|Table of contents|
2 Ellesmere Canal
3 Engineer in demand
4 The 'Colossus of Roads'
5 Late career
7 Town of Telford
At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a stonemason, and some of his earliest work can still be seen on the bridge across the river Esk in Langholm in the Scottish borders. He worked for a time in Edinburgh and in 1782 he moved to London where (after meeting architects Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers) he was involved in building additions to Somerset House. Two years later he found work at Portsmouth dockyard and - although still largely self-taught - was extending his talents to the specification, design and management of building projects.
In 1787, through his wealthy patron William Pulteney, he became Surveyor of Public Works for Shropshire, England. At this time, 'civil engineering' was a discipline still in its infancy, so Telford was set on establishing himself as an architect. His projects included renovation of Shrewsbury's Castle, the town's prison (during planning of which he met leading prison reformer John Howard), a church (St Mary Magdalene) in Bridgnorth and another at Madeley.
As county surveyor, Telford was also responsible for bridges. In 1790 he designed a bridge carrying the London-Holyhead road over the Severn river at Montford, the first of some 40 bridges he built in Shropshire, including major crossings of the Severn at Buildwas, Bridgnorth and Bewdley. The Buildwas bridge was Telford's first iron bridge (he was heavily influenced by the famous bridge at Ironbridge), but was 30ft wider in span and half the weight. As his engineering prowess grew, Telford was to return to this material again and again.
Telford's reputation in Shropshire led to his appointment in 1793 to oversee design and construction of the Ellesmere Canal, linking the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham via the north-west Shropshire town of Ellesmere, with Chester (utilising the existing Chester Canal). Among other structures, this involved building an aqueduct over the River Dee in the Vale of Llangollen; for the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Telford used a new method of construction consisting of troughs made from cast iron plates and fixed in masonry.
Engineer in demand
The Ellesmere Canal was finally completed in 1805 but alongside his canal responsibilities, Telford's reputation as a civil engineer meant he was constantly consulted on numerous other projects. These included water supply works for Liverpool, improvements to London's docklands and the rebuilding of London Bridge (c.1800).
Most notably (and, again, William Pulteney was influential in his 1801 appointment), Telford devised a masterplan to improve communications in the Highlands of Scotland, a massive project that was to last some 20 years. It included the building of the Caledonian Canal along the Great Glen (and redesign of sections of the Crinan Canal), some 920 miles of new roads, over a thousand new bridges, numerous harbour improvements (including works at Aberdeen, Dundee, Peterhead and Banff, to name but four), and 32 new churches.
Telford also undertook highway works in the Scottish Lowlands, including 184 miles of new roads and numerous bridges, ranging from a 112ft span stone bridge across the Dee at Tongueland in Kirkcudbright (1805-1806) to the 129ft tall Cartland Crags bridge near Lanark (1822).
Telford was consulted in 1806 by the King of Sweden about the construction of a canal between Gothenburg and Stockholm. His plans were adopted and construction of the Göta canal began in 1810. Telford travelled to Sweden at that time to oversee some of the more important initial excavations.
The 'Colossus of Roads'
During his later years, Telford was responsible for rebuilding sections of the London to Holyhead road (a task completed by his assistant of ten years, John MacNeill; today, the route is the A5 trunk road). Between London and Shrewsbury, most of the work amounted to improvements (including the Archway cutting in north London and improvements at Barnet and South Mimms). Beyond Shrewsbury, and especially beyond Llangollen, the work often involved building a highway from scratch. Notable features of this section of the route include the iron bridge across the River Conwy at Betws-y-Coed, the ascent from there to Capel Curig and then the descent from the pass of Nant Ffrancon towards Bangor.
On the island of Anglesey a new embankment across the Stanley Sands to Holyhead was constructed, but the crossing of the Menai Straits was the most formidable challenge, finally overcome by the Menai Suspension Bridge (1819-1826).
(The punning nickname Colossus of Roads was given to Telford by his friend and Poet Laureate Robert Southey.)
Other works by Telford include the St Katharine Docks (1824-1828) close to Tower Bridge in central London, the Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal (today known as the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal) and the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal (today part of the Shropshire Union Canal) - started in May 1826 but finished, after Telford's death, in January 1835.
In 1820, Telford was appointed the first President of the recently formed Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held until his death. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Town of Telford