The following comes from the Internet Archive web version of a copy of The Dictionary of National Biography in the University of Toronto Library. — George P. Landow]

Illuminated initial T

homas Telford, engineer, was born on 9 Aug. 1757 at Westerkirk, a secluded hainlet of Eskdale, in Eastern Dumfriesshire. He lost his father, a shepherd, a few months after his birth, and was left to the care of his mother, who earned a scanty living by occasional farm work. When he was old enough he herded cattle and made himself generally useful to the neighbouring farmers, and grew up so cheerful a boy that he was known as 'Laughing Tarn.' At intervals he attended the parish school of Westerkirk, where he learned nothing more than the three R's. He was about fifteen when he was apprenticed to a mason at Langholm, where a new Duke of Buccleuch was improving the houses and holdings of his tenantry, and Telford found much and varied work for his hands to do. His industry, intelligence, and love of reading attracted the notice of a Langholm lady, who made him free of her little library, and thus was fostered a love of literature which continued with him to the end of his busy life. Paradise Lost and Burns's Poems were among his favourite books, and from reading verse he took to writing it. His apprenticeship was over, and he was working as a journeyman mason at eighteenpence a day, when at two-and-twenty he found his rhymes admitted into Ruddiman's Edinburgh Magazine (see Maine, Siller Gun, ed. 1836, p. 227). A poetical address to Burns entreating him to write more verse in the spirit of the 'Cotter's Saturday Night ' was found among Burns's papers after his death, and a portion of it was published in the first edition of Currie's Burns (1800, App. ii. note D). The most ambitious of Telford's early metrical performances was 'Eskdale,' a poem descriptive of his native district, which was first published in the 'Poetical Museum (Hawick, 1784), and was reprinted by Telford himself with a few additions, and for private circulation, some forty years afterwards. Southey said of it, 'Many poems which evinced less observation, less feeling, and were in all respects of less promise, have obtained university prizes.'

Having learned in the way of his trade all that was to be learned in Eskdale, Telford removed in 1780 to Edinburgh, where the new town was in course of being built, and, skilled masons being in demand, he easily found suitable employment. He availed himself of the opportunities which his stay afforded him for studying and sketching specimens of the older architecture of Scotland. After spending two years in Edinburgh he resolved on trying his fortune in London, whither he proceeded at the age of twentyfive. His first employment was as a hewer at Somerset House, then in course of erection by Sir William Chambers. Two years later, in 1784, Telford received a commission (it is not known how procured) to superintend the erection, among other buildings, of a house for the occupation of the commissioner of Portsmouth dockyard. Here he had opportunities, which he did not neglect, for watching dockyard operations of various kinds, by a knowledge of which he profited in after life. His work in his own department gave great satisfaction. He amused his leisure by writing verses, and he improved it by studying chemistry. By the end of 1786 his task was completed, and now a new and wider career was opened to him.

One of Telford's Dumfriesshire acquaintances and patrons was a Mr. Johnstone of Westerhall, who assumed the name of Pulteney on marrying a great heiress, the niece of William Pulteney, earl of Bath. Before Telford left London for Portsmouth Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Pulteney had consulted him respecting some repairs to be executed in the family mansion at Westerhall, and took a great liking to his young countryman. Pulteney became through his wife a large landowner in the neighbourhood of Shrewsbury, which he long represented in parliament. When Telford's employment at Portsmouth came to an end, Pulteney thought of fitting up the castle at Shrewsbury as a residence, and invited Telford to Shrewsbury to superintend the required alterations. Telford accepted the invitation, and while he was working at the alterations the office of surveyor of public works for Shropshire became vacant. The appointment was bestowed on Telford, doubtless through the influence of Pulteney. Of Telford's multifarious, important, and trying duties in this responsible and conspicuous position, it must suffice to say that he discharged them most successfully and made himself personally popular, so much so that in 1793, without solicitation on his part, he was appointed by the Shropshire county magnates sole agent, engineer, and architect of the Ellesmere canal, projected to connect the Mersey, the Dee, and the Severn. It was the greatest work of the kind then in course of being undertaken in the United Kingdom. On accepting the appointment Telford resigned the county surveyorship of Shropshire. His salary as engineer of the Ellesmere canal was only £500. a year, and out of this he had to pay a clerk, a foreman, and his own travelling expenses.


