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Significant Scots
Thomas Telford

TELFORD, THOMAS, an eminent engineer and constructor of public works, was born about the year 1755, in the parish of Westerkirk in Dumfriesshire. His outset in life was strikingly humble in comparison with its close. He began the world as a working stone-mason in his native parish, and for a long time was only remarkable for the neatness with which he cut the letters upon those frail sepulchral memorials which "teach the rustic moralist to die." His occupation fortunately afforded a greater number of leisure hours than what are usually allowed by such laborious employments, and these young Telford turned in the utmost advantage in his power. Having previously acquired the elements of learning, he spent all his spare time in poring over such volumes as fell within his reach, with no better light in general than what was afforded by the cottage fire. Under these circumstances the powers of his mind took a direction not uncommon among rustic youths; he became a noted rhymster in the homely style of Ramsay and Fergusson, and, while still a very young man, contributed verses to Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, under the unpretending signature of "Eskdale Tam." In one of these compositions, which was addressed to Burns, he sketched his own character, and hinted his own ultimate fate –

Nor pass the tentie curious lad,
Who o’er the ingle hangs his head,
And begs of neighbours books to read;
For hence arise,
Thy country’s sons, who far are spread,
Baith bold and wise.

Though Mr Telford afterwards abandoned the thriftless trade of versifying, he is said to have retained through life a strong "frater-feeling" for the corps, which he showed in a particular manner on the death of Burns, in exertions for the benefit of his family. Having proceeded to London in quest of work, he had the good fortune to be employed under Sir William Chambers in the building of Somerset house. Here his merit was soon discovered by the illustrious architect, and he experienced promotion accordingly. We are unable to detail the steps by which he subsequently placed himself at the head of the profession of engineering; but it is allowed on all hands that his elevation was owing solely to his consummate ability and persevering industry, unless we are to allow a share in the process to the singular candour and integrity which marked every step in his career. His works are so numerous all over the island, that there is hardly a county in England, Wales, or Scotland, in which they may not be pointed out. The Menai and Conway bridges, the Caledonian canal, the St Katharine’s docks, the Holyhead roads and bridges, the Highland roads and bridges, the Chirke and Ponteysulte aqueducts, the canals in Salop, and great works in that county, of which he was surveyor for more than half a century, are some of the traits of his genius which occur to us, and which will immortalize the name of Thomas Telford.

The Menai bridge will probably be regarded by the public as the most imperishable monument of Mr Telford’s fame. This bridge over the Bangor ferry, connecting the counties of Caernarvon and Anglesea, partly of stone and partly of iron, on the suspension principle, consists of seven stone arches, exceeding in magnitude every work of the kind in the world. They connect the land with the two main piers, which rise fifty-three feet above the level of the road, over the top of which the chains are suspended, each chain being 1714 feet from the fastenings in the rock. The first three-masted vessel passed under the bridge in 1826. Her topmasts were nearly as high as a frigate, but they cleared twelve feet and a half below the centre of the roadway. The suspending power of the chains was calculated at 2016 tons. The total weight of each chain, 121 tons.

The Caledonian canal is another of Mr Telford’s splendid works, in constructing every part of which, though prodigious difficulties were to be surmounted, he was successful. But even this great work does not redound so much to his credit as the roads throughout the same district. That from Inverness to the county of Sutherland, and through Caithness, made not only, so far as respects its construction, but its direction, under Mr Telford’s orders, is superior in point of line and smoothness, to any part of the road of equal continuous length between London and Inverness. This is a remarkable fact, which, from the great difficulties he had to overcome in passing through a rugged, hilly, and mountainous district, incontrovertibly establishes his great skill in the engineering department, as well as in the construction of great public communications.

