Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford is one of the greatest architects and civil engineers Britain has produced. He is most noted for his roads, bridges and canals. He was born in Glendinning in the Parish of Westerkirk, near Langholm, Dumfriesshire on 9th August 1757. Telford's father, a shepherd, died soon after he was born. He was raised in poverty by his mother and attended the parish school. He had a great quest for learning. After reading a copy of 'Paradise Lost' he said, "I read and read and glowred and then I read and read again." At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a stonemason, and some of his earliest work can still be seen on the bridge across the River Esk in Langholm. It was his ambition to be an architect. In 1780 he worked for a time in Edinburgh. At the time many engineering books were written in French and he taught himself the language so that he could read them.

First Commissions

In 1782 he moved to London. After meeting architects Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers, he worked as a master mason on Somerset House in London. Two years later he found work at Portsmouth dockyard and, although still largely self-taught, began to extend his talents to the specification, design and management of building projects.

At this time the industrial revolution was moving into full swing and the great problem of the day was how to move ever larger quantities of merchandise and numbers of people safely and quickly around the country. It was the solution to this problem that engaged Telford for the remainder of his life.

In 1787, through a wealthy patron, William Pulteney, MP for Shrewsbury but originally from Westerkirk parish, he became Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire. Civil engineering was a discipline still in its infancy, so Telford was set on establishing himself as an architect. An early project was the renovation of Shrewsbury Castle, the town's prison. It was there he met leading prison reformer John Howard.

As the Shropshire county surveyor, Telford was also responsible for bridges. In 1790 he designed a bridge carrying the London to Holyhead road over the River Severn at Montford. This was the first of some 40 bridges he built in Shropshire, including major crossings of the Severn at Buildwas and Bridgnorth. Buildwas Bridge was Telford's first iron bridge. He was influenced by the famous bridge at Ironbridge. As his engineering prowess grew, Telford was to return to the use of iron repeatedly. He was one of the first engineers to test his materials thoroughly before construction.

Ellesmere Canal

In 1793 he linked the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham to Chester by constructing the pioneering Ellesmere Canal. It is 103 miles long with 31 locks and 2 major aqueducts including the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. This took ten years to complete and was opened in 1805. It is Telford's most ambitious engineering feat. At 127 feet (39m) high it carries the canal 1007 feet (310m) across the River Dee.

Highland Roads and Bridges

In 1801 at the request of the Government, Telford devised a master plan to improve communications in the Highlands of Scotland. This was a massive project that was to last some 20 years. It included the building of the Caledonian Canal along the Great Glen and the redesign of sections of the Crinan Canal; some 920 miles of new roads; over a thousand new bridges, including the Craigellachie Bridge; numerous harbour improvements (including works at Aberdeen, Dundee, Peterhead, Wick, Portmahomack and Banff) and 32 new churches. All of these works opened the Highlands up to trade and brought a prosperity previously unknown. Many of his works are still in daily use.

In Scotland he also built Broomielaw Bridge in Glasgow and the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh.

Caledonian and Göta Canals

Building of the Caledonian Canal began in 1803 and at 60 miles long took over 12 years to complete. The new waterway joined a series of lochs within the Great Glen and for the first time allowed sailors to avoid the risky passage around the north of Scotland.

Telford was consulted in 1806 by the King of Sweden about the construction of a canal between Gothenburg and Stockholm. His plans were adopted and construction of the Göta Canal began in 1810. Telford travelled to Sweden at that time to oversee some of the more important initial excavations.

The Holyhead Road

To improve links between London and Ireland Telford started to rebuild sections of the 267 mile London to Holyhead road in 1815, a task completed by his assistant of ten years, John MacNeill. Today, much of the route is the A5 trunk road. Between London and Shrewsbury, most of the work amounted to improvements. Beyond Shrewsbury, and especially beyond Llangollen, the work often involved building a highway from scratch. The project halved the previous 41 hour travel time between London and Holyhead.

On the island of Anglesey a new embankment across the Stanley Sands to Holyhead was constructed, but the crossing of the Menai Strait was the most formidable challenge. This was overcome by the Menai Suspension Bridge, 1819-1826, at the time the largest bridge in the world.

Telford also worked on the North Wales coast road between Chester and Bangor, including another major suspension bridge at Conwy, opened later in the same year as the Menai Bridge.

St Katharine Docks

Telford built the St Katharine Docks between 1824 and 1828, close to Tower Bridge in central London. This was part of the great expansion of the London docks system. To create as much quayside as possible, the docks were designed in the form of two linked basins, both accessed via an entrance lock from the Thames. Steam engines designed by James Watt and Matthew Boulton kept the water level in the basins about four feet above that of the tidal river. This was his only major project in London.

Other works by Telford include the Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal, today known as the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal and the second Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal, 1827.

He also built the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, today part of the Shropshire Union Canal - started in May 1826 but finished in January 1835, after Telford's death. At the time of its construction in 1829, Galton Bridge had the longest single span in the world.

Institution of Civil Engineers

In 1820, Telford was appointed the first President of the recently formed Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held until his death. Their prestigious offices are close to the Houses of Parliament in London. He is regarded as the creator of an entire profession.

Very little is known of Telford's private life. He never married but had a large circle of friends ranging from those at the top of government to workers and innkeepers. In his work he relied on a small number of trusted assistants.

A clue to his life is given in a letter to his friend in Langholm, Andrew Little.

"You ask me what I shall do all winter. I rise in the morning at 7 o' clock and will continue to get up earlier until it comes to 5. I then set seriously to work, to make out Accounts, write on business, or draw till breakfast which is at 9. Going around amongst the several Works brings My dinner time., which is about 2 o' clock; an hour and a half serves this, at half after 3 I again make an appearance when there's something generally wanted and I again go round and see what is going on - and draw till 5; then go to Tea till six - then I come back to my room and write, draw or read till half after 9 - then comes Supper and Bed time. This is my ordinary round unless when I dine or spend an Evening with a friend but friends of this sort I do not make many."

The nickname 'The Colossus of Roads' was given to Telford by his friend, the Poet Laureate Robert Southey.

Telford in Dumfries and Galloway

Telford loved Dumfriesshire and always returned to see his mother and friends as often as possible. In addition Telford also undertook highway works in the Scottish Lowlands. He built 184 miles of new roads including the Glasgow and Carlisle coach road between 1808 and 1828. Surviving sections of this lie mostly along the line of the former A74. He also built numerous bridges including the 112 ft (34 m) span stone bridge across the Dee at Tongland in Kirkcudbright, 1805.

He also produced plans for the Carlisle to Portpatrick and Port Logan coach road. Most of the route follows the line of the present A75.

Final Years

Telford continued to take an interest in all his projects right until his death in 1834. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. His monument stands in a side aisle.

In his career he was responsible for 1,500 roads, 400 canals, more than 1,000 bridges and aqueducts and 50 churches.

When a new town was being built in the Wrekin area of Shropshire in 1968, it was named Telford in his honour.

Edinburgh's Telford College, one of Scotland's largest colleges is named after him.

His life is best summed up by his obituary in the Shrewsbury Chronicle,

'His gradual rise from the stonemasons' and builders' yard to the top of his profession in his own country, or we believe we may say, in the world, is to be ascribed not more to his genius, his consummate ability and persevering industry, than to his plain honest, straightforward dealing and the integrity and candour which marked his character throughout life.'

You must enable javascript to view this website