Pontcysyllte Aqueduct by Thomas Telford and William Jessop. 1795-1805. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The labours of Telford as engineer of the Ellesmere canal include two achievements which were on a scale then unparalleled in England and marked by great originality. The aqueducts over the valley of the Ceiriog at Chirk and over the Dee at Pont-Cysylltau have been pronounced by the chief English historian of inland navigation to be 'among the boldest efforts of human invention in modern times.' The originality of the conception carried out lay in both cases not so much in the magnitude of the aqueducts, unprecedented as this was, as in the construction of the bed in which the canal was carried over river and valley. A similar feat had been performed by Brindley, but he transported the water of the canal in a bed of puddled earth, and necessarily of a breadth which required the support of piers, abutments, and arches of the most massive masonry. In spite of this the frosts, by expanding the moist puddle, frequently produced fissures which burst the masonry, suffering the water to escape, and sometimes causing the overthrow of the aqueducts. For the bed of puddled earth Telford substituted a trough of cast-iron plates infixed in square stone masonry. Not only was the displacement produced by frosts averted, but there was a great saving in the size and strength of the masonry, an enormous amount of which would have been required to support a puddled channel at the height of the Chirk and Pont-Cysylltau aqueducts. The Chirk aqueduct consisted of ten arches of forty span each, carrying the canal 70 ft. above the level of the river over a valley 700 ft. wide, and forming a most picturesque object in a beautiful landscape. On a still larger scale was the PontCysylltau aqueduct over the Dee four miles north of Chirk and in the vale of Llangollen; 121 ft. over the level of the river at low water the canal was carried in its cast-iron trough, with a water-way 11 ft. 10 in. wide, and nineteen arches extending to the length of 1,007 ft. The first stone of the Chirk aqueduct was laid on 17 June 1796, and it was completed in 1801. The first stone of the other great aqueduct was laid on 2 June 1795, and it was opened for traffic in 1805. Of this Pont-Cysylltau aqueduct Sir Walter Scott said to Southey that 'it was the most impressive work of art which he had ever seen ' (Smiles, p. 159).

Left: London Bridge by Gustave Doré . RightLondon Bridge by P. Noel Boxer. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

In 1800 Telford was in London giving evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons which was considering projects for the improvement of the port of London. One of these was the removal of the old London Bridge and the erection of a new one. While surveyor of public works for Shropshire Telford had had much experience in bridge-building. Of several iron bridges which he built in that county, the earliest, in 1795-8, was a very fine one over the Severn at Build was, about midway between Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth; it consisted of a single arch of 130 feet span. He now proposed to erect a new London Bridge of iron and of a single arch. The scheme was ridiculed by many, but, after listening to the evidence of experts, a parliamentary committee approved of it, and the preliminary works were, it seems, actually begun. The execution of the bold project was not proceeded with, on account, it is said, of difficulties connected with making the necessary approaches (ib. p. 181). But Telford's plan of the new bridge was published in 1801, and procured him favourable notice in high quarters, from the king and the Prince of Wales downwards.

