Thomas Telford - Britain's Greatest Civil Engineer?

Thomas Telford is Britain's greatest engineer. At least, so says Julian Glover, his biographer. He was certainly the most prolific. During a 50-year career, he surveyed, designed and/or engineered 30 major bridges, more than a thousand smaller bridges, 33 canals, a dozen or so harbours and thousands of miles of road. His Pontcysyllte navigable aqueduct is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fawning politicians made him the first engineer - and still one of only two - to be buried in Westminster Abbey. He founded the Institution of Civil Engineers where admiring colleagues elected him to be the inaugural President. He was still celebrated enough a hundred years after his death for an entire town, now with some 150,000 inhabitants, to be named after him.

Social disadvantages make Telford's achievements all the more impressive. Unlike Brunel and Robert Stephenson, he was not born into an engineering dynasty. His parents were subsistence farmers in a remote part of Scotland. His father died soon after his birth, leaving him to be brought up in poverty with no male role model. He rose above it.

As a person, Telford was universally admired and liked, especially for his joviality and humour. Despite his successes, he remained true to his Presbyterian roots: modest, humble, kind, austere, honest and kind. He usually provided his services for free if he thought his customer was hard up.

Here we investigate whether Telford's popularity is matched by his professional achievements. We then visit some of the places that he lived and worked.

Telford's Achievements and Momentousness

Julian Glover summarises: "Telford created the backbone of our national road network. His bridges are some of the most dramatic and beautiful ever built, most of all the Menai Bridge, a wonder then and now, which spans the dangerous channel between the mainland and Anglesey. His constructions were the most stupendous in Europe for a thousand years, and - astonishingly - almost everything he ever built remains in use today."

We studied Telford's most famous engineering achievements at University. We were taught and believed pretty much everything that Glover says above. He was one of our heroes. We still admire his later cast iron arch bridges, like Mythe (above) and Aldford (below), which have outlasted their design life by centuries, yet still look elegant, dainty and unfeasible flat. But the more we investigated his projects, the more sceptical we became that his most famous designs were really his or that he had much to do with their implementation.

Telford undoubtedly scores highly on involvement with legacy infrastructure. He was Chief Engineer or chief architect on nearly four times as many major public works as anyone else in Britain during his lifetime. All his realised designs worked. All of his public works were sturdy enough to last beyond their projected lifespan, although two of the earliest - the Caledonian canal and Buildwas bridge - had to be extensively patched up. All of his harbours and most of his bridges and canals, exactly as Glover says, are still in use. His Llangollen Canal is said to be the best engineered canal ever cut in Britain. Menai and Pontcysyllte, as Glover says, are widely regarded as two of the greatest feats of civil engineering since Roman times. Glover is also right that Telford built the backbone of the British road network, insofar as he oversaw the construction of most of Scotland's trunk roads and he engineered the A5 which linked London to North Wales.

For someone with no formal training, Telford was extraordinarily confident to go early and big. He designed the world's third major cast iron arch bridge, its second cast iron aqueduct, and its first (to be started) major suspension bridge. His Galton Bridge was then the highest in the world. His Menai Suspension Bridge was the longest bridge in the world. His Pontcysyllte aqueduct was the longest and the highest navigable waterway in the world when it was built and, 200 years later, it is still the highest.

Telford's super-confidence is perhaps best exemplified by his design for the replacement of London Bridge with a single span cast iron bridge (above). It never got built, but it would it have been five times longer than the longest single span cast iron bridge in the world at the time. Indeed, it would have been three times longer than the longest single span cast iron bridge that has been built since. The remarkable thing about this is that, at the time, he had only designed two other cast iron bridges, one of which was in danger of collapse.

Yet things are not quite as they seem. Engineering designs were little more than concept diagrams in those days. Most of the work was done on the ground. Telford was seldom involved. He didn't have time. He was too busy flitting between dozens of projects he had on the go at any one time. Glover reckons he was the world's most travelled man before the advent of the railways. The fact that, by and large, his projects were delivered on time, on budget and fit for purpose was testament to the brilliance of the resident engineer overseers he left in charge. Telford said himself that his most valuable skill was to select good engineer overseers, explaining that he developed the ability by having worked for lots of different engineering overseers during his time as a mason.

