GREAT HEROES OF GREAT BRITAIN
Travel is people. You may go abroad to see the famous sites, but what
you remember best are the people you meet. Among them, like
unexpected treasure, are a few
memorable contacts that will make your travels unique, special, and
delightful. "People" is devoted to some of those you may come in contact
with during your Home At First
VISIONARY ENGINEER OF THE INDUSTRIAL AGE — PART
article first appeared in October, 2004. Most recent update: 2015.
It seems most everywhere
we go we run into his name on bridges, on canals, on roadways, on
harbors. There are towns named after him in England and Pennsylvania. We had to find out more about this man whose path
we — and Home At First guests to
Sweden — often cross,
the man called:
THOMAS TELFORD didnt invent the Industrial Revolution, but he was its first great
star, a star of the order of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates. He was the most
glamorous and most sought after civil engineer of his time. He made engineering into a
science and an art. He helped invent modern times, literally paving the way into the
future. Like Elvis prepared the world for the Beatles, Telford caught the publics
imagination, making public acceptance easy for the geniuses that followed, especially
Robert Stephenson and
Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Telford was a lowlands
Scot, born August 9, 1757, near Langholm, Dumfries & Galloway, a few miles from the
English border, and mid-way between dramatic
and the ill-fated town of
Locherbie. In this region where sheep
vastly outnumber people, Telford was the son of a poor shepherd, and helped support the
family as a shepherd until becoming an apprentice stonemason at 14. From the family farm
at Bentpath (west of the A7 on the B709 in Eskdale), Telfords path led to Scotland,
England, Wales, and Sweden, and always went uphill. The path led ultimately to Westminster
Abbey, where Telford, who died September 2, 1834, aged 77, was buried among the great
kings and citizens of Britain.
Along the way, the path of Thomas Telford crossed many paths familiar to
Home at First.
Join us as we journey with Telford to some of the fascinating
destinations we share.
PART TWO OF A FOUR-PART SERIES:
TELFORD IN ENGLAND
A stormy Thames lashes
facade of Somerset
House in this
from circa 1790.
on this grand
building, now home
London's finest art collections.
London: After working on Edinburghs New Town, young Thomas Telford went to
London to work on the construction of
Somerset House (shown left
from a contemporary painting). The great neo-classical building replaced a crumbling Tudor
palace on the banks of the Thames northeast of Westminster (and today just across the
river from the London Eye Ferris wheel). It was here that Telford gained his engineering
education and gained a reputation as an emerging talent. A visit to Somerset House is
still informative. Its size and complexity make it a complete course in the trades of
architecture and civil engineering. Today, Somerset House no longer is home to government
offices and the Royal Navy, but to some of Britain’s great art treasures and an
ever-changing calendar of events, many classical,
many eclectic. That its immediate
neighbor to the
east, London’s prestigious
Somerset House, suggests a connection
between art, architecture, education, and engineering that Thomas
Telford would instantly understand.
Telford went on to build the trunk road from London to
Holyhead, Wales (and its ferry port
to Dublin) that became one of Britains main transport routes. While it was the Welsh
portion of this road that presented Telford his greatest challenge, it
Detail from Telford's
preserved iron footbridge
at St. Katharine's Docks, London.
© Home At First
was the importance of
London as hub of the
empire that Telford’s
work was expanding.
Once the import
complex of shops,
restaurants and residences
next to the
at theTower of London.
© Home At First
Such works made the science of
civil engineering and the name Thomas Telford inseparable.
When, in 1818, Londons new Institute of Civil Engineers named its first president,
no one was surprised by the choice: Thomas Telford. But late in life Telford did not slow
down. He moved to London, but not to settle down. As he approached 70
old age in the
Victorian era he was still unmarried and still hard at work, among other things,
designing and building (1824-8) Londons great, modern dock facilities just east of
Tower of London. Called
St. Katharines Docks, these
state-of-the-art wharves and warehouses welcomed clipper ships bringing exotic cargoes of
rare feathers, decorative shells, tea, indigo, marble, perfume, and ivory from around
British Empire. The docks served London well until becoming obliterated by Nazi bombs
during the Blitz.
