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Duke of Bridgewater

The 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, a portrait

Location: History, Wosley, Manchester

The Duke of Bridgewater, the man who is said to have started the canal mania that swept Britain from late 17th century to the mid 18th century. His proper name was Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. He was the seventh and last born child of his parents. His mother was Lady Rachel Russell and his father was Scroop Egerton (what a good name), 1st Duke of Bridgewater. Four of his siblings died before they were six years old so he never met them, he had two older sisters and an older brother alive when he was.

On their father’s death his elder brother John received the dukedom, becoming the 2nd Duke of Bridgewater. He died when he was only 20, leaving the dukedom to his younger brother Francis. Francis was only 12 at the time.


Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (image from Wikipedia see original here)

Francis, when growing up, was a sickly child who was not known for his intellectual capacity. His family had an entail on the family estate (where the estate has to go to the closest male relative). There was talk about trying to remove it so that Francis did not get the estate for fear that he would do something stupid with it. He managed to grow out of being sickly and outlived all his brothers and sisters by at about 30 years (he died at 66 and his next oldest sibling died at 37).

Soon after Francis reached the age of his majority he got engaged to the socialite the Dowager Duchess Hamilton. The engagement got broken off when the Dowager Duchess refused to give up being acquainted with her sister, the Lady Coventry. On the break up of his engagement Duke Francis broke up his London establishment and he retired to his estate at Worsley. When he was there he started to devote himself to the building of canals.

Duke Francis has and estates manager called John Gilbert who helped him to manage his estates. On his estates was a large coal mine which had the problem of often flooding. Coal was transported from this mine to Manchester either by the River Irwell or via packhorse. Both methods were expensive.

Duke Francis had previously visited the Canal-du-Midi in France and had watched the Sankey canal being built connected to the river Mersey. From these the idea came to build his own canal from his mines to the city of Manchester.

He sought Parliamentary approval for this canal and obtained it in 1759. Then he employed the engineer/surveyor James Brindley, who had worked on a nearby estate installing a pumping system, to help him to build the canal. James Brindley went over the route and suggested a few changes so that locks would not be necessary on the majority of the route. The route change was submitted to Parliament and was approved in 1760.

The canal was swiftly built solving two problems at once, the problem of transporting coal to Manchester and the problem of flooding in the coal mines. The canal was built to a very good standard and was built to carry both widebeam and narrowboats. It cost him over £168,000 (£23,760,000 in today’s money) to build, which was over twice his annual income by the end of his life.

The Duke also had warehouses built at the Manchester end of the canal to house all his coal. The canal was so successful that within a year of it being finished the price of coal in Manchester had halved! The Duke was still making a profit.

Seeing the success of this canal (and getting rich from the profits) Duke Francis applied for Parliamentary approval for a second canal between Liverpool and Manchester. This was approved in 1762. This second canal was also built to a good standard (Duke of Bridgewater was obviously not one to cut corners to save a few pounds). This second canal was more challenging to build but James Brindley took it all in his stride and overcame the problems.

Both of Duke Francis’s canals were built by the time he was 36. The rest of his life was spent extending and improving his canals and his estates. The original Bridgewater canal, originally only going from his mines in Worsley to Manchester, was extended time and time again. The first extension was applied for in 1762 and was given Royal Assent. It was to extend the canal from Manchester to Runcorn where it met the River Mersey. This was granted despite the Mersey and Irwell navigation company objecting (do you think that he didn’t like them, he seemed to build all his canals to spite them).

The connection of the canal to the River Mersey involved a steep drop that depended upon the tides. James Brindley built a flight of 10 locks so the canal could be used at any point in the tide cycle. These locks were described as “wonders of their time”.

When the extension to Runcorn was being built Duke Francis built a house alongside the River Mersey so that he could supervise the work. He named it Bridgewater House. The house is still there and is being partly used as offices by the Manchester Ship Company and partly rented out as offices to other companies. It is imposing Georgian style architecture.

The Duke of Bridgewater, wanting to again extend his canal was met with a lot of opposition by the Mersey and Irwell navigation company. To get around their opposition the Duke brought a controlling interest in their company. (That is one way to deal with the competition).

In 1795 the Duke of Bridgewater extended his canal again, this time from Worsley to Leigh. In 1819 there was another extension – this time to meet the Wigan branch of the Leeds and Liverpool canal.

The canals that he built were very profitable for him (that is probably why everyone started trying to build one). When he died he was the richest nobleman in the country (take that people who wanted to get rid of the entail).

He never played a prominent part in politics although he supported William Pitt the elder (Tory). Duke of Bridgewater towards the end of his life, started to rebuild his estate in Ashridge, in Kent but before it could be finished he died. Over his life he did acquire a large and impressive art collection worth over £150,000 (most of which is still held by the family). He died on the 8th of March 1803. When he died he was buried in the family vault in Little Gaddestone Church close to his estate in Ashridge in Kent.

5 Responses

  1. Very interesting to read. My word even the aristocracy died young then. I would think he got engaged to the Dowager Duchess Hamilton probably because as a Dowager Duchess she inherited quite a lot of money and that would have interested him.
    The Mereey and Irwell Navigation Company probably hated him more than he hated them. His canals were taking off a large amount of shipping trade from them and it must have hit them financially. They did what they could to stop him building more canals.
    I really enjoyed reading what you wrote. I knew very little about the Manchester Ship Canal other than it was a tremendous feat of engineering and construction. Well Done.

    • You are right, money was probably the motivator for the engagement to the Duchess. I would also not be surprised if the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company hated him, his canals would have hit them financially, but I think that they were overcharging for what they were offering in the years before he built the canals.

  2. Great to see you mentioning and accrediting the Sankey Canal, I think the truth is that the industrial revolution really got started in the north west with the building of both the Sankey and the Bridgwater.

    Possibly time the northwest got the credit it deserves, don’t forget we also have the first intercity scheduled railway which crosses the Sankey canal on the nine arches viaduct in Newton-le-Willows

    Our group contains many images and historical facts about both

    https://m.facebook.com/groups/127843080962417

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