Bridgewater Canal – The Early Days

While the technology of man-made canals for water transport has been around for thousands of years, the Bridgewater canal is arguably the most important in Britain’s industrial heritage.

The story of this canal revolves around the brilliant minds of  three men; Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, John Gilbert, and James Brindley.

The first piece of the jigsaw came in 1729, when a drainage sough was dug into the Worsley mine under the watchful eye of John Massey, the mine agent at that time, The Manchester coalfield was a wet one, and the sough was dug in such a way as to collect both water from the workings above it as well as being the central pump point for the workings below.

When the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater came into his estates in 1757, he immediately set about streamlining the operations and between him and Gilbert, the idea of the Bridgewater canal was born.

We may never know the proper order of what-came-first, but Gilbert and Egerton, already familiar with the concept of canal transport, had the logical realisation that a drainage sough in the mine could easily be used as a canal, allowing miners to shift far more weight than they would by wagon. At the same time, they decided the most logical form of transporting all this coal into the burgeoning city of Manchester was to do it by water, and at some point someone realised that if you connected the two waterways together then the mines would drain into the canal and solve the problem of where all this water was going to come from.

Work on the Worsley Navigable Level began fairly quickly, as the Duke was at liberty to build what he liked on his own land, but the main canal needed an Act of Parliament before anyone could wield a shovel. Egerton was a shrewd operator with intelligent advisers, and before he went to parliament he went to the public and gained their support. When his petition went to parliament, it was followed by two more from the populace in ardent support of the plan.

On the 23rd March, 1759, the Salford Canal Bill was given Royal assent, and the Bridgewater canal was begun.

Work began under the watchful eye of John Gilbert, but he was already overworked holding the fort when Egerton was away attending to canal politics, Ducal business and, occasionally, horse racing at Newmarket. When James “Schemer” Brindley came to his attention in July 1759 as a consultant engineer-millwright, Gilbert astutely recognised his value and promptly persuaded Egerton to bring him onto the team to ease the burden on the canal building front.

Typical of all young men, Egerton had grand plans and there is strong evidence to suggest that he was already eyeing up a canal connection to Liverpool and the Midlands long before he’d even got the first Act passed. Now flanked with 2 equally ambitious minds, a dramatic revision of the canal plan was made.

Originally intending to go from Worsley straight to Manchester, following roughly the same route as their competitors on the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, the canal was rerouted to go over the top of their completion at Barton and push into Cheshire aswell.

These three men, geniuses in their own right, made a formidable team. Brindley was a gifted orator when it came to his pet projects and he was dispatched to London to give evidence to parliament to get a new Act so they could carry out their scheme.

Despite stiff opposition from the Toll Road Commissioners, who were haemorrhaging money trying to keep the Stretford to Manchester road in vaguely order, the Act was passed with vehement support from the populace.

The Bridgewater canal officially opened on the 17th July 1761, when Egerton invited a number of suitable exalted guests to witness the flooding of the aqueduct.

The aqueduct became a tourist destination, with hundreds of people travelling from all over the country to witness a feat of engineering that would stand proud until it was dismantled with great difficulty to make way for the Manchester Ship Canal.

The formidable trio had turned their attention now to splitting the canal, sending an arm out into Cheshire and heading for Hempstones to catch the rich Liverpool trade, and it was here they face real opposition from the Old Navigation on river route. Having had no competition for nearly 40 years, they had become expensive and complacent; they hadn’t bothered to put in any wharves for the entire length of the waterway between Warrington and Manchester. Alongside them fought the landowners of some 11 miles worth of canal, and packhorse and coastal traders

Egerton went straight for his winning solution; gaining public support. As it stood, a cargo trying to get to Manchester from Liverpool by road could face charges of nearly 40 shillings a ton, while going by water on the Irwell was 12 shillings. Egerton announced he was prepared to charge 6 shillings a ton and his boats didn’t run the gauntlet of low water levels forcing an emergency transhipment by road.

His case was ultimately successful, and on the 24th March 1762 the Act received the necessary royal ascent.

His men were working hard. The waterway reached into Manchester, arriving at Cornbrook in September 1763 and Castlefield in 1765, and the cost of coal dropped dramatically. The sudden surfeit of cheap coal propelled Manchester’s burgeoning industrial strength into overdrive and coal couldn’t get into the city fast enough. Right from the start of his inheritance, Egerton gave strict instructions that in times of dearth priority of coal would be given to the poor, and now he reiterated it. There were days when rich men with wagons would be turned away while women coming to fill their aprons were welcomed with open arms.

Heading south-west, the canal arrived at Stretford where it would have to cross the Mersey in an aqueduct. A letter dated 1765 describes how some 400 men were working on a Sunday to finish the aqueduct, and it’s completion would allow the Worsley canal to join to the canal already dug out through Sale Moor. The canal builders had floating smithys and carpenters shops, and early forms split dredgers to move tones of spoil. It is around this point that another engineer, Thomas Morris, arrives on the scene; in one letter the writer chides another correspondent for forgetting to mention how Morris had “..improved on Mr Brindley and is now raising a valley to the Level by seven double water locks, which enable him to carry earth and stones as if by steps..”

It is also around here that Brindley’s involvement with the Bridgewater starts to tail off. Encouraged by the success of the Bridgewater canal, a scheme abandoned ten years previously to build a canal from the Mersey to the Trent was revived and Brindley would take the lead on it.

The Trent and Mersey canal would bring goods from the midlands up to the seagoing ports, and send coal back down. First proposed back in 1755, with Egerton’s brother in law, Gower, keeping a keen eye on it, it is highly probable that the intention was always there for the Bridgewater to join the Trent and Mersey whenever the time was ripe for the Trent and Mersey to be built. The Act was passed on the 14th May 1766, alongside the Act that would bring about the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal.

In this Act came the final piece of the jigsaw for the Bridgewater canal that we see today. While the plan had been for the canal to join the Mersey at Hempstones, this idea was abandoned in favour of the Bridgewater joining the Trent and Mersey at Preston Brook, with a branch to go down and join the Mersey at Runcorn.

In taking this route, Egerton entered into a war against an old enemy, Sir Richard Brooke, and the Battle Of Norton Priory began.