Metcalfe & Telford III.
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THE time arrived when young Telford must be put to some regular calling.  Was he to be a shepherd like his father and his uncle, or was he to be a farm-labourer, or put apprentice to a trade?  There was not much choice; but at length it was determined to bind him to a stonemason.  In Eskdale that trade was for the most part confined to the building of drystone walls, and there was very little more art employed in it than an ordinarily neat-handed labourer could manage.  It was eventually decided to send the youth—and he was now a strong lad of about fifteen—to a mason at Lochmaben, a small town across the hills to the westward, where a little more building and of a better sort—such as of farmhouses, barns, and road-bridges—was carried on than in his own immediate neighbourhood.  There he remained only a few months; for his master using him badly, the high-spirited youth would not brook it, and ran away, taking refuge with his mother at The Crooks, very much to her dismay.

    What was now to be done with Tom?  He was willing to do anything or go anywhere rather than back to his Lochmaben master.  In this emergency his cousin Thomas Jackson, the factor or land-steward at Wester Hall, offered to do what he could to induce Andrew Thomson, a small mason at Langholm, to take Telford for the remainder of his apprenticeship; and to him he went accordingly.  The business carried on by his new master was of a very humble sort.  Telford, in his autobiography, states that most of the farmers' houses in the district then consisted of "one storey of mud walls, or rubble stones bedded in clay, and thatched with straw, rushes, or heather; the floors being of earth, and the fire in the middle, having a plastered creel chimney for the escape of the smoke; while, instead of windows, small openings in the thick mud walls admitted a scanty light."  The farm-buildings were of a similarly wretched description.

    The principal owner of the landed property in the neighbourhood was the Duke of Buccleugh.  Shortly after the young Duke Henry succeeded to the title and estates, in 1767, he introduced considerable improvements in the farmers' houses and farm-steadings, and the peasants' dwellings, as well as in the roads throughout Eskdale.  Thus a demand sprang up for masons' labour, and Telford's master had no want of regular employment for his hands.  Telford profited by the experience which this increase in the building operations of the neighbourhood gave him; being employed in raising rough walls and farm enclosures, as well as in erecting bridges across rivers wherever regular roads for wheel carriages were substituted for the horse-tracks formerly in use.

    During the greater part of his apprenticeship Telford lived in the little town of Langholm, taking frequent opportunities of visiting his mother at The Crooks on Saturday evenings, and accompanying her to the parish church of Westerkirk on Sundays.  Langholm was then a very poor place, being no better in that respect than the district that surrounded it.  It consisted chiefly of mud hovels, covered with thatch—the principal building in it being the Tolbooth, a stone and lime structure, the upper part of which was used as a justice-hall and the lower part as a gaol.  There were, however, a few good houses in the little town, occupied by people of the better class, and in one of these lived an elderly lady, Miss Pasley, one of the family of the Pasleys of Craig.  As the town was so small that everybody in it knew everybody else, the ruddy-checked, laughing mason's apprentice soon became generally known to all the townspeople, and amongst others to Miss Pasley.  When she heard that he was the poor orphan boy from up the valley, the son of the hard-working widow woman, Janet Jackson, so "eident" and so industrious, her heart warmed to the mason's apprentice, and she sent for him to her house.  That was a proud day for Tom; and when he called upon her, he was not more pleased with Miss Pasley's kindness than delighted at the sight of her little library of books, which contained more volumes than he had ever seen before.

    Having by this time acquired a strong taste for reading, and exhausted all the little book stores of his friends, the joy of the young mason may be imagined when Miss Pasley volunteered to lend him some books from her own library.  Of course, he eagerly and thankfully availed himself of the privilege; and thus, while working as an apprentice and afterwards as a journeyman, Telford gathered his first knowledge of British literature, in which he was accustomed to the close of his life to take such pleasure.  He almost always had some book with him, which he would snatch a few minutes to read in the intervals of his work; and on winter evenings he occupied his spare time in poring over such volumes as came in his way, usually with no better light than the cottage fire.  On one occasion Miss Pasley lent him 'Paradise Lost,' and he took the book with him to the hill-side to read.  His delight was such that it fairly taxed his powers of expression to describe it.  He could only say, "I read, and read, and glowred; then read, and read again."  He was also a great admirer of Burns, whose writings so inflamed his mind that at the age of twenty-two, when barely out of his apprenticeship, we find the young mason actually breaking out in verse. [p.144]

    By diligently reading all the books that he could borrow from friends and neighbours, Telford made considerable progress in his learning; and, what with his scribbling of "poetry" and various attempts at composition, he had become so good and legible a writer that he was often called upon by his less-educated acquaintances to pen letters for them to their distant friends.  He was always willing to help them in this way; and, the other working people of the town making use of his services in the same manner, all the little domestic and family histories of the place soon became familiar to him.  One evening a Langholm man asked Tom to write a letter for him to his son in England; and when the young scribe read over what had been written to the old man's dictation, the latter, at the end of almost every sentence, exclaimed, "Capital! capital!" and at the close he said, "Well!  I declare, Tom!  Werricht himsel' couldna ha' written a better!"—Wright being a well-known lawyer or writer" in Langholm.

    His apprenticeship over, Telford went on working as a journeyman at Langholm, his wages at the time being only eighteen pence a day.  What was called the New Town was then in course of erection, and there are houses still pointed out in it, the walls of which Telford helped to put together.  In the town are three arched door-heads of a more ornamental character than the rest, of Telford's hewing; for he was already beginning to set up his pretensions as a craftsman, and took pride in pointing to the superior handiwork which proceeded from his chisel.  About the same time, the bridge connecting the Old with the New Town was built across the Esk at Langholm, and upon that structure he was also employed.  Many of the stones in it were hewn by his hand, and on several of the blocks forming the land-breast his tool-mark is still to be seen.

