Thomas Telford (1757–1834) was a Scottish civil engineer, architect and stonemason, and a noted road, bridge and canal builder. After establishing himself as an engineer of road and canal projects in Shropshire, he designed numerous infrastructure projects in his native Scotland, as well as harbours and tunnels. Such was his reputation as a prolific designer of highways and related bridges, he was dubbed The Colossus of Roads, and, reflecting his command of all types of civil engineering in the early 19th century, he was elected as the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he retained for 14 years until his death.
Telford was born on 9 August 1757 at Glendinning, a hill farm 3 miles west of Eskdalemuir Kirk, in the rural parish of Westerkirk, in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire. His father John Telford, a shepherd, died soon after Thomas was born. Thomas was raised in poverty by his mother Janet Jackson (d.1794).
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 in the Scottish borders. He worked for a time in Edinburgh, and in 1782 he moved to London where, after meeting architects Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers, he was involved in building additions to Somerset House there. Two years later, he found work at Portsmouth dockyard and — although still largely self-taught — was extending his talents to the specification, design and management of building projects.
In 1787, through his wealthy patron William Pulteney, 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. His projects included renovation of Shrewsbury Castle, the town’s prison (during the planning of which he met leading prison reformer John Howard), the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Bridgnorth and another church in Madeley. (Called in to advise on a leaking roof at St Chad’s Church Shrewsbury in 1788, he correctly warned the church was in imminent danger of collapse; his reputation was made locally when it collapsed 3 days later, but he was not the architect for its replacement).As the Shropshire county surveyor, Telford was also responsible for bridges. In 1790, he designed a bridge carrying the London-Holyhead road over the River Severn at Montford, the first of some 40 bridges he built in Shropshire, including major crossings of the Severn at Buildwas, and Bridgnorth. The bridge at Buildwas was Telford’s first iron bridge. He was influenced by Abraham Darby’s bridge at Ironbridge, and observed that it was grossly over-designed for its function, and many of the component parts were poorly cast. By contrast, his bridge was 30 ft (10 m) wider in span and half the weight, although it now no longer exists. He was one of the first engineers to test his materials thoroughly before construction. As his engineering prowess grew, Telford was to return to this material repeatedly. In 1795 the bridge at Bewdley, in Worcestershire was swept away in the winter floods and Telford was responsible for the design of its replacement. The same winter floods saw the bridge at Tenbury also swept away. This bridge across the River Teme was the joint responsibility of both Worcestershire and Shropshire, and the bridge has a bend where the two counties meet. Telford was responsible for the repair to the northern Shropshire end of the bridge.
Among other structures, this involved the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the River Dee in the Vale of Llangollen, where Telford used a new method of construction consisting of troughs made from cast iron plates and fixed in masonry. Extending for over 1,000 feet (300 m) with an altitude of 126 feet (38 m) above the valley floor, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct consists of nineteen arches, each with a forty-five foot span. Being a pioneer in the use of cast-iron for large scaled structures, Telford had to invent new techniques, such as using boiling sugar and lead as a sealant on the iron connections. Eminent canal engineer William Jessop oversaw the project, but he left the detailed execution of the project in Telford’s hands.
The same period also saw Telford involved in the design and construction of the Shrewsbury Canal. When the original engineer, Josiah Clowes, died in 1795, Telford succeeded him. One of Telford’s achievements on this project was the design of the cast-iron aqueduct at Longdon-on-Tern, pre-dating that at Pontcysyllte, and substantially bigger than the UK’s first cast-iron aqueduct, built by Benjamin Outram on the Derby Canal just months earlier.
The Ellesmere Canal was completed in 1805, and alongside his canal responsibilities, Telford’s reputation as a civil engineer meant he was constantly consulted on numerous other projects. These included water supply works for Liverpool, improvements to London’s docklands and the rebuilding of London Bridge (c.1800).
Most notably (and again William Pulteney was influential), in 1801 Telford devised a master plan to improve communications in the Highlands of Scotland, a massive project that was to last some 20 years. It included the building of the Caledonian Canal along the Great Glen and redesign of sections of the Crinan Canal, some 920 miles (1,480 km) 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.
