Volunteer Views: The Pinkertons

Today’s blog post has been written for us by Patrick Bourne, one of our research volunteers.

Finding that I now have some spare time on my hands I’ve recently joined a small team of volunteer researchers at DCTT who are helping to document the history of the Black Country canals, and the stories of the people who worked on them. Whilst like many people I have always appreciated the past industrial significance of canals, and also the pleasure that the waterways and countryside can provide it has been an interesting journey delving into their development over the last 250 years, and finding out more about the people that created them. The only problem is ‘the more you know, the more you want to know’.

I’m currently investigating the Pinkertons, no, not the famous American detective agency, but Robert and Allan’s great uncle John and his family who were originally ‘Yeoman and Gardeners’ from the East Yorkshire area. From the 1760’s to the 1840’s they contracted to excavate many of the canals and navigations across Britain and in 1785 John Pinkerton contracted to build the tunnel under Dudley Hill. As there was no ground investigation, he had consulted some local miners about the ground that was to be expected, but their knowledge proved to be faulty.

It was the Pinkertons’ first tunnel contract and they soon found themselves in difficulty with extreme hazards of the strata and the quantity of groundwater. In 1787 less than half of the length had been completed, and the complaints about lack of progress, poor quality bricks in the lining, and rising costs led to John Pinkerton being forced to pay £2000 to be released from his contract. The tunnel was eventually completed in 1792 by Josiah Clowes at a total cost of c. £42,750.

John Pinkerton died in 1813 aged 73 and despite a number of failed contracts and ensuing litigations he left a fine reputation ‘distinguished by sincerity of manners and gentleness of temper. As a husband uniformly affectionate as a parent laudably indulgent, as a friend invariably constant’*, and we should not lose sight of his importance as one of the pioneers of civil engineering as we know it today. My investigation into the Pinkerton family continues.

* Ref. A Biographical Dictionary of Civil engineers in Great Britain & Ireland 1500 to 1830 by A W Skempton