First True Canal in Britain Opens
The Bridgewater Canal which opened in July 1761 was of huge significance to this country’s future. Manchester was already an industrial hub, particularly in cotton, but as it lacked immediate coal resources its profitability was hindered – coal had to be borne there by river or on carts, both expensive methods liable to disruption because of weather problems. Not only did the Bridgewater Canal solve that problem, reducing the price of coal in the city drastically; it also proved the feasibility of canal construction, and its rapid economic benefits, to a sceptical industrial elite.
Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, owned coal-mining operations in Worsley to the west of Manchester, held back by perennial flooding and high freight-costs. During his obligatory youthful grand tour he had seen France’s Canal du Midi; and not too far from his home the recently built Sankey (St Helens) Canal, a cut to the Mersey . The Duke presented a bill to Parliament, and in 1759 an Act was granted, allowing a canal to be built into Salford . Work began, but Bridgewater called in the great civil engineer James Brindley for consultation, and a different plan emerged, rapidly approved by Parliament in a 1760 Act.
Brindley’s plan was the stuff of genius: the canal would travel underground to the mine, saving lifting the coal, and at once draining the workings and filling the canal; he found a route that required no locks, cutting construction time and costs; and it took the canal into Manchester rather than Salford, at one point carrying craft high over the Irwell in an aqueduct at Barton (a concept conveyed to MPs with a model cut from a cheese by Brindley).
On July 17 1761 the first vessels travelled on the Bridgewater Canal. Manchester’s industry boomed; and ‘canal mania’ began in Britain.
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