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Canal Archive: Bridging the Years

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The Canal Duke

The Bridgewater Canal would not have been built but for its namesake - Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater. A sickly child and the youngest of eight, he was not expected to inherit his father's title and estate, his older brothers seeming the more likely candidates. However, the deaths of his male siblings due to illness resulted in Francis becoming the Third Duke of Bridgewater at the age of eleven.

His inheritance of land across the country included the Worsley Estates. Nevertheless, Francis was not a happy child, his mother paying him little attention after the death of his father. Such unhappiness led to him spending a proportion of his time at the home of his cousin and co-guardian - Samuel Egerton, who owned the Tatton Estates in Cheshire. It was possibly during these visits that he came to know his estates in the Worsley area.

It is said that two main events in Francis' life influenced him to create his famous canal. The first of these was his travels as part of his Grand Tour, a common journey for young noblemen of the time. His tour of Europe included a visit to the docks and locks of the Canal du Midi in Southern France, a sight said to have inspired the young Duke.

A second episode was that involving his proposal of marriage to Elizabeth Gunning, a well-known lady in London high society. Unfortunately her sister became the subject of a scandal concerning an affair and when the Duke's fianc'e refused to distance herself from her sister, Francis broke off the engagement. This unfortunate turn of events was said to have left Francis determined to leave London society and women behind him, and instead focus on his Estates and their potential.

It is very likely that these two experiences did influence the Duke to varying degrees. However, there were factors closer to home that probably had a more immediate effect. In 1737 an Act had been passed to make Worsley Brook navigable in order to carry coal from mines in the Worsley area to the Irwell. The scheme came to nothing, but it illustrated the possibilities of such projects, the small involvement of the Duke's father, Scroop Egerton, bringing the matter even sharper into focus for the Duke.

There was also the opening of the St Helens Canal in 1757, an obvious example of the potential of waterways, not more than 20 miles away from Worsley. The Duke had a model for his ideas right on his doorstep.

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This is page 2 of The Bridgewater Canal - The Duke's Cut.
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An illustration showing the Duke of Bridgewater as a young man, next to Barton Aqueduct

An illustration showing the Duke of Bridgewater as a young man, next to Barton Aqueduct
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Worsley Old Hall, home to the Duke of Bridgewater and John Gilbert

Worsley Old Hall, home to the Duke of Bridgewater and John Gilbert
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