Francis Egerton (1736–1803)

The achievements of the third Duke of Bridgewater were summarised in 1805 by Thomas Telford who called him "the model and root of the canal navigation of England … by his exertions and example (he) turned a great portion of British talent and capital into a direction which has in a few years pervaded and improved the whole kingdom and been a principal means of extending its commerce and manufactures".

Francis Egerton was one of 11 children, and unexpectedly succeeded his elder brother to the dukedom, after his death in the same year as that of their father. His interests as a young man were in gaming and horse-racing, but during his Grand Tour in 1753-55 he diverted from the usual routes from Paris towards Italy to visit the Canal du Midi in Languedoc, and was impressed by it.

He gave up London society in 1759 after the breaking of an engagement, and spent much of his subsequent life developing the mining resources of the family estate at Worsley near Manchester. Under his auspices a canal, 8 km long, completed in 1761, was built from Worsley, where it connected with navigable levels through underground coal workings, to Castlefields in Manchester. It was extended to the River Mersey at Runcorn in 1772, and the duke was heavily involved in the promotion of many other canals. The construction of the Bridgewater Canal was undertaken by John Gilbert, the duke`s agent, and James Brindley, (1716-72), the millwright turned civil engineer, who was to be responsible for the routes of many more canals. It crossed the river at Barton on a masonry aqueduct that was replaced with a swinging aqueduct when the Manchester Ship Canal was built in 1893. The aqueduct and the coal workings, which were served by a 73 km underground canal system of waterways on which there was an inclined plane of 1795-6, were visited by many people from overseas, amongst them Jean Jacques Rousseau.

The Bridgewater Canal was not the first in Europe, nor even the first in Great Britain, but it set important precedents. In a British context, the legislation that permitted its construction set a pattern for the compulsory purchase of land for transport routes that was subsequently to enable the construction of other canals, railways and roads. In a construction history context the Barton Aqueduct demonstrated that canals could be built across the grain of the country, and could be more than navigable channels alongside rivers.

In a broader international context Bridgewater showed the potential for artificial waterways to stimulate economic growth, and the canals built in Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere in subsequent decades were directly inspired by the precedents he set. He declared that "a navigation should have coals at the head of it", and while they were used for the distribution of shop goods, of agricultural produce, and for other purposes, the prime purpose of the canals of the Industrial Revolution period throughout Europe was to carry coal.