George Sorocold
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River navigation and docks
Sorocold's river navigation and dock projects count among his most significant contributions to British life. They were major transport infrastructure schemes — constructed before the advent of large-scale canal engineering — and they were key to local and national commercial and industrial development. However, as with much of Sorocold's work, relatively little detail is known.
His earliest involvement with river navigation works dates from around 1694, when he contributed to improvements to the navigability of the River Derwent in Yorkshire (Yorkshire Derwent Navigation) between Malton and Barmby (where it joins the River Ouse). Sorocold worked on it early in the planning stages and undertook survey works along the Derwent in 1694 and again in 1699.
To enable the main works to begin, an Act of Parliament was passed in May 1702. This empowered Richard Darley of Buttercramb, and Christopher Percehay, Nathaniel Herrison and Ralph Cheatham of New Malton, and James Hebden of Yeasthorpe to dig cuts, trim the banks, remove restrictions and prepare a towpath. Sorocold undertook further survey work along the river that year and worked on the design and positioning of a number of locks.
Progress appears to have been slow and the works would not be completed until the 1720s, with lock positions largely reflecting Sorocold's scheme despite the long delay. The navigation was mainly used for the transport of coal and agricultural produce. One lock remains today — Stamford Bridge Lock, which is Grade II listed.
While working on the Yorkshire Derwent navigation, Sorocold started on a scheme closer to home, improving the navigation of the River Derwent in Derbyshire (Derbyshire Derwent Navigation) between Derby and the River Trent junction. Parliamentary Bills had been prepared for improvements along this section in 1664, 1665, 1675, 1676 and 1698 but none had progressed.
Member of Parliament (MP) for Derby, John Bagnold, was asked to prepare the one put forward in 1665. It achieved a second reading but wasn't passed as it was considered to have been promoted for personal gain rather than for the good of the people. Both Derby's MPs, Lord Cavendish and George Vernon, had prepared the 1698 Bill, which was rejected at its second reading.
Not to be thwarted, the Mayor and Burgesses of Derby petitioned the House of Commons on 17th November 1702: "... the said Borough of Derby is an inland town, but hath a large river (called Derwent) running into the navigable River Trent, within six miles distance of it; and the county of Derby abounding with great store of heavy commodities, as Lead, Iron, Marble, Plaister, Milstones, etc., the highways especially towards the River Trent being exceedingly deep, renders the land carriage very difficult and expensive; which John Burrows esquire, and other undertakers, have at their own charges proposed to remedy, by making the River Derwent navigable from Derby to the River Trent; and also to build a convenient Dock and wharfs for the benefit of the borough and poor thereof."
This time a Mr Stanhope, a Mr Harpur and Sir Thomas Davall were authorized to prepare a further Bill. Sorocold appears to have been involved early on. A letter dated 17th November 1702 from Sorocold (who by now resided in Cecil Street in London) to Thomas Coke at Melbourne Hall indicates that he had "... been told by Mr Stanhope that Sir Christopher Musgrave is to speak against the bill. Thomas Bagshawe assures him that 'his Grace' will not speak against it."
This Bill passed through the Commons to the House of Lords. In 1703, Sorocold gave details of the scheme to the Lords, presenting his plan of the proposed works. A copy is held at Derbyshire Records Offices. It shows in detail the navigation from a new wharf at The Holmes in Derby to the junction with the Trent and Great Wilne, and includes a sectional profile along the route showing locks and bridges. Two cuts to bypass long bends in the river are indicated, with a further cut to bypass the weir at Wilne.
Sorocold's lock arrangements were unusual. He proposed to use locks in series, each one with a shallowish rise of between 900mm and 1.2m (3-4ft), rather than single locks with high rises. The idea was to reduce the impact on mills and water meadows. Despite his efforts, the project was again rejected by the Lords.
A further attempt to pass a navigation bill was made in Parliament by the Mayor and Burgesses of Derby in 1717. It was accompanied by a map (now in the British Museum archives) produced by Sorocold showing key elements and transport routes of the Derbyshire lead-mining industry and his original plan. The covering letter indicates that the design had been reviewed to include only the cut at Wilne Weir. Interestingly, the petition refers to Sorocold as "that unfortunate mathematician".
An Act to make the Derwent navigable between Derby and the Trent was eventually passed in 1720. Works soon began on improvements to the river, including the construction of a wharf at the Moreledge in Derby. The navigation would remain a major transport route for goods to and from Derby until sometime around 1796 when Benjamin Outram's Derby Canal opened fully.
Sorocold has been linked to a number of other navigation schemes around the country, including the Aire & Calder Navigation in Yorkshire, where his acquaintance John Hadley was engineer in the late 1690s. Sorocold is also credited with a 1702 survey of the River Lea in London. Nine years later he recommended a number of improvements for the River Lea, including flash locks to deal with low water levels, once again proposing a series of shallow rises. He had made similar recommendations for the River Cam in 1706, and that same year had been consulted on a scheme to improve navigation of the River Dee in Chester which was gradually silting up.
