This column, situated in the National Trust’s 5,000 acre Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns, is a memorial to Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736-1803).
There are several branches of the Egertons, the Egertons of Heaton being the senior branch. The branch that Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater, belonged to had been Earls of Bridgewater since 1617. The dukedom was created for his father in 1720, and Francis inherited when his elder brother died childless. He too died childless, so the dukedom died with him, though the Earldom was inherited by a cousin.
Towards the end of his life he decided to make improvements to the Ashridge Estate. He commissioned Capability Brown to landscape the parkland, and pulled down the old house with the intention of building anew. However, he died before a new house was started, and a new house was never built.
His main residence was in Worsley, and it was from there that he pursued his life’s work, work that earned him the nickname ‘the Canal Duke.’ He employed the engineer James Brindley and built Britain’s first canal, linking his coal mines at Worsley to the market for coal in Manchester. The Bridgewater Canal was opened in 1762, and was a huge success. Between 1762 and 1776 the Duke extended his canal to Liverpool. As a result of the success of his canal the Duke became the richest nobleman in Britain.
None of this would have been lost on young Thomas Egerton of Heaton Hall, who was still a schoolboy when the canal was first opened. When he came of age in 1770 and began the rebuilding of Heaton Hall he made use of the Bridgewater Canal to transport building stone from quarries in Lancashire; and later when he stocked his home with furniture from Gillows of Lancaster, the furniture was shipped from Lancaster to Liverpool, and then came by the canal to Manchester.
The success of the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, and the financial gains it brought him, sparked off a spate of canal building throughout the country. Thomas Egerton of Heaton Hall followed his distant kinsman’s example. In 1790, along with the Earl of Derby and a group of businessmen from around Manchester, he was instrumental in getting an Act of Parliament to allow the setting up of the Manchester, Bury and Bolton Canal Company, in which he was one of the three largest shareholders. This canal would, primarily, allow him to transport coal from the mines he was developing in Radcliffe, as well as providing a source of income from the profits of the canal itself.