Thomas Telford was born in August 1757, the son of a shepherd in the Lowlands of Scotland. Three months later his father died at the age of just 33 and it was left to Thomas’ mother to raise him in a single cottage room. Thomas was however able to attend school through the generosity of his uncle who paid the fees.
On leaving school Telford was apprenticed to a master stonemason, Andrew Thomson of Langholm, and subsequently became journeyman assistant to Thomson. Together they did much work for the Duke of Buccleuch involving buildings, roads and bridges.
In January 1782 Telford left the Lowlands for London to seek his fortune. Falling on his feet he soon found employment as a mason with a great architect of the day, Sir William Chambers, working on Somerset House. From 1783, through various contacts, other works were obtained including at Portsmouth Dockyard, Penrhyn Castle and Hurstmonceux Place in Sussex.
In 1786 Telford’s work brought him to Shrewsbury to superintend renovation of Shrewsbury Castle as a home for William Pulteney, the town’s M.P.; but other work soon arose including construction of a new infirmary and county gaol. He also carried out extensive excavations of the Roman remains at Wroxeter and built churches, including a replacement St Chads in Shrewsbury, and bridges. In September 1793 his first association with canals arose as ‘general agent, engineer and architect’ to the Ellesmere Canal Company, whose canal was planned to connect the rivers Mersey & Dee with the Severn at Shrewsbury.
Three months prior to Telford’s employment by the Ellesmere Canal Company, the Shrewsbury Canal had been authorised to extend the tub-boat canals of the Wrekin district to the county town. This canal was to be engineered by William Reynolds and Josiah Clowes. However, Clowes was to die long before the project was complete and in early 1795 Telford was appointed in his stead. He was soon to make his mark. Clowes had planned, and was constructing, a masonry aqueduct to cross the River Tern at Longdon but before it was complete a flood destroyed much of the work. Telford reconstructed it using a cast-iron trough between Clowes’ original stone abutments. This was not only a solution to the crossing but very likely a trial for the far larger iron aqueduct at Pontcysyllte on the Ellesmere Canal for which Telford had produced plans in 1794. Although the Shrewsbury Canal opened in 1797 it was not until 1805 that the Ellesmere Canal, using a revised route since the Shrewsbury Canal had taken away its need to reach Shrewsbury, was opened.
In 1801 Telford's talents took him back to Scotland when he started surveying the line for the Caledonian Canal. Although building and construction work started in 1804, it took no less than 18 years to complete, finally opening in 1822. His spreading fame also took him to Sweden in 1808 to survey the Gotha Canal.
It was in 1820 that Telford was asked to propose ways of improving the Birmingham canals. He was reportedly shocked by "the appalling state of the waterways", and he was also clearly unimpressed by Birmingham itself, saying it is “…famous for buttons, buckles and locks and ignorance and barbarism. Its prosperity increases upon the corruption of taste and morals." By 1822 he was working on the second Harecastle Tunnel, as a relief to Brindley’s original, on the Trent & Mersey Canal.
The modifications on the BCN took until 1827 to complete and by this time Telford was involved with the building of the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, including its Newport branch to connect with the Shrewsbury Canal. It was to be his last major work. The canal used a similar method to that he had used to shorten the canals in Birmingham, the route being almost straight, utilising cuttings and embankments to overcome the undulations of hills and valleys. Locks were installed only at permanent rise and fall points in ground levels. This included his longest ever flight of locks, the Norbury Flight on the Newport Branch.
Although this article has concentrated on Telford’s canal projects, his work included many other schemes on which he was called on to advise and engineer. These included notable roads and bridges, such as the road from London to Holyhead and others through the Scottish highlands and the Menai and Conwy suspension bridges in North Wales. In addition, the economic slump after the Napoleonic wars led the Government to offer cheap loans to encourage public works and Telford became the engineering advisor to the Exchequer Loans Commission in 1817. This entailed touring the country surveying and inspecting the proposed sites and plans for those projects seeking a loan. It meant that for a time he saw nearly every civil engineering project in the country.
Telford died in London on 2nd September 1834 at the age of 77. This was a year before the final opening of what is regarded by many as one of his finest achievements.
Telford was buried in Westminster Abbey, as a mark of his unrivalled reputation. When Thomas Telford entered the stonemason's trade, there was no such thing as a civil engineering profession. By the time he died it was well-established, and from 1820 he was the first president of the fledgling Institution of Civil Engineers. Those that followed clearly respected the mark he had made for twenty-five years after Telford’s death Robert Stephenson’s wish that his body should be laid to rest near that of Telford was carried out.
For more detail about Telford’s work and life I would recommend Thomas Telford by L.T.C. Rolt.
From an article in S&News August 2004 by Steve Bean
[For an article which includes more detail about Thomas Telford's role in the building of the Shropshire Union and Newport canals please go to the Gnosall History website.]