If Telford was not involved in the engineering, his main claim to greatness comes from his architectural designs, some of which pioneered famously innovative techniques and world renowned engineering advances. We are not convinced that they were his own.

Telford was a stone mason by training. He was appointed Staffordshire's Surveyor of Public Works with no engineering experience. During his tenure, he designed and implemented lots of successful stone bridges, all based on traditional designs. He would go on to design more than a thousand stone bridges, nearly all of which are still in use. His stone bridge at Bewdley is still considered one the most elegant ever made in Britain. His first attempt at a cast iron arch bridge was at Buildwas in 1796. It was one of his least successful. Admittedly, it was just the third cast iron arch bridge ever built, but it was a poor design that required constant maintenance to defer its collapse and was replaced in time.

Telford's reputation was secured by his involvement in the Ellesmere Canal, which included the world famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct. They are usually referred to as Telford's Llangollen canal and Telford's Pontcysyllte aqueduct. We cannot understand why. William Jessop was the Chief Engineer. Telford was 'resident engineer' and did the drawings but it is difficult to believe that he came up with the designs. He had, after all, no canal building experience and no aqueduct experience. It was only three years since he was working as a stone mason. Jessop, on the other hand, was a brilliant and hugely experienced civil engineer. We are pretty sure that he came up with the designs. Jessop was running several other projects at the time. He left Telford nominally in charge of the construction work, but more as a project manager than substitute Chief Engineer.

Pontcysyllte navegable aqueduct is often cited as one of Telford's crowning achievements. Its cast iron trough was based on a smaller version that Telford built at Longdon-on-Tern. Smiles says that Telford probably came up with the idea himself, although he provides no evidence. We are sceptical. Telford does not say that he invented the concept himself. He wrote to his friend Andrew Little about Longdon-on-Tern, saying that the construction technique needed for the iron trough was entirely new. It had no precedents, so this is true. But he was not alone. Benjamin Outram was simultaneously building a cast iron trough for Holmes aqueduct, and Outram started first. We think the similarity of design and timing make it unlikely to be a coincidence. Jessop was Chief Engineer for both. He was a business partner in Holmes aqueduct. C E Hughes reckons that cast iron troughs were Jessop's idea. We agree.

Something similar applies to Telford's cast iron arch bridges. His first attempt, at Buildwas in 1796, was crude and defective. Then Jessop and Telford worked together on the Caledonian canal, for which they built successful cast iron arch swing bridges, including Moy (above) which is still in use. Again, we are convinced that Jessop came up with the design innovations, leaving Telford to run up the drawings. Note that Moy bridge has a shallow arch with slender ribs and spandrels, which are essential design features for a a swing bridge. The shallow arch allows the bridge to be flat. Slender ribs and spandrels reduce weight, reduce material costs and ease maintenance. Telford's next solo cast iron arch bridge, at Craigellachie in 1812, was effectively a scaled up version of Moy, with a shallow arch and slender ribs and spandrels. Craigellachie became the model for most subsequent cast iron arch bridges, including all of Telford's.

It is often said that Telford pioneered the use of hollow bridge piers, and that his reputation led to the practice becoming commonplace. Again, we think that Jessop was behind it. Telford's design for the replacement of London Bridge had enormous solid piers. Jessop and William Hutton were asked to comment on the design. Both recommended that the solid piers should be replaced by hollow piers to reduce the weight. Thereafter, Telford almost always used hollow piers on big bridges, but Jessop and/or Hutton came up with the idea.

Telford was indeed Chief Engineer for the construction of thousands of miles of roads. He was commissioned by the government to build trunk roads in Scotland, in an attempt to staunch emigration from the Highlands (our own Great-Grandfather for one). He surveyed the routes and he designed some of the road furniture, but his involvement was limited by his many other projects. He said himself that he could only spent a few days a year there. As far as we know, Telford did not do anything innovative or special in the program that other engineers would not have done. His Highland roads, bridges and canals seem to be pretty typical of the day, albeit epic in quantity.