Telford's skill and energies were now to be utilised for an object very dear to him, the improvement of his native country. At the beginning of the century, at the instance of his old friend Sir William Pulteney, who was governor of the British Fisheries Society, he inspected the harbours at their various stations on the northern and eastern coasts of Scotland, and drew up an instructive and suggestive report. Telford's name was now well known in London, but doubtless this report contributed to procure him in 1801 a commission from the government to undertake a far wider Scottish survey. This step was taken from considerations partly connected with national defence. There was no naval station anywhere on the Scottish coasts, and an old project was being revived to make the great glen of Scotland, which cuts it diagonally from the North Sea to the Atlantic, available as a water-way for ships of war as well as for traffic. The results of Telford's investigations were printed in an exhaustive report presented to parliament in 1803. Two bodies of commissioners were appointed to superintend and make provision for carrying out his recommendations, which included the construction of the Caledonian canal in the central glen already mentioned, and, what was still more urgently needed, extensive road-making and bridgebuilding in the highlands and northern counties of Scotland. Telford was appointed engineer of the Caledonian canal, the whole cost of which was to be defrayed by parliamentary grants. The expenditure on the roadmaking and bridge-building, to be planned by him, was to be met only partly by parliamentary grants, government supplying one half of the money required wherever the landowners were ready to contribute the other half. The landowners as a body cheerfully accepted this arrangement, while Telford threw himself body and soul into both enterprises with a patriotic even greater than his customary professional zeal.

The chief roads in the highlands and northern counties of Scotland had been made after the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 purely for military purposes, and were quite inadequate as means of general communication. The usefulness, such as it was, of these military roads was moreover marred by the absence of bridges: for instance, over the Tay at Dunkeld and the Spey at Fochabers, these and other principal rivers having to be crossed by ferry-boats, always inconvenient and often dangerous. In mountainous districts the people were scattered in isolated clusters of miserable huts, without possibility of intercommunication, and with no industry so profitableas the illicit distillation of whisky. 'The interior of the county of Sutherland being inaccessible, the only track lay along the shore among rocks and sands, which were covered by the sea at every tide.' In eighteen years, thanks to the indefatigable energy of Telford, to the prudent liberality of the government, and to the public spirit of the landowners, the face of the Scottish highlands and northern counties was completely changed. Nine hundred and twenty miles of good roads and 1:20 bridges were added to their means of communication. In his survey of the results of these operations and of his labours on the Caledonian canal Telford speaks not merely as an engineer, but as a social economist and reformer. Three thousand two hundred men had been annually employed, and taught for the first time the use of tools. 'These undertakings,' he said, 'may be regarded in the light of a working academy, from which eight hundred men have annually gone forth improved workmen.' The plough of civilisation had been substituted for the former crooked stick, with a piece of iron affixed to it, to be drawn or pushed along, and wheeled vehicles carried the loads formerly borne on the backs of women. The spectacle of habits of industry and its rewards had raised the moral standard of the population. According to Telford, 'about £200,000. had been granted in fifteen years,' and the country had been advanced 'at least a century.'

The execution of Telford's plans for the improvement of Scottish harbours and fishing stations followed on the successful inception of his road-making and bridge-building. Of the more important of his harbour works, that at the great fishery station Wick, begun in 1808, was the earliest, while about the latest which he designed was that at Dundee in 1814. Aberdeen, Peterhead, Banff, Leith,the port of Edinburgh, are only a few of his works of harbour extension and construction which did so much for the commerce and fisheries of Scotland, and in some cases his labours were facilitated by previous reports on Scottish harbours made by John Rennie, whose recommendations had not been carried out from a lack of funds. In this respect Telford was more fortunate, considerable advances from the fund accumulated by the commissioners of forfeited estates in Scotland being made to aid local contributions on harbour works.

