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13 November 2014

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You are in: Stoke & Staffordshire > History > Local Heroes > James Brindley

Canals - once the motorways of Britain

Canals - once the motorways of Britain

James Brindley

James Brindley was raised in Leek and went on to become the greatest canal engineer of his time. Gordon Brindley, a direct descendant, tells the story of his famous ancestor...

I nominate James Brindley, Canal engineer, as a "Great Briton". Anyone who was called England's first engineer and 'father of English canals' merits respect. Despite being born in poor circumstances, he was a self motivator and innovator who commanded respect for his expertise.

James was born 1716 in very humble circumstances at Tunstead, Derbyshire. However, his family were from the Leek area of Staffordshire and they returned there when James was about 8 yrs old.

He was apprenticed to Abraham Bennett, a wheelwright, whose workshop at Sutton near Macclesfield still stands (though it is now a garage attached to a private house).

Early signs of greatness

James learnt quickly and by 19 yrs of age was surpassing all expectations, not only repairing machinery, but innovating improvements and inventing new mechanisms.

One weekend, he walked all the way to Manchester (about 27 miles) just to study a particular machine, before walking back to be at work on the Monday morning.


He built, or rebuilt, the water mill at Leek whose 250th anniversary we celebrated 20th July 2003.

His fame was guaranteed when the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned him as his Canal Engineer.

People such as Darwin, The Duke of Bridgewater and Parliamentary commissioners were all impressed by the fact that his ordinary appearance belied his great intelligence and the "lucidity of his explanations".

Indeed it was said that "Brindley handled rocks as easily as you would plum pies", and "all listened with amazement."

Reading and writing

(Contrary to some reports, James could read and write perfectly well - his notebook in the Leek Museum testifies to a confident and clear writing style.)

A list of his ventures and inventions, including a steam engine, would take too long here but I might mention his Droitwich Canal, which was a favourite of his, where it has recently been discovered by the Droitwich Canal Trust Ltd that he invented several hitherto unsuspected devices, including self locking gates, etc.

To quote Charles Hadfield in 'British Canals', 1950: "This man, the greatest of the canal engineers."

Incidentally, I have recently discovered that he trained his nephew - also a James Brindley - who went on the build one of the earliest canals in America, the Conewago Canal.

What do you think about Staffordshire's heroes and heroines?

If you've got something to say about Brindley, or any of our other Local Heroes, check out our message board by clicking on the link below. Here are some of the messages we've already had about James Brindley...

To Helen Quicke
Hi Helen,
Tell your daughter to go to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square in London where she will find a portrait of James Brindley.

To Liana Brindley: Related to James Brindley
My name is Gordon Brindley, a descendent of James' Brindley's brother JOSEPH. I'd be pleased if we could exchange our family trees. Best wishes
Gordon Brindley
Cheadle, Cheshire, SK8 4PG

John Bennett
Hi, I am supposed to be related to John Bennett the illegitimate son of James Brindley.
It would appear that a Thomas Bennett born in 1692 married Hannah Lovatt in 1716. They lived in what was then Rotten Row (now High St), Burslem.
Their second daughter Mary aged 33 had a liaison with James Brindley and gave birth to John Bennett who was baptised on 31 August 1760.
John Bennett was the g.g.grandfather of Arnold Bennett, writer. Somehow there is a link to me.
The likely surnames are Bradley, Hanson, Salt or Ward. My g.g.grandmother was a Rosanna SALT (b.1829)who married a WARD. Their daughter Annie married Harry BRADLEY in 1899. Any possible leads would be greatly received.
Claire Borys
Sydney, Australia

James brindley
Hi my name is Nicole Brindley. I also believe that I am a decendant of John Brindley. I was originally told that James Brindley was my GGG Grandfather. However he only had two daughters
I have since found out that he had an illigitimate son John Bennett.

Funnily enough when I logged on to this page there is an article about Arnold Bennett who I don't know if you are aware is a decendant of James Brindleys son John.
Anyway If you want to post here I would love to find out more.
I have tried in the past to do a family tree but hit brick walls as I can't find out who John Bennetts mother was. There are other people on the internet trying to find out the same thing.
Nicole Brindley
Chorley Lancashire

Great great great granddaughter
Hello. My name is Liana. My father is John Brindley and we're decendents of the great canal pioneer James Brindley. My father was born in Buxton, Derbyshire. I would be most interested in meeting more of my relatives.
Liana Brindley

To helen...
I am the sister of Gordon Brindley (above) and as descendents too, we would love to make contact with you directly.

