The Father of Britain's Canals?

A Broader Outlook: NarrowBoat, Summer 2009

Mike Clarke

Mike Clarke questions the importance of the Duke of Bridgewater and Brindley, and nominates earlier engineers for their successful waterways at the very start of the Industrial Revolution

It is 250 years since the Duke of Bridgewater obtained his first Act for the construction of a canal from Worsley to Salford. Was his canal Britain’s first, and is he as important to canal history as is often suggested in canal history books? Was his engineer, Brindley, as innovative as he is often portrayed, and what was the state of waterway engineering at the time? This anniversary is a good time to reassess the Duke and his works. Technology was needed to build a canal, but how advanced was it by 1759? The earliest locks, with a single gate, were built in the Low Countries at Nieuport and in Italy on the River Mincio at Governolo in the late 12th century, though there had probably been river staunches in Flanders earlier in the century. Two hundred years later, the Stecknitz Canal in Germany was opened in 1398, linking the towns of Lauenburg and Lübeck, crossing the high ground between the Elbe and the Baltic. It was Europe’s first summit level canal, and used sin…

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