Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford (1757–1834) is revered as “The Man Who Built Britain,” the subtitle of a 2007 British Broadcasting Corporation documentary film highlighting his achievements. Over a five-decade-long career that began in earnest in the 1790s, the former stonemason and entirely self-taught engineer and architect designed dock and port facilities, erected dazzling suspension bridges, and built a durable network of roads and canals across England, Scotland, and Wales.
Thomas Telford is considered the founding figure in the British profession of civil engineering. He established the contractor-bid practices still in use two centuries later by the British Institution of Civil Engineers, an organization he helmed as its first president. “Britain owes some of its most sublime architecture to him,” declared London Guardian writer Ian Jack, citing “the elegant 19-span aqueduct at Pontcysyllte; the graceful suspension bridge that took his London to Holyhead highway across the Menai Strait; [and] the majestic flights of locks on the Caledonian canal, which Telford cut through the Highlands to eliminate the roundabout voyage between the west and east coasts.”
Telford came from exceptionally humble origins and grew up in an impoverished part of Dumfriesshire, Scotland. He was born on August 9, 1757, in his parents' mudwalled, thatched-roof cottage at Glendinning, the farm where his father John worked as a shepherd. Three months after Telford's birth, 33-year-old John Telford died, leaving his young wife Janet a widow. To support her only child, Janet worked as a milkmaid and wool-shearer in the Esk River Valley, near the border with Yorkshire, England.
In his youth, Telford attended school in the parish of Westerkirk, six miles from the village of Langholm, and he also worked as a sheep-tender, one of the few steady jobs for unskilled workers in this agrarian border region. At age 15, several family friends arranged for his apprenticeship as a stonemason, first in Lochmaben and then for a longer period of training in Langholm. In the late 1760s, the region benefited from a reform scheme launched by Henry Scott, the third duke of Buccleuch, whose family was the region's major landowner. A relatively young member of the peerage, Scott had forward-thinking ideas, having recently returned from a tour of Europe accompanied by the influential Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations.
Not surprisingly, Telford developed a fascination with architecture and made a hobby of visiting old castles and forts in Dumfriesshire and other parts of Scotland. He would sketch a structure's architectural features and note which parts of it had best withstood the ravages of time. In 1780, with his traditional seven-year apprenticeship now successfully concluded, he moved to Edinburgh, the great capital city of Scotland, where stonemasons were in great demand. At this time, Edinburgh was in the midst of a massive building program, its boundaries extending by several acres across the natural barrier known as the Water of Leith. Edinburgh's New Town was a model of modern urban planning and its streets, residential blocks, and public squares are considered some of the most durably built examples of Palladian and Georgian-era architecture. Years later, Telford would return to New Town and design one of the city's landmark structures, the Dean Bridge, which became the final project of his career.
Telford moved to London, England, in 1782 and spent two years working at the Somerset House construction site. An enormous public building on the Thames River embankment that was once the address of a royal palace, the Neoclassicalstyle Somerset House had been conceived as an all-in-one-stop government building. It eventually became home to multiple agencies, including those that dealt with British Navy rations procurement, the public lottery, management of the Crown lands, and even the regulation of for-hire coaches.
During his time in London, Telford sought professional advice from Robert Adam, an architect and interior designer whose Scottish family had become prominent builders and artistic visionaries earlier in the 18th century. That introduction came via letters of recommendation Telford had obtained while visiting family and friends in the Esk River Valley. He solicited two specific figures of note who possessed a range of contacts across England: one of these letter-writers was a relative of Sir William Pulteney, an immensely wealthy politician who became Telford's first patron. In 1787, after Telford completed his first solo building contract (to erect a new Commissioner's House at the Portsmouth harbor facility), he was hired by Pulteney to renovate Shrewsbury Castle in Shropshire. As the parliamentarian for one of Shropshire's districts, Pulteney was also able to arrange for Telford to be hired as surveyor of public works in that county.
