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5.0 out of 5 stars Comparison - Richardson & Corble biographies, 13 Feb 2013
This review is from: James Brindley: The First Canal Builder (Paperback)
This is a joint review of the books:
James Brindley: Canal Pioneer by Christine Richardson
James Brindley: The First Canal Builder by Nick Corble

If you are only going to buy one of these books, for most people Christine Richardson's would be much the better.
It gives good information about Brindley himself, but is outstanding in its coverage of WHY he built his canals WHERE he did. It is full of maps showing the relevant features as existing before and after his works.

However it is primarily a biography of Brindley as a Canal Builder. He only really got started on this when he was 40.

Nick Corble's book is strictly a biography, covering his work only as it impacted him as a person. It takes a more traditional "one chapter per decade" approach, so is very much more detailed on this family history, starting from his grandparents' generation. It is also more thorough in its treatment of his time working as a millwright. His time on the Bridgewater Canal is treated in great depth (perhaps even over-emphasising the importance of "the Duke's cut"). However his involvement with the Trent & Mersey Canal is definitely very much under-valued. A reader new to all this would completely fail to realise the T&M was hugely more significant to the development of the country than the Bridgewater ever was. Also missing is the key geographical importance of the watershed at Harecastle (north of which water flows up to the Mersey, south of it the river Trent flows round the bottom of the Pennines then up to the Humber). Canals were not new, but before Brindley, they had all (Bridgewater included) basically followed river valleys. Barton Aqueduct was important in persuading money-men to invest in Canals. But engineering wise it was little more than a big bridge, and nothing compared with the big tunnel through Harecastle hill.

I find Christine Richardson's book excellent in so many ways. Importantly it is objective, this is not a hero-worship of Brindley or any of the characters. It builds a good picture of the background happening in England at the time. Where the narrowboat gauge came from is covered. The relative importance of Josiah Wedgwood vs Duke of Bridgwater in both Brindley's life and to canal development appears to me more balanced and accurate than Nick Corble's.
This is an example to all of how to write a biography of someone who is famous for scientific/engineering reasons.
However it does devote just 2 chapters to his millwrighting days, then 10 to the rest of his life. So if it could be improved at all, it would be to have 1 extra chapter added to describe more fully his family history & very early years.

What comes out of both is why a millwright would be the person to develop canals. The dominant power source in England in 1750 was water. Millwrights had been building artificial streams, dams and water courses for many years to get good flow over water wheels. This is pre- steam engines, and as we are currently re-learning, windmills are very unreliable and produce little power ! So the same only bigger, and he had immense natural talent at it.
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