Construction of the Bridgewater Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The unique Bridgewater Canal, the first true industrial canal and the first canal to be dug from dry land and to have its own water supply, facilitated the movement of coal and other materials, aiding significantly in the development of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.

Summary of Event

Although not the first canal in Great Britain, the Bridgewater Canal is considered the most significant canal project because of its long-term impact on the British economy and on life in central Britain. During Roman times in Britain, several rivers were dammed and shaped to facilitate transport between isolated garrisons, although these garrisons were abandoned when the Roman Empire collapsed. [kw]Construction of the Bridgewater Canal (1759-1766) [kw]Canal, Construction of the Bridgewater (1759-1766) [kw]Bridgewater Canal, Construction of the (1759-1766) Bridgewater Canal, England Canals [g]England;1759-1766: Construction of the Bridgewater Canal[1560] [c]Architecture;1759-1766: Construction of the Bridgewater Canal[1560] [c]Transportation;1759-1766: Construction of the Bridgewater Canal[1560] [c]Business and labor;1759-1766: Construction of the Bridgewater Canal[1560] [c]Economics;1759-1766: Construction of the Bridgewater Canal[1560] [c]Science and technology;1759-1766: Construction of the Bridgewater Canal[1560] [c]Trade and commerce;1759-1766: Construction of the Bridgewater Canal[1560] Egerton, Francis Gilbert, John Brindley, James





During the Middle Ages, canal projects reemerged in England, following the same process of pooling water in dams to improve traffic on existing rivers. The best example of this effort was the Exeter Ship Canal, Exeter Ship Canal, England constructed between 1563 and 1566. Running 5 miles from Exeter to the mouth of the River Exe, the Exeter Ship Canal boasted the first system of locks ever installed in England. An even larger project, the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, Mersey and Irwell Navigation, England Transportation;industrial begun in 1720 and completed in 1740, connected Liverpool to the mouth of the Severn River, permitting boats bearing up to fifty tons of cargo to reach Manchester. In 1755, the Sankey Brook Navigation (later known as the St. Helen’s Canal) St. Helen’s Canal[Saint Helens Canal] connected St. Helen’s to the Severn. The St. Helen’s was a different type of canal. Instead of merely improving an existing river course, it used only a portion of the river, and instead of building expensive locks to make the river navigable, engineers cut a new course around potential trouble spots.

These canals, however, had several problems. Because they were based upon existing rivers, they did not necessarily proceed directly to their destinations; meandering rivers added unnecessary distance to travel. They were also vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather. Spring rains flooded the rivers, summer droughts made the rivers impassable, and winter ice stopped travel altogether. What shippers needed was an independent watercourse, a canal that did not rely upon an existing river route. Engineering;canals Engineers could build such a canal exactly where it was needed; they could regulate the water flow Water;regulation of flow to make it more consistent and reliable and speed goods directly to their destination. Such a transportation system would afford tidy profits; shippers would pay a toll to use such a route.

The advantages of these new types of canals were matched only by their potential cost. The earlier canals, using existing rivers, were relatively cheap because nature had done most of the digging for them. Digging a river-independent canal would require a huge labor force on a project that might take years to complete. Another problem facing the new canal was providing a reliable water supply to keep the canal filled.

The person who overcame these limitations was Francis Egerton, the third duke of Bridgewater. Egerton had left London in 1757 to concentrate on his financial dealings in the countryside, especially his coal Mining;coal mines near Worsley. These mines were not profitable for two reasons. First, the mines consumed huge sums of money simply to keep from flooding, with constant pumping and tunneling to keep the mines open. Second, Egerton had to pay fees to ship coal to market in Manchester, with the coal transported by packhorse to the River Irwell, where shippers charged exorbitant prices. After observing the St. Helen’s Canal, Egerton figured that a “purpose-dug” canal would solve both of his problems. By tunneling deep into his mines, he would make it possible for canal boats to enter the mines themselves for loading, removing the need for packhorses. The canal would also serve as a drainage system for the mines, providing a reliable source of canal water. Egerton would also avoid paying the high prices charged by the shippers on the River Irwell.

Originally, Egerton conceived a short canal that would connect his mines to the Mersey and Irwell Navigation. In 1759, he obtained permission from Parliament to begin construction. However, the managers of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, seeing the opportunity to make a sizable profit, announced that they would charge a high toll fee for Egerton to use their canal. Unwilling to negotiate, Egerton returned to Parliament in 1760 and received permission to extend his canal to Manchester.

