The Man Who Built Modern Bri­tain

From awe-in­spir­ing aque­ducts to fast, smooth roads, no build­ing project was, it seems, beyond the ge­nius of Thomas Telford. Ju­lian Glover hails an en­gi­neer whose achieve­ments ar­guably out­shine those of Brunel

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - Ju­lian Glover is a jour­nal­ist and author. His lat­est book, Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Build­ing of Bri­tain, was pub­lished by Blooms­bury

Ju­lian Glover hails Thomas Telford, an en­gi­neer whose achieve­ments ar­guably out­shine those of Isam­bard King­dom Brunel

To­day there is fresh recog­ni­tion of Telford’s im­por­tance to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion and the cre­ation of modern Bri­tain

In 1829, two great engi­neers from two con­trast­ing cen­turies clashed over the build­ing of one fa­mous bridge. The con­flict pit­ted Thomas Telford (1757– 1834) against Isam­bard King­dom Brunel (1806–59) – the builder of mag­nif­i­cent canals and roads against the creator of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Great Western Rail­way.

Though nei­ther knew it at the time, this bat­tle also marked the mo­ment that Telford, cel­e­brated in his life­time as Bri­tain’s great­est civil en­gi­neer but by that time old, un­well and out of his depth, be­gan to be pushed aside in rep­u­ta­tion by the 23-year-old Brunel.

To­day the lat­ter is a na­tional hero in the UK, the em­bod­i­ment of the can-do Vic­to­rian age, his best-known pho­to­graphs show­ing him stand­ing proud in his tall stovepipe hat. Telford, by con­trast, is half-for­got­ten, his name at­tached to a 1960s new town in Shrop­shire but lit­tle else. His story de­serves to be re­dis­cov­ered – and the Clifton Sus­pen­sion Bridge in Bris­tol is a good place to start.

Few of those who now cross this fine struc­ture each day re­alise that it was here that Brunel took on Telford – and won. It is a spec­tac­u­lar sight, slic­ing above wooded slopes that tum­ble down to the wa­ter be­low, and is cel­e­brated as a mon­u­ment to Isam­bard King­dom Brunel’s bril­liance. But the story of its cre­ation is com­plex. Brunel de­pended on others when he drew up his plans. The bridge was not fin­ished un­til af­ter his death, to an al­tered de­sign. And its en­gi­neer was al­most Telford – not Brunel.


To un­der­stand all that hap­pened, you need to rewind beyond the birth of ei­ther en­gi­neer. In 1754, Bris­tol wine mer­chant Wil­liam Vick died, leav­ing $1,304 in his will with in­struc­tions that it be in­vested un­til the sum reached $13,040. He had be­lieved that this amount would be enough to pay for a much-needed stone bridge from one side of the 75-me­tre­deep Avon Gorge to the other.

By 1829 Vick’s legacy, now grown to $10,500, was still un­spent. It was clear that a stone struc­ture, if it could be built at all, would cost far more than that sum. So the city fa­thers de­cided to launch a com­pe­ti­tion invit­ing de­signs for a cheaper iron sus­pen­sion bridge, us­ing the lat­est tech­nol­ogy of the day.

One man stood out as the ob­vi­ous judge for the prize: Thomas Telford, the lead­ing civil en­gi­neer in the land. Not long be­fore, he had over­seen the con­struc­tion of the pi­o­neer­ing Me­nai sus­pen­sion bridge, be­tween main­land north Wales and the Isle of An­gle­sey, which car­ried the new fast road (which he also en­gi­neered) from Lon­don to the port at Holy­head. When it opened in 1826 his ed­i­fice over the Me­nai strait was the most elab­o­rate and im­pres­sive sus­pen­sion bridge ever built – al­though not quite the first. It boosted Telford’s fame even more.

Yet his bridge-build­ing ca­reer ended in hu­mil­i­a­tion in Bris­tol shortly af­ter­wards. Ex­am­in­ing en­tries to the com­pe­ti­tion for the Avon Gorge bridge – among them de­signs drawn up by the young Brunel – Telford dis­missed them all as in­ad­e­quate, and was asked, in­stead, to sub­mit his own en­try.

This could have re­sulted in the finest Telford cre­ation of all. But rather than the bold and light struc­ture the city had hoped for, he pro­posed three timid, shorter spans, held up by mock Gothic tow­ers built from the bot­tom of the gorge. It was the prod­uct of an en­gi­neer­ing mind that had lost its spark af­ter more than six decades of re­lent­less work.

