Thomas Telford FRS, FRSE, civil engineer, architect and stonemason, and a noted road, bridge and canal builder, was born in rural Dumfriesshire on the 9th of August, 1757.
From a strikingly humble beginning, Thomas Telford, through his persevering industry, rose to become the preeminent engineer of his generation in Great Britain. His works are so numerous that there is hardly a county in England, Wales or Scotland in which they may not be pointed out. The Menai suspension bridge, between the island of Anglesey and the mainland of Wales, is probably his crowning achievement, exceeding in magnitude every work of its kind in the world at the time it was completed, in 1826. The list of credits which immortalise his name includes: the Caledonian Canal, St Katharine’s Docks in London, the Chirke Aqueduct and the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the Ellesmere Canal, the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, the Gota Canal in Sweden, and the canals in Salop where he was surveyor of public works for more than half a century.
Thomas Telford was also an important road builder and during his life, he built more than one thousand miles of road, including many roads and bridges in the Highlands. For that, the poet, Robert Southey, gave him the pun-nickname ‘The Colossus of Roads’. His mileage of roads also included the rebuilding of the Shrewsbury to Holyhead road and the North Wales coast road between Chester and Bangor. Telford was employed as a consultant for the rebuilding of London Bridge, in 1800, but he was also a man of letters; befriending poets, contributing to the Edinburgh Encyclopedia and publishing his own poetry and travel journal.
Thomas Telford was born on the 9th of August, 1757, in Jamestown in the parish of Westerkirk, in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire. He was the son of a poor shepherd who died in the same year Thomas was born. Wee Thomas grew up a healthy boy and he was so full of fun and humour that he became known in the valley by the name of ‘Laughing Tam’. When he was old enough to herd sheep he went to live with a relative, who was a shepherd like his father, and he spent most of his time in summer on the hillsides amidst the silence of nature. He also herded cows or ran errands and his first wages were five shillings a year for clogs. Despite his humble origins, Telford managed to acquire the elements of learning and spent all his spare time poring over any book on which he could lay hands. He turned his hand to poetry and contributed verses to ‘Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine’, under the pen-name ‘Eskdale Tam’. He addressed one of those compositions to Burns, in which he betrayed his destiny and perhaps his ambition:
“Nor pass the tentie curious lad,
Who o’er the ingle hangs his head,
And begs of neighbours books to read;
For hence arise,
Thy country’s sons, who far are spread,
Baith bold and wise.”
At the age of fourteen Telford was apprenticed to a stonemason and worked, amongst other projects, on the Langholm Bridge. At the age of twenty-three, he left Eskdale for the first time and sought work in Edinburgh, where the New Town was in the course of being built on the elevated land extending along the north bank of the Nor' Loch. Skilled masons were in great demand and Telford had no difficulty in getting a job. He moved to London in 1792, where he found work in the building of Somerset House. The architect, Sir William Chambers, recognised his merits and Telford gained rapid promotion. Two years later, he found work at Portsmouth dockyard and in 1787, he became surveyor of public works for Shropshire and proceeded to become an engineering legend.
Perhaps his greatest monument is the Menai suspension bridge, which was built because of the increased the need for transport to Ireland after the Act of Union of 1800. The bridge was needed to link the mainland to Anglesey and the port of Holyhead; one of the principal terminals to Dublin. The design of the bridge had to allow for 100 feet (30 m) tall Royal Navy sailing ships to pass under the deck at high water slack tide. Construction of the bridge began in 1819 with the towers on either side of the strait, which were constructed from Penmon limestone. The suspending power of the huge chain cables was calculated at 2,016 tons and the total weight of each chain was 121 tons. The bridge was opened on the 30th of January, 1826, reducing the London-Holyhead journey time by nine hours. In 2005, it was promoted to UNESCO as a candidate World Heritage Site. Lewis Carroll also gave it a wee mention:
[White Knight to Alice]
"I heard him then, for I had just completed my design,
To keep the Menai bridge from rust by boiling it in wine."
Apart from his contributions to England and Wales, and, in particular, Shropshire, Telford was active in his native Scotland. In 1805, after competition of the Ellesmere Canal (now known as the Llangollen Canal), which included the marvelous cast iron aqueduct at Pontcysyllte and which is known locally as ‘the waterway in the sky’, Telford returned home to build the Caledonian Canal. Quite apart from the Canal, his involvement in the development of the Scottish Highlands was immense as he was responsible for the building many miles of roads and bridges. The road he built from Inverness through Caithness to the county of Sutherland was, in terms of its construction, “superior in point of line and smoothness, to any part of the road of equal continuous length between London and Inverness.” That remains a remarkable fact, not least because of the great difficulties he had to overcome in passing through such a rugged and mountainous territory.
Thomas Telford’s engineering skill is incontrovertible. He was appointed as the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and held that post until his death on the 2nd of September, 1834. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and, in 1968, Dawley New Town, in Shropshire, was renamed Telford in his honour.