Thomas Telford: Biography
The Scotsman who laid the foundations of industrial Britain, the Colossus of Roads, the godfather of civil engineering, Thomas Telford even had a town named after him. So why has he been all but forgotten?
Born on the borders of England and Scotland on 9 August 1757, Thomas Telford never knew his shepherd father. He dies four months after the boy is born. His single mother can’t afford to raise him so relatives do. But such is Thomas’s vitality that he’s soon known as ‘Laughing Tam’.
Thomas leaves school and aged 14, he apprentices to a stonemason. He helps build new roads and a farmhouse on the estate of a local duke. Despite the nature of his day job, with its intensive long hours, Thomas studies at night to learn all there is about construction. By 25, he’s worked in Edinburgh and is off to London. He meets with two Scottish architects, one of whom, Sir William Chambers is building Somerset House. Telford secures work there.
In 1783, he meets up again with a childhood friend and his future benefactor. They both come from Dumfries but whereas Telford is poor, his new patron to be certainly isn’t. He’s Sir William Pulteney, reportedly the richest man in Britain.
In 1784, he’s working at Portsmouth dockyard. He’s teaching himself the basics of construction projects ranging from the materials involved to the overall management. He’s learning the emerging discipline of civil engineering.
A TOWN CALLED TELFORD
In 1786 Pulteney commissions him to start converting the Norman motte and bailey, but now derelict, Shrewsbury Castle. He remodels the interior into a house for the local MP complete with panoramic platform and a folly Tower for the MP’s wife. He’s a prolific and imaginative creator. Pulteney is impressed. He finds work for Telford as surveyor of public works in Shropshire. It is a new job created just for the new engineer. His works will become synonymous with the area.
In 1792, he completes the Montford stone bridge over the River Severn in order to carry the London-Hollyhead road. It’s an engineering marvel that gains him a reputation as one of Britain’s greatest engineers. And it’s the first of 40 bridges built in Shropshire. But the suspension bridge as a design concept is new. So new, in fact, that Telford often says a lengthy prayer before the chains take the weight of the bridge.
Next, Telford pioneers the use of iron in bridge construction. His opportunity comes with the death of the Shrewsbury Canal chief engineer tasked with getting a canal across a valley. A previous attempt in stone had been washed away and one of the financial backers had interests in iron. So Telford builds with iron.
THE WATERWAY IN THE SKY
In 1793, he’s appointed engineer for the Ellesmere Canal. It will be one of his greatest engineering successes. It involves the construction of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and involves canals, quite literally, built in the air. The largest engineering feat of its day, it takes ten years to complete. Its piers stand over 120ft (36.5m) high supporting an iron trough fixed in masonry that carries the canal over a 1,000ft (305m) across the River Dee.
THE CALEDONIAN CANAL
In 1803 Telford takes his hard won reputation back to his homeland to work on the massive 60 mile Caledonian Canal. His work in Scotland gives those made homeless by the Highland Clearances a chance to earn a living. However, he’s much criticised for employing Irish workers when the Scottish depart to tend to their harvests. And the project goes over budget and overtime. After a decade, three years longer than scheduled, the canal is completed. But in the fast moving industrial age, steam ships have become common and the canal isn’t big enough to carry them. The canal is a catastrophic commercial failure. It is, however, a superb civil engineering feat that will survive for many centuries.
Telford returns to England to help bring together each of its separate canals in order to create an interconnected super waterway. It will be his last canal and it will be back in Shropshire, the county that will come to count him as one of their own.
The aim is to link up all the canal networks from Birmingham to the Ellesmere Port on the Wirral. Ignoring the contours of the land, Telford carves through the countryside creating the shortest route possible.
In 1820 he becomes the first President of the newly formed Institution of Civil Engineers. In his lifetime, he has virtually created, and become king of, a new profession. In 1826 he completes the Menai Suspension Bridge in North Wales. It has the longest span in the world and will later be considered one of the greatest examples of iron works ever built.
TELFORD VERSUS BRUNEL
When a Bristol wine merchant leaves a legacy to construct a bridge over the 250ft (76m) Avon Gorge a competition is set up to see who’ll build it. Thomas Telford chairs the committee charged with deciding on the winning design. But Telford has his own extravagant vision for the longest bridge in the world. So when a new young engineer, Isambard Brunel, submits design after design, Telford rejects them, again, and again. It’s only when there is a public outcry that Telford relents. Unfortunately for Telford, the bridge will propel Brunel to international celebrity status. And history will mainly remember Telford for his obstruction of the up and coming Brunel.
THE COLOSSUS OF ROADS
On top of canals, castles, churches and bridges, Telford will build over 1,000 miles of road during his lifetime. He’s given his nickname, the ‘Colossus of Roads’ by his friend, Robert Southey. Southey, a future poet laureate, puns on one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the huge Greek Titan statue, the ‘Colossus of Rhodes’.
Telford analyses current road building methods and improves on everything from the thickness of the stone used to alignment and gradient. He designs the system that raises the foundation of the road in the centre to act as a drain for water. His designs become the standard for all roads. He rebuilds the London to Holyhead road to these specifications.
BURIED WITH HONOURS
Towards the end of his life Telford settles in London, but he never marries. Eventually, his health fails and before he can see the opening of the country connected canal system, the Shropshire Union, he dies peacefully. In 1834, in a sign of national respect, he’s buried in Westminster Abbey.
BURIED BY HISTORY
Telford hadn’t just built over a thousand bridges, over a thousand miles of roads, countless canals, churches and harbours. He’d laid the infrastructure that dragged the farming nation of Scotland into becoming an industrial powerhouse and made Britain a country that could support an Empire.
But such was the speed of the Industrial Revolution that within a generation, the canals he created were made almost obsolete by both steam ships and steam trains. The future of transport would be rail, and would belong to engineers like George Stephenson.