    Not long after the bridge was finished, an unusually high flood or spate swept down the valley.  The Esk was "roaring red frae bank to brae," and it was generally feared that the new brig would be carried away.  Robin Hotson, the master mason, was from home at the time, and his wife, Tibby, knowing that he was bound by his contract to maintain the fabric for a period of seven years, was in a state of great alarm.  She ran from one person to another, wringing her hands and sobbing, "Oh we'll be ruined—we'll a' be ruined!"  In her distress she thought of Telford, in whom she had great confidence, and called out, "Oh! where's Tammy Telfer—where's Tammy?"  He was immediately sent for.  It was evening, and he was soon found at the house of Miss Pasley.  When he came running up, Tibby exclaimed, "Oh, Tammy! they've been on the brig, and they say it's shakin'!  It'll be doon!"  "Never you heed them, Tibby," said Telford, clapping her on the shoulder, "there's nae fear o' the brig.  I like it a' the better that it shakes—it proves its weel put the gither."  Tibby's fears, however, were not so easily allayed; and insisting that she heard the brig "rumlin," she ran up—so the neighbours afterwards used to say of her—and set her back against the parapet to hold it together.  At this, it is said, "Tam hodged and leuch;" and Tibby, observing how easily he took it, at length grew more calm.  It soon became clear enough that the bridge was sufficiently strong; for the flood subsided without doing it any harm, and it has stood the furious spates of nearly a century uninjured.


    Telford acquired considerable general experience about the same time as a house-builder, though the structures on which he was engaged were of a humble order, being chiefly small farm-houses on the Duke of Buccleugh's estate, with the usual outbuildings.  Perhaps the most important of the jobs on which he was employed was the manse of Westerkirk, where he was comparatively at home.  The hamlet stands on a green hill-side, a little below the entrance to the valley of the Meggat.  It consists of the kirk, the minister's manse, the parish-school, and a few cottages, every occupant of which was known to Telford.  It is backed by the purple moors up which he loved to wander in his leisure hours and read the poems of Fergusson and Burns.  The river Esk gurgles along its rocky bed of the dale, separated from the kirkyard by a steep bank, covered with natural wood; while near at hand, behind the manse, stretch the fine woods of Wester Hall, where Telford was often wont to roam.  We can scarcely therefore wonder that, amidst such pastoral scenery, and reading such books as he did, the poetic faculty of the country mason should have become so decidedly developed.  It was while working at Westerkirk manse that he sketched the first draft of his descriptive poem entitled 'Eskdale,' which was published in the 'Poetical Museum' [p.148] in 1784.

    These early poetical efforts were at least useful in stimulating his self-education.  For the practice of poetical composition, while it cultivates the sentiment of beauty in thought and feeling, is probably the best of all exercises in the art of writing correctly, grammatically, and expressively.  By drawing a man out of his ordinary calling, too, it often furnishes him with a power of happy thinking which may in after life become a source of the purest pleasure; and this, we believe, proved to be the case with Telford, even though he ceased in later years to pursue the special cultivation of the art.

    Shortly after, when work became slack in the district, Telford undertook to do small jobs on his own account—such as the hewing of grave-stones and ornamental doorheads.  He prided himself especially upon his hewing, and from the specimens of his workmanship which are still to be seen in the churchyards of Langholm and Westerkirk, he had evidently attained considerable skill.  On some of these pieces of masonry the year is carved 1779, or 1780.  One of the most ornamental is that set into the wall of Westerkirk church, being a monumental slab, with an inscription and moulding, surmounted by a coat of arms, to the memory of James Pasley of Craig.

    He had now learnt all that his native valley could teach him of the art of masonry; and, bent upon self-improvement and gaining a larger experience of life, as well as knowledge of his trade, he determined to seek employment elsewhere.  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.

    Our stone-mason remained at Edinburgh for about two years, during which he had the advantage of taking part in first-rate work and maintaining himself comfortably, while he devoted much of his spare time to drawing, in its application to architecture.  He took the opportunity of visiting and carefully studying the fine specimens of ancient work at Holyrood House and Chapel, the Castle, Heriot's Hospital, and the numerous curious illustrations of middle age domestic architecture with which the Old Town abounds.  He also made several journeys to the beautiful old chapel of Rosslyn situated some miles to the south of Edinburgh, making careful drawings of the more important parts of that building.

    When he had thus improved himself, "and studied all that was to be seen in Edinburgh, in returning to the western border," he says, "I visited the justly celebrated Abbey of Melrose."  There he was charmed by the delicate and perfect workmanship still visible even in the ruins of that fine old Abbey; and with his folio filled with sketches and drawings, he made his way back to Eskdale and the humble cottage at The Crooks.  But not to remain there long.  He merely wished to pay a parting visit to his mother and other relatives before starting upon a longer journey.  "Having acquired," he says in his Autobiography, "the rudiments of my profession, I considered that my native country afforded few opportunities of exercising it to any extent, and therefore judged it advisable (like many of my countrymen) to proceed southward, where industry might find more employment and be better remunerated."