Today, St. Katharines Docks are East Londons great success
story of urban renewal, having become an upscale yacht basin with trendy shops,
restaurants and fashionable residences, including
Home at Firsts
Apartments at St. Katharines Marina. The Center Dock at St. Katharines has
preserved Thomas Telfords original iron pedestrian
drawbridge, an elegant relic very much in keeping with the
style of the modern marina architecture.
Six years after St. Katharines Docks
Telford died in London at 77 years old. He was buried in the
nave of Westminster Abbey.
Twenty-five years later the body of the great bridge designer and
railway engineer, Robert Stephenson, was interred next to Telfords grave.
Demonstrating a sense of what he owed to his great predecessor, Stephenson had requested
burial by Telford. (Other scientists and engineers buried in Westminster Abbey include:
Sir Isaac Newton,
Ernest Rutherford, and
Shropshire: If London gave Telford the education he had lacked, Shropshire gave him
his first great responsibility and first major achievements. The year was 1788, and the
Industrial Revolution was being fought hard in Shropshire, a sleepy county in western
England bordering North Wales. The new transportation technology that was sweeping
made it feasible to haul goods and people across the flat lands
of the Midlands (around Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool). But could that same
technology be installed across the rugged topography of the Severn River Valley and the
hill country that surrounded it? Telford, who had made a name for himself in
London as an up-and-coming
Llangollen, Wales, is still
highest and longest
carry visitors across its
1000-foot length 126 feet above the
River Dee from nearby Llangollen.
civil engineer and impressed
looked like an ambitious young man that might tackle the problems of canal building in hill
country. He was appointed Shropshires Surveyor of Public Works, and, by 1793, was building the
Ellsmere (now the Llangollen) Canal connecting Shropshire with North Wales. Telford
attacked the problem of crossing deep river valleys between the hills by designing huge
masonry aqueducts supporting a canal in cast iron troughs and a towpath. These strong and
elegant structures seemed to fly across the eastern Welsh valleys
and still do today.
Home at First visitors to Shropshire can easily see Telfords great arched
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (and even ride across its 1,000-foot length in a canal boat
126 feet above the River Dee) near Llangollen, Wales, and the dual
Chirk Aqueduct and
near the Welsh/English border town of Wrexham. The great works once
carried iron, coal, freight, mail and passengers in the days before the
railroads came to Britain. Today, more than two centuries later, the canals carry canal boats and other pleasure
craft full of vacationers who see Wales and England slowly on board narrow boats.
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal was added to UNESCO's list of
World Heritage Sites
in 2009, being judged "a pioneering masterpiece of
engineering and monumental metal architecture, conceived by the
celebrated civil engineer Thomas Telford."
Closer to home, guests to
Walking along the
No hills, rural
scenery, pub refreshments.
cottages on the
Shropshire/Cheshire border can walk along the towpaths of Telfords Llangollen
Canal and his Shropshire Union Canal (built 1826-35 as the Birmingham and Liverpool
Junction Canal). Canal walking is a great way to enjoy the sleepy countryside of pretty
western England. Enhance your walk with a stop at any of many public houses that serve
canal travelers to this day.
Shropshire has not always slumbered. In the
early 18th century, a fellow named
Abraham Darby, who lived in the Shropshire
hill country east of Shrewsbury, figured out a way to mass produce
cast iron. This discovery set in motion a chain of
that changed the world. Today we call this momentous
change the Industrial Revolution. Among the first applications of mass produced
cast iron was in a bridge at a place near Coalbrookdale along the River Severn now called Ironbridge. The graceful great arch still stands, and is
another of Britains
contributions to the United Nations list of
World Heritage Sites. Thomas Telford certainly
knew Ironbridge. His own iron and masonry bridges crossed the Severn at several
points, including Montfort (1792), Bildwas (1796)
Bridgnorth (1810), Bewdley (1797-1801), Holt
Fleet (1828), Mythe (Tewkesbury, 1826), and Over (Gloucester,
1831). These latter four bridges may be visited by
Home at First guests to the Cotswolds
simply by tracing the River Severn north from Gloucester.
Telford also built the A5 trunk road from London to Holyhead, Wales, right through
Shropshire, passing just to the north of Ironbridge Gorge. When the British government
decided to build a completely new town to wake up the economy of this sleepiest part of
A statue of
Thomas Telford leans
namesake town's sign
the 1960’s, the high-tech town was named after its best-known adopted
You can travel in the footsteps of Thomas Telford
history from some of the living monuments to this great engineer.
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