The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Thomas Telford
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.


Early career

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 in Madeley.

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 the bridge.

Ellesmere Canal

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 hands.

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 area.

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 route.

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 a contributor).

Late career

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 tidal reservoir.

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 legend.

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 Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

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.










This web page was last updated on: 19 December, 2008