9 August 1757 - 2 September 1834
Thomas Telford was born in Westerkirk, Scotland. He was a
stonemason, architect and civil engineer and a noted road,
bridge and canal builder.
Telford's father, a shepherd, died soon after Thomas was born.
Thomas was raised in poverty by his mother. At the age of 14 he
was apprenticed to a stonemason, and some of his earliest work
can still be seen on the bridge across the River Esk in Langholm
in the Scottish borders. He worked for a time in Edinburgh and
in 1782 he moved to London where (after meeting architects
Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers) he was involved in
building additions to Somerset House there. Two years later he
found work at Portsmouth dockyard and - although still largely
self-taught - was extending his talents to the specification,
design and management of building projects.
In 1787, through his wealthy patron William Pulteney, he became
Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire. Civil engineering was a
discipline still in its infancy, so Telford was set on
establishing himself as an architect. His projects included
renovation of Shrewsbury Castle, the town's prison (during the
planning of which he met leading prison reformer John Howard),
the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Bridgnorth and another church
As the Shropshire county surveyor, Telford was also responsible
for bridges. In 1790 he designed a bridge carrying the
London-Holyhead road over the River Severn at Montford, the
first of some 40 bridges he built in Shropshire, including major
crossings of the Severn at Buildwas, and Bridgnorth. The bridge
was Telford's first iron bridge. He was influenced by the famous
bridge at Ironbridge, and observed that it was grossly
over-designed for its function, and many of the component parts
were poorly cast. By contrast, his bridge was 30 ft (10 m) wider
in span and half the weight, although it now no longer exists.
He was one of the first engineers to test his materials
thoroughly before construction. As his engineering prowess grew,
Telford was to return to this material repeatedly.
In 1795 the bridge at Bewdley, in Worcestershire was swept away
in the winter floods and Telford was responsible for the design
of its replacement. The same winter floods saw the bridge at
Tenbury also swept away. This bridge across the River Teme was
the joint responsibility of both Worcestershire and Shropshire
and the bridge has a bend where the two counties meet. Telford
was responsible for the repair to the northern Shropshire end of
Telford's reputation in Shropshire led to his appointment in
1793 to manage the detailed design and construction of the
Ellesmere Canal, linking the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham
via the north-west Shropshire town of Ellesmere, with Chester,
utilising the existing Chester Canal, and then the River Mersey.
A canal boat traverses the Pontcysyllte aqueduct
Among other structures, this involved the spectacular
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the River Dee in the Vale of
Llangollen, where Telford used a new method of construction
consisting of troughs made from cast iron plates and fixed in
masonry. Extending for over 1000 feet with an altitude of 126
feet above the valley floor, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct consists
of nineteen arches, each with a forty-five foot span. Being a
pioneer in the use of cast-iron for large scaled structures,
Telford had to invent new techniques, such as using boiling
sugar and lead as a sealant on the iron connections.
Eminent canal engineer William Jessop oversaw the project, but
he left the detailed execution of the project in Telford's
The same period also saw Telford involved in the design and
construction of the Shrewsbury Canal. When the original
engineer, Josiah Clowes, died in 1795, Telford succeeded him.
One of Telford's achievements on this project was the design of
the cast-iron aqueduct at Longdon-on-Tern, pre-dating that at
Pontcysyllte, and substantially bigger than the UK's first
cast-iron aqueduct, built by Benjamin Outram on the Derby Canal
just months earlier.
Engineer in demand
The Ellesmere Canal was completed in 1805 and alongside his
canal responsibilities, Telford's reputation as a civil engineer
meant he was constantly consulted on numerous other projects.
These included water supply works for Liverpool, improvements to
London's docklands and the rebuilding of London Bridge(c.1800).
Most notably (and again William Pulteney was influential), in
1801 Telford devised a master plan to improve communications in
the Highlands of Scotland, a massive project that was to last
some 20 years. It included the building of the Caledonian Canal
along the Great Glen and redesign of sections of the Crinan
Canal, some 920 miles of new roads, over a thousand new bridges
(including the Craigellachie Bridge), numerous harbour
improvements (including works at Aberdeen, Dundee, Peterhead,
Wick, Portmahomack and Banff), and 32 new churches.
