Egerton, Francis, third and last Duke of Bridgewater 1736-1803, was a younger son of Scroop, first duke, by his second wife, Lady Rachel Russell, daughter of Wriothesley, duke of Bedford. In early boyhood he lost his father. His mother in the first year of her widowhood married Sir Richard Lyttelton of Hagley, and neglected the boy, who was not only sickly, but apparently of such feeble intellect that his exclusion from the succession to the dukedom was actually contemplated. By the death of his elder brother he became, however, at twelve Duke of Bridgewater, and at seventeen, ignorant, awkward, and unruly, he was sent abroad by his guardians to make the grand tour, with Wood, the well-known Eastern traveller and dissertator on Homer, as his travelling tutor. Wood induced his pupil to buy some marbles and other objects of art at Rome, but the young duke took so little interest in these matters that they remained in their packing-cases until after his death. On his return home he kept racehorses for several years, and occasionally rode them himself. He had attained his majority when he proposed to and was accepted by the widowed Elizabeth, duchess of Hamilton, one of the beautiful Miss Gunnings. Scandal made free with her sister Lady Coventry's reputation, and the duke insisted that after marriage the Duchess of Hamilton's intimacy with her should cease. On her refusal the duke broke off the match, and in his twenty-third year quitted London in disgust to settle on his Lancashire property at Old Hall, Worsley, near Manchester, and devote himself to the development of its resources. These lay mainly in the Worsley coal mines, the demand for the products of which the duke saw would be much increased by a diminution in the cost of transport to Manchester. He had obtained from parliament (March 1759) an act authorising him to make from Worsley to Salford a canal which was to enter the Irwell and go up its other bank by means of locks. A very different plan was urged on the duke by James Brindley [qv.], who in 1758 had been employed by the duke's brother-in-law and friend, Earl Gower, afterwards first Marquis of Stafford, in making the surveys for a canal to connect the Trent and the Mersey. In July 1759 Brindley visited the duke at Old Hall, and persuaded him to project the construction of a canal from Worsley to Manchester, which should be carried in an aqueduct over the Irwell at Barton, three miles from Worsley. The scheme was ridiculed, but the duke adopted it, and early in 1760 obtained an act of parliament sanctioning it. Brindley's ingenuity overcame all the many difficulties of construction. On 17 July 1761 the first boatload of coals was borne along the Barton aqueduct, which forthwith attracted visitors from all parts. This canal was the first in England which throughout its course was entirely independent of a natural stream; hence Bridgewater has been called the founder of British inland navigation. The price of the Worsley coal alone at Manchester was reduced through it fully one half.
The duke and Brindley were soon engaged in a still more difficult enterprise, the construction of a canal from Longford Bridge to Runcorn, to connect Manchester and Liverpool. The proprietors of the navigation of the Mersey and Irwell opposed the bill for the new canal, and were joined by some Lancashire landowners, the opposition to the bill in the House of Commons being led by Lord Strange, the son of the Earl of Derby. Moreover, the duke and his friends being whigs, many tories opposed his bill, which after a fierce contest received the royal assent in March 1762. The new canal, about twenty-eight miles in length, was nearly three times as long as that from Worsley to Manchester, and had to be carried over streams and bogs, and through tunnels, presenting great engineering difficulties. The financial difficulty taxed the duke's pecuniary resources to the uttermost. He had not only to defray the cost of construction, which was very heavy, though Brindley's own wages were only a guinea a week, but to compensate owners for land compulsorily acquired. He could hardly get a bill for 500l. cashed in Liverpool. His steward had often to ride about among the tenantry and raise 5l. here and there to pay the week's wages. The duke cut down his own personal expenses until his establishment cost only 400l. a year. He would not raise money on his landed property, but in 1765 he pledged the Worsley canal, which had become remunerative, to Messrs. Child, the London bankers, for 25,000l., and in 1767 a lucrative traffic was springing up on the portion of the new canal, which in that year was finished, with the exception of the locks leading down to the Mersey. On the last day of 1772 these too were opened, and a vessel of fifty tons burden passed through on its way to Liverpool. The duke was afterwards a liberal promoter of the Grand Trunk Navigation, and his interest was always at the service of any well-digested plan of the kind (Chalmers). On his own canals he had expended 220,000l. The annual revenue which they yielded him ultimately reached 80,000l.
During the remainder of his life Bridgewater continued, more or less actively, to superintend and develop his collieries and canals. He bought up any land in the neighbourhood of Worsley which contained coal-seams, and spent nearly 170,000l. in forming subterranean tunnels for the egress of the coals, the underground canals which connected the various workings extending to forty miles in length. He introduced passenger boats on his other canals, and frequently travelled by them. About 1796 he tried steam tugs on them, but without success. He was a stern, but just and good master, and looked well after the housing of his miners, establishing shops and markets for them, and taking care that they contributed to a sick club. His features are said to have strongly resembled those of George III. He was careless in his dress, which is described as something of the cut of Dr. Johnson's. Within doors he was a great smoker, and out of doors as great a snuff-taker. He talked little on any subject but canals, and never wrote a letter when he could avoid it. He despised the ornamental, and once on his return from London finding that some flowers had been planted at Worsley, he whipped their heads off, and ordered them to be rooted up. The money which he devoted to the purchase of the magnificent Bridgewater collection of paintings he probably regarded simply as a good business investment. To avoid the expense of a town establishment, when he visited London, where he had not many friends, he agreed with one of them to be provided for a stipulated sum with a daily dinner for himself and a few guests. Yet he was a liberal donor to national and beneficent institutions, and when he thought his country to be in danger he subscribed 100,000l. to the Loyalty Loan. In politics he took no very active part, generally following the lead of the Marquis of Stafford. He never married, and would not allow a woman servant to wait on him. He died in London, after a short illness, 3 March 1803, and was buried—his funeral being, according to his directions, the simplest possible—in the family vault at Ashridge, his Hertfordshire seat. He has been called the first great Manchester man. The dukedom of Bridgewater died with him. Ashridge was among his bequests to his cousin and successor in the earldom of Bridgewater, General John William Egerton, and to his nephew, the second Marquis of Stafford, afterwards first duke of Sutherland, he left other estates and much valuable property. His canal property he devolved, under trust, to that nephew's second son, known successively as Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, as Lord Francis Egerton, and as first Earl of Ellesmere, whose article on aqueducts and canals, contributed to the Quarterly Review for March 1844, contains a very interesting account of his benefactor. There is a copy of Bridgewater's elaborate will in the Additional MSS., Brit. Mus., No. 10605.
History of Inland Navigation, particularly those of the Duke of Bridgewater, 1766
Lord Ellesmere's Essays contributed to the Quarterly Review, 1858
Smiles's Lives of the Engineers, 1861, vol. i., Life of James Brindley
Francis Henry, Earl of Bridgewater's Letter to the Parisians ¼ on Inland Navigation, containing a defence of ¼ Francis Egerton, late Duke of Bridgewater (1719-20)
Chalmers's Biog. Dict.
F. Espinasse's Lancashire Worthies, 1st ser. 1874.
Contributor: F. E. [Francis Espinasse]