A new exhibition celebrating the life of English engineer, James Brindley, is now underway at the National Waterways Museum. It is 300 years since the birth of the canal pioneer.


James Brindley became the most famous canal engineer of his day.

Born 300 years ago this year, the pioneer was responsible for the Bridgewater Canal, regarded by some as the first modern canal.

To mark the anniversary, a new exhibition is being held at the National Waterway Museum at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

As well as photographs of his canals, visitors will, for the first time, be able to see Brindley’s four handwritten notebooks.

Coal boats using the Bridgewater Canal built by James Brindley

Coal boats using the Bridgewater Canal. Credit: National Waterways Museum


The books offer a fascinating insight into the man, complete with its idiosyncratic spelling.

The books span the years 1755 to 1763 – a time when Brindley’s life was changing fast.

The early note books are ledgers, a record of his time as a self-employed millwright.

His later books, written during his exploration of steam power, contain more detail about his work and his clients.

And when working on the Bridgewater Canal the notebooks include more observations and mention of events outside his work, showing Brindley’s widening interest in the world around him.

James Brindley started his career as a millwright, and built up a reputation for his skill in repairing machinery.

Boats approaching the Barton Swing Aquaduct built by James Brindley

Boats approaching the Barton Swing Aqueduct crossing the Manchester Ship Canal. The image, which was taken in the 1930s, is reversed. Credit: National Waterways Museum


This reputation brought him to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater who wanted to improve the way coal from his mine was transported to Manchester.

This led to the building of the Bridgewater Canal, considered by many as the first man-made waterway.

One of the most impressive features was the Barton Aqueduct  – the first navigable aqueduct to be built in England.

Barton Aqueduct on the Bridgewater Canal

The Barton Aqueduct. Credit: National Waterways Museum


Later, Brindley went on to extend the Bridgewater Canal to Runcorn, and then connected it to his next major work, the Trent and Mersey Canal.

It was while working on this project and the developed the ‘Brindley lock’, which allowed boats to ascend and descend along the waterway.

The building of the canal was backed by the industrialist Josiah Wedgewood, who used the waterway as a cheap way to transport his goods.

Potteries narrowboats on the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1957. It was built by James Brindley

Potteries narrowboats using the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1957. Credit: National Waterways Museum


Brindley went on to build the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, the Coventry Canal, the Oxford Canal and numerous others.

In total, he oversaw the construction of 365 miles of waterways.

The Brindley 300 exhibition runs until 2 October 2016.

The National Waterways Museum will also be holding a weekend of talks, presentations and tours about James Brindley on 2-3 September 2016.