James Brindley (1716–72)

James Brindley was the leading British canal engineer in the early part of the Industrial Revolution. He was responsible for a network of waterways that became the arteries of Britain’s industrial regions and linked its principal navigable rivers – the Severn, the Trent, the Mersey and the Thames.

Brindley was from a farming family in Derbyshire. A 17 he was apprenticed to a wheelwright and millwright. He set up his own business in the Potteries district of Staffordshire to design and build mill machinery and watercourses. In 1752, he created an ingenious solution to flooding problems at a coal mine in Lancashire, using a tunnel with an inverted syphon and a waterwheel pump.

In 1759, he was appointed as assisting engineer for the scheme that began the great age of canals as the arteries to transport the fuel, raw materials and products of industrial Britain. This was the 66-km Bridgewater Canal, completed in 1761, which carried coal to Manchester. He designed a stone aqueduct 180-m long over the River Irwell that was a wonder of the age.

This success led to other canal schemes. He consulted on projects from the Scottish Highlands in the north to London in the south. Several canals made up his scheme to join the four great rivers of England, the ‘Grand Cross’. This project was led by landowners and industrialists and financed by shareholders. It included a canal from the Mersey estuary to the river Trent, the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal to the river Severn and the Oxford Canal to the Thames. His other individual waterways included the Birmingham, Coventry, Chesterfield and Droitwich canals. Among his innovative engineering features was the 2.6-km Harecastle tunnel.

Brindley became wealthy and invested in some of his canal schemes and a colliery. However, he died aged 56, when he was at the height of his career. Most of his projects were completed by his assistants or other engineers. He contributed to perhaps 600 km of waterways built from 1760 to the 1790s.

He can be seen as the ‘father’ of the English canal system. He was responsible for establishing the standard size of locks, which took ‘narrow boats’ roughly 2-m wide and 22-m long. He built in a cautious and economical style: he followed the contours of the landscape to reduce the earthworks and built low aqueducts, narrow tunnels and short bridges at right-angles to the canal. Water supply for his canals often proved insufficient for the enormous traffic they generated. Some of his canals were improved by the following generation of canal engineers, notably Thomas Telford.