The Trent and Mersey Canal runs from Preston Brook near Runcorn to Shardlow in Derbyshire It was built by James Brindley and his brother in law Hugh Henshall.
It took 600 men eleven years to construct the canal. Work began on July 26th, 1766 when Josiah Wedgwood cut the first sod near Tunstall Bridge at Brownhills in the Chatterley Valley.
The Brindley Tunnel that took the canal through Harecastle Hill between Chatterley and Kidsgrove is a feat of civil engineering which merits World Heritage Site status in its own right.
Described as the eighth wonder of the world when it was opened, the tunnel’s historical importance has been ignored by the City of Stoke-on-Trent and the Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme.
One of the first canal tunnels to be built, it was 2,880 yards long and nine feet wide.
Branch tunnels led to underground loading bays in collieries and mines where small boats were loaded with coal or ironstone. These tunnels which ran directly into the mine workings are the earliest known examples of true horizon mining.
Opened in 1777, the Trent and Mersey Canal was a commercial success, and it quickly became one of England’s major inland waterways.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Brindley Tunnel could not cope with the number of narrowboats using the canal. The tunnel was too narrow to take boats going in both directions. It took about two hours for a boat to pass through the tunnel. Bottlenecks developed at Kidsgrove and Chatterley where boatmen had to wait until they were allowed to enter.
The tunnel did not have a towpath. It was a legging tunnel. Narrowboats were “legged” through the tunnel by men who lay on their backs and used their feet to “walk” along its walls.
A second tunnel, designed by Thomas Telford, was constructed between 1824 and 1827 by civil engineering contractors Pritchard & Hoof. The firm specialised in building canal tunnels. Daniel Pritchard said that except for the Brindley Tunnel the rock at Harecastle Hill “was much harder than the rock any tunnel had ever been driven in before”.
The Brindley Tunnel remained in use until 1914 when subsidence made it unsafe.
Copyright 2010 Betty Cooper and David Martin