Telford also undertook highway works in the Scottish Lowlands,
including 184 miles of new roads and numerous bridges, ranging
from a 112 ft (34 m) span stone bridge across the Dee at
Tongueland in Kirkcudbright (1805-1806) to the 129 ft (39 m)
tall Cartland Crags bridge near Lanark (1822).
Telford was consulted in 1806 by the King of Sweden about the
construction of a canal between Gothenburg and Stockholm. His
plans were adopted and construction of the Göta Canal began in
1810. Telford travelled to Sweden at that time to oversee some
of the more important initial excavations.
During his later years, Telford was responsible for rebuilding
sections of the London to Holyhead road, a task completed by his
assistant of ten years, John MacNeill; today, much of the route
is the A5 trunk road. Between London and Shrewsbury, most of the
work amounted to improvements. Beyond Shrewsbury, and especially
beyond Llangollen, the work often involved building a highway
from scratch. Notable features of this section of the route
include the iron bridge across the River Conwy at Betws-y-Coed,
the ascent from there to Capel Curig and then the descent from
the pass of Nant Ffrancon towards Bangor. Between Capel Curig
and Bethesda, in the Ogwen Valley, Telford deviated from the
original road, built by Romans during their occupation of this
On the island of Anglesey a new embankment across the Stanley
Sands to Holyhead was constructed, but the crossing of the Menai
Strait was the most formidable challenge, overcome by the Menai
Suspension Bridge (1819-1826). Spanning 580 feet, this was the
longest suspension bridge of the time. Unlike modern suspension
bridges, Telford used individually linked 9.5 foot iron eye bars
for the cables.
Telford also worked on the North Wales coast road between
Chester and Bangor, including another major suspension bridge at
Conwy, opened later the same year as its Menai counterpart.
Further afield Telford designed a road to cross the centre of
the Isle of Arran. Named the 'String road', this route traverses
bleak and difficult terrain to allow traffic to cross from east
to west Arran (and vice versa) avoiding the circuitous coastal
Telford improved on methods for the building of macadam roads by
improving the selection of stone based on thickness, taking into
account traffic, alignment and slopes.
The punning nickname Colossus of Roads was given to Telford by
his friend, the eventual Poet Laureate, Robert Southey.
Telford’s reputation as a man of letters may have preceded his
fame as an engineer: he had published poetry between 1779 and
1784, and an account of a tour of Scotland with Southey. His
will left bequests to Southey (who would later write Telford’s
biography), the poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) and to the
publishers of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (to which he had been
Other works by Telford include the St Katharine Docks
(1824-1828) close to Tower Bridge in central London, where he
worked with the architect Philip Hardwick, the Gloucester and
Berkeley Ship Canal (today known as the Gloucester and Sharpness
Canal), the second Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent and Mersey
Canal (1827), and the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal
(today part of the Shropshire Union Canal) - started in May 1826
but finished, after Telford's death, in January 1835. At the
time of its construction in 1829, Galton Bridge was the longest
single span in the world. He also built Whitstable harbour in
Kent in 1832, in connection with the Canterbury and Whitstable
Railway with an unusual system for flushing out mud using a
In 1820, Telford was appointed the first President of the
recently-formed Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held
until his death. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The name of Thomas Telford, from Westerkirk, Dumfries, is held
in awe whenever road engineering and bridge building is
discussed. If it is not, it ought to be, for his contributions
to the art and science of crossing mountains and rivers in the
most efficient, economical and speediest ways possible are
Telford's accomplishments include his early work as surveyor of
Shropshire, the county that straddles the English-Welsh border:
the bridges over the River Severn at Montford, Buildwas and
Bewdley all completed in the 1780's. In 1793, Telford began work
as engineer for the Ellesmere Canal Company, completing his
monumental aqueducts that carried the canal over the valleys of
the rivers Ceiriog and Dee in North Wales.
In the early days of the industrial revolution canals were built
to transport raw materials and newly manufactured goods to all
parts of the British Isles. William Telford solved what seemed
to be the insurmountable problem of taking the Shropshire Union
Canal across the narrow, steep-sided Dee valley in North Wales.
His answer was the justly famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the
longest and highest in Britain. The name, unpronounceable to
most English visitors, simply means, "connecting bridge."
