Friday, 3 June 2016

Engineering in my Blood

Recently, my wife, Little Nell, has been digging into my Brindley family tree, and has managed to get back to an ancestor born in about 1800 in the West Midlands of England. This is pretty tantalising since there was a famous civil engineer, James Brindley, who lived in the area, dying in 1772.

If we can get one more generation back, we can find out if I am related to him.  However, he only had daughters by his marriage, but his brothers had sons, so perhaps there is a link. At least his legacy has come down to us, both my father and I had careers as professional engineers.  Amazingly, James' mother's maiden name was Bradbury, as was my own mother's.

James'  great contribution to the World was the development of a system of building canals more efficiently and cheaply than had ever been done before.  He started by designing  the Bridgewater Canal, which his company then built, to bring coal from the Duke of Bridgewater's mines to the cotton mills of Manchester at a much lower price than previously, thus kick-starting the Industrial Revolution.  He went on to become the greatest canal builder the country has ever seen, and was among the most well regarded engineers of his day, a precursor to Brunel, Stevenson and Telford.

Before he turned his hand to Canal building, he owned a company designing and building many water mills.  These days, one of them,  the Brindley Mill at Leek in Staffordshire,  has been restored to working order, and is open to the public.  Whilst still living in UK, I was a member of the Brindley Mill Preservation Trust, and visited the Mill on several occasions, once with a group of Brindleys from Alabama.

When he was dying, his friend Josiah Wedgewood the potter, sent his doctor, Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles, to tend to him.  He diagnosed diabetes, but was unable to save him.
His epitaph from the Chester Courant on 1st December 1772 read:

JAMES BRINDLEY lies amongst these Rocks,
 He made Canals, Bridges, and Locks,
 To convey Water; he made Tunnels
 for Barges, Boats, and Air-Vessels;
 He erected several Banks,
 Mills, Pumps, Machines, with Wheels and Cranks;
 He was famous t’invent Engines,
 Calculated for working Mines;
 He knew Water, its Weight and Strength,
 Turn’d Brooks, made Soughs to a great Length;
 While he used the Miners’ Blast,
 He stopp’d Currents from running too fast;
 There ne’er was paid such Attention
 As he did to Navigation.
 But while busy with Pit or Well,
 His Spirits sunk below Level;
 And, when too late, his Doctor found,
 Water sent him to the Ground.    

Not perhaps the greatest poetry, but I think it covers most of his works and abilities!

Join us this week at Sepia Saturday where our inspiring image originated.


  1. That's quite an epitaph! But appropriate. He was obviously a well accomplished man.

  2. I don’t think our branch is descended from him, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be proud of him and show him off a bit!

  3. He certainly kept good company. I hope you do find out you're related to him! What an innovator! In today's times, he'd probably be inventing new methods of delivery for Amazon and Google.

  4. A very lengthy epitaph! Good luck with the Brindley research. You feature twice this week, man in the check shirt :-)

  5. The era of canal building in England was so interesting. Several years ago, maybe decades, I read a book, "The Map That Changed the World", which sent me on one of my tangents to read and learn about English canals. Thanks for this bit of info.

  6. What a wonderful epitaph and I enjoyed reading your industrial history post. My paternal grandfather was an engineer in the West Midlands, working at Bilston and later Coalbrookdale.

  7. Canals are fascinating -- there are lots of abandoned ones here, too -- but your James certainly was inventive!

  8. Trying to make out what is in the background of his portrait that his finger seems to be pointing to… Perhaps a project he was proud of that the painter worked in?

  9. Great to know the details of your ancestors' life (if related as you think). I hadn't thought of all the canals and their waterways connection to waterwheels! Thanks.