Friday, 9 August 2013

Thomas Telford

On this day in 1757 Thomas Telford, canal, road and bridge builder, entered the world at Gelndinning, a rural farm in Dumfriesshire.  His shepherd father died soon after he was born and poverty suffused his early life.  At 14 he was apprenticed to a stonemason later working in Edinburgh before making his way to London in 1782.  Self taught for the most part he was a natural engineer and through William Pulteney he obtained the post of Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire.  While there he not only renovated many public buildings he also began to erect some forty bridges in Shropshire alone as part of his daily duties.  

In 1793 Telford designed and built the Ellsmere Canal linking Wrexham, Ellsmere and Chester with the Mersey.  This included erecting the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct 126 feet over the River Dee. This engineering marvel is still in regular use today by canal boats.  As Telford's reputation grew his opinion was requested in many spheres, Liverpool water, London Bridge and a twenty year job building the Caledonian Canal to improve communication by sea in the heart of the highlands.  This involved a thousand miles of new roads, another thousand bridges, improvements to harbours at ports throughout Scotland as well as the development of the canal itself.  All this at a time when the Navvy, armed with pick and shovel, completed the work by the sweat of his brow.  The death toll from accident as well as overwork must be enormous.  Alongside all this Telford erected 32 new churches and developed almost 200 miles of road in the south west of Scotland.  This at a time when muddy roads were the norm and transport consisted of foot, horse or coach.  Thomas improved on the development of MacAdam roads, changing the material used to strengthen the road surface.  The churches were paid for by parliament and erected in areas devoid of a place of worship.  £1500 was allowed for each building and Telford's design skillfully reduced the cost to a mere £750.  I wonder how many still exist, possibly as expensive homes today.

Telford constructed roads throughout England and Wales all with their accompanying bridges including the Menai Bridge.  The face of Britain was changed completely when his roads were completed.  Canals, roads, bridges and this was soon followed by the entrance of the Railway age, changing the nation once again in a different manner.  Telford's roads and many bridges however are still in use, many now expanded, improved, but still following the original way. When he was referred to as "The Colossus of Roads," by his friend the poet Robert Southey few would have disagreed!   Late in life he completed St Katherine's Dock next to Tower Bridge in London, a place still full of boats today, tunnels, canals and roads were still in his mind when he died in 1834.  Telford was 77 when he died and had never married.  He left no blood relation and had he married and became surrounded by a family would he ever have completed so many great public works?     

Thomas Telford was so great an engineer that many roads, including one near my home area in Edinburgh, were named after him.  However in Shropshire the new town was called 'Telford' in commemoration of the great man.  Few of us will ever have that accolade!

He was a Scot you know, did I mention this?

Thomas Telford  Caledonian Canal  Ellsmere Canal  Thomas Telford Salopian



Lee said...

One can only sit or stand in awe of what men like Telford did so many centuries ago...and all achieved without the tools, knowledge (or so-called knowledge) and technology we are surrounded with today.

When you/me/we take time to think about really is outstanding; and if the proof wasn't still around to remind us, we'd never believe it...believing it to be a product of some writer's over-active imagination.

soubriquet said...

There you go, Telford, somehow, though I had learned about him in school, and of course in later years, being fascinated by the great innovative engineers of the industrial revolution,you brought up the fact that he was a Scot.
I did not know that. I'd always assumed he was from Shropshire, given that they named a town after him. I've never been there, but I've always intended to go to the many museums of the Ironbridge Gorge area.
BBC Timewatch did a program on Abraham Darby's Iron Bridge,the world's first cast iron arch bridge. I watched in fascination as they cast new bridge-ribs, pouring molten iron into sand moulds. Nobody, today, can say for sure, how it was erected. Was each arch assembled flat then hauled into position? Who knows?

Then there's Telford's Menai bridge, which you picture. He had to build it with a hundred feet of clear space beneath, to allow sailing ships free access. No scaffolding was permitted by the original brief.
And Telford designed this elegant and unprecedented structure, making chains out of cast iron iron bars, to span 577 feet, high above the straits, imagine the work, to draw a chain, (each weighed 121 tons) across that stretch of fast-flowing tidal water, and haul it upward into position. Telford's vision created something that should have been, maybe was, seen as a new wonder of the world. He built the impossible.

I also didn't know he was the builder of St Katherine's Dock, by The Tower of London, I've been there many a time. There's an incredibly ugly hotel beside it...
But the dock itself.... Somewhere, long ago, I think I posted some pictures, I wish I tagged posts, it would make life easier, looking back.

McAdam's roads. Well, he was really an adaptor of the roman method, , but now I have to find out what Telford did to improve on it.
Roads, and their genesis and engineering are a bit of an interest of mine...
I'm a big fan of Blind Jack of Knaresborough.

Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

We could sure use some like him these days, but I wonder if they would be permitted to actually construct projects that would stand the test of time? For with government incompetence and corruption running rampant, it is considered good when a public works project is completed before it starts falling apart over here.

Adullamite said...

Lee, All the greater as he was self taught.

Soub, I thought you would know him. One of the great engineers.

Jerry, I think that happened then also. He had his friends too of course!