Mr Telford was not more remarkable for his great professional abilities than for his sterling worth in private life. His easiness of access, and the playfulness of his disposition, even to the close of life, endeared him to a numerons circle of friends, including all the most distinguished men of his time. For some years before his death, he had withdrawn himself in a great measure from professional employment, and amused his leisure by writing a detailed account of the principal works he had planned, and lived to see executed. He died September 9, 1834, in his seventy-ninth year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Life of Thomas Telford
Civil engineer with an introductory history of roads and travelling in Great Britain
by Samuel Smiles

"Let us travel, and wherever we find no facility for
travelling from a city to a town, from a village to a
hamlet, we may pronounce the people to be barbarous"
--Abbe Raynal

"The opening up of the internal communications of a
country is undoubtedly the first and most important
element of its growth in commerce and civilization"
--Richard Cobden


The present is a revised and in some respects enlarged edition of the 'Life of Telford,' originally published in the 'Lives of the Engineers,' to which is prefixed an account of the early roads and modes of travelling in Britain.

From this volume, read in connection with the Lives of George and Robert Stephenson, in which the origin and extension of Railways is described, an idea may be formed of the extraordinary progress which has been made in opening up the internal communications of this country during the last century.

Among the principal works executed by Telford in the course of his life, were the great highways constructed by him in North Wales and the Scotch Highlands, through districts formerly almost inaccessible, but which are now as easily traversed as any English county.

By means of these roads, and the facilities afforded by railways, the many are now enabled to visit with ease and comfort magnificent mountain scenery, which before was only the costly privilege of the few; at the same time that their construction has exercised a most beneficial influence on the population of the districts themselves.

The Highland roads, which were constructed with the active assistance of the Government, and were maintained partly at the public expense until within the last few years, had the effect of stimulating industry, improving agriculture, and converting a turbulent because unemployed population into one of the most loyal and well-conditioned in the empire;-- the policy thus adopted with reference to the Highlands, and the beneficial results which have flowed from it, affording the strongest encouragement to Government in dealing in like manner with the internal communications of Ireland.

While the construction of the Highland roads was in progress, the late Robert Southey, poet laureate, visited the Highlands in company with his friend the engineer, and left on record an interesting account of his visit, in a, manuscript now in the possession of Robert Rawlinson, C.E., to whom we are indebted for the extracts which are made from it in the present volume.

London, October, 1867.



Chapter I. Old Roads
Roads as agents of civilization, Their important uses, Ancient British trackways or ridgeways, The Romans and their roads in Britain, Decay of the Roman roads, Early legislation relating to highways, Roads near London, The Weald of Kent, Great Western roads, Hollow ways or lanes, Roads on Dartmoor, in Sussex, at Kensington.

Chapter II. Early Modes of Conveyance
Riding on horseback the ancient mode of traveling, Shakespear's description of travelling in 'Henry IV.', Queen Elizabeth and her coach, Introduction of coaches or waggons, Painful journeys by coach, Carriers in reign of James I, Great north Road in reign of Charles I, Mace's description of roads and travellers stage-coaches introduced, Sobriere's account of the Dover stage-coach, Thoresby's account of stage-coaches and travelling, Roads and travelling in North Wales, Proposal to suppres stage-coaches, Tediousness and discomforts of travelling by coach, Pennant's account of the Chester and London stage, Travelling on horseback preferred, The night coach, Highway robbers and foot-pads, Methods of transport of the merchandize pack-horse convoys, Traffic between lancashire and Yorkshire, Signs of the pack-horse.

Chapter III. Influence of Roads on Society
Restricted intercourse between districts, Local dialects and customs thereby preserved, Camden's fear of travelling into the barbarous regions of the North, Rev. Mr Brome's travels in England, Old Leisure, Imperfect postal communication, Hawkers and pedlars, Laying in stores for winter, Household occupations, Great fairs of ancient times, Local fairs, Fair on Dartmoor, Primitive manners of Dartmoor District.

Chapter IV. Roads in Scotland last centuary
Poverty of Scotland, Backwardness of agriculture, Idleness of the people, Andrew Flecher's description of Scotland, Slavery of colliers and salters, Improvements in agriculture opposed, Low wages of the labouring population, State of the Lothians and Ayrshire, Wretched states of the roads, Difficulty of communication between districts, Coach started between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Carrier's perils between Edinburgh and Selkirk, Dangers of travelling in Galloway, Lawlessness of the Highlands, Picking and lifting of cattle, Ferocity of population on the Highland Border, Ancient civilization of Scotland.