    Before setting out, he called upon all his old friends and acquaintances in the dale—the neighbouring farmers, who had befriended him and his mother when struggling with poverty—his schoolfellows, many of whom were preparing to migrate, like himself, from their native valley—and the many friends and acquaintances he had made while working as a mason in Langholm.  Everybody knew that Tom was going south, and all wished him God speed.  At length the leave-taking was over, and he set out for London in the year 1782, when twenty-five years old.  He had, like the little river Meggat, on the banks of which he was born, floated gradually on towards the outer world: first from the nook in the valley, to Westerkirk school; then to Langholm and its little circle; and now, like the Meggat, which flows with the Esk into the ocean, he was about to be borne away into the wide world.  Telford, however, had confidence in himself, and no one had fears for him.  As the neighbours said, wisely wagging their heads, "Ah, he's an auldfarran chap is Tam; he'll either mak a spoon or spoil a horn; any how, he's gatten a good trade at his fingers' ends."

    Telford had made all his previous journeys on foot; but this one he made on horseback.  It happened that Sir James Johnstone, the laird of Wester Hall, had occasion to send a horse from Eskdale to a member of his family in London, and he had some difficulty in finding a person to take charge of it.  It occurred to Mr. Jackson, the laird's factor, that this was a capital opportunity for his cousin Tom, the mason; and it was accordingly arranged that he should ride the horse to town.  When a boy, he had learnt rough-riding sufficiently well for the purpose; and the better to fit him for the hardships of the road, Mr. Jackson lent him his buckskin breeches.  Thus Tom set out from his native valley well mounted, with his little bundle of "traps" buckled behind him, and, after a prosperous journey, duly reached London, and delivered up the horse as he had been directed.  Long after, Mr. Jackson used to tell the story of his cousin's first ride to London with great glee, and he always took care to wind up with—"but Tam forgot to send me back my breeks!"





A COMMON working man, whose sole property consisted in his mallet and chisels, his leathern apron and his industry, might not seem to amount to much in "the great world of London."  But, as Telford afterwards used to say, very much depends on whether the man has got a head with brains in it of the right sort upon his shoulders.  In London, the weak man is simply a unit added to the vast floating crowd, and may be driven hither and thither, if he do not sink altogether; while the strong man will strike out, keep his head above water, and make a course for himself, as Telford did.  There is indeed a wonderful impartiality about London.  There the capable person usually finds his place.  When work of importance is required, nobody cares to ask where the man who can do it best comes from, or what he has been, but what he is, and what he can do.  Nor did it ever stand in Telford's way that his father had been a poor shepherd in Eskdale, and that he himself had begun his London career by working for weekly wages with a mallet and chisel.

    After duly delivering up the horse, Telford proceeded to present a letter with which he had been charged by his friend Miss Pasley on leaving Langholm.  It was addressed to her brother, Mr. John Pasley, an eminent London merchant, brother also of Sir Thomas Pasley, and uncle of the Malcolms.  Miss Pasley requested his influence on behalf of the young mason from Eskdale, the bearer of the letter.  Mr. Pasley received his countryman kindly, and furnished him with letters of introduction to Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House, then in course of erection.  It was the finest architectural work in progress in the metropolis, and Telford, desirous of improving himself by experience of the best kind, wished to be employed upon it.  It did not, indeed, need any influence to obtain work there, for good hewers were in demand; but our mason thought it well to make sure, and accordingly provided himself beforehand with the letter of introduction to the architect.  He was employed immediately, and set to work among the hewers, receiving the usual wages for his labour.

    Mr. Pasley also furnished him with a letter to Mr. Robert Adam, [p.154] another distinguished architect of the time; and Telford seems to have been much gratified by the civility which he received from him.  Sir William Chambers he found haughty and reserved, probably being too much occupied to bestow attention on the Somerset House hewer, while he found Adam to be affable and communicative.  "Although I derived no direct advantage from either," Telford says, "yet so powerful is manner, that the latter left the most favourable impression; while the interviews with both convinced me that my safest plan was to endeavour to advance, if by slower steps, yet by independent conduct."

    There was a good deal of fine hewer's work about Somerset House, and from the first Telford aimed at taking the highest place as an artist and tradesman in that line. [p.155]  Diligence, carefulness, and observation will always carry a man onward and upward; and before long we find that Telford had succeeded in advancing himself to the rank of a first-class mason.  Judging from his letters written about this time to his friends in Eskdale, he seems to have been very cheerful and happy; and his greatest pleasure was in calling up recollections of his native valley.  He was full of kind remembrances for everybody.  "How is Andrew, and Sandy, and Aleck, and Davie?" he would say; and "remember me to all the folk of the nook."  He seems to have made a round of the persons from Eskdale in or about London before he wrote, as his letters were full of messages from them to their friends at home; for in those days postage was dear, and as much as possible was necessarily packed within the compass of a working man's letter.  In one, written after more than a year's absence, he said he envied the visit which a young surgeon of his acquaintance was about to pay to the valley; "for the meeting of long absent friends," he added, "is a pleasure to be equalled by few other enjoyments here below." [p.157-1]

    He had now been more than a year in London, during which he had acquired much practical information both in the useful and ornamental branches of architecture.  Was he to go on as a working mason? or what was to be his next move?  He had been quietly making his observations upon his companions, and had come to the conclusion that they very much wanted spirit, and, more than all, forethought.  He found very clever workmen about him with no idea whatever beyond their week's wages.  For these they would make every effort: they would work hard, exert themselves to keep their earnings up to the highest point, and very readily "strike" to secure an advance; but as for making a provision for the next week, or the next year, he thought them exceedingly thoughtless.  On the Monday mornings they began "clean;" and on Saturdays their week's earnings were spent.  Thus they lived from one week to another—their limited notion of "the week" seeming to bound their existence.

