While engineers such as James Brindley and Thomas Telford often get credit for transforming the British landscape with the canals they designed and built, equal merit should go to the men who helped pay for them. Here are six of the industrialists, investors and speculators who believed in the potential of canals and then employed the engineers, footed the bills, dealt with the political problems – and reaped financial rewards as a result.
The Duke Of Bridgewater
Towering over the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate near the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire is a granite Doric column containing 172 steps and ending in a viewing platform. At the base is a dedication to “the father of inland navigation” – that’s Francis Egerton, the third Duke of Bridgewater, who owned Ashridge but spent much of his life in Worsley near Manchester. That’s where Egerton has his coal mines, and those mines were integral to the birth of the canal movement in England. Afflicted by drainage problems and looking for a cheaper, faster way to transport more coal from Worsley to Manchester, the Duke decided to construct a man-made waterway from Worsley to Salford. The Bridgewater Canal was approved in 1759 and was built shortly after by engineer James Brindley. It was ambitious and expensive – it cost Egerton £168,000, which is the equivalent of £25.5m today – but proved to be so successful it inspired the era known as ‘Canal Mania’.
Josiah Wedgwood owned the first pottery factory in England and his high-quality creations were used by royalty. He was also a member of the Lunar Society Of Birmingham, a group of scientist and industrialists that met on the full moon every month. At one Lunar Society meeting Wedgwood met James Brindley, and the two worked up a scheme to construct the Trent & Mersey Canal that would run alongside the site of Wedgwood’s new factory, Etruria. The vast 90-mile canal required more than 70 locks, five tunnels and £130,000 to build but reduced the cost of transportation for Wedgwood from £210s a ton to 13s 4d. Wedgwood had driven the idea to completion, dealt with the landowners, helped raise capital and also cut the first piece of earth for its construction in 1766.
Another member of the Lunar Society, Matthew Boulton was also one of the investors and inspirations behind Birmingham’s extensive canal network. Boulton was an industrialist who constructed a variety of products, including toys and utensils, using metals, alloys and enamels at his groundbreaking Soho Manufactory in Handsworth. He also worked with James Watt, financing and producing the steam engine. And he invested in canals, which not only helped the transportation of his goods but also provided a regular market for steam engines. One of these canals was the original Birmingham Main Line, which was built by the ever-present Brindley and had a branch to Boulton’s factory.
A Shropshire lad who made his fortune in ironworks, Reynolds invented the inclined plane and also, with his father, constructed and financed a number of small canals around the Midlands – the Ketley, Wombridge and Shropshire Canals. These often rudimentary tub canals – named after the unpowered containers that transported the raw material – were created to service his ironworks and utilised his inclined plane. Reynolds was an acquaintance of Watt and Boulton and used the services of Thomas Telford, one of the great canal engineers of the era.
One of the few investors to have something on the network named after them is Charles Dundas, the first Baron of Amesbury, MP for Berkshire, and first chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal Company. Proposed at the height of Canal Mania in the 1790s, the company sold 3,500 shares in the company and employed John Rennie as engineer. Dundas was rewarded for his efforts by having the Dundas Aqueduct, the elegant construction that carries the canal over the Avon, named after him.
The scientist James Smithson is best known as the founding donor of America’s Smithsonian Institute, but the scientist also dabbled in business. One of his most successful investments was in the Grand Junction Canal, which went from Braunston to London and is now the southern half of the Grand Union. Smithson received dividends from the canal for the rest of his life. Smithson didn’t get everything right. He also backed the New Croydon Canal as well as its rival, the Surrey Iron Railway, and a proposed tunnel under the Thames that was never built.