Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Francis Henry Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater

Egerton, Francis Henry, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater 

The Grand Tour of Europe and a disastrous love affair combined to push England into the canal age.

Francis Egerton, the third and last Duke of Bridgewater, was born on May 3rd 1736 and, escaping the family scourge of tuberculosis which carried off his siblings, he carved out for himself a niche in history as the Canal Duke.

Francis had an unhappy childhood after the death of his father, the first duke, who was called Scroop. Virtually rejected by his mother, he spent Eton School holidays at Tatton Hall in Cheshire, the home of his cousin and guardian, Samuel Egerton.

While at Tatton, Francis made frequent visits to his own mining estate at Worsley just a few miles away across the River Mersey, and doubtless turned over in his mind his late father's unfulfilled dream of transporting coal from the mines via the River Irwell to Salford and Manchester.

But he was a sickly youngster and, partly for health reasons, his guardians despatched him on the Grand Tour of Europe - which was something of a must for any young aristocrat in those days.

The Tour was designed to broaden a young man's classical education, but it was an engineering feat, rather than art, which had most impact on the young duke.

At Lyons, he became fascinated by the Languedoc Canal and spent a lot of time touring the system's locks and docks. The Languedoc, now known as the Canal du Midi, links the Atlantic at Bordeaux with the Mediterranean at Sete, 320 miles away, avoiding the long haul around the Iberian peninsula, and it clearly made a big impression on the young man.

On his return to England, Egerton fell in love with a society darling called Elizabeth Gunning, the widowed Duchess of Hamilton, and he was set to marry her until a scandal erupted involving her sister. Elizabeth refused the Duke's ultimatum to disown her sister, and he called off the marriage.

Soon afterwards, the Duke quit London society for Worsley and refused to have anything more to do with women until the day he died. He busied himself in the running of the estate - and quickly realised he had a problem.

He had copious reserves of coal stretching northwards from Worsley. He had a ready market for that coal in Manchester and Salford, where the demand for fuel simply could not be met. But the cost of transport from one to the other was prohibitive.

It was the Duke who first contemplated the idea of a canal. But it was the Duke's land agent, the talented John Gilbert, who proposed carrying the canal straight into the mines, solving the problem of shaft drainage and at the same time providing a consistent supply of water for the canal.

And it was engineer James Brindley who helped to turn what might have been a useful but dead-end idea into something that became a key link in a nationwide canal network.

The Duke's first scheme - the one for which he originally received Parliamentary approval - was to carry his canal south towards the Irwell and then turn eastward, parallel with the North bank of the river, to run into Salford.

But before construction had got far, the Duke shifted the goalposts. Inspired by Brindley, who had already done preliminary surveys for a proposed Trent-and-Mersey waterway, he realised that for the Bridgewater Canal to become part of a country-wide web, it would have to cross the Irwell.

Egerton, Francis, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater

He originally planned to lock his canal down to river level, and lock-up again on the other side. But Brindley hated the thought of locks, and proposed carrying the canal over the river on an aqueduct. He succeeded - with a lot of help from Gilbert - and the first "Barton flyover" became the wonder of the age, with the first barge crossing above the river in July, 1761.

When the canal eventually reached Castlefield in Manchester, later that year, it halved the cost of coal in the city. But had the Duke stopped there, he would very quickly have become bankrupt. The age of steam had not yet arrived, and selling coal to householders did not make much impact on the capital cost of the canal.

Already, however, the Duke had got Parliamentary permission to carry the canal westwards to Runcorn, where it would join the tidal Mersey and give Manchester direct access to the seaport of Liverpool.

Even so, it was a close-run thing. The Duke found it difficult to borrow city money for what many considered a hare-brained scheme and Gilbert often had to go around with what amounted to a begging bowl to find the cash to pay the labourers.

By October 20 1771, profits from the canal amounted to just £3,546 while the Duke's debt had risen to £133,219 and his yearly interest payments were £5,400.

On the last day of 1772, the Runcorn locks were opened and the canal was complete - apart from one stretch south of Warrington, where there was a long-running dispute with landowner Sir Richard Brooke.

It was to be four more years before the "Battle of Norton Priory" was resolved and the full length of the canal was opened on March 21 1776. The Duke's perseverance had paid off, the money began to roll in and very soon the country was swept by canal mania.

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