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Beside the main road in Wormhill is a stone drinking fountain inscribed ‘In memory of James Brindley, Canal Engineer, Born in this parish AD1716’. For a true pioneer in the field of canal engineering, this is a deceptively modest inscription.

Born in a cottage at Tunstead, the young Brindley had no schooling and followed his father into farm labouring. One of his jobs was driving corn wagons to a grist mill on the Wye, where his fascination with working machinery took root. Aged 17, he became apprenticed to a millwright, producing work of such a high standard that customers began asking for him by name. Working without the benefit of existing examples, his genius was in observation and planning. In 1742 Brindley set himself up in Leek as an engineer and millwright and 10 years later built Leek corn mill. Yet he remained illiterate, having to commit everything to memory, whether carrying out mill work or designing steam engines and pumping machinery for coal mines.

Tunnelled through the coal measures

A massive challenge was put to him by the Duke of Bridgewater, regarding the feasibility of constructing a canal to transport coal from the Duke’s estate at Worsley to Manchester. Brindley proposed a waterway incorporating sections tunnelled through the coal measures and to be carried over the river Irwell by an aqueduct. The scheme’s success ushered in a new era for Great Britain. Coal was key to the Industrial Revolution and transport costs were so dramatically reduced by Brindley’s canal that the price of coal at Manchester was halved.

In the 1770s that same design enabled the construction of a sough to drain Speedwell mine at Castleton in order to transport boats carrying lead ore and waste.

Bridgewater funded Brindley’s second major venture into inland navigation: the 24-mile Manchester/Liverpool Canal, built to traverse extensive marshland and several rivers including the Mersey. Within three years, Bridgewater had recovered his entire outlay.

The Schemer

Brindley went on to construct the Birmingham and Droitwich canals prior to his third major undertaking, the Grand Trunk – now the Trent & Mersey Canal – linking Liverpool, Hull and Bristol. The potter Josiah Wedgwood met all the costs, foreseeing enormous benefits to industry through a coast-to-coast transport network.

By this time Brindley was known, with great respect, as The Schemer. He never overcame his illiteracy and in spite of constructing several hundred miles of inland waterways, never became as wealthy as he deserved. He met an untimely death in September 1772, supposedly after a soaking while surveying a canal during a storm.

James Brindley is buried at Newchapel Church, Turnhurst. His birthplace in Tunstead fell into disrepair, the site marked by a plaque erected by Derbyshire Archaeological Society.

Julie Bunting

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