Late great engineers: James Brindley - Eighteenth century canal building pioneer

One of icons of the Industrial Revolution era of canal construction, James Brindley’s enduring contribution to engineering was his development of the puddling technique.

A painting of James Brindley by F Parsons - Penta Springs Ltd Alamy Stock Photo


There can’t be many engineers to have their death broadcast in the local newspaper in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, but on 1 December 1772 the Chester Courant published an epitaph poem recalling the achievements of one of the major contributors to the birth of the ‘Canal Age’. While the anonymous verse lacks the lyrical grace of the great English poets of the day – Thomas Chatterton, Thomas Gray or Christopher Smart – it is fitting in that it gets the job done practically, properly and without fuss. ‘James Brindley lies among these rocks’, it begins before informing the reader that ‘he made canals, bridges and locks’. Towards the end of perhaps one of the only poems ever written to include the word ‘air-vessels’, we’re told that ‘there ne’er was paid such attention, as he did to navigation’.

That there were versifiers out there attempting to immortalise an English engineer with a roughly hewn ‘heroic sonnet’ – and that there were newspaper editors prepared to print their attempts – attests to the esteem in which the pioneer canal builders were held. Brindley’s name may be all but forgotten today, but in his heyday what the Canal & River Trust describes as the man behind the ‘first modern British canal’ was something of a celebrity, renowned for building 365 miles (587km) of canals in his lifetime as well as watermills. Brindley’s influential role in the rapid growth of narrow canal-building was such that almost a century later the most important of Victorian industrial historians Samuel Smiles called one of his many books on the subject James Brindley and the Early Engineers.

James Brindley was born in 1716 in the Derbyshire village of Tunstead. Most of what we know about Brindley’s early life comes from Smiles, who informs us that his father ‘neglected’ his children by ‘permitting them to grow up without education’ while his mother ‘did what she could to teach them what she knew, which was not much’. When the young James was 11, his father inherited a farm in Leek where his son was employed as a labourer and showed an interest in mechanical work. Smiles notes that ‘one of the things in which he took most delight when a boy, was to visit a neighbouring grist-mill and examine the water-wheels, cog-wheels, drum-wheels, and other attached machinery, until he could carry away the details in his head’. By the time he was 17, Brindley was apprenticed to the millwright (‘as yet the only engineers’) Abraham Bennett in Macclesfield. According to Smiles, Bennett ‘thought him slower than most lads, and even stupid’, but was useful for getting beer for the men, and who ‘only worked his way to dexterity through a succession of blunders’.

You must let me carry out the work in my own way

James Brindley (1716-1772)

Having completed his apprenticeship, Brindley set himself up as a wheelwright in Leek before expanding his business in 1750 by renting a millwright’s workshop in Burslem from Josiah Wedgwood’s family. Over the next decade he established a reputation for his skill with machinery, building engines for draining the Wet Earth Colliery at Clifton and for a silk mill in Congleton. These projects, and his 1758 involvement in surveying a proposed canal link between Liverpool and the Mersey, brought Brindley to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater who owned a coal mine in Worsley. The Duke was anxious to improve the efficiency of moving coal from his mine to his primary market Manchester, only a few miles away. At the time roads were so unreliable that coal could not be transported by wagon, but was instead taken by packhorse at a rate of only 3cwt (152kg) per animal journey. One of Bridgewater’s workers, John Gilbert pointed out that the same horse could pull more than a hundred times the load along a canal.

Cutting a ten-mile canal between Worsley Colliery and Manchester required parliamentary approval, leading Gilbert to engage Brindley to assist with demonstrating the engineering challenges such as the Barton Aqueduct to non-technical politicians. Famously, Brindley demonstrated the proposed construction by slicing a round of Cheshire cheese in half to represent two arches. Notorious for rarely committing his designs to paper, Brindley placed flat objects above and below the semi-circles to show the river and canal flow paths; much to the amusement of a scrutineer hired to review the project, who exclaimed to the duke: ‘I have often heard of castles in the air, but never before saw where one was to be erected’.

When asked by the parliamentary committee to explain the ‘puddle’ technique of waterproofing the aqueduct continually referred to in his evidence, Brindley ordered a mass of clay to be delivered to the committee room and formed it into a trough to show how it could be used as a sealant. ‘Thus it is’ said Brindley ‘that I form a watertight-trunk to carry water over rivers and valleys wherever they cross the path of the canal.’ From this point on ‘puddling’ became the standard option for lining canals and, from the mid-nineteenth century, earth-filled dams. According to industrial archaeologist Mike Nevell, England’s first navigable aqueduct was ‘one of the seven wonders of the canal age’. It was also a vital economic shot in the arm for the Midlands. As Smiles explains: ‘the cutting of the canal from Worsley to Manchester gave that town the immediate benefit of a cheap and abundant supply of coal; and when Watt’s steam-engine became the great power in manufactures, such supply became absolutely essential to its existence as a manufacturing town.’

In Navigable Waterways LRT Rolt states that the success of the Bridgewater Canal enhanced Brindley’s reputation, leading to further commissions to construct more canals. This phase of Brindley’s career started with the Runcorn extension to the Bridgewater canal that would connect that to his next major work, the Trent and Mersey Canal, that was partly brought about by the Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood’s desire to minimise stock breakages incurred during road transport. At just over 90 miles, and with 70 locks and five tunnels, the canal cost a colossal £130,000, and yet succeeded in reducing Wedgwood’s transportation overheads by a factor of 15. Understandably, Wedgwood’s biographer comments that the Trent and Mersey was at the time ‘the greatest civil engineering work built in Britain’.

Engraving of the Barton Aqueduct over the Irwell - World History Archive / Alamy

At Wedgwood’s invitation Brindley joined the Lunar Society, a circle of eminent figures of the Midlands Enlightenment who met monthly during the full moon, whose membership included engineers Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Samuel Galton. According to Jenny Uglow’s history of the society The Lunar Men, Brindley was now exchanging ideas with the leading intellectuals of the day, and in recognition of his canal-building successes had become ‘national hero, a model of how practical genius could triumph over low birth and near illiteracy’.

Brindley’s ultimate ambition was to see the whole of England connected by canals, linking the four great rivers – Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames – in his ‘Grand Cross’ scheme, of which he saw the Trent and Mersey waterway as the ‘Grant Trunk Canal’. In 1762 he records in his diary that he’d set about ‘raconitering’ the project. Although he went on to work on ten canals in his career and had surveyed the entirety of the potential system, he did not live to see it finished. While surveying a new branch of the Trent and Mersey canal, Brindley became drenched in a storm and retired to an inn to dry off. He soon became seriously ill, forcing his return home to Turnhurst, where he was attended by fellow Lunar man, the noted physician Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of evolutionary biologist Charles). Darwin diagnosed the engineer with diabetes, from which he never recovered, and died at the age of 56. ‘To the last he was full of projects and full of work’ observed Smiles, ‘and then the wheels of life came to a sudden stop, when he could work no longer.’ Or as his anonymous epitaph writer put it: ‘And, when too late, his Doctor found, water sent him to the Ground’.

The ever-colourful Smiles leaves us with an anecdote from Brindley’s deathbed. ‘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”.’