John Gilbert was born in 1724, the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Gilbert of Cotton Hall in Staffordshire. He became the estate manager for the Duke of Bridgewater in the Worsley area. At Worsley he oversaw the construction of the vast underground and surface canal system which enabled coal from the mines to be transported to the growing centres of Salford and Manchester.
James Brindley was engaged on Gilbert’s recommendation and became well known for his contribution while Gilbert himself has often received less credit. Gilbert went on to work on many canal projects with the Duke and James Brindley, including the Trent and Mersey Canal.
John Gilbert was held in high esteem by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater and for a time even lived with his wife and family at Worsley Old Hall, as part of the Duke’s household. He eventually moved to the Brick Hall which the Duke always referred to as "my stewards house". Gilbert died in 1795 and his wife Lydia died just two years later.
In 1994 Rector Norman Jones was clearing out the small Bridgewater chapel at St Mary’s parish church in Eccles when he discovered the access to a vault. Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit were called in to investigate. The vault dated back to the 17th century and belonged to the Egerton family. Amongst the Egerton commemorations was a coffin with a metal plate on an elaborate wooden lid. The inscription showed the sealed lead coffin as that of John Gilbert who died on August 3rd 1795 aged 70. Nearby was the coffin of Lydia Gilbert, John’s wife who died on November 22nd 1797 aged 75. After recording all the finds the ornate coffin plates were removed and were put on permanent display within the church, leaving the sealed coffins undisturbed. The vault was closed.
In 1996 the only known portrait of John Gilbert came home to the area where he made his biggest impression on the world.
A group of local historians traced the painting to the home of a descendant in the Isle of Wight. The group managed to raise the funds needed to purchase the painting and have it restored. The search for the painting was started by Frank Mullineux, a well known local historian who for many years was curator of the Monk’s Hall Museum in Eccles. Following Franks death his widow Elsie, an equally well respected historian, continued the quest with the assistance of Andrew Cross, Evelyn Vigeon, Ann Monaghan, Ken Kilburn and the Rev Norman Jones. This group of local historians encouraged individuals and organisations to donate to the project and in a little over two months the £5,000 was raised. A significant £2,000 was donated by the owners of the Ellesmere shopping centre in Walkden.
After restoration the painting was placed in the safe hands of the Salford Museum and Art Gallery. It can still be viewed in the Victorian Gallery where it is displayed alongside portraits of Francis Egerton, the Third Duke of Bridgewater and James Brindley. The three men credited with the creation of the Bridgewater Canal.
Much more about John Gilbert and his brother Thomas can be found in Peter Lead’s Agents of Revolution : John and Thomas Gilbert - Entrepreneurs (1989).