    Telford, on the other hand, looked upon the week as only one of the storeys of a building; and upon the succession of weeks, running on through years, he thought that the complete life structure should be built up.  He thus describes one of the best of his fellow-workmen at that time the only individual he had formed an intimacy with: "He has been six years at Somerset House, and is esteemed the finest workman in London, and consequently in England.  He works equally in stone and marble.  He has excelled the professed carvers in cutting Corinthian capitals and other ornaments about this edifice, many of which will stand as a monument to his honour.  He understands drawing thoroughly, and the master he works under looks on him as the principal support of his business.  This man, whose name is Mr. Hatton, may be half a dozen years older than myself at most.  He is honesty and good nature itself, and is adored by both his master and fellow-workmen.  Notwithstanding his extraordinary skill and abilities, he has been working all this time as a common journeyman, contented with a few shillings a week more than the rest; but I believe your uneasy friend has kindled a spark in his breast that he never felt before." [p.157-1]

    In fact, Telford had formed the intention of inducing this admirable fellow to join him in commencing business as builders on their own account.  "There is nothing done in stone or marble," he says, "that we cannot do in the completest manner."  Mr. Robert Adam, to whom the scheme was mentioned, promised his support, and said he would do all in his power to recommend them.  But the great difficulty was money, which neither of them possessed; and Telford, with grief, admitting that this was an "insuperable bar," went no further with the scheme.

    About this time Telford was consulted by Mr. Pulteney [p.157-2] respecting the alterations making in the mansion at Wester Hall, and was often with him on this business.  We find him also writing down to Langholm for the prices of roofing, masonry, and timber-work, with a view to preparing estimates for a friend who was building a house in that neighbourhood.  Although determined to reach the highest excellence as a manual worker, it is clear that he was already aspiring to be something more.  Indeed, his steadiness, perseverance, and general ability, pointed him out as one well worthy of promotion.

    How he achieved his next step we are not informed; but we find him, in July, 1784, engaged in superintending the erection of a house, after a design by Mr. Samuel Wyatt, intended for the residence of the Commissioner (now occupied by the Port Admiral) at Portsmouth Dockyard, together with a new chapel, and several buildings connected with the Yard.  Telford took care to keep his eyes open to all the other works going forward in the neighbourhood, and he states that he had frequent opportunities of observing the various operations necessary in the foundation and construction of graving-docks, wharf-walls, and such like, which were among the principal occupations of his after-life.

    The letters written by him from Portsmouth to his Eskdale correspondents about this time were cheerful and hopeful, like those he had sent from London.  His principal grievance was that he received so few from home, but he supposed that opportunities for forwarding them by hand had not occurred, postage being so dear as scarcely then to be thought of.  To tempt them to correspondence he sent copies of the poems which he still continued to compose in the leisure of his evenings: one of these was a 'Poem on Portsdown Hill.'  As for himself, he was doing very well.  The buildings were advancing satisfactorily; but, "above all," said he, "my proceedings are entirely approved by the Commissioners and officers here—so much so that they would sooner go by my advice than my master's, which is a dangerous point, being difficult to keep their good graces as well as his.  However, I will contrive to manage it." [p.159]

    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 is 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.  Hence I am now very deep in chemistry.  The mode of making mortar in the best way led me to inquire into the nature of lime.  Having, in pursuit of this inquiry, looked into some books on chemistry, I perceived the field was boundless; but that to assign satisfactory reasons for many mechanical processes required a general knowledge of that science.  I have therefore borrowed a MS. copy of Dr. Black's Lectures.  I have bought his 'Experiments on Magnesia and Quicklime,' and also Fourcroy's Lectures, translated from the French by one Mr. Elliot, of Edinburgh.  And I am determined to study the subject with unwearied attention until I attain some accurate knowledge of chemistry, which is of no less use in the practice of the arts than it is in that of medicine."  He adds, that he continues to receive the cordial approval of the Commissioners for the manner in which he performs his duties, and says, "I take care to be so far master of the business committed to me as that none shall be able to eclipse me in that respect." [p.160]  At the same time he states he is taking great delight in Freemasonry, and is about to have a lodge-room at the George Inn fitted up after his plans and under his direction.  Nor does he forget to add that he has his hair powdered every day, and puts on a clean shirt three times a week.

    The Eskdale mason was evidently getting on, as he deserved to do.  But he was not puffed up.  To his Langholm friend he averred that "he would rather have it said of him that he possessed one grain of good nature or good sense than shine the finest puppet in Christendom."  "Let my mother know that I am well," he wrote to Andrew Little, "and that I will print her a letter soon." [p.161]  For it was a practice of this good son, down to the period of his mother's death, no matter how much burdened he was with business, to set apart occasional times for the careful penning of a letter in printed characters, that she might the more easily be able to decipher it with her old and dimmed eyes by her cottage fireside at The Crooks.  As a man's real disposition usually displays itself most strikingly in small matters—like light, which gleams the most brightly when seen through narrow chinks—it will probably be admitted that this trait, trifling though it may appear, was truly characteristic of the simple and affectionate nature of the hero of our story.

    The buildings at Portsmouth were finished by the end of 1786, when Telford's duties there being at an end, and having no engagement beyond the termination of the contract, he prepared to leave, and began to look about him for other employment.




MR. PULTENEY, member for Shrewsbury, was the owner of extensive estates in that neighbourhood by virtue of his marriage with the niece of the last Earl of Bath.  Having resolved to fit up the Castle there as a residence, he bethought him of the young Eskdale mason, who had, some years before, advised him as to the repairs of the Johnstone mansion at Wester Hall.  Telford was soon found, and engaged to go down to Shrewsbury to superintend the necessary alterations.  Their execution occupied his attention for some time, and during their progress he was so fortunate as to obtain the appointment of Surveyor of Public Works for the county of Salop, most probably through the influence of his patron.  Indeed, Telford was known to be so great a favourite with Mr. Pulteney that at Shrewsbury he usually went by the name of "Young Pulteney."