Telford's career as a civil engineer began during this period in Shropshire in the late 1780s. He became a specialist in bridges after the success of his first foray into this particularly complex engineering effort: a bridge was required to be sturdy, safe, and strong enough to carry varying weight loads. Bridges, furthermore, were anchored by pilings extending down into either water or earth, both of which were prone to shifting. Also, all of a bridge's construction materials had to withstand the natural elements for a cost-effective duration.
Telford's first bridge project was a cast-iron roadway spanning the River Severn, which he completed in 1790. That led to a commission to construct the cast-iron Longdonon-Tern Aqueduct, part of a larger public-works project, the Shrewsbury Canal. Located near Shropshire, the Longdonon-Tern Aqueduct was 186 feet in length and designed as part of a navigable waterway enabling cargo haulers to reach other ports and railroad lines. A similar project, which preoccupied Telford for more than a decade, was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales, which began operation in 1805. Built of cast iron and stone, this engineering fete featured 18 curved vaults standing high over the River Dee. Still standing more than 200 years later, it remains the highest extant aqueduct in the world and is a World Heritage site.
His work was a boon to the short-term economy as an engine of job creation for common laborers, ironworkers, and stonemasons; the long-term ramifications were even more impressive, boosting economic growth as Highlands farmers and fishermen were able to expand the market for their products. Robert Southey, England's poet laureate, wrote approvingly of Telford and his impact on a rapidly industrializing Britain and—making a pun on one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—dubbed Telford the “Colossus of Roads,” according to Guardian writer Jack.
In the final phase of Telford's prolific career, he was tasked with building a 250-mile-long road from the center of London to Holyhead, a Welsh port that had become a major ship and ferry crossing to Ireland. The journey from London to Wales normally took 40-plus hours by carriage over abysmal roads that were barely improved versions of an old Roman road. In Telford's day, the London-to-Holyhead overland route was of particular importance to diplomats, politicians, and postal workers, the consequence of an 1800 act of union yoking Ireland to Britain.
The project began in 1817 and consumed the next 15 years of Telford's life. He designed toll houses and mile markers using natural stone materials, and he also drew the plans for the Menai Straits Suspension Bridge, which was completed in 1826. This 580-foot span connected mainland Wales to Anglesey, the island on which Holyhead marks one of the outer points on the English coast of the Irish Sea. The London-Holyhead Road begins at the Marble Arch landmark in London and ends with a similarly grand flourish where the Admiralty Arch signals to incoming vessels that Holyhead is within sight. In the 20th century, highway-construction planners used much of Telford's masterfully plotted route to plan the multilane A5 Motorway that connects southwest England to Wales, leaving large sections of the original road beneath the modern highway surface.
A painting of Telford's bridge at Menai Straits adorns the “Our History” page of the British Institution of Civil Engineers. The organization was formed in 1818, two years before Telford was invited to become its first president. By this time he was widely known across Britain, a remarkable rise for a college-degree-lacking Scot who had worked as a humble shepherd as a boy. Foreign powers also commissioned Telford's services, most notably in the marvel of the Göta Canal across Sweden, which connects the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and was completed in 1832.
Among Telford's other lasting projects was his sole building credit within London: the St. Katherine's Docks warehouses, which were completed in 1828. Unfortunately, these buildings lasted slightly more than a century, and were destroyed by German bombers during World War II. His final completed commission was the Dean Bridge in the New Town section of Edinburgh, which was finished in 1831. A number of small churches built on the islands of Scotland's Hebrides archipelago are also part of his legacy, as well as similar structures on the remote Orkney and Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland.
Telford built his own home in Ullapool, a Scottish Highlands fishing village. Like many of his edifices, it endured well into the 21st century and was renamed Ornsay House. A lifelong bachelor, he died, aged 77, at his second residence, a house he built at 24 Abingdon Street, London, on September 2, 1834. In a testament to Telford's status, officials approved a petition for his burial at Westminster Abbey, making him the first engineer accorded that honor.
Glover, Julian, Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.
Telford, Thomas, Life of Thomas Telford: Written by Himself; Containing a Descriptive Narrative of His Professional Labours, edited by J. Rickman, Hansard, 1838.
Guardian (London, England), January 19, 2017, Ian Jack, “Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain.”