Chapter V. Travelling in England last century
Progress made in travelling by coach, Fast coaches established, Bad state of the roads, Foreigners' accounts of travelling in England, Herr Moritz's journey by the basket coach, Arthur Young's description of English roads, Palmer's mail coaches introduced, The first 'Turnpike' roads, Turnpike riots, The rebellion of 1745, Passing of numerous highway Acts, Road-making thought beneath the dignity of the engineer.

Chapter VI. John Metcalf, road-maker
Metcalf's boyhood, His blindness, His boldness, Becomes a Musician, His travels, Journey on foot from London to Harrogate, Joins the army as musician in the rebellion of 1745, Adventures in Scotland, Becomes travelling merchant and horse dealer, Begins road-making, Builds a bridge, His extensive road contracts in Yorkshire and Lancashire, Manner of making his surveys, His skill in road-making, His last road--his death, Roads in the south of England, Want of roads on Lincoln Heath, Land lighthouses, Dunstan pillar, Rapid improvement in the roads, Application of steam, Sydney Smith on improved facilities of communication.


Chapter I. Eskdale
Eskdale, Langholm, Former lawlessness of the Border population, Jonnie Armstrong, Border energy, Westerkirk, Telford's birthplace, Glendinning, Valley of the Meggat, The 'unblameable shepherd', Telford's mother, Early years, Laughing Tam, Put to school, His school-fellows.

Chapter II. Langholm--Telford a Stonemason
Telford apprenticed to a stonemason, Runs away, Re-apprenticed to a mason at Langholm, Building operations in the district, Miss Pasley lends books to young Telford, Attempt to write poetry, Becomes village letter-writer, Works as a journeyman mason, Employed on Langholm Bridge, Manse of Westerkirk, Poem of 'Eskdale', Hews headstones and doorheads, Works as a mason at Edinburgh, Study of architecture, Revisits Eskdale, His ride to London.

Chapter III. Arrives in London
Telford a working man in London, Obtains employment as a mason at Somerset House, Correspondence with Eskdale friends, Observations on his fellow-workman, Propses to begin business, but wants money, Mr. Pulteney, Becomes foreman of builders at Portsmouth Dockyard, Continues to write poetry, Employment of his time, Prints letters to his mother.

Chapter IV. Becomes Surveyor for the County of Salop
Superintends repairs of Shrewsbury Castle, Appointed Surveyor for County of Salop, Superintends erection of new gaol, Interview with John Howard, His studies in science and literature, Poetical exercises, Fall of St. Chad's Church, Shrewsburg, Discovery of the Roman city of Uriconium, Overseer of felons, Mrs. Jordan at Shrewsbury, Telford's indifference to music, Politics, Paine's 'Rights of Man', Reprints his poem of 'Eskdale'.

Chapter V. Telford's First Employment as an Engineer
Advantages of mechanical training to an engineer, Erects Montford Bridge, Erects St. Mary Magdalen Church, Bridgenorth, Telford's design, Architectural tour, Bath, Studies in British Museum, Oxford, Birmingham, Study of architecture, Appointed Engineer to the Ellesmere Canal.

Chapter VI. The Ellesmere Canal
Course of the Ellesmire Canal, Success of the early canals, The Act obtained and working survey made, Chirk Aqueduct, Pont-Cysylltau Aqueduct, Telford's hollow walls, His cast iron trough at Pont-Cysylltau, The canal works completed, Revists Eskdale, Early impressions corrected, Tours in Wales, Conduct of Ellesmere Canal navigation, His literary studies and compositions.

Chapter VII. Iron and other Bridges
Use of iron in bridge-building, Design of a Lyons architect, First iron bridge erected at Coalbrookdale, Tom paine's iron bridge, Wear iron bridge, Sunderland, Telford's iron bridge at Buildwas, His iron lock-gates and turn-bridges, Projects a one-arched bridge of iron over the Thames, Bewdley stone bridge, Tougueland Bridge, Extension of Telford's engineering buisness, Literary friendships, Thomas Campbell, Miscellaneous reading.