    Much of his attention was from this time occupied with the surveys and repairs of roads, bridges, and gaols, and the supervision of all public buildings under the control of the magistrates of the county.  He was also frequently called upon by the corporation of the borough of Shrewsbury to furnish plans for the improvement of the streets and buildings of that fine old town; and many alterations were carried out under his direction during the period of his residence there.

    While the Castle repairs were in course of execution, Telford was called upon by the justices to superintend the erection of a new gaol, the plans for which had already been prepared and settled.  The benevolent Howard, who devoted himself with such zeal to gaol improvement, on hearing of the intentions of the magistrates, made a visit to Shrewsbury for the purpose of examining the plans; and the circumstance is thus adverted to by Telford in one of his letters to his Eskdale correspondent:—"About ten days ago I had a visit from the celebrated John Howard, Esq.  I say I, for he was on his tour of gaols and infirmaries; and those of Shrewsbury being both under my direction, this was, of course, the cause of my being thus distinguished.  I accompanied him through the infirmary and the gaol.  I showed him the plans of the proposed new buildings, and had much conversation with him on both subjects.  In consequence of his suggestions as to the former, I have revised and amended the plans, so as to carry out a thorough reformation; and my alterations having been approved by a general board, they have been referred to a committee to carry out.  Mr. Howard also took objection to the plan of the proposed gaol, and requested me to inform the magistrates that, in his opinion, the interior courts were too small, and not sufficiently ventilated; and the magistrates, having approved his suggestions, ordered the plans to be amended accordingly.  You may easily conceive how I enjoyed the conversation of this truly good man, and how much I would strive to possess his good opinion.  I regard him as the guardian angel of the miserable.  He travels into all parts of Europe with the sole object of doing good, merely for its own sake, and not for the sake of men's praise.  To give an instance of his delicacy, and his desire to avoid public notice, I may mention that, being a Presbyterian, he attended the meeting-house of that denomination in Shrewsbury on Sunday morning, on which occasion I accompanied him; but in the afternoon he expressed a wish to attend another place of worship, his presence in the town having excited considerable curiosity, though his wish was to avoid public recognition.  Nay, more, he assures me that he hates travelling, and was born to be a domestic man.  He never sees his country-house but he says within himself, 'Oh! might I but rest here, and never more travel three miles from home; then should I be happy indeed!'  But he has become so committed, and so pledged himself to his own conscience to carry out his great work, that he says he is doubtful whether he will ever be able to attain the desire of his heart—life at home.  He never dines out, and scarcely takes time to dine at all: he says he is growing old, and has no time to lose.  His manner is simplicity itself.  Indeed, I have never yet met so noble a being.  He is going abroad again shortly on one of his long tours of mercy." [p.164]  The journey to which Telford here refers was Howard's last.  In the following year he left England to return no more; and the great and good man died at Cherson, on the shores of the Black Sea, less than two years after his interview with the young engineer at Shrewsbury.

    Telford writes to his Langholm friend at the same time, that he is working very hard, and studying to improve himself in branches of knowledge in which he feels himself deficient.  He is practising very temperate habits: for half a year past he has taken to drinking water only, avoiding all sweets, and eating no "nick-nacks."  He has "sowens and milk" (oatmeal flummery) every night, for his supper.  His friend having asked his opinion of politics, he says he really knows nothing about them; he had been so completely engrossed by his own business that he has not had time to read even a newspaper.  But, though an ignoramus in politics, he has been studying lime, which is more to his purpose.  If his friend can give him any information about that, he will promise to read a newspaper now and then in the ensuing session of Parliament, for the purpose of forming some opinion of politics: he adds, however, "not if it interfere with my business—mind that!"

    His friend told him that he proposed translating a system of chemistry.  "Now you know," wrote Telford, "that I am chemistry mad; and if I were near you, I would make you promise to communicate any information on the subject that you thought would be of service to your friend, especially about calcareous matters and the mode of forming the best composition for building with, as well above as below water.  But not to be confined to that alone, for you must know I have a book for the pocket, [p.165] which I always carry with me, into which I have extracted the essence of Fourcroy's Lectures, Black on Quicklime, Scheele's Essays, Watson's Essays, and various points from the letters of my respected friend Dr. Irving. [p.166-1]  So much for chemistry.  But I have also crammed into it facts relating to mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and all manner of stuff, to which I keep continually adding, and it will be a charity to me if you will kindly contribute your mite." [p.166-2]  He says it has been, and will continue to be, his aim to endeavour to unite those "two frequently jarring pursuits, literature and business;" and he does not see why a man should be less efficient in the latter capacity because he has well informed, stored, and humanised his mind by the cultivation of letters.  There was both good sense and sound practical wisdom in this view of Telford.

    While the gaol was in course of erection, after the improved plans suggested by Howard, a variety of important matters occupied the county surveyor's attention.  During the summer of 1788 he says he is very much occupied, having about ten different jobs on hand: roads, bridges, streets, drainage-works, gaol, and infirmary.  Yet he had time to write verses, copies of which he forwarded to his Eskdale correspondent, inviting his criticism.  Several of these were elegiac lines, somewhat exaggerated in their praises of the deceased, though doubtless sincere.  One poem was in memory of George Johnstone, Esq., a member of the Wester Hall family, and another on the death of William Telford, an Eskdale farmer's son, an intimate friend and schoolfellow of our engineer. [p.167]  These, however, were but the votive offerings of private friendship, persons more immediately about him knowing nothing of his stolen pleasures in verse-making.  He continued to be shy of strangers, and was very "nice," as he calls it, as to those whom he admitted to his bosom.

