The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

104: Did Brown do canals?

A fine 18th century canal, but currently of little use to boatmen

A fine 18th century canal, but currently of little use to boatmen

Mrs A-S writes that she is anxious to involve the boatmen of the West Midland canals in the celebration of Capability Brown’s tercentenary.

She asks me what anecdotes we have of Brown’s time amongst the boatmen of his day. I’d be delighted to hear of any records to link Brown and the navigators of the canals, but perhaps it would be equally interesting were there to be none.

Water, to be sure, was the medium on which Britain’s increasing empire had grown, hence Humphry Repton’s untroubled pleasure in river traffic at Port Eliot – what bothered him there was the fact that the port would disappear with the tide, leaving a mud flat behind it – as Gilpin drily commented ‘once a day at least [it] is picturesq’. For Repton indeed, ‘such is the natural association betwixt an expanse of water and the uses to which man’s ingenuity generally converts it, that without such circumstances of inhabitancy as boats and buildings furnish to the mind … instead of being a beautiful object, it becomes the reverse in proportion to its extent.’ James Brindley, canal maker for the Duke of Bridgewater, found praise from William Mason, but his assistant William Henshall refused to give the canal outside Josiah Wedgwood’s new factory at Ridgehouse a serpentine line for beauty’s sake. Wedgwood complained that ‘I could not prevail upon the inflexible Vandal to give me one line of Grace – He must go the nearest, & the best way, or Mr Brindley would go mad.’

As the late Dr Keith Goodway has shown, Brown’s contemporary and pupil, William Emes, was ready to work hand-in-glove with the navigation, negotiating the line of the canal for his clients at Tixall and at other of his Staffordshire projects. It is not hard to suppose that he succeeded at Dogmersfield as well, where the Basingstoke Canal now bounds the parkland with a six-mile detour. The effect on Tixall was much approved of by the Cliffords: ‘Nor is this various scenery destitute of life and animation. The moving groups of cattle, horses, and sheep, slowly wandering over the pastures; the partridge, hare, and pheasant, flitting across the dusky lawn; the milk-white swan, sailing majestically on the bosom of the canal; the long, heavy barge, with its towing horse, and attendant driver, seen gliding through the trees; all conspire in their turn, to give life, variety, and interest to the soft and tranquil scene’

Hence, the readiness with which great landowners such as the Earls of Essex and Clarendon allowed canals into their parks at Cashiobury and the Grove.

Hence, the readiness with which great landowners such as the Earls of Essex and Clarendon allowed canals into their parks at Cashiobury and the Grove.

Thomas Harley at Berrington may have backed the disastrous Leominster Canal for the same reason. It was first proposed by the engineer Robert Whitworth in 1777 and was to run along the west boundary of his estate. Might one not think that the north end of the Moreton Ride was designed to frame the superb view of the hall – still unbuilt at the time – that might have been had from a wharf below at Moreton, or even from Eye church on the other side of the valley? Might the canal even have been thought of as a route for the gentry, as well as for the freight of the mindlands?

For myself I am always happy to hear the zz-zz of an old barge as it putters through. But it remains the case somehow that despite Trentham, despite his great commissions on the Thames, the close link with Brown that one might have expected has not been found.

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1 Comment

  1. Two points, rather belated. First, James Brindley’s assistant was Hugh Henshall – not ‘William’. Second, it is only fair to mention that 2016 will see the tercentenary of Brindley’s birth as well as Brown’s.

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The Brown Advisor©2015

By John Phibbs