Just to let you know that apart from the mill, you can still view James's home (Lowe Hill Farm) which stands close to one of the original family homes (Wyldegoose House) just outside of Leek.
Also his workshop still stands, and there is his grave and those of his parents still in evidence etc.
My brother is taking part in a TV documentary later this year and also wrote a book on the history of the Brindley family. He is in touch with other Australian family members as well. Regards,
Yvonne Long
Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Did you know that there is a restaurant named "Brindleys"? I'm sure it's named after the great man as it stands on the canalside at Lock 57 on the trent & Mersey at Hassall Green.

It's in an 18th century building too!

James Brindley's Nephew
As mentioned here, Mr Brindley's book details the fascinating discovery that his nephew (having trained under James)went on to become one of America's first leading civil engineers. He was mentored by George Washington and through his canal work, was instrumental in opening up many interior trade routes on the east coast to towns such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. Often overcoming major natural obstacles with engineering genius. Also named James Brindley, he too, is now getting the recognition he so rightly deserves in American engineering circles and the discovery is causing much interest both sides of the Atlantic.
Yvonne Long
Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Great Brindley
Brindley's canals still stand as a lasting memorial to his genius.

Not only was he largely responsible for engineering the Trent and Mersey and Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canals, he was also in great demand for other waterways during the 'Canal Mania' period. Brindley's Harecastle Tunnel, nears Kidsgrove, which was almost three thousand yards long, became the country's first ever canal tunnel.

A letter written to the London papers in 1767 demonstrates just what an achievement the tunnel was (remember this was before the days of dynamite, picks and shovels were the main tools of the navvies):
Extract from the letter ..."Gentlemen come to view our eighth wonder of the world, the subterraneous navigation, which is cutting by the great Mr. Brindley, who handles rocks as easily as you would plum-pies, and makes the four elements subservient to his will...When he speaks, all ears listen, and every mind is filled with wonder, at the things he pronounces to be practicalable..."

Sadly Brindley died when he was just 55, having caught pneumonia whilst surveying the line of the Caldon Canal. Exhaustion is believed to have played a part in his death.
He died at home at Turnhurst Hall and was buried in the churchyard at Newchapel.

Brindley truly deserves the accolade of being a Great Briton. More details about James Brindley can be found at steveb/biographies/brindley and on the Brindley Mill's website. The mill is in Leek.
Teresa Fuller

James Brindley
I am a direct descendent of James Brindley. My father is Brindley Lawson Bettington (1921-..).
James Brindley's daughter Suzannah married John Bettington.

Are there any places of interest regarding James Brindley's amazing canal work or his mills in or around London?
My daughter is in London till next week. She has had the pleasure of following lots of the canals, but she did not get to Leek to view the mill.
Helen Quicke
Perth. Western Australia

Can anyone help? Are there Brindley places of interest in London?

....Teresa writes: I'm afraid I can't think of anything in London. Really it's a case of visiting North Staffs and the Brindley Mill at Leek or looking at the canals themselves - Staffs and Worcs, Trent and Mersey etc.... all in the Midlands. Sorry. 

Brindley's family
Hi there! My mother Pamela is a Brindley, James was her Great Great Grandfather. Passed down to her were his tobacco jar and grandfather clock. She should also have some deeds but another family member took them. We are both very interested in finding out more of our family tree, I hear there are lots of us! Lucy x
Lucy Francis

James Brindley!
Hi I lived in Cullman, Alabama for 4 years & on visiting the local musuem (2 rooms) I found a display of Leek, Staffs. It was donated by the Brindley family who lived there and were related to James Brindley. I was interested by it as I am from Derbyshire & immediately recognised the pictures (the curator told me Leek was in Germany!!!).
She told me the Brindley family still have reunions there.
Now residing back in Derbyshire!

Helen: Tell your daughter to visit The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London, whilst she is visiting London. There she will be able to see a portrait of her famous ancestor James Brindley the canal engineer.
Sheila Clare
Bury St Edmunds

last updated: 10/12/2008 at 10:11
created: 07/04/2006

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