Telford also undertook highway works in the Scottish Lowlands, including 184 miles (296 km) of new roads and numerous bridges, ranging from a 112 ft (34 m) span stone bridge across the Dee at Tongueland in Kirkcudbright (1805–1806) to the 129 ft (39 m) tall Cartland Crags bridge near Lanark (1822).
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.
Many of Telford’s projects were undertaken due to his role as a member of the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission, an organ set up under the Poor Employment Act of 1817, to help finance public work projects that would generate employment.
The ‘Colossus of Roads’
Beyond Shrewsbury, and especially beyond Llangollen, the work often involved building a highway from scratch. Notable features of this section of the route include the Waterloo Bridge across the River Conwy at Betws-y-Coed, the ascent from there to Capel Curig and then the descent from the pass of Nant Ffrancon towards Bangor. Between Capel Curig and Bethesda, in the Ogwen Valley, Telford deviated from the original road, built by Romans during their occupation of this area.
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, overcome by the Menai Suspension Bridge (1819–1826). Spanning 580 feet (180 m), this was the longest suspension bridge of the time. Unlike modern suspension bridges, Telford used individually linked 9.5-foot (2.9 m) iron eye bars for the cables.
Telford also worked on the North Wales coast road between Chester and Bangor, including another major suspension bridge at Conwy, opened later the same year as its Menai counterpart.
Further afield Telford designed a road to cross the centre of the Isle of Arran. Named the ‘String road,’ this route traverses bleak and difficult terrain to allow traffic to cross between east and west Arran avoiding the circuitous coastal route.
Telford improved on methods for the building of macadam roads by improving the selection of stone based on thickness, taking into account traffic, alignment and slopes.
The punning nickname Colossus of Roads was given to Telford by his friend, the eventual Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. Telford’s reputation as a man of letters may have preceded his fame as an engineer: he had published poetry between 1779 and 1784, and an account of a tour of Scotland with Southey. His will left bequests to Southey, who would later write Telford’s biography, the poet Thomas Campbell (1777–1844) and to the publishers of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (to which he had been a contributor).
In 1821, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The ‘Telford Church’
An Act of Parliament in 1823 provided a grant of £50,000 for the building of up to 40 churches and manses in communities without any church buildings (hence the alternative name: ‘Parliamentary Church’ or ‘Parliamentary Kirk’). The total cost was not to exceed £1500 on any site and Telford was commissioned to undertake the design. He developed a simple church of T-shaped plan and two manse designs – a single-storey and a two-storey, adaptable to site and ground conditions, and to brick or stone construction, at £750 each. Of the 43 churches originally planned, 32 were eventually built around the Scottish highlands and islands (the other 11 were achieved by redoing existing buildings). The last of these churches was built in 1830.
Other works by Telford include the St Katharine Docks (1824–1828) close to Tower Bridge in central London, where he worked with the architect Philip Hardwick, the Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal (today known as the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal), Over Bridge near Gloucester, the second Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal (1827), and the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal (today part of the Shropshire Union Canal) — started in May 1826 but finished, after Telford’s death, in January 1835. At the time of its construction in 1829, Galton Bridge was the longest single span in the world. He also built Whitstable harbour in Kent in 1832, in connection with the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway with an unusual system for flushing out mud using a tidal reservoir.
In 1820, Telford was appointed the first President of the recently-formed Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held until his death.
Telford’s young draughtsman and clerk 1830-1834 George Turnbull in his diary states:
“On the 23rd [August 1834] Mr Telford was taken seriously ill of a bilious derangement to which he had been liable … he grew worse and worse … [surgeons] attended him twice a day, but it was to no avail for he died on the 2nd September, very peacefully at about 5pm. … His old servant James Handscombe and I were the only two in the house [24 Abingdon Street, London] when he died. He was never married. Mr Milne and Mr Rickman were, no doubt, Telford’s most intimate friends. … I went to Mr Milne and under his direction … made all the arrangements about the house and correspondence. … Telford had no blood relations that we knew of. The funeral took place on the 10th September [in Westminster Abbey]. … Mr Telford was of the most genial disposition and a delightful companion, his laugh was the heartiest I ever heard; it was a pleasure to be in his society.”
In 2011 he was one of seven inaugural inductees to the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.