Rounding out Sorocold's navigation works is one of the last projects for which his involvement has been confirmed — a 1714 survey to help develop plans for construction of a Forth-Clyde Canal in Scotland, an early progenitor of John Smeaton's eventual Forth & Clyde Canal (started 1768). Here Sorocold worked with notable Scottish surveyor, geographer and mathematician John Adair.
In the first decade of the 1700s, Sorocold worked on the design of first Liverpool Dock. At the time, Liverpool was a relatively small town, with a probable population of under 1,000. A small shallow tidal stretch of the Mersey, known as the 'Pool' was used as a harbour, and larger vessels unloaded on the river proper. With what would prove to be considerable commercial foresight, the town seized the chance of increasing trade with the American colonies by promoting the construction of what is said to be the world's first commercially-successful wet dock.
A letter dated 27th Jan 1708 written by Richard Johnson MP — a leading figure in Liverpool's commercial world — provides an indication of Sorocold's possible first involvement in this scheme: "On Sunday night [25th Jan], in good time, I saw Mr Sorocold; he would gladly serve us about the Dock; he is a very ingenious man; he is of the opinion it may be very well done, the stones in the Castle will save a great deal of money. He will tell you the charge within three or four hundred (pounds), which is as near as can be computed."
Some ten months later, Johnson and the other Liverpool MP Richard Norris were empowered by the town council to progress the design of the dock with a "proper person". In 1709 Sorocold returned to Liverpool, this time with Henry Huss, a surveyor from Derby: "One Henry Huss of Derbishire who comes to survey the place where to make a dock with Mr Sorocold and draw a plan & estimate the charges thereof." Progress on the design must have been impressive as later that year Sorocold and Huss were granted the Freedom of the Town of Liverpool for their contribution to the project.
The first Act of Parliament for constructing the dock was passed on 24th March 1710, based on Sorocold's plans and estimates. Soon after, Thomas Steers (c.1672-1750) was in Liverpool and it was Steers who was appointed engineer for the scheme. It is supposed that he had been working on London's 'Great Wet Dock' in Rotherhithe (he made a drawing for its owners), which was completed around the same time but failed to match Liverpool's commercial success. Steers would go on to be seen as one of the great early British engineers.
A second Act was passed that enabled the construction of Liverpool Dock at a higher cost, which included more work than Sorocold's plan and located the dock on reclaimed land from The Pool — a different position than Sorocold's plan. The enclosed dock opened in 1716 (now known as Liverpool Old Dock, constructed 1709-1715). Water was let in at high tide through its gates, which were then closed to maintain the water level and enable easier ship loading and unloading.
It's not clear why Steers was appointed to the works as opposed to Sorocold or Huss. Steers was responsible for the final design and construction works. However, it is possible that he was linked to Sorocold through the works at Rotherhithe and that he was employed as Sorocold's assistant, based in Liverpool, enabling Sorocold to continue to practice in London and elsewhere. Either way, it's clear that in laying the foundations for Liverpool's first dock, Sorocold played a significant role in the development of a town that would over the next two and half centuries be a trading port of worldwide importance.
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All items by George Sorocold  •  Everything built ... 1658 - 1738
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Sorocold's signature  image courtesy William Salt Library, Stafford

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George Sorocold
© 2022 Engineering Timelines
Stamford Bridge Lock
Sorocold's survey work, and lock design and positioning, eventually came to fruition with the building of the Yorkshire Derwent Navigation between Malton and Barmby on the River Derwent — completed without him in the 1720s.
One lock remains: Stamford Bridge Lock, shown in the recent picture above. The navigation was mainly used for the transport of coal and agricultural produce.
Photo: Paul Sharratt
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Proposed works for the Derbyshire Derwent navigation
Part of Sorocold's plan for proposed works for Derbyshire Derwent Navigation, designed to improve navigability on the River Derwent between Derby and the River Trent junction. This is the plan sent to Parliament in 1703 and it includes a sectional profile showing locks and bridges. Two cuts bypass river bends and a further cut bypasses the weir at Wilne. The enabling Bill was not passed in the House of Lords.
Map: courtesy Derby Local Studies Library (BA 386.4)
In the second set of drawings, sent to Parliament in 1717, was this plan, on which Sorocold details the routes used by the lead mining industry in Derbyshire, as well as the route of the navigation scheme — now with only one cut, bypassing Wilne Weir. An enabling act was eventually passed in 1720.
Map: copyright The British Library Board (010821.h.33)
Old Liverpool Dock
Liverpool Old Dock (constructed 1709-15), the remains of which can now be viewed below the Liverpool One development. Sorocold worked on the design of the dock but it was eventually constructed by engineer Thomas Steers. This is said to be the world's first commercially-successful wet dock.
Photo: copyright National Museums Liverpool
Old Liverpool Dock
Detail of an etching entitled South Western Prospect of Liverpool showing Liverpool Old Dock, published in 1728 by Samual & Nathaniel. It shows the lock-type gate that kept water in the dock when the tide went out, making it possible to service ships continuously.
Illustration: reproduced by kind permission of Barrie Trinder, from Britain's Industrial Revolution, Carnegie Publishing, 2013