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Potteries Prelude

Historical Canal Maps: NarrowBoat, Winter 2018

Richard Dean

Richard Dean describes the earliest surviving survey for the Trent & Mersey Canal

Liverpool interests arranged for a survey in the mid-1750s for a possible waterway link from the River Mersey to the River Trent, but no plan has survived and it was not pursued. The seeds had been sown, however, and Staffordshire gentlemen then considered a canal from the Potteries area to the navigable part of the Trent, commissioning James Brindley in 1758 to investigate. He worked with the surveyor Hugh Henshall (later to be his brotherin-law and engineer of the canal after his death). After the proposals were approved by John Smeaton in 1760, Henshall drew the plan shown opposite, with tables of affected land ownerships. This is the original manuscript that was sent for engraving and printing by John Cary, the London mapmaker.

The route settled on was from Longbridge (now Longport) with a branch to Newcastleunder-Lyme to the Trent at Wilden Ferry. The shortest and easiest line would have kept to the north of the Trent throughout, but, under pressure from Lichfield, the proposed canal crossed the Trent near Rugeley and looped southwards to facilitate a branch to that city, and also to Fazeley as a first step towards Birmingham. It was soon determined that the canal should also extend northwards through a tunnel at Harecastle to reach the Mersey and Liverpool. In this form, but with the branches left to others, it was authorised by Parliament in 1766 and finally opened throughout in 1777. The original Brindley/Henshall scheme was for a waterway only 24ft wide and 3ft 6in deep, with bridges for public roads, and farm crossings accommodated by 2ft 6in fords.

Henshall’s plan, like some of its contemporaries, is a little misleading as it appears to show the canal rather straighter than as actually intended. This is a consequence of surveying with a chain and a level, which provides accurate distances and elevations but no indication of direction other than by eye or simple compass bearings. As built, the canal south of Sideway near Stoke-on-Trent largely follows this survey, the only major change being a short extension from Wilden Ferry to Derwent Mouth to secure more reliable access into the Trent. North of there the line was moved eastwards to better serve the pottery industry and provide a longer summit level.

Hugh Henshall is normally referred to at this date only as Brindley’s pupil or assistant but one wonders if he should be given rather greater credit for the development of the Trent & Mersey scheme.

Part of Henshall’s map, as engraved and printed in London by John Cary.

Canalmaps Archive (

An engraved portrait of James Brindley with a chain, or measuring wheel, and a level, of the type probably used for the 1760 survey.

Canalmaps Archive (

A modern map of the Potteries area with the line of the 1760 survey, including probable lock positions and the altered route as built after the decision to extend northwards.

© Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey Maps 004/18. All other illustrations Canalmaps Archive (