ICE say that Telford re-invented the technique of draining roads, lost since Roman times, and that he invented the widely copied technique of using different sizes of interlocking stones for the road surface. They are being over generous to their founder. Wiki says that his road composition was based on Tresaguet's technique, which was in widespread use on French roads. This seems to be confirmed by an image shown on (above) of a Telford road in Scotland. It looks like the foundation stones of a Tresaguet road. If so, Telford's design was unoriginal and it is not the model that was widely copied. It was too slow to build, too expensive and too maintenance intensive. As far as we know, the model used world-wide until the advent of motor cars was based on blind John Metcalf's road drainage and John Macadam's (foundation stone free) graded-stones sealed with stone dust.

Telford's other most famous design is for Menai Suspension Bridge. At face value it seems that it must be original and innovative, because it was the world's first major suspension bridge to be started. But Telford did not devise the concept. He took it from Samuel Brown who had shared provisional suspension bridge designs with both Telford and Rennie. Brown then won a commission to design and engineer the Union Suspension Bridge. He started a year later than Telford yet finished five years earlier. Admittedly, Union Bridge had a far narrower span but it must have needed similar engineering innovations. Telford and his site overseer Provis seem to have struggled. Menai bridge took a long time to build and was never stable in high wind. The ironwork was replaced soon after his death. The only major part of it that survives are the piers; Telford was unquestionably good at masonry.

We should say that Telford would not have felt any guilt about using Brown's suspension bridge design concept, and Brown could hardly feel aggrieved, because he almost certainly borrowed the concept himself. Tangtong Gyalpo built a series of suspension bridges during the 15th century, which Brown would have seen during his time in India.

In our opinion, nearly all the engineering innovations and advances normally ascribed to Telford were actually made by William Jessop. It is a puzzle that we have wanted to investigate for 20 years, but Charles Hadfield got there first. He recorded his investigation in "Thomas Telford's Temptation". He concludes that Telford used his autobiography and his position at the ICE to erase Jessop's involvement in his crucial early projects. We suspected as much.

Perhaps Jessop would not have minded. He was humble, modest, generous and had a saintly demeanour. He would not dream of blowing his own trumpet and he loved to mentor young engineers. We guess that he got more pleasure seeing Telford and Outram take the credit for his ideas than taking the credit himself. Telford was a lifelong empiricist who shunned theory. His post-Jessop designs are best described as professional: safe, solid, cost effective, based on thorough surveying, proven techniques, good quality building materials and lessons learned from successes and failures of similar projects. Fair enough, but any of a dozen or more of Telford's contemporaries could have come up with similar or better designs. It causes a problem here because of our definition of momentousness.

Our two guidelines are that momentousness means lasting benefits and that everything useful will be invented and/or built by someone eventually. It is unhelpful to Telford. An engineer's momentousness is his intangible legacies and the brought forward benefits of his projects; i.e. how long it would have taken someone else to deliver the same benefits if that person had never lived. In the case of canals, viaducts, roads, harbours, and most of the bridges, there were plenty of architects and engineers who could have filled Telford's shoes, not least Jessop, Rennie or Outram. This means that Telford's brought forward benefits are modest, if anything.

Telford does not seem to have cared about his intangible legacy, other than the ICE. He was too engrossed in his engineering projects. He once wrote to a friend that he did not even have time to read a newspaper, let alone get married. Apart from an autobiography written at the end of his life, his only known output is a few papers for the ICE and some poems.

Telford's main intangible legacy therefore was the ICE. True enough, it is an important institution; the world's first representative body for engineers. He not only founded it, but ensured that it was active, embracive, supportive, interesting, well-attended and commercially stable. Glover argues that his enthusiasm was because he wanted to encourage young people to take up engineering as a profession. It seems to us that it was more like an elite private club. Most people would have considered its formation to be a worthy lifetime achievement. But Telford is not most people. It is a pretty modest sum of intangible achievements for someone of Telford's status.

Many of his fans admire Telford for having risen to such eminence from a lowly birth. They assume his success was through endeavour and talent. They would be wrong. The main reason for his success was a rich patron: William Pulteney. Pulteney and Telford lived in the same remote Scottish parish and went to the same school. Having married well, Pulteney was reputed to be the richest man in the country. When he became Shrewsbury's MP, he used his influence to get Telford appointed as Shropshire's County Surveyor. Telford used his five years in-post as paid on-the-job training, developing his skills and network. He was then appointed to design the Ellesmere canal. The choice could have had nothing to do with his canal building skills and experience, which were non-existent at the time. We suspect that Pulteney was behind it. Every commission that followed was either due to the reputation Telford earned from Ellesmere or came via William Pulteney.