Chapter VIII. Highland Roads and Bridges
Progress of Scotch agriculture, Romilly's account, State of the Highlands, Want of roads, Use of the Caschrom, Emigration, Telford's survey of Scotland, Lord Cockburn's account of the difficulties of travelling, the North Circuit, Parliamentary Commission of Highland Roads and Bridges appointed, Dunkeld Bridge built, 920 miles of new roads constructed, Craigellachie Bridge, Travelling facilitated, Agriculture improved, Moral results of Telford's Highland contracts, Rapid progress of the Lowlands, Results of parish schools.

Chapter IX. Telford's Scotch Harbours
Highland harbours, Wick and Pulteney Town, Columnar pier work, Peterhead Harbour, Frazerburgh Harbour, Bannf Harbour, Old history of Aberdeen, its witch-burning and slave-trading, Improvements of its harbour, Telford's design carried out, Dundee Harbour.

Chapter X. Caledonian and other Canals
Canal projected through the Great Glen of the Highlands, Survey by James Watt, Survey by Telford, Tide-basin at Corpach, Neptune's Staircase, Dock at Clachnaharry, The chain of lochs, Construction of the works, Commercial failure of the canal, Telford's disappointment, Glasgow and Ardrossan Canal, Weaver Navigation, Gotha Canal, Sweden, Gloucester and Berkeley, and other canals, Harecastle Tunnel, Birmingham Canal, Macclesfield Canal, Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, Telford's pride in his canals.

Chapter XI. Telford as a road-maker
Increase of road-traffic, Improvement of the main routes between the principal towns, Carlisle and Glasgow road, Telford's principles of road-construction, Macadam, Cartland Crags Bridge, Improvement of the London and Edinburgh post road, Communications with Ireland, Wretched state of the Welsh roads, Telford's survey of the Shrewsbury and Holyhead road, Its construction, Roads and railways, London and Shrewsbury post road, Roads near London, Coast road, North Wales.

Chapter XII. The Menai and Conway Bridges
Bridges projected over the Menai Straits, Telford's designs, Ingenious plan of suspended centering, Design of a suspension bridge over the Mersey at Runcorn, Design of suspension bridge at Menai, The works begun, The main piers, The suspension chains, Hoisting of the first main chain, Progress of the works to completion, The bridge formally opened, Conway Suspension Bridge.

Chapter XIII. Docks, Drainage, and Bridges
Resume of English engineering, General increase in trade and population, The Thames, St. Katherine's Docks, Tewkesburg Bridge, Gloucester Bridge, Dean Bridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow Bridge, Telford's works of drainage in the Fens, The North Level, The Nene Outfall, Effects of Fen drainage.

Chapter XIV. Southey's tour in the Highlands
Southey sets out to visit the Highlands in Telford's company, Works at Dundee Harbour, Bervie Harbour, Mitchell and Gibbs, Aberdeen Harbour, Approach to Banff, Cullen Harbour, The Forres road, Beauly Bridge, Bonar Bridge, Fleet Mound, Southey's description of the Caledonian Canal and works, John Mitchell, Takes leave of Telford, Results of Highland road-making.

Chapter XV. Mr Telford's later years--His death and character
Telford's residence in London, Leaves the Salopian, First President of Institute of Civil Engineers, Consulted by foreign Governments as to roads and bridges, His views on railways, Failure of health, Consulted as to Dover Harbour, Illness and death, His character, His friends, Integrity, Views on money-making, Benevolence, Patriotism, His Will, Libraries in Eskdale supported by his bequests.

See also...

Journal of a tour in Scotland in 1819
By Robert Southey (1929) (pdf)
In 1819 Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, in company with Telford, the great engineer, made a comprehensive tour through Scotland, and, being a true bookman, kept a record of the people met and the things seen during their journey. Although no years have passed since then, that Journal has not been published. Yet it has its fresh interest to readers generally and its particular value to social historians and to Scots, for with sincerity and grace Southey wrote down promptly what he saw, and he was no mean observer of his times.

Lives of the Engineers
By Samuel Smiles Vol. 3 - Telford (1897) (pdf)

Thomas Telford
by L. T. C. Rolt (1958) (pdf)

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