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This page: updated 21st February 2022

Calvin Harris Thomas Telford engineering work Jessie M King

Thomas Telford
Dumfries and Galloway

Thomas Telford and Dumfries & Galloway

Telford, Thomas (1757 - 1834), versatile Scottish Civil Engineer whose crowning achievement was the design and construction (1819-26) of the Menai Bridge in Wales.

Early Life

Telford, Thomas (1757 - 1834)Telford was born near Westerkirk, Scotland, August 9, 1757 as a son of a shepherd. Young Telford grew up a healthy boy and he was so full of fun and humour that he became known in the valley by the name of "Laughing Tam."

When he was old enough to herd sheep he went to live with a relative a shepherd like his father and he spent most of his time with him in summer on the hillside amidst the silence of nature.

In winter he lived with one or other of the neighbouring farmers. He herded their cows or ran errands receiving for payment, meat, a pair of stockings and five shillings a year for clogs. These were his first wages and as he grew older they were gradually increased. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a stonemason.

Building a Reputation

He accordingly left Eskdale for the first time in 1780 and sought work in Edinburgh where the New Town was then in course of erection on the elevated land formerly green fields extending along the north bank of the 'Nor' Loch. A bridge had been thrown across the Loch in 1769 the stagnant pond or marsh in the hollow had been filled up and Princes Street was rising as if by magic. Skilled masons were in great demand for the purpose of carrying out these and the numerous other architectural improvements which were in progress and Telford had no difficulty in obtaining employment. 1792 he moved to London where he was involved in building additions to Somerset House. Two years later he found work at Portsmouth dockyard.

A Typical Working Day

The following is his own account of the manner in which he was usually occupied during the winter months while at Portsmouth Dock.

"I rise in the morning at 7 (February 1st) and will get up earlier as the days lengthen until it come to 5 o'clock. I immediately set to work to make out accounts write on matters of business or draw until breakfast which is at 9. Then I go into the Yard about 10 see that all are at their posts and am ready to advise about any matters that may require attention. This and going round the several works occupies until about dinner time which is at 2 and after that I again go round and attend to what may be wanted. I draw till 5 then tea and after that I write draw or read until half after 9 then comes supper and bed. This my ordinary round unless when I dine or spend an evening with a friend but I do not make many friends being very particular nay nice to a degree. My business requires a great deal of writing and drawing and this work I always take care to keep under by reserving my time for it and being in advance of my work rather than behind it. Then as knowledge is my most ardent pursuit a thousand things occur which call for investigation which would pass unnoticed by those who are content to trudge only in the beaten path. I am not contented unless I can give a reason for every particular method or practice which is pursued".

Engineering Work

The first bridge designed and built under Telford's superintendence was across the River Severn at Montford it was finished in 1792. In the same year we find Telford engaged as an architect in preparing the designs and superintending the construction of the new parish church of St. Mary Magdalen at Bridgenorth. His completion of the church to the satisfaction of the inhabitants brought Telford a commission in the following year to erect a similar edifice at Coalbrookdale. But in the mean time to enlarge his knowledge and increase his acquaintance with the best forms of architecture he determined to make a journey to London and through some of the principal towns of the south of England. He accordingly visited Gloucester Worcester and Bath remaining several days in the last-mentioned city.

Thomas Telford's aqueduct at PontcysyllteAfter the bridge across the river Severn he built a canal that linked the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham with Chester and Shrewsbury. This involved building an aqueduct over the River Dee. On the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (pictured), Telford used a new method of construction consisting of troughs made from cast-iron plates and fixed in masonry.

Telford's reputation was duly confirmed by the next general meeting of the shareholders of the Ellesmere Canal. An attempt was made to get up a party against him but it failed. "I am fortunate" he said, "in being on good terms with most of the leading men both of property and abilities and on this occasion I had the decided support of the great John Wilkinson king of the ironmasters himself a host. I travelled in his carriage to the meeting and found him much disposed to be friendly." The salary at which Telford was engaged was £500 a year out of which he had to pay one clerk and one confidential foreman besides defraying his own travelling expenses. It would not appear that after making these disbursements much would remain for Telford's own labour but in those days engineers were satisfied with comparatively small pay and did not dream of making large fortunes. After completition of the Ellesmere canal he moved back to Scotland and took control over the building of Caledonian Canal

Other works by Telford include the Menai Suspension Bridge, and the Katherine's Docks in London.

Roads and Bridges

Telford was employed by the government in 1803 to assist the development of the Scottish Highlands. Next to the Caledonian Canal he was responsible for the building of 900 miles(1450km) of roads, including many bridges.

He rebuilt the Shrewsbury to Holyhead road and the North Wales coast road between Chester and Bangor, as well as the main road between London and Holyhead.