Canals - once the motorways of Britain
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
To Liana Brindley: Related to James Brindley
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.
Great great great granddaughter
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.
It's in an 18th century building too!
James Brindley's Nephew
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):
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.
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.
Are there any places of interest regarding James Brindley's amazing canal work or his mills in or around London?
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.
last updated: 10/12/2008 at 10:11