England really owed that system of canals which, before the coming of the railway, did so much to make her a great industrial nation.

James Brindley, born in 1716 at, Thornsett, Derbyshire, started life with no material advantages. Neglected by his father, who mismanaged a small farm, the boy grew up barely able to write or to work the simplest sums, and gained a poor livelihood as a farm labourer until he was seventeen. At that age Brindley, on his own initiative, became apprentice to a local millwright and at first it seemed as though he would be a failure in his chosen trade. His fellow workmen would teach him nothing and, when his industry and genius showed he was likely to outstrip them, they were openly jealous. His master even reproached him for making too good a job of his work, on the ground that this interfered with profitable repairs.

This same master was, later, entrusted with an order for the machinery for a paper mill, a task quite beyond his powers, for the completed machines would not even go together. Brindley, however, saved the situation by walking, one week-end, to another mill and studying similar machinery there. This meant a toilsome tramp of twenty-five miles in either direction; but the information that Brindley brought back, without a written note or sketch, enabled the machines to be redesigned, the defective parts scrapped and the job finished satisfactorily. After that Brindley was placed in charge of the shop and carried on until his master died. He then set up for himself at Leek, Staffordshire,

as a millwright, having reached the age of twenty-six.

In the years that followed he had a wide variety of work to undertake; for example, he was employed in erecting flint-grinding mills for the potters of the district and in driving his first tunnel. This tunnel, in connexion with the draining of a flooded coal mine, was carried for about 600 yards through the solid rock.

At its end the tunnel was expanded into a chamber 30 feet underground, in which chamber was placed a waterwheel driving the dewatering pumps. The tunnel tapped the waters of the River Irwell and a tailrace led the spent water back to the river at a lower level. The installation was wholly successful. This untaught man anticipated, by a century and a half and in principle at least, a scheme put into operation not long ago at Niagara Falls.

Brindley also effected great improvements in the silk mills at Macclesfield. Attracted by a Newcomen engine erected at Wolverhampton, he took up this branch of engineering also, so that by 1763, it is stated, he was able to erect, an outstanding example near Newcastle. By this time, however, Brindley had found a still more engrossing occupation, for he had been engaged, early in 1758, in surveying the route for a canal or, as it is entered in his notebook, “surveying the novogation”. This illiterate entry, typical as it is, does less than justice to Brindley. His great mind could, without the help of drawings or extensive notes, visualize a complex scheme in all its details and with all its attendant calculations.

The canal was built for the Duke of Bridgewater, from Worsley (Lancs) to Manchester, and it was designed to cross the River Irwell at Barton. Carrying a canal across a river was in those days considered a fantastic notion and the plan excited much derision. Yet the canal and the aqueduct were built. Finished in 1761, it remained in use for over 130 years, when that part of the River Irwell became part of the Manchester Ship Canal and Brindley’s work made room for the swinging aqueduct described in the article “Britain's Biggest Ship Canal”.

It is difficult for the modern reader to realize what the construction of the canal meant. Roads, as we know them, did not exist, and coal, in the same way as nearly every other necessity, was carried by pack horse. The poor suffered much hardship in winter. Canals brought the coal from the mines and greatly lowered its price, and the facilities they provided for the transport of cotton, along with the development of the steam engine, “made” Manchester and other towns. Many of the canals were built by Brindley, who was responsible for nearly 400 miles in all. with their locks, extensive tunnels, aqueducts and embankments. The full story of Brindley’s work is amazing considering the appliances of his day and it illustrates well the great driving force of single-minded purpose even when its possessor is handicapped throughout life by what our pedagogic generation would call lack of education. On September 30, 1772, Brindley died in harness, for it is recorded that even on his deathbed he was appealed to for advice on canal construction.

[From part 21, published 20 July 1937]

You can read more on “Britain’s Biggest Ship Canal”, “Germany’s Overland Canal” and “Lifting Span and Swing Bridges” on this website.

You can read more on “The Manchester Ship Canal” in Shipping Wonders of the World

James Brindley