Book of the Month: February – Thomas Telford

Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain
Julian Glover

This was a long awaited book – I think I put in a library request for it sometime around last June, and then slowly made my way down what seemed to be an almost endless reservation list.

I was excited to get hold of it, because Telford’s was a name I knew long before I had any idea of when he had lived or who he was – before I’d taken any interest in the history behind his work, or heard of Rennie or General Wade or any of the Stevensons except RLS – he was just always there. For me he was definitely the character who Max Adams described as being to us what the Romans were to the Dark Ages, in the sense that if all the documentation was lost and later works had crumbled, we would believe these were the works of giants.

So I was surprised to find that this was a book about a very different kind of person – one who was neglected and forgotten and had to be championed to the modern world. It might just be geographical – Telford worked in the West Country, in Scotland, in Wales, but not much, I think, in London or even the Home Counties, although he was based there later on – rather than the crusading fervour that requires you to show the world how much the person you’re trying to save needs *you*, but it surprised me just the same.

I found it a bit of an odd book overall – after reading the introductory chapters I described it to a friend as Whig history written by a Tory, and I never quite lost that odd dissonance. Of course, Telford’s life simply *is* Whig history – his drive is always to improve things, to make new things, to leave things better than he found them – and that’s not something which can be avoided, or which you would want to avoid. But it’s very much a book with a message, possibly more unionist than conservative – about the building of Britain and the linking of different parts of it to provide easier access to the centre, and how this is the only true and valuable aim that anyone should have. It never loses sight of the author’s own modern, southern, views – on various topics – and my preference is definitely for history which does its best to detach itself from that, and to show how people of the time might have thought.

However, what it does, it does fairly well.

The book starts in rural Eskdale, where Telford was born, and notes the various families from the area who made a mark on the world in different ways, particularly the Pasleys and Malcolms. Telford seems to have always felt a strong connection to the area, at least until his mother and his closest friend, Andrew Little, died, but he soon moved away, first to nearby Langholm where he was apprenticed to a stonemason, and then to Edinburgh to work on the growing new town.

He soon left Scotland for London, where he took on his first jobs as an architect rather than simply a mason, including works on Portsmouth dockyard, and then in Shrewsbury where he worked on the castle for another Eskdale native, William Pulteney, and became the county surveyor for Shropshire. Shrewsbury at the time seems to have been a thriving Georgian town – not just socially active, but busy discussing every subject under the sun, and Telford was in the thick of it with a circle of close friends – the closest he came to a settled home until many years later.

It was in this area that he first worked with iron, building a bridge at Buildwas to replace one washed away in a great flood in 1795 – the original iron bridge at Ironbridge had been standing for several years, but Telford’s was a much more efficient version, as he began to really grasp what made building in iron different from wood or stone. It was also where he first worked with several colleagues and suppliers who followed him to later projects. His first major work, the aqueduct at Pontcyssyllte with William Jessop, followed, and he was next involved in a plan for replacing the medieval London Bridge with an iron one (possibly too ambitious a plan, but it came to nothing due to the start of the Napoleonic wars, and the bridge was eventually replaced with a more traditional stone one 30 years later).

The next part was what really interested me – the grand plan for improving highland roads, where Telford seems to have simply been sent to the highlands to work out what was needed where, on a grand scale. His first work was for the British Fisheries Commission, producing a new fishing village at Ullapool, and failing to establish one at Lochbay, now Stein, on Skye – a later attempt at Wick, called Pulteneytown after William Pulteney, who was involved with the commission, was far more successful. The work on the roads saw major bridges built at Dunkeld, Craigellachie and Bonar Bridge, together with many miles of standardised road and smaller bridges, and Telford was also working at the same time, but in a different capacity, on the Caledonian Canal.

I felt this stage was rushed over a bit, but I don’t think it was deliberate, just that there was so much to tell – that I possibly actually wanted a book about Telford in the highlands is not this book’s fault.

Telford always seems to have been working on half a dozen things at once, and while the supervisors on site got on with the Caledonian Canal, he was off to Sweden to start work on the Göta Canal – an interlude which introduces my favourite character of the book, the engaging Count von Platen, who never seems to have let his slightly erratic knowledge of English get in the way of his desire to communicate. Here he is writing to Telford about a theodolite which no one in the Swedish team seems to know how to work:

After looking at the levelling instrument I found I had better take advices of you about it than standing talking nonsens last evening up stairs.

Telford’s focus then seems to have shifted south – after the union of 1801 transport links between London and Dublin became more important, and his works in Wales were mainly to improve access to the ferry port at Holyhead, rather than improving links within Wales itself. The Menai bridge was his great achievement of this period – the first suspension bridge built on a large scale for traffic, although there has been smaller pedestrian versions (and the Union bridge on the Tweed was started later but finished first!)

Telford was over 60 by now, and seemed to have finally felt a desire for a settled home, because he bought a house in London, where various assistants and apprentices lodged to study with him. He also became president of the Society of Civil Engineers, originally started to encourage young members of the profession.

By now railways were beginning to come on the scene – something that Telford never seems to have been much in favour of, possibly because of the monopoly business of running your own trains on your own line (unlike canals and roads which can be used by anyone), or possibly just because it wasn’t his area of expertise. He became involved in trials of a steam powered road vehicle, and more successfully in the building of more efficient canals, which were still useful for goods transport at that stage. But there was a definite change under way, with great Victorian names beginning to come on the scene.

After letting me warm to it, the book then veered away again with an oddly patronising final chapter – ‘come and look at the old man failing’, essentially. Asked to judge entries in a competition to design a suspension bridge over the Severn at Clifton Gorge, he seems to have decided that it couldn’t be done in a single span, and suggested a more conventional bridge with stone piers. Brunel’s design was eventually chosen, but since it took another 30 years to finally build the bridge, to a revised plan, I’m not sure it’s obvious that Telford was wrong at the time. He does seem to have made a more definite mess of trying to write his autobiography, getting badly bogged down in it in a way that he never did when writing on technical subjects, and eventually leaving it to his executors to salvage the mess.

But oh well. I learnt a lot, and I have a whole new list of places I want to visit – Craigellachie and Bonar Bridge and Wick, never mind Conwy and Pontcyssyllte and the Menai Straits!

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