Telford the Poet
George Turnbull states that Telford wrote and gave him a poem:
On reading an account of the death of ROBERT BURNS, the SCOT POET
CLAD in the sable weeds of woe,
The Scottish genius mourns,
As o’er your tomb her sorrows flow,
The “narrow house” of Burns.
Each laurel round his humble urn,
She strews with pious care,
And by soft airs to distance borne,
These accents strike the ear.
Farewell my lov’d, my favourite child,
A mother’s pride farewell!
The muses on thy cradled smiled,
Ah! now they ring thy knell.
—- ten verses and then —-
And round the tomb the plough shall pass,
And yellow autumn smile ;
And village maids shall seek the place,
To crown thy hallowed pile.
While yearly comes the opening spring,
While autumn wan returns ;
Each rural voice shall grateful sing,
And SCOTLAND boasts of BURNS.
22nd August, 1796. T.T.
(Turnbull includes notes that explain nine references to Burns’ life in the poem.)
Turnbull also states:
“His ability and perseverance may be understood from various literary compositions of after life, such as the articles he contributed to the Edinburgh Encyclopædia, such as Architecture, Bridge-building, and Canal-making. Singular to say the earliest distinction he acquired in life was as a poet. Even at 30 years of age he reprinted at Shrewsbury a poem called “Eskdale”, … Some others of his poems are in my possession.”
Bridges Designed by Telford
Telford’s Lothian Bridge (1831) on the present A68
Thomas Telford designed a number of bridges during his career. They include:
Bewdley Bridge (1798)
Bonar Bridge (1812)
Bridgnorth bridge (1810)
Bridge of Keig (1827)
Broomielaw Bridge, Glasgow (1816)
Buildwas bridge (1796)
Cantlop bridge (1820)
Chirk Aqueduct (1801)
Clachan Bridge (1792)
Conwy Suspension Bridge (1826)
Coundarbour Bridge (1797)
Craigellachie Bridge (1815)
Dean Bridge, Edinburgh (1831)
Dunans Bridge (1815)
Dunkeld Bridge (1809)
Eaton Hall Bridge (1824)
Galton Bridge (1829)
Glen Loy Aqueduct on the Caledonian Canal (1806)
Harecastle Tunnel (1827)
Holt Fleet Bridge (1827)
A proposal for London Bridge
Longdon-on-Tern Aqueduct (1796)
Lothian Bridge, Pathhead, Midlothian (1831)
Menai Suspension Bridge (1826)
Montford Bridge (1792)
Mythe Bridge (1826)
Over Bridge (1827)
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (1805)
Stanley Embankment (1823)
Telford Bridge (1813)
Tongland Bridge (1808)
Waterloo Bridge, Betws-y-Coed (1815)
Places Named For Telford
Telford New Town
When a new town was being built in the Wrekin area of Shropshire in 1968, it was named Telford in his honour. In 1990, when it came to naming one of Britain’s first City Technology Colleges, to be situated in Telford, Thomas Telford was the obvious choice. Thomas Telford School is consistently among the top performing comprehensive schools in the country.
The Borough of County Line in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania changed its name to Telford in 1857, after the North Pennsylvania Railroad Company named its new station there “Telford” in honour of Thomas Telford.
Edinburgh’s Telford College
Edinburgh’s Telford College, one of Scotland’s largest colleges, is named in the honour of the famous engineer.
Telford’s autobiography, titled The Life of Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer, written by himself, was published in 1838.
Regina, your post has particular interest for me.
My husband worked for British Waterways for 19 years and so we spent a lot of time around canals over the years. I have walked across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct although I’ve never been across in a narrowboat. I have travelled by narrowboat along the stretch of the Birmingham Canal Navigation between Birmingham and Smethwick where major changes were made by Telford. The canal was widened and straightened, providing towpaths on each side, and cutting through Smethwick Summit to bypass the locks, allowing lock-free passage from Birmingham to Tipton. It greatly speeded up the shipment of goods.
I have visited the Iron Bridge many times over the years and, having spent a couple of holidays on Anglesey, I’ve been across the Menai Suspension Bridge as well.
When I was researching Thomas Telford, I thought of both you and Judith Barrow because of the connection to Wales. Yours is a country I have never visited, but one which I hope to some day see.