Of Telford's engineering enterprises in Scotland the most conspicuous, but far from the most useful, was the Caledonian canal. Though nature had furnished for it most of the water-way, the twenty or so miles of land which connected the various fresh-water lochs forming the main route of the canal, some sixty miles in length, stretched through a country full of engineering difficulties. Moreover the canal was planned on an unusually large scale, for use by ships of war; it was to have been 110 feet wide at the entrance. From the nature of the ground at the north-eastern and south-western termini of the canal immense labour was required to provide basins from which in all twenty-eight locks had to be constructed from the entrance locks at each extremity, so as to reach the highest point on the canal a hundred feet above high-water mark. Between Loch Eil, which was to be the southernmost point of the canal, and the loch next to it on the north, Loch Lochy, the distance was only eight miles, but the difference between their levels was ninety feet. It was necessary to connect them by a series of eight gigantic locks, to which Telford gave the name of 'Neptune's Staircase.' The works were commenced at the beginning of 1804, but it was not until October 1822 that the first vessel traversed the canal from sea to sea. It had cost nearly a million sterling, twice the amount of the original estimate. Still worse, it proved to be almost useless in comparison with the expectations which Telford had formed of its commercial promise. This was the one great disappointment of his professional career. His own theory for the financial failure of the canal was that, while he had reckoned on a very profitable trade in timber to be conveyed from the Baltic to the western ports of "Great Britain and to Ireland, this hope was defeated by the policy of the government and of parliament in levying an almost prohibitory duty on Baltic timber in favour of that of Canada. He himself reaped little pecuniary profit from the time and labour which he devoted to the canal. As its engineer-in-chief during twenty-one years he received in that capacity only £237 per annum. While engaged in these Scottish undertakings, Telford was also busily occupied in England. He had numerous engagements to construct and improve canals. In two instances he was called on to follow, with improved machinery and appliances, where Brindley had led the way. One was the substitution of a new tunnel for that which had been made by Brindley, but had become inadequate, at Harecastle Hill in Staffordshire on the Grand Junction canal; another was the improvement, sometimes amounting to reconstruction, of Brindley's Birmingham canal, which at the point of its entrance into Birmingham had become 'little better than a crooked ditch.' Long before this Telford's reputation as a canal-maker had procured him a continental reputation. In 1808-10 he planned and personally contributed to the construction of the Gotha canal, to complete the communication between the Baltic and the North Sea. Presenting difficulties similar to those which he had overcome in the case of the Caledonian canal, the work was on a much larger scale, the length of the artificial canal which had to be made to connect the lakes being 55 miles, and that of the whole navigation 120 miles. In Sweden he was feted as a public benefactor, and the king conferred on him the Swedish order of knighthood, honours of a kind never bestowed on him at home.

The improvement of old and the construction of new roads in England were required by the industrial development of the country, bringing with it an increased need for safe and rapid postal communication. A parliamentary committee in 1814 having reported on the ruinous and dangerous state of the roads between Carlisle and Glasgow, the legislature found it desirable, from the national importance of the route, to vote £50,000. for its improvement. Sixty-nine miles, two-thirds of the new and improved road, were placed under Telford's charge, and, like all his English roads, it was constructed with a solidity greater than that obtained by the subsequent and more popular system of Macadam. Of Telford's other English road improvements the most noticeable were those through which the mountainous regions of North Wales were permeated by roads with their accompanying bridges, while through the creation of a new and safe route, under the direction of a parliamentary commission, from Shrewsbury to Holyhead, communication between London and Dublin, to say nothing of the benefits conferred on the districts traversed, was greatly facilitated. But the very increase of traffic thus caused made only more apparent the inconvenience and peril attached to the transit of passengers and goods in open ferry-boats over the dangerous straits of Menai. It was resolved that they should be bridged. The task having been entrusted to Telford, the execution of it was one of his greatest engineering achievements.

The Menai Bridge. 1836. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Telford's design for the Menai Bridge was based on the suspension principle, of which few English engineers had hitherto made any practical trial. Telford's application of it at Menai was on a scale of enormous magnitude. When it had been approved by eminent experts, and recommended by a select committee of the House of Commons, parliament granted the money required for the execution of the scheme. The main chains of wrought iron on which the roadway was to be laid were sixteen in number, and the distance between the piers which supported them was no less than 550 feet; the pyramids, this being the form which the piers assumed at their utmost elevation, were 53 feet above the level of the roadway, and the height of each of the two principal piers on which the main chains of the bridge were to be suspended was 153 feet. The first stone of the main pier was laid in August 1819, but it was not until six years afterwards that things were sufficiently advanced for the difficult operation of hoisting into position the first of the main chains, weighing 23 tons between the points of suspension. On 26 April 1825 an enormous assemblage on the banks of the straits witnessed the operation, and hailed its success with loud and prolonged cheering. Telford himself had come from London to Bangor to superintend the operations. Anxiety respecting their result had kept him sleepless for weeks. It is said that when on the eventful day some friends came to congratulate him on his success, they found him on his knees engaged in prayer. Soon afterwards, in 1826, Telford erected a suspension bridge on the same principle as that at Menai over the estuary of the Conway.