The de­sign was ridiculed. Brunel, in par­tic­u­lar, was openly scorn­ful. “As the dis­tance be­tween the op­po­site rocks was con­sid­er­ably less than what had al­ways been con­sid­ered as within the lim­its to which sus­pen­sion bridges might be car­ried,” he wrote to the com­mit­tee af­ter his re­jec­tion, “the idea of go­ing to the bot­tom of such a val­ley for the pur­poses of rais­ing at great ex­pense two in­ter­me­di­ate sup­port­ers hardly oc­curred to me.”

The younger man grabbed his chance. A sec­ond com­pe­ti­tion was run in which, ini­tially, Brunel’s de­sign was placed sec­ond – but with help from his fa­ther, the out­stand­ing en­gi­neer Marc Brunel, he per­suaded the judges to award him first prize.

“Isam­bard is ap­pointed en­gi­neer to the Clifton Bridge,” Marc wrote tri­umphantly in his di­ary en­try for 19 March 1830. “The most grat­i­fy­ing thing,” he noted, was that the de­feated engi­neers in­cluded “Mr T…d” – the only name in the whole of the di­ary that he could not bring him­self to spell out in full, so strong were his feel­ings.

Vic­tory was the mak­ing of Brunel, though not quite of the Clifton bridge; con­struc­tion was halted in 1831 amid fi­nan­cial trou­ble, and it was not com­pleted un­til 1864, af­ter his death. The project rooted Brunel in the city of Bris­tol, which he soon con­nected to Lon­don with the Great Western Rail­way.

The de­ba­cle was, though, al­most the end for Telford. Though he con­tin­ued to work un­til his death just over four years later – af­ter which he was buried in West­min­ster Abbey, the first en­gi­neer to be given that hon­our – his time in the front rank of engi­neers was over.

By then, Bri­tain was chang­ing. The

Geor­gian age was giv­ing way to the Vic­to­rian, just as horse­power was be­ing pushed aside by steam and canals, and roads giv­ing way to new rail­ways. Brunel was the en­gi­neer of the fu­ture, Thomas Telford of the past.

Or so it seemed, for well over a cen­tury. To­day, how­ever, there is fresh recog­ni­tion of Telford’s im­por­tance to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion and the cre­ation of modern Bri­tain. It is not to di­min­ish Brunel’s flair and suc­cess to say that Telford de­serves to be seen as his equal – and, in some ways, as more of a pi­o­neer. Un­like Brunel, for in­stance, who was drilled to learn en­gi­neer­ing by his fa­ther al­most from birth, Telford’s youth of­fered no clear path to great­ness.


Thomas Telford was born in 1757 on a re­mote farm in the hills of the Scot­tish Bor­ders, among a land­scape lit­tle changed to­day, the gen­tle beauty of which il­lu­mi­nates any ex­plo­ration of his life. Telford’s fa­ther, a farm labourer, died be­fore his son’s first birth­day, and the young Tammy Telfer – as he was known – was soon set to work guard­ing sheep on the fell­sides.

He might have re­mained a poor farm worker all his life, but Telford was driven by a fiery in­ter­nal en­ergy. He forced him­self to learn, to read books, and soon even to write po­etry. In that he had some­thing in com­mon with Scot­land’s great­est poet, Rab­bie Burns, who also started life in a farm in the Bor­ders, and whom Telford came to ven­er­ate.

Most of all, how­ever, Telford wanted to build. He trained as a stone ma­son; among his early tasks, it is said, was carv­ing his fa­ther’s grave­stone, which can still be found in a quiet church­yard near his boy­hood home; the in­scrip­tion hon­ours the older man as an “un­blam­able shep­herd”.

From that point Telford drove him­self for­ward and up, al­ways look­ing for

op­por­tu­ni­ties and use­ful con­nec­tions. First he went to Ed­in­burgh, then to Lon­don, where he worked on the build­ing of the grand new Som­er­set House by the Thames. By the 1780s he was in Shrop­shire, the county where he made his name and found his calling, first as an ar­chi­tect and then as a civil en­gi­neer.

It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary time to be in Shrop­shire, in a re­gion that is now very ru­ral but which at that time was at the fore­front of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion. The great iron­works in Coal­brook­dale were pi­o­neer­ing new tech­niques, and the world’s first iron bridge had been built across the river Sev­ern just be­fore his ar­rival. It was here that Telford came to know the rev­o­lu­tion­ary pos­si­bil­i­ties of metal.

First, in 1797, he built – with help from others – a short, rad­i­cal iron aqueduct on a new canal near what is now the town of Telford. But this was only a pre­cur­sor to the great Pont­cy­syllte Aqueduct, opened in 1805, a rib­bon of iron that still car­ries barges 38 me­tres above the river Dee on what is now known as the Llan­gollen Canal, just over the Welsh bor­der from Shrop­shire. The Pont­cy­syllte is Telford’s mon­u­ment just as the Clifton Sus­pen­sion Bridge is Brunel’s. Both struc­tures speak of in­di­vid­ual ge­nius and the abil­ity to draw on the skills of others.