In our opinion, Jessop and Rennie are by far Britain's greatest civil engineers, well ahead of a group that includes Telford. Our main interest here is in momentousness. Telford is difficult to rank. He was an extraordinary man who created an utterly extraordinary physical legacy. He was determined, professional, diligent and almost super-humanly active. But much the same could be said of his rivals. Innovation, proteges, peer influence and providing inspiration to future generations were not Telford's strengths. And he was more of a surveyor and architect than engineer. Nor must we forget that most of his commissions came through the back door. We see clear space between Britain's three most momentous civil engineers and the field. We therefore place Telford fifth, near the head of the chasing pack.

Telford Tour

Telford has public works all over the country. Hundreds of them. We wanted to visit a representative selection. We concentrated on the west midlands and northwest Wales, spending a day in each, after visiting his birthplace in Dumfriesshire,

Thomas Telford was born in a tiny farm cottage in Eskdale, Dumfriesshire on 9th July 1757. To mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, the local community created a trail of some places he lived and worked. They also built a cairn at the exact location he was born (55.26238, -3.1053). Getting there is not for the fainthearted or time-strapped. It is 6km up a narrow track north of Bentpath in one of the most isolated parts of the country. It was - and still is - on Glendinning farm, where his father worked as a shepherd. Smiles reproduces an engraving (above) of how it looked in the mid-19th century. This is how it looks now, a little expanded but hardly changed.

Following the death of his father, Thomas and his mother moved to a cottage named 'The Crooks'. Smiles describes it as "midway between Glendinning and Westerkirk". We couldn't find it. Perhaps Smiles' description is inaccurate. He reproduces an engraving by Skelton (below) entitled "The Crooks in the lower Meggat valley". This is some 20 miles north of where Smiles suggests. We couldn't find it there either.

Telford went to school at Westerkirk Parish School, which the Skelton engraving below depicts next to the church. The old church has gone but the graveyard is still there (55.202520, -3.081360). We presume the bridge shown in Skelton's engraving was where the road now crosses the burn north of the Esk. If so, the school must have been just to the east of the graveyard. We could find no trace of it.

Nosing around Westerkirk we could not help but notice the amazing success ratio of its 18th century inhabitants. It can only have had a population of perhaps 15 young men in Telford's generation, mainly from the Johnstone, Jackson (Telford's mother's family), Malcom and Little families. Telford's cousin William Jackson and Andrew Little became naval surgeons. James Malcolm led the British forces that burned Washington. His brother Pultney commanded the squadron that imprisoned Napoleon at St Helena. Next brother Charles set up the Indian Navy. Youngest brother John became British Ambassador to Iran and then Governor of Bombay. Amazing. Something in the water? We suspect they were all helped by William Pulteney.

Leaving school at 15, Telford became a stonemason. Nothing is known about his first apprenticeship in Lochmaben, other than that he ran away shortly after starting. His second apprenticeship was in Langholm. Smiles says that "three arched door-heads of a more ornamental nature than the rest" were hewn by Telford. We couldn't find any of them.

Smiles says that Telford hewed some of the blocks that comprised Langholm bridge. He says that Telford's tool mark (right) can be seen on "several of the blocks forming the land-brest". There are some marks on a few stones on the eastern abutment, but they do not seem to match Smiles' depiction of Telford's tool mark.

Telford apparently undertook some freelance work making headstones in 1779 and 1780. We couldn't find any headstones with those dates. More hopefully, Smiles provides a good description of a slab that was set into the wall of Westerkirk church: "with an inscription and moulding surmounted by a coat of arms in the memory of James Pasley of Craig". The church is no longer there. We hoped that the slab had been moved to the new church but we could not find it. All very disappointing.

In 1782 Telford left Scotland for London. He worked as a journeyman stonemason on Somerset House and the old Waterloo bridge, then went to Portsmouth to supervise the construction of a house for the Port Admiral. No one knows how the promotion came about but Pulteney's involvement seems inevitable. And again when the house was finished. By this time Pulteney was MP for Shrewsbury. He used his influence to have Telford appointed as Shropshire County Surveyor. Everyone knew it. According to Smiles, they referred to him as 'Pulteney Junior'.