    Two circumstances of considerable interest occurred in the course of the same year (1788), which are worthy of passing notice.  The one was the fall of the church of St. Chad's, at Shrewsbury; the other was the discovery of the ruins of the Roman city of Uriconium, in the immediate neighbourhood.  The church of St. Chad's was about four centuries old, and stood greatly in need of repairs.  The roof let in the rain upon the congregation, and the parish vestry met to settle the plans for mending it; but they could not agree about the mode of procedure.  In this emergency Telford was sent for, and requested to advise what was best to be done.  After a rapid glance at the interior, which was in an exceedingly dangerous state, he said to the churchwardens, "Gentlemen, we'll consult together on the outside, if you please."  He found that not only the roof but the walls of the church were in a most decayed state.  It appeared that, in consequence of graves having been dug in the loose soil close to the shallow foundation of the north-west pillar of the tower, it had sunk so as to endanger the whole structure.  "I discovered," says he, "that there were large fractures in the walls, on tracing which I found that the old building was in a most shattered and decrepit condition, though until then it had been scarcely noticed.  Upon this I declined giving any recommendation as to the repairs of the roof unless they would come to the resolution to secure the more essential parts, as the fabric appeared to me to be in a very alarming condition.  I sent in a written report to the same effect." [p.168]

    The parish vestry again met, and the report was read; but the meeting exclaimed against so extensive a proposal, imputing mere motives of self-interest to the surveyor.  "Popular clamour," says Telford, "overcame my report.  'These fractures,' exclaimed the vestrymen, 'have been there from time immemorial;' and there were some otherwise sensible persons, who remarked that professional men always wanted to carve out employment for themselves, and that the whole of the necessary repairs could be done at a comparatively small expense." [p.169-1]  The vestry then called in another person, a mason of the town, and directed him to cut away the injured part of a particular pillar, in order to underbuild it.  On the second evening after the commencement of the operations, the sexton was alarmed by a fall of lime-dust and mortar when he attempted to toll the great bell, on which he immediately desisted and left the church.  Early next morning (on the 9th of July), while the workmen were waiting at the church door for the key, the bell struck four, and the vibration at once brought down the tower, which overwhelmed the nave, demolishing all the pillars along the north side, and shattering the rest.  "The very parts I had pointed out," says Telford, "were those which gave way, and down tumbled the tower, forming a very remarkable ruin, which astonished and surprised the vestry, and roused them from their infatuation, though they have not yet recovered from the shock." [p.169-2]

    The other circumstance to which we have above referred was the discovery of the Roman city of Uriconium, near Wroxeter, about five miles from Shrewsbury, in the year 1788.  The situation of the place is extremely beautiful, the river Severn flowing along its western margin, and forming a barrier against what were once the hostile districts of West Britain.  For many centuries the dead city had slept under the irregular mounds of earth which covered it, like those of Mossul and Nineveh.  Farmers raised heavy crops of turnips and grain from the surface; and they scarcely ever ploughed or harrowed the ground without turning up Roman coins or pieces of pottery.  They also observed that in certain places the corn was more apt to be scorched in dry weather than in others—a sure sign to them that there were ruins underneath; and their practice, when they wished to find stones for building, was to set a mark upon the scorched places when the corn was on the ground, and after harvest to dig down, sure of finding the store of stones which they wanted for walls, cottages, or farm-houses.  In fact, the place came to be regarded in the light of a quarry, rich in ready-worked materials for building purposes.  A quantity of stone being wanted for the purpose of erecting a blacksmith's shop, on digging down upon one of the marked places, the labourers came upon some ancient works of a more perfect appearance than usual.  Curiosity was excited—antiquarians made their way to the spot—and lo! they pronounced the ruins to be neither more nor less than a Roman bath, in a remarkably perfect state of preservation.  Mr. Telford was requested to apply to Mr. Pulteney, the lord of the manor, to prevent the destruction of these interesting remains, and also to permit the excavations to proceed, with a view to the buildings being completely explored.  This was readily granted, and Mr. Pulteney authorised Telford himself to conduct the necessary excavations at his expense.  This he promptly proceeded to do, and the result was, that an extensive hypocaust apartment was brought to light, with baths, sudatorium, dressing-room, and a number of tile pillars all forming parts of a Roman floor—sufficiently perfect to show the manner in which the building had been constructed and used. [p.171]

    Among Telford's less agreeable duties about the same time was that of keeping the felons at work.  He had to devise the ways and means of employing them without risk of their escaping, which gave him much trouble and anxiety.  "Really," he said, "my felons are a very troublesome family.  I have had a great deal of plague from them, and I have not yet got things quite in the train that I could wish.  I have had a dress made for them of white and brown cloth, in such a way that they are pyebald.  They have each a light chain about one leg.  Their allowance in food is a penny loaf and a halfpenny worth of cheese for breakfast; a penny loaf, a quart of soup, and half a pound of meat for dinner; and a penny loaf and a halfpenny worth of cheese for supper; so that they have meat and clothes at all events.  I employ them in removing earth, serving masons or bricklayers, or in any common labouring work on which they can be employed; during which time, of course, I have them strictly watched."

