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James Brindley - An Unsung Peak Hero

The metal plaque recording Brindley’s birthplace


In May 2009 the Post Office produced a First Day Cover featuring Peak District hero James Brindley, or perhaps that should be often unsung hero.  Although famous in his time, Brindley’s star has faded over the years, but the new stamp was perhaps evidence that his contribution to his nation’s history is once again being recognised. 

A stone marker marks the spot where Brindley was born in Tunstead

Brindley’s special skill was an almost supernatural understanding of how to control water.  It was said of him in later life that he could estimate the fall of a brook just by looking at it, and he had a genius for understanding how water flowed underground in flooded mines.  It was in controlling water above ground however that he was to make his name.  The citation on his First Day Cover credits this modest Peak District pioneer with discovering ‘puddling’, the art of making a canal watertight with clay, but this is to undersell his achievements.  He was a daring, ambitious man who was to become known, on his early death, as ‘The Father of the Canals’.

James Brindley 1716-1772

Born in a modest croft in Tunstead near Wormhill, a couple of miles east of Buxton, Brindley first acquired these skills playing in the brooks around his home in the Peaks.  At the turn of the eighteenth century Wormhill was described as a hamlet with 29 houses and a chapel.  Tunstead was appreciably smaller.  As he got older, he was packed off to Sutton Lane Ends just outside Macclesfield to become an apprentice millwright, where he honed his skills further watching the water in the river outside his master’s workshop.  From here, he ventured south to Leek, where the Brindley Mill, where he first set up on his own, is these days open as a visitor’s attraction (www.brindleymill.net).

Leek Mill, where Brindley first set up on his own

Brindley’s first canal was the Bridgewater, joining the coal mines at Worsley in Cheshire to the growing cotton town of Manchester, but his greatest achievement was undoubtedly the instigation of the Trent and Mersey Canal, the first instalment of his magnificent vision to create a ‘Grand Cross’ linking the country’s four great seaports of London, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull, with the growing manufacturing centre of Birmingham in the middle.  In time, this was to provide the framework for the country’s first safe and reliable national transport system, with subsidiary canals all feeding into this cross linking smaller centres to the main system.  In so doing, Brindley would relish solving problems involving water that others thought impossible, including carrying it over gaps in the landscape using aqueducts (described in his time as ‘rivers in the sky’) and up and down hills, using his ‘invention’ of the pound lock.  No problem was too small for this modest, unassuming, Peak District son.

A modest stone plaque above what is now a garage records Brindley’s time in Sutton

It was perhaps fitting, that it was in surveying the Caldon Canal, an arm designed to link his old home of Leek to the Trent and Mersey, on the edge of the Peaks that had formed him, that, in 1772, Brindley was to catch a chill that was to ultimately lead to his death, at the age of 56.  He died having set a number of schemes running, few of which he actually saw through to fruition.  His legacy was secure however.  He had demonstrated the art of the possible and, in being free with his knowledge, left a coterie of followers capable of completing his vision.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Coal and other raw materials could reach industry and finished goods could find their markets.  People could travel, as could news.  The kingdom was united and on the way to becoming an economic miracle.

The workshop in Sutton Lane Ends where Brindley learned to become a millwright

To learn more about Brindley: James Brindley: The First Canal Builder, by Nick Corble