Thomas Telford

Born in Westerkirk, Dumfries, Scotland in August of 1757, his shepherd father died within months of his birth. This humble beginning being no indication of the illustrious career Thomas Telford would forge for himself as an engineer; his contributions to the art and science of crossing mountains and rivers by highway, bridges, canals and road are legendary and made much of the Industrial Revolution possible.

He was apprenticed to a stonemason at the age of 14 but then trained as a surveyor. Impressed by the scope of his work, in 1787 Sir William Pulteney convinced the Shropshire County Council to create the position of Surveyor of Public Works and to give the job to Telford who held the post until his death in 1834. In this role, and under his patron Pulteney, he carried out the first excavations to the site of the Roman city of Uriconium in 1788. By 1790 he had established himself as an engineer of merit and was given the task of building what has been collectively referred to as an engineering marvel, the bridge over the River Severn at Montford (1792), the first seven bridges Telford built over the Severn. At Craigellachie in Scotland and the Waterloo Bridge in Wales his use of arches made of cast iron turned the bridge structure into an art form.

Menai Bridge
In his lifetime he was responsible for building more than 120 bridges and more than 1000 miles of road (900 in Scotland alone making the Highlands of Scotland actually accessible) including the main road between London and Holyhead, which included the first permanent bridge linking the Island of Anglesey with the Welsh mainland - the magnificent Menai Bridge (1819-1826) was, at the time of its building, the longest suspension bridge in the world. And while an Englishwoman named Sarah Guppy invented the suspension bridge, Telford was one of its chief proponents at a time when its use was a matter of controversy. Even so, it is noted that he was given to lengthy prayers just before the chains were scheduled to take the weight of his bridges.

His approach to build was on a grand scale cutting through the Earth rather than going around, a more costly approach but one yielding a more direct route and creating a more lasting structure. The Ellesmere, (now known as the Llangollen), the Caledonian and the Shrewsbury canals, the latter with the incredible Pontcysyllte Viaduct over the steep sided Dee River in Northern Wales, are among the extraordinary public works completed by Telford. With the Pontcysyllte, Welsh meaning 'connecting bridge', Telford used a new method of construction consisting of completely water tight troughs made of cast iron fixed in masonry supported by 18 piers. The 121 foot high aqueduct is 1007 feet in length, the longest and highest in Britain, was completed one month after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

In 1818 Telford helped found the Institute of Civil Engineers and he served as the organisation's first president. Within a generation of his death, the railways of I.K. Brunel and the combined efforts of father, George, and son, Robert, Stephenson had eclipsed the enormous engineering feats of Telford's canals.

Thomas Telford died on September 2, 1834 and as a sign of the regard in which he was held across Great Britain he is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, London.


Thomas Telford (1757-1834)
White Knight says 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.'
Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass

Actually it was not wine but oil. Telford had the idea to keep the wrought iron chains on his bridges from rusting by dipping the chains in oil as also used on Telford's suspension bridge over the River Conwy completed in 1826 a few miles from his Menai Bridge.