Completed in 1805, one month after the Battle of Trafalgar, the
121-foot high aqueduct is 1007 feet in length, carrying the
canal in a completely water tight, cast-iron trough supported by
18 piers. It is a bit of a shock to see barges merrily and
magically glide across an expanse of sky high above the valley
below and its road to Chirk (where another Telford masterpiece,
the Chirk Aqueduct, takes the canal across the River Ceiriog).
Telford then left for Scotland, where he was responsible for the
Caledonian Canal that opened up the lowlands to industry; the
harbour works at Aberdeen, Dundee and other rapidly growing port
cities. In his native Scotland, he was responsible for building
more than 900 miles of roads and their attendant bridges. He
then returned to Wales, managing to engineer the main highway
from Shrewsbury and Chester all the way to Holyhead in northwest
Wales by carefully selected routes through the mountains that
would provide the least gradient.
Completed in 1826, Telford's suspension bridge over the River
Conwy seems to go right into the Edwardian Castle itself. Its
wrought-iron links that suspend the deck have never rusted;
Conwy residents say that Telford had the bright idea of dipping
the links in oil. During the same year, Telford also completed
his crowning masterpiece, but a few miles distant, The Menai
Bridge, when built, the longest suspension bridge in the world.
It takes the highway across the treacherous Menai Straits to
link the Island of Anglesey with the Welsh mainland.
Telford's works can be seen all over Europe: they include a
canal in the English midlands, canal tunnels in the north
country, the Gota Canal in Sweden; St. Katherine Docks in London
and roads that opened up the Scottish Highlands. If any Scot
made a difference to countless generations, it surely was Thomas
Telford. His work in improving highways and bridges, canals and
road made much of the Industrial Revolution possible, for they
provided means of transporting, men, machinery, raw materials
and finished goods.
Thomas Telford was born on 9 August 1757 near Westerkirk in
Dumfries-shire, the posthumous son of a shepherd. He spent his
childhood supplementing the family's limited income by
shepherding and left his parish school at the age of 14 to
become an apprentice stonemason in Langholm. In 1780 he went to
Edinburgh to work as a mason on the development of the New Town.
In 1782 Telford moved to London to work on the greatest
construction project of the day, Somerset House. His ability,
his desire to better himself, and the strong impression he made
on an increasing number of influential people allowed him
rapidly to catch up on his missed education, and to moved from
stonemason to engineer.
By 1784 he was managing construction works at Portsmouth
Dockyard. In 1788, through the influence of the MP for
Shropshire, William Pulteney, he was appointed Surveyor of
Public Works in Shropshire.
He returned to Scotland in 1790 to survey harbours and piers on
behalf of the British Fisheries Society, for whom he had
designed Ullapool in 1788, but by 1793 was back in Shropshire,
building the Ellsmere Canal, including the spectacular
In 1801 the Government asked Thomas Telford to develop his
earlier work on harbours and piers with a survey of roads across
Scotland. This revealed a network that barely existed north and
west of the Great Glen. Over the 20 years from 1804 Telford
followed up his survey with the construction of over 920 miles
of road and 120 bridges in the Highlands. During this period he
also built many harbours and jetties in Scotland as well as the
Caledonian Canal, although this took much longer than planned,
and was overtaken by developments in shipbuilding by the time it
opened. Meanwhile he also continued his work south of the
border, notably on the London to Holyhead road. He also worked
abroad, designing the Gotha Canal for the King of Sweden.
In 1818 Thomas Telford was made first President of the Institute
of Civil Engineers. He was back in Scotland in 1823 to begin
construction of 32 standardised "Parliamentary Churches" across
the Highlands and Islands, each comprising a T-shaped church and
an accompanying manse. When completed in 1830 this programme had
cost a total of £54,500.
Telford was still working when he died in London on 2 September
1834 at the age of 77. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. As an
engineer he had made a huge and lasting impression on his native
Scotland, and far beyond. His major achievements were, despite
its problems, the Caledonian Canal in Scotland and the Menai
Suspension Bridge linking Anglesey to Wales. But his influence
is really felt through the huge number of roads, bridges,
harbours and churches he left behind him, many of which still
stand today, 200 years later. And in Shropshire the town of
Telford is named in his memory.
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This web page was last updated on:
19 December, 2008