Momentous Britain was in Shrewsbury having spent the previous day investigating its connections with Charles Darwin and Brother Cadfael. We needed to get to Anglesey for the funeral of a school friend. We had one day to investigate Telford's associations with the west midlands. It wasn't as easy as it sounds. The only Telford designed public work in Shrewsbury was the gaol. We enjoyed a guided tour of it the previous day, but the guide told us that the site was about to be redeveloped. There are doubtless dozens of small Telford bridges and roads in the area, but they are not worth seeing. Nor are his early works, stone bridges apart, because, ahem, they are not that good (check out Cound Arbour bridge or Mary Magdalene Church, if you don't believe us). The best we could come up with was to visit two of his later stone bridges, one of his later cast iron arch bridges and his prototype iron trough aqueduct.

Bridgnorth first. It reminded us why Britain is such a wonderful country. We had never even heard of it, yet it is lovely, tranquil and full of interest. It is split into what the locals refer to as 'Low town' beside the river and 'High town' on the adjacent sandstone cliff. The Severn Way is on the west bank as it passes through Bridgnorth, providing a wonderful view of the bridge. Unfortunately, it shows the bridge to be pleasant enough yet uninspiring.

A plaque on the clocktower at the east end of the bridge is more promising. It says that Richard Trevithic made the world's first passenger locomotive at the Hazledine foundry beside the bridge. This foundry was run by the oldest Hazledine brother, who produced Telford's aqueduct and bridge iron components.

We headed to High town (given our age, on the funicular railway). The museum was something of a disappointment too, with no Telford memorabilia. On the other hand, we loved the Tuscan style striped indoor market (now a Costa) and the town hall in the middle of the High Street. Our objective was to look at Telford's home and the church he designed, both of which are in East Castle Street. The former (below) looks like Telford might have just stepped inside. The latter is horrid and incongruous; lord knows (or perhaps influenced?) what he was thinking. We couldn't leave Bridgnorth without checking out St Leonards Church (not Telford designed). Its spectacular east window would not look out of place in a cathedral.

We spent a lot longer than expected in Bridgnorth. Thankfully we started early, so it was not quite lunchtime when we arrived at Bewdley. Again, we had never been before so we were happy to find that Severn Side South would not look out of place beside the Rhine. We like Telford's stone bridge (below). It is not long or high, but simple and elegant, with a tasteful balustrade across the top. We were interested in Telford's anti-flooding measures, which successfully fended off the worst floods in Bewdley's history in 2000. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to explore because we spent too long in Bridgnorth. We did, however, quickly pop over to Red Hill to see the Bewdley Sweet Chestnut, one of Britain's 50 Greatest Trees.

Into the outskirts of Birmingham next for Galton Bridge. It is beside a busy dual carriageway. We parked in Smethwick Station Car Park, on the wrong side of road. We had to walk back east, past the station to the first set of traffic lights. The path to Galton Bridge is right opposite, across of the road.

We like the bridge. It is dainty and elegant. As the plaque (below) says, it was the highest cast iron bridge in the world at the time it was built. The best place to see it is the path underneath, notwithstanding the verdant summer undergrowth that blocks the view. There are some steps down to the path in Roebuck Lane. Smethwick's other claim to fame is the Nettlefolds factory. Nettlefolds is the 'N' in engineering giant GKN. We asked around to see if anyone knew where the factory was located, but with no luck.

Next up, a short stop in Telford New Town for the only known statue of him (there is a small bust in Westminster Abbey). The man himself would doubtless be honoured that somewhere so substantial took his name, but he is probably disappointed that the place they chose is so charmless and drab. We parked in the ASDA car park on Northfield Street, 200m away. The statue was looking pretty sorry for itself when we saw it. We understand it has been refurbished since, as part of Telford's 50th birthday celebrations. The photo below is from the local newspaper. In general, we detest modern sculptures, so we were pleased to find that we liked this one. Telford was famously jovial and humorous. That is how he looks in his statue; comfortable, relaxed and happy. The jacket hanging on the 'd' is brilliant fun. We just can't understand the location. It is outside the law courts, nowhere near the town centre. A few beaks and their entourage were the only people to pass through when we were there.