Some say that Telford should have shared the credit for his achieve­ments more widely, though it was his skill in work­ing with a team and man­ag­ing many projects si­mul­ta­ne­ously that lifted him above the many other able engi­neers of the time. At Pont­cy­syllte, for in­stance, he was aided by a team in­clud­ing his nom­i­nal su­pe­rior on the canal project, Wil­liam Jes­sop. Men such as Wil­liam Ha­zle­dine, the Shrop­shire iron­mas­ter, went on to pro­vide met­al­work for most of Telford’s great­est iron bridges in­clud­ing the Me­nai.

Many of Telford’s young pupils also went on to great ca­reers of their own, among them Thomas Brassey, who built thou­sands of miles of rail­ways all over the globe, mak­ing him­self rich in the process. In 1820 Telford be­came the first pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tu­tion of Civil Engi­neers, a body that shaped – and still shapes – the modern pro­fes­sion.

But Telford never be­came grand or for­mal, and shunned out­ward signs of wealth and sta­tus. Money never seemed to in­ter­est him much. Thick set, with dark hair, a rugged face and a Scot­tish ac­cent, he was a man born to hard work out­doors who prided him­self on his prac­ti­cal skills. He was also a flex­i­ble po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tor with a deep, self-taught un­der­stand­ing of the­ory: his pocket note­books are full of de­mand­ing math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions and ar­chi­tec­tural study. He read and wrote late into the night.

Telford worked hard and al­most non-stop. There was no time and seem­ingly no de­sire for a mar­riage, fam­ily or part­ner. He had no sib­lings and, af­ter the death of his mother, no im­me­di­ate re­la­tions, but he had a num­ber of close life­long friends. In the right com­pany he was cheer­ful, telling sto­ries and mak­ing jokes with a sparkle in his eye that made peo­ple like him as soon as they met.


Telford was al­most al­ways on the move, keep­ing up a reg­u­lar progress of in­spec­tion of his projects that, by the early years of the 19th cen­tury, reached into re­mote cor­ners of Eng­land, Wales and Scot­land. Roam­ing the coun­try with­out a break, year in, year out, he must have trav­elled far­ther in Bri­tain than any per­son alive – and even, per­haps, more than any­one ever had be­fore.

In the High­lands, for in­stance, sup­ported by gov­ern­ment com­mis­sions, he over­saw the con­struc­tion of al­most 1,000 miles of roads and count­less bridges in­clud­ing el­e­gant, light iron struc­tures, one of which still sur­vives, leap­ing across the river Spey at Craigel­lachie.

Telford man­aged the con­struc­tion of the wide Cale­do­nian canal, run­ning from sea to sea across the Great Glen be­tween In­ver­ness and Fort Wil­liam. This re­lent­less, dif­fi­cult, muddy task took two decades and could have been the fo­cus of a life­time’s work. But Telford com­bined it with an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of other schemes: re­build­ing ports, erect­ing churches, de­sign­ing wa­ter works, build­ing bridges and con­struct­ing the fastest, best roads since the Ro­man era.

Telford’s fa­mous ex­press route from Lon­don to Holy­head smoothed the jour­ney to Dublin – a route that grew in im­por­tance once the new United King­dom was es­tab­lished in 1801. He up­graded the ex­ist­ing road from the cap­i­tal to Birm­ing­ham and on to Shrews­bury, and en­gi­neered an el­e­gant new sec­tion on through the hills of Snow­do­nia, in­clud­ing the fine sus­pen­sion bridge at Me­nai and another by Conwy Cas­tle – the only one to re­tain its orig­i­nal chains.

And still there was more: a canal across Swe­den, ad­vice to projects in In­dia, Rus­sia and Canada, the new St Katharine Docks in Lon­don. All of it was im­pres­sive but much of it was made re­dun­dant by tech­no­log­i­cal change: the com­ing of steam and rail­ways. Even as he died, in 1834, Telford was go­ing out of date – and he knew it.

His cre­ations are his me­mo­rial, built so well that the vast ma­jor­ity are still in use.

You can drive on Telford’s roads, walk across his bridges and ride boats along his canals. They are worth search­ing out – and with them the story of a life that helped build modern Bri­tain.

In the High­lands, Telford over­saw con­struc­tion of al­most 1,000 miles of roads and count­less bridges in­clud­ing el­e­gant, light iron struc­tures



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Epic iron arch In 1799 Telford pro­posed to re­place old Lon­don Bridge with a sin­gle iron arch span­ning 180 me­tres (600 feet). The de­sign was never used, and the bridge was even­tu­ally re­placed by a struc­ture of five stone arches de­signed by John Ren­nie

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