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Part of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal archive that made £6600 at Halls on February 13.

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So begins a laudatory epitaph in verse published in a December 1777 issue of the Chester Courant, following the death of this visionary engineer and canal builder. Brindley's reputation stands high to this day - recalled in museums, schools and colleges named after him, as well as on road and pub signs.

There was, however, a period in the last century when disused canals were not universally loved, and it was from an office clearance bonfire of the 1960s that an important Brindley archive that came to auction last month had been rescued.

Born in 1716, the young James Brindley moved with his family to Leek in Staffordshire, where a watermill that he later built is now the Brindley Water Museum. Following an apprenticeship as a wheelwright, he set up in business in Leek, later adding a millwright's shop (rented from his friends, the Wedgwoods) which brought him experience in water engineering. By the mid-1750s he had already designed machinery for coal mines and silk mills, but it is as a canal man that Brindley is best remembered.

The canal system was of huge importance to Britain's industrial growth in allowing raw materials and manufactured goods alike to be moved across the country, and it was as a consulting engineer on the Bridgewater Canal, opened in 1761 to enable the Duke of Bridgewater to improve the transport of coal from his mines at Worsley to Manchester, that Brindley began his work on canals - as surveyor, consultant and sometimes builder as well.

Brindley later extended the Bridgwater to Runcorn, to link with his Trent & Mersey Canal - the first part of his 'Grand Cross' plan, a system of waterways linking the four great rivers of England. Such a system, linking the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames, and the major trading centres they served, was eventually achieved, and though Brindley did not live to see it, by 1790 coal could be taken, at greatly reduced cost, from the Midlands to the Thames at Oxford, and thus to London. The Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal was a particular triumph - at the time of its construction, it was double the length of any other tunnel in the world.

The bonfire archive that, 40 years later, was consigned for sale at Halls of Shrewsbury on February 13, relates to the creation of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. This runs for 46 miles from the Severn at Stourport to link up with the Trent & Mersey at Great Haywood, and has another key junction at Aldersley with the Birmingham Canal. Links were thus provided between Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham.

Other more direct canal routes and the coming of the railways, as well as better roads, brought a gradual decline, but the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal continued to pay dwindling dividends to shareholders until the end of the 19th century and remained independent until canals were nationalised in 1947.

In 1959 plans were drawn up to close the canal, but just around the time this archive was being pitched onto a bonfire, a conservation society was formed and the canal saved as a cruiseway.

The collection, which the Kidderminster vendor thankfully realised at the time was something worth preserving, comprises 34 notebooks that would appear to have been kept by Brindley's assistants, along with maps and Acts of Parliament dealing with its funding and construction.

One industrial archaeologist who viewed the sale told Halls that it was "fantastic and of national importance", and with gaps in their archives relating to the canal, the Staffordshire County Archives were keen to secure the collection. They were eventually successful at £6600, but they had to overcome stiff competition from an American collector.

By Ian McKay