During the speculative mania of 1825-26 a good many railways were projected, among them one in 1825 for a line from London to Liverpool. The canal proprietors, alarmed at the threatened competition with their water-ways, consulted Telford, whose advice was that the existing canal systems should be made as complete as possible. Accordingly he was commissioned to design the Birmingham and Liverpool junction from a point on the Birmingham canal near Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port on the Mersey, an operation by which a second communication was established between Birmingham on the one hand, and Liverpool and Manchester on the other. This was the last of Telford's canals. It is said that he declined the appointment of engineer to the projected Liverpool and Manchester railway because it might injuriously affect the interests of the canal proprietors.

Among the latest works planned by Telford. and executed after he was seventy, were the fine bridges at Tewkesbury (1826); a cast-iron bridge of one arch, and that at Gloucester (1828) of one large stone arch; the St. Katherine Docks at London, opened in 1828; the noble Dean Bridge at Edinburgh (1831); the skilfully planned North Level drainage in the Fen country (1830-4); and the great bridge over the Clyde at Glasgow (1833-5), which was not opened until rather more than a year after Telford's death. His latest professional engagement was in 1834, when, at the request of the great Duke of Wellington, as lord warden of the Cinque ports, he visited Dover and framed a plan for the improvement of its harbour.

During his latest years, when he had retired from active employment and deafness diminished his enjoyment of society, he drew up a detailed account of his chief engineering enterprises, to which he prefixed a fragment of autobiography. Telford was one of the founders, in 1818, of the society which became the Institute of Civil Engineers. He was its first president, and sedulously fostered its development, bestowing on it the nucleus of a library, and aiding strenuously in procuring for it a charter of incorporation in 1828. The institute received from him its first legacy, amounting to £2,000.

Telford died at 24 Abingdon Street, Westminster, on 2 Sept. 1834. He was buried on 10 Sept. in Westminster Abbey, near the middle of the nave. In the east aisle of the north transept there is a fine statue of him by Bailey. A portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn belonged to Mrs. Burge in 1807 (Cat. of Portrait Exhibition at South Kensington, 1808, No. 166). A second portrait, by Lane, belongs to the Institute of Civil Engineers.

Although Telford was unmarried and his habits were inexpensive, he did not die rich. At the end of his career his investments brought him in no more than £800. a year. He thought less of professional gain than of the benefits conferred on his country by his labours. So great) was his disinterested zeal for the promotion of works of public utility that in the case of the British Fisheries Society, the promoters of which were animated more by public spirit than by the hope of profit, while acting for many years as its engineer he refused any remuneration for his labour, or even paym'ent for the ex Giiditure which he incurred in its service, is professional charges were so moderate that, it is said, a deputation of representative engineers once formally expostulated with him on the subject (Smiles, p. 317). He carried his indifference to money matters so far that, when making his will, he fancied himself worth only £16,OOO. instead of the £30,000. which was found to be the real amount. He was a man of a kindly and generous disposition. He showed his lifelong attachment to his native district, the scene of his humble beginnings, not merely by reproducing as soon as he became prosperous the poem on Eskdale which he had written when he was a journeyman mason, but by remitting sums of money every winter for the benefit of its poorer inhabitants. He also bequeathed to aid in one case, and to establish in another, free public libraries at Westerkirk and Langholm in his native valley.

Telford was of social disposition, a blithe companion, and full of anecdote. His personality was so attractive as considerably to increase the number of visitors to and customers of the Salopian coffee-house, afterwards the Ship hotel, which for twenty-one years he made his headquarters in London. He came to be considered a valuable fixture of the establishment. When he left it to occupy a house of his own in Abingdon Street, a new landlord of the Salopian, who had just entered into possession, was indignant. 'What!' he exclaimed, 'leave the house ? Why, sir, I have just paid £700 for you!' (Smiles, p. 302).