    Much more pleasant was his first sight of Mrs. Jordan at the Shrewsbury theatre, where he seems to have been worked up to a pitch of rapturous enjoyment.  She played for six nights there at the race time, during which there were various other entertainments.  On the second day there was what was called an Infirmary Meeting, or an assemblage of the principal county gentlemen in the infirmary, at which, as county surveyor, Telford was present.  They proceeded thence to church to hear a sermon preached for the occasion; after which there was a dinner, followed by a concert.  He attended all.  The sermon was preached in the new pulpit, which had just been finished after his design, in the Gothic style; and he confidentially informed his Langholm correspondent that he believed the pulpit secured greater admiration than the sermon.  With the concert he was completely disappointed, and he then became convinced that he had no ear for music.  Other people seemed very much pleased; but for the life of him he could make nothing of it.  The only difference that he recognised between one tune and another was that there was a difference in the noise.  "It was all very fine," he said, "I have no doubt; but I would not give a song of Jock Stewart [p.172-1] for the whole of them.  The melody of sound is thrown away upon me.  One look, one word of Mrs. Jordan, has more effect upon me than all the fiddlers in England.  Yet I sat down and tried to be as attentive as any mortal could be.  I endeavoured, if possible, to get up an interest in what was going on; but it was all of no use.  I felt no emotion whatever, excepting only a strong inclination to go to sleep.  It must be a defect; but it is a fact, and I cannot help it.  I suppose my ignorance of the subject, and the want of musical experience in my youth, may be the cause of it." [p.172-2]

    Telford's mother was still living in her old cottage at The Crooks.  Since he had parted from her, he had written many printed letters to keep her informed of his progress; and he never wrote to any of his friends in the dale without including some message or other to his mother.  Like a good and dutiful son, he had taken care out of his means to provide for her comfort in her declining years.  "She has been a good mother to me," he said, "and I will try and be a good son to her."  In a letter written from Shrewsbury about this time, enclosing a ten pound note, seven pounds of which were to be given to his mother, he said, "I have from time to time written William Jackson [his cousin] and told him to furnish her with whatever she wants to make her comfortable; but there may be many little things she may wish to have, and yet not like to ask him for.  You will therefore agree with me that it is right she should have a little cash to dispose of in her own way. . . . I am not rich yet; but it will ease my mind to set my mother above the fear of want.  That has always been my first object; and next to that, to be the somebody which you have always encouraged me to believe I might aspire to become.  Perhaps after all there may be something in it!" [p.173]

    He now seems to have occupied much of his leisure hours in miscellaneous reading.  Among the numerous books which he read, he expressed the highest admiration for Sheridan's 'Life of Swift.'  But his Langholm friend, who was a great politician, having invited his attention to politics, Telford's reading gradually extended in that direction.  Indeed the exciting events of the French Revolution then tended to make all men more or less politicians.  The capture of the Bastille by the people of Paris in 1789 passed like an electric thrill through Europe.  Then followed the Declaration of Rights; after which, in the course of six months, all the institutions which had before existed in France were swept away, and the reign of justice was fairly inaugurated upon earth!

    In the spring of 1791 the first part of Paine's 'Rights of Man' appeared, and Telford, like many others, read it, and was at once carried away by it.  Only a short time before, he had admitted with truth that he knew nothing of politics; but no sooner had he read Paine than he felt completely enlightened.  He now suddenly discovered how much reason he and everybody else in England had for being miserable.  While residing at Portsmouth, he had quoted to his Langholm friend the lines from Cowper's 'Task,' then just published, beginning "Slaves cannot breathe in England;" but lo! Mr. Paine had filled his imagination with the idea that England was nothing but a nation of bondmen and aristocrats.  To his natural mind, the kingdom had appeared to be one in which a man had pretty fair play, could think and speak, and do the thing he would,—tolerably happy, tolerably prosperous, and enjoying many blessings.  He himself had felt free to labour, to prosper, and to rise from manual to head work.  No one had hindered him; his personal liberty had never been interfered with; and he had freely employed his earnings as he thought proper.  But now the whole thing appeared a delusion.  Those rosy-cheeked old country gentlemen who came riding into Shrewsbury to quarter sessions, and were so fond of their young Scotch surveyor—occupying themselves in building bridges, maintaining infirmaries, making roads, and regulating gaols those county magistrates and members of parliament, aristocrats all, were the very men who, according to Paine, were carrying the country headlong to ruin!

    If Telford could not offer an opinion on politics before, because he "knew nothing about them," he had now no such difficulty.  Had his advice been asked about the foundations of a bridge, or the security of an arch, he would have read and studied much before giving it; he would have carefully inquired into the chemical qualities of different kinds of lime into the mechanical principles of weight and resistance, and such like; but he had no such hesitation in giving an opinion about the foundations of a constitution of more than a thousand years' growth.  Here, like other young politicians, with Paine's book before him, he felt competent to pronounce a decisive judgment at once.  "I am convinced," said he, writing to his Langholm friend, "that the situation of Great Britain is such, that nothing short of some signal revolution can prevent her from sinking into bankruptcy, slavery, and insignificancy."  He held that the national expenditure was so enormous, [p.175] arising from the corrupt administration of the country, that it was impossible the "bloated mass" could hold together any longer; and as he could not expect that "a hundred Pulteneys," such as his employer, could be found to restore it to health, the conclusion he arrived at was that ruin was "inevitable." [p.176-1]

    In the same letter in which these observations occur, Telford alluded to the disgraceful riots at Birmingham, in the course of which Dr. Priestley's house and library were destroyed.  As the outrages were the work of the mob, Telford could not charge the aristocracy with them; but with equal injustice he laid the blame at the door of "the clergy," who had still less to do with them, winding up with the prayer, "May the Lord mend their hearts and lessen their incomes!"