To help construct the new canal, Egerton employed two brilliant men who made his vision a reality. The first hired was John Gilbert, who, as land agent, would design and engineer the tunnel system that would connect the canal to the mines and transfer the water into the canal system. To lift the canal boats to different levels of the mine, Gilbert constructed incline planes powered by water machinery (equipment that was still in use a century after Gilbert installed it). Egerton also hired James Brindley, a millwright by trade who took up the task of constructing the cross-country canal. Brindley proved to be a master of organization who surveyed the canal route, acquired material, hired workers, and supervised construction. Moreover, Brindley performed his duties twice, as two construction crews, one in Worsley and one in Manchester, worked simultaneously from their respective locations until they met “half way.” When completed, the canal stretched for 10 miles.

The masterpiece of Brindley’s design was the Barton Aqueduct. Barton Aqueduct Aqueducts The biggest physical obstacle to the Bridgewater Canal was the River Irwell Irwell River, England itself, so the canal had to be designed in such a way that it could cross the river. Instead of digging into the banks of the river, Brindley convinced Egerton he could elevate the canal over the river on an aqueduct, an idea that drew derision from many quarters. Members of Parliament were unconvinced of Brindley’s idea until he demonstrated for them his plan for mudding the interior of the aqueduct with clay to make it waterproof. Although critics called the aqueduct a “castle in the air,” Brindley had the last laugh. With the exception of a small leak on the aqueduct’s opening day, the canal remained watertight. The Barton Aqueduct, which became the symbol of the Bridgewater Canal, turned the canal into an elevated river that is 600 feet long, 36 feet wide, and flowing 30 feet above the River Irwell.

Although intended to save money, the canal nearly drove the duke into bankruptcy. It was not until he extended the canal past Manchester (1761-1766) and connected it to existing canals that toll revenues poured in, and the duke went from nearly broke to one of England’s richest men. Gilbert continued to supervise the coal mines at Worsley, but Brindley went into the canal-designing business full-time, overseeing the construction of several regional canals.


When the canal opened for business in 1761, its influence was immediate. The price of coal in Manchester plunged, triggering an industrial boom that transformed the English Midlands into the center of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial Revolution;canals The same canal that brought in coal shipped out the manufactured goods that made England the world’s leading industrial power. Seeing the benefits of the Bridgewater Canal, other canal projects began in earnest throughout England, and soon a web of canals connected the growing English economy. The canal system served England well until it was supplanted by the railroad in the nineteenth century. In the early twenty-first century, many of the canals still exist, but they are used more for weekend boating excursions than the hauling of coal.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boughey, Joseph. Hadfield’s British Canals. 8th ed. Stroud, England: Alan Sutton, 1994. An updated version of a book originally written by Charles Hadfield, a noted historian of the British canal system. Provides an overview of how canal engineering emerged from the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century, including information about the Francis Egerton and James Brindley.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freethy, Ron, and Marlene Freethy. The Bridgewater Canal. Bolton, England: Aurora, 1996. A study of the state of the canal in the late twentieth century, transformed from an industrial necessity to a historical and recreational entity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadfield, Charles. British Canals: An Illustrated History. London: Newton, Abbott, and Charles, 1966. A broad history of England’s canal-building boom, and the boom’s influence upon the English economy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karwatka, Dennis. “James Brindley and Early Canal Construction.” Tech Directions 63, no. 6 (January, 2004): 10. A tribute to Brindley and his engineering achievements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malet, Hugh. The Canal Duke: A Biography of Francis, Third Duke of Bridgewater. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1977. An outstanding biography of the duke of Bridgewater, concentrating on the years when the canal was constructed, but with some discussion of his later life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Cyril J. The Duke’s Cut: The Bridgewater Canal. Stroud, England: Tempus, 2002. Less a discussion of the construction of the canal than a study of its social and economic impact upon the British Midlands in the late eighteenth century.

Wedgwood Founds a Ceramics Firm

Invention of the Water Frame

Construction of the First Iron Bridge

First Steam Rolling Mill

Invention of the Flax Spinner

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

James Brindley. Bridgewater Canal, England Canals

Categories: History