Telford's love of literature and of verse writing clung to him from his early days. At one of the busiest periods of his life he is found now criticising Goethe and Kotzebue, now studying Dugald Stewart on the human mind and Alison on taste. He was the warm friend of Thomas Campbell and of Southey. He formed a strong attachment to Campbell after the appearance of the 'Pleasures of Hope,' and acted to him as his helpful mentor. Writing to Dr. Currie in 1802, Campbell says: 'I have become acquainted with Telford the engineer; a fellow of infinite humour and of strong enterprising mind. He has almost made me a bridgebuilder already; at least he has inspired me with new sensations of interest in the improvement and ornament of our country. . . . Telford is a most useful cicerone in London. He is so universally acquainted and so popular in his manners that he can introduce one to all kinds of novelty and all descriptions of interesting society.' Campbell is said to have been staying with Telford at the Salopian when writing ' Hohenlinden,' and to have adopted ' important emendations ' suggested by Telford (Smiles, p. 384). Telford became godfather to his eldest son, and bequeathed Campbell £500. He left a legacy of the same amount to Southey, to whom it came very seasonably, and who said of Telford, 'A man more heartily to be liked, more worthy to be esteemed and admired, I have never fallen in with.' There is an agreeable account by Southey of a tour which he made with Telford in the highlands and far north of Scotland in 1819. He records in it the vivid impressions made on him by Telford's roads, bridges, and harbours, and by what was then completed of the Caledonian canal. Extracts from Southey's narrative were first printed by Dr. Smiles in his Life of Telford. Southey's last contribution to the ' Quarterly Review ' (March 1839) was a very genial and appreciative article on Telford's career and character.

Southey's article was a review of an elaborate work which appeared in 1838, as the Life of Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer, written by himself, containing a Descriptive Narrative of his Professional Labours, with aFolio Atlas and Copper Plates, edited by John Rickman, one of his Executors, with a Preface, Supplement, Annotations, and Index. In this volume Telford's accounts of his various engineering enterprises, great and small, are ample and luminous. Rickman added biographical traits and anecdotes of Telford. The supplement contains many elucidations of his professional career and a few of his personal ports to parliament, &c., and those of parliamentary commissioners under whose supervision some of the most important of his enterprises were executed. In one of the appendices his poem on 'Eskdale' is reprinted. There is also a copy of his will. 'Some Account of the Inland Navigation of the County of Salop ' was contributed by Telford to Archdeacon Plymley's General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire (London, 1802). He also wrote for Sir David Brewster's Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, to the production of which work he gave financial assistance, the articles on 'Bridges,' 'Civil Architecture,' and 'Inland Navigation; ' in the first of these, presumably from his want of mathematical knowledge, he was assisted by A. Nimmo. [The personal as distinguished from the professional autobiography of Telford given in the volume edited by Rickman is meagre, and ceases with his settlement at Shrewsbury. The one great authority for Telford's biography is Dr. Smiles's Life, 1st ed. 1861; 2nd ed. 1867 (to which all the references in the preceding article are made). Dr. Smiles threw much new and interesting light on Telford's personal character, as well as on his professional career, by publishing for the first time extracts from Telford's letters to his old schoolfellow in Eskdale, Andrew Little of Langholm. There is a valuable article by Sir David Brewster on Telford as an engineer in the Edinburgh Review for October 1839. Telford as a road-maker is dealt with exhaustively in Sir Henry Parnell's Treatise on Roads, wherein the Principles on which Roads should be made are explained and illustrated by the Plans, Specifications, and Contracts made use of by Thomas Telford, Esq., London, 1833.]

Related material


The Dictionary of National Biography Vol. 56 (Teach-Tollet). Ed. Sydney Lee. New York: Macmillan; London: Smith, Elder, 1898. Internet Archive web version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 6 October 2014.

Last modified 30 August 2016