Last place this day was Longdon-on-Tern. It was here that Telford built his first cast iron aqueduct trough. It is still there, in the middle of a field, the canal having been filled in long ago. It is 100m north of the B5063, clearly visible from the road where it crosses the Tern. There may be a way to get to it along the riverbank but it looked boggy. We went the long way around, on the public footpath opposite Millers Row. The trough is in terrific condition, looking cared for and loved, although it would be good if someone installed an information plaque about it.

Next day we headed off to Anglesey on Telford's Holyhead road, now the A5. Sir Henry Parnell said it was: "a model of the most perfect road making that has ever been attempted in any country". It has been widened several times since so it is difficult to tell if he was right, but it is impressively level, especially considering that it crosses Snowdonia. Everyone assumed that nothing was left of Telford's road and bridges. They were wrong. According to a 2003 Cadw survey by Quartermaine, Trinder and Turner, 40% of the original road lies undisturbed below the current carriageway. Most of the original milestones - designed by Telford himself - are still there. Many of the missing milestones have been replaced. Some of the bridges and 'depots' survive. These depots (one below) were mini laybys beside the road in which gravel was stored to effect repairs to the road surface. Quartermaine reckons that 333 of them survive.

The trip from Shrewsbury to the Welsh border is tedious. We failed to spot a single milestone or depot, and nothing else that looked like it might have been around in Telford's day. It is just a modern road that could have been virtually anywhere. The Welsh government clearly cares more about it. There is a milestone and depot within a few hundred yards of the border, then regularly all the way through to Holyhead. We got so used to seeing them, that the novelty wore off. The road to Pontcysyllte is just two miles from the border.

We parked in the Chapel car park on Station Road. We should point out that this was only after following the 'Canal And River Trust' parking instructions which took us out into the middle of nowhere. We enjoyed a superb (and reasonably priced) lunch in the Chapel Tearoom then walked to the Visitor Centre (below) 600m away.

The Visitor Centre is clean and informative. The staff and volunteers were welcoming, helpful and proud of their aqueduct. But there was no guided tour and no audio-guide, as far as we could tell. It is a shame because we had a ton of questions to ask about how it was constructed, how it was maintained, how the signalling worked, why it isn't rusting, and so on. We took a map and wandered around under our own steam. There is a path under the arches, to check the foundations. The towpath beside the aqueduct is open to walkers, which was fun, if utterly terrifying. The views were great, if utterly terrifying. Our favourite part is the pools at the ends of the aqueduct where the narrowboats queue to cross. It provides a tranquil window into what it might have been like 200 years ago.

We didn't really know what to make of the structure. It is not obvious to us that it is a significant improvement on Roman aqueducts built 1,700 years previously. Of course, it is navigable, which could not be said of Roman aqueducts. The distance between the piers is greater. But these advantages are only because cast iron had been invented in the meantime. It would be a bit unreasonable for Telford to take credit for cast iron's physical properties. Llangollen - the canal upon which Pontcysyllte sits - is often said to be the best canal ever cut in Britain. We didn't investigate. It may well be so but, as one of the last, it should be.

End of the line, Anglesey. We parked in the Waitrose car park on Mona Road. The Telford Visitor Centre is on the other side of the road. Poignantly, this is one of the places that our recently deceased school chum worked. He did guided tours of the two bridges, Caernarfon and Beaumaris. We got on the next tour to leave. Tours by experts who are passionate about their subject are brilliant. This was up with the best. We loved every moment. And there is a lot to see between the Britannia Bridge and Beaumaris.

No matter what Glover and the tour guides say, Menai Suspension Bridge is not beautiful. We would describe it as solid. It is an impressive construction. The fact that it is still standing and used is a testament to those involved in its design and construction. As we say above, it is not obvious to us that Telford played any great part. Moreover, also as we say above, just about the only original part Telford's bridge that survives are the masonry piers, arches and abutments.

Sadly, apart from Bridgnorth, none of Telford's homes survive. Upon arriving in London, he rented rooms at 'The Salopian' coffee house on Charing Cross Road. It was his base for the next 21 years. Then he moved to 24 Abingdon Street, opposite the Palace of Westminster, where he lived for the rest of his life. The Salopian is now an office block between Ladbrokes and Fiori (above). Abingdon Street was destroyed during the war. Telford is buried in Westminster Abbey. There is a marble bust of him nearby.