The Life & Times of Thomas Telford, FRD, FRSE
August 9th marks the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Telford, first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and a noted canal, road and bridge builder. Born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland to John & Janet Telford, at 14 he apprenticed as a stonemason and soon became extremely specialised in the specification, design and management of a range of building projects.
By 1787, he had taken the role of Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire and in this role really expanded himself as an architect. Notable works from this period of his life included the renovation of Shrewsbury Castle, the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Bridgnorth and St Michael’s Church in Madeley. He also designed and oversaw the building of over 40 bridges in Shropshire during this time, including the Montford Bridge (his first design) which is still in place and classed as a Grade II listed building. All of this was leading up to his appointment in 1793 to manage the design and construction of the Ellesmere Canal, a major undertaking that included the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Ellesmere Canal took 12 years to build and catapulted Telford into a consultancy role as a bridge and canal expert. Projects he was involved in included the rebuilding of London Bridge (1799), water supply works in Liverpool and improvements on London’s Docklands - Telford’s role was an engineer for the St Katharine Docks. The Scottish Highlands were the next area to receive his attention, and in 1801 he began the major project of improving communications to outlying areas and islands.
Telford devised many ways to improve the transport networks in Scotland, with the Highlands being the main priority as opportunities for employment were desperately needed. Over 1000 new bridges were built, 920 miles of new roads and harbour improvements to all major ports including Aberdeen and Dundee. The Caledonian Canal, designed to connect the east and west coasts of Scotland, was also part of the redevelopment and was completed in 1822, having taken 19 years to build and complete. This is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument and is a hugely popular tourist attraction bringing over half a million visitors every year.
The Scottish Lowlands were also part of Telford’s master plan and works completed to improve the highway network included 184 miles of new roads and a number of new bridges, including Cartland Crags over the Mouse Water river in South Lanarkshire. This bridge is 39m tall and was completed in 1822. During this time, Telford also became the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), a post he held until his death in 1834. ICE still exists today with nearly 89,000 members around the world.
London to Holyhead Road Rebuild:
Telford was responsible for rebuilding a number of sections of the London to Holyhead road in his later years, a project which included repaving the majority of the road and building entire sections from scratch.
This road, originally known as Watling Street, has its roots as an ancient trackway dating back to Celtic Britain that connected the modern areas of St Albans to Canterbury. Originally paved in AD 47 and expanded South by the Romans to include a number of ports in Kent and North past Hadrian’s Wall, the road was in continuous use and maintained on an ongoing basis. The middle section was the site of the infamous Battle of Watling Street in AD 61, and in the centuries following was further expanded to include subsidiary routes including London (Londinium) to Dover (Portus Dubris) and Lympne (Portus Lemanis) to Romney Marsh. By the 9th century, the route went through Kent, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and was named as a boundary in the 9th century Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.
To be responsible for the rebuild of a road so steeped in history was no mean feat and Telford met the challenge, with ground-breaking work such as the Menai Suspension Bridge spanning the Menai Strait, the longest suspension bridge ever built at this time (and now a Grade I Listed Building). On the island of Anglesey, a new embankment across the Stanley Sands to Holyhead was constructed and completely new sections of highway were built along different areas of the road, including the Ogwen Valley and the sections beyond Shrewsbury and Llangollen. Another major suspension bridge was also built at Conwy as part of this work (also Grade I Listed) and his work on improving the Glasgow-Carlisle road became known as “the model for future engineers to follow”. This road later became the modern day A47.
Much of the road has now been amalgamated as the A5 London Holyhead Trunk Road (Marble Arch, London-Admiralty Arch, Holyhead) although trunk sections of the original road are now also part of the A45, A41 and A464. Much as these modern day roads have covered the original Watling Street, there are still distinctive features of Telford’s work that can be seen along the way, primarily in Wales, including distinctive toll houses, milestones at each mile and ‘sunburst’ gates present at the bridges and tolls.
Telford died 2nd September, 1834 of a “bilious derangement” – a liver complaint – at his home in London. His funeral and burial took place at Westminster Abbey on 10th September. A larger than life statue in his likeness was constructed in 1839 in St Andrews Chapel and can still be seen today.
Did you know?
- You can still see some of his earliest stonemasonry on the bridge that spans the River Esk in Langholm
- 43 churches were commissioned and built/restructured around the Scottish highlands and islands to the “Telford Design” during the years of 1823-1830. These followed a simple T shaped design and cost around £750 each. Surviving churches can be found on the Isles of Iona, Ulva and Skye, amongst others.
- Telford didn’t only work on projects in the UK. In 1806 he travelled to Sweden to consult with King Gustav IV Adolf about the construction of the Göta Canal, a project which started in 1810. He later became an elected foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
- He was a commissioner and member of the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission, set up in 1817 under the Poor Employment Act. This enabled him to consult and undertake many of his projects, as they were designed with generating employment as one of the key drivers.
- His work on the St Katharine’s Docks was his only major project in London. The docks officially opened in 1828, were badly damaged during WW2 and then closed for good in 1968. The Eastern basin had been derelict since the war and they were unable to cope with larger, modern day ships. The area is now a marina surrounded by commercial premises and is cited as a model example of successful urban development.
- He was one of 7 inaugural inductees to the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011