Francis Egerton was born in Worsley in 1736. He features in most of my tours.
A sickly child, he grew up a shy, awkward, loner that
and was considered “backward”. His father died when he was just 9 years old and when his elder
brother passed away, he inherited the family estate at aged 12.
His mother and Stepfather seriously considered having him legally deprived of his inheritance due to
his apparent limited mental ability but his Uncle Egerton of Tatton supported him and at the age of
21, he officially became the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater and came into his fortune. He set off
immediately for London, set up house and fell hopelessly in love with one of high society’s most
celebrated beauties Elizabeth Gunning. They got engaged but it all ended when Francis couldn’t
handle a scandal relating to Elizabeth’s sister Mary.
Francis in despair hotfooted to his Worsley estate, completely heartbroken. To take his mind off her,
he threw himself into work. He owned a coal mine at Worsley which was always flooding.
Additionally, it wasn’t very profitable as the transport costs of coal to market it were expensive.
The best way to move coal was by boat on a river – but there were no rivers running from the coal
mine to Manchester. So Francis now took the biggest gamble of his life. He hired a virtually illiterate
but inspirational man, James Brindley, to build an artificial river, a “cut canal”, from the coal mine to
Manchester. Francis father Scroop had drafted up plans for something similar but nothing came of it
as there were three big problems: how to get a canal across the River Irwell, how to get it up to the
coal mine which was on higher ground and how to keep the canal topped up with water. To any
right-minded person it was impossible and a folly. Yet Francis went ahead. He sunk his entire
fortune into the project so it almost broke him. Luckily for him, Brindley may not have been an
educated man but he was a brilliant engineer. He created the idea for the first Barton Aqueduct to
carry the canal over the Irwell plus he took the canal into tunnels at Worsley to reach the mines. He
designed a system of underground canals called the inclined plane and used water which was
pumped out of the mine to keep the canal topped up.
When the first barges brought the coal to Manchester, Francis sold it at half the price of his
competitors and still made a big profit. Within a few years, the Bridgewater Canal had paid for itself.
Francis got Brindley to build an extension to link up with the River Mersey. So he now owned the
main waterway between Manchester and Liverpool. His coal was in demand in both cities and
played a massive part in the rise of industry there. He died aged 70, the richest man in England. He
was also unmarried.
We can only wonder if he still had regrets about his one love. Perhaps if he had married her, the
history of the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire might have been very different. One thing is
certain, Francis was not as stupid as they had all thought.