    Fortunately for Telford, his intercourse with the townspeople of Shrewsbury was so small that his views on these subjects were never known; and we very shortly find him employed by the clergy themselves in building for them a new church in the town of Bridgenorth.  His patron and employer, Mr. Pulteney, however, knew of his extreme views, and the knowledge came to him quite accidentally.  He found that Telford had made use of his frank to send through the post a copy of Paine's 'Rights of Man' to his Langholm correspondent, [p.176-2] where the pamphlet excited as much fury in the minds of some of the people of that town as it had done in that of Telford himself.  The "Langholm patriots" broke out into drinking revolutionary toasts at the Cross, and so disturbed the peace of the little town that some of them were confined for six weeks in the county gaol.

    Mr. Pulteney was very indignant at the liberty Telford had taken with his frank, and a rupture between them seemed likely to ensue; but the former was forgiving, and the matter went no further.  It is only right to add, that as Telford grew older and wiser, he became more careful in jumping at conclusions on political topics.  The events which shortly occurred in France tended in a great measure to heal his mental distresses as to the future of England.  When the "liberty" won by the Parisians ran into riot, and the "Friends of Man" occupied themselves in taking off the heads of those who differed from them, he became wonderfully reconciled to the enjoyment of the substantial freedom which, after all, was secured to him by the English Constitution.  At the same time, he was so much occupied in carrying out his important works, that he found but little time to devote either to political speculation or to verse-making.

    While living at Shrewsbury, he had his poem of 'Eskdale' reprinted for private circulation.  We have also seen several MS. verses by him, written about the same period, which do not appear ever to have been printed.  One of these—the best—is entitled 'Verses to the Memory of James Thomson, author of "Liberty, a poem;"' another is a translation from Buchanan, 'On the Spheres;' and a third, written in April, 1792, is entitled 'To Robin Burns, being a postscript to some verses addressed to him on the establishment of an Agricultural Chair in Edinburgh.'  It would unnecessarily occupy our space to print these effusions; and, to tell the truth, they exhibit few if any indications of poetic power.  No amount of perseverance will make a poet of a man in whom the divine gift is not born.  The true line of Telford's genius lay in building and engineering, in which direction we now propose to follow him.





AS surveyor for the county, Telford was frequently called upon by the magistrates to advise them as to the improvement of roads and the building or repair of bridges.  His early experience of bridge-building in his native district now proved of much service to him, and he used often to congratulate himself, even when he had reached the highest rank in his profession, upon the circumstances which had compelled him to begin his career by working with his own hands.  To be a thorough judge of work, he held that a man must himself have been practically engaged in it.  "Not only," he said, "are the natural senses of seeing and feeling requisite in the examination of materials, but also the practised eye, and the hand which has had experience of the kind and qualities of stone, of lime, of iron, of timber, and even of earth, and of the effects of human ingenuity in applying and combining all these substances, are necessary for arriving at mastery in the profession; for, how can a man give judicious directions unless he possesses personal knowledge of the details requisite to effect his ultimate purpose in the best and cheapest manner?  It has happened to me more than once, when taking opportunities of being useful to a young man of merit, that I have experienced opposition in taking him from his books and drawings, and placing a mallet, chisel, or trowel in his hand, till, rendered confident by the solid knowledge which experience only can bestow, he was qualified to insist on the due performance of workmanship, and to judge of merit in the lower as well as the higher departments of a profession in which no kind or degree of practical knowledge is superfluous."


Telford's Montford Bridge, Shropshire, spanning the River Severn.
Built by John Carline Jr and John Tilley between 1790 and 1792.
Picture Wikipedia.

    The first bridge designed and built under Telford's superintendence was one of no great magnitude, across the river Severn at Montford, about four miles west of Shrewsbury.  It was a stone bridge of three elliptical arches, one of 58 feet and two of 55 feet span each.  The Severn at that point is deep and narrow, and its bed and banks are of alluvial earth.  It was necessary to make the foundations very secure, as the river is subject to high floods; and this was effectually accomplished by means of coffer-dams.  The building was substantially executed in red sandstone, and proved a very serviceable bridge, forming part of the great high road from Shrewsbury into Wales.  It was finished in the year 1792.


St. Mary Magdalen Church, Bridgnorth.  Designed by Telford
and built by John Rhodes and Michael Head between 1792 and 1795.
Picture Wikipedia.

    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.  It stands at the end of Castle Street, near to the old ruined fortress perched upon the bold red sandstone bluff on which the upper part of the town is built.  The situation of the church is very fine, and an extensive view of the beautiful vale of the Severn is obtained from it.  Telford's design is by no means striking; "being," as he said, "a regular Tuscan elevation; the inside is as regularly Ionic: its only merit is simplicity and uniformity; it is surmounted by a Doric tower, which contains the bells and a clock."  A graceful Gothic church would have been more appropriate to the situation, and a much finer object in the landscape; but Gothic was not then in fashion—only a mongrel mixture of many styles, without regard to either purity or gracefulness.  The church, however, proved comfortable and commodious, and these were doubtless the points to which the architect paid most attention.

    His completion of the church at Bridgenorth 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.  He was charmed beyond expression by his journey through the manufacturing districts of Gloucestershire, more particularly by the fine scenery of the Vale of Stroud.  The whole seemed to him a smiling scene of prosperous industry and middle-class comfort.

    But passing out of this "Paradise," as he styled it, another stage brought him into a region the very opposite.  "We stopped," says he, "at a little alehouse on the side of a rough hill to water the horses, and lo! the place was full of drunken blackguards, bellowing out 'Church and King!'  A poor ragged German Jew happened to come up, whom those furious loyalists had set upon and accused of being a Frenchman in disguise.  He protested that he was only a poor German who 'cut de corns,' and that all he wanted was to buy a little bread and cheese.  Nothing would serve them but they must carry him before the Justice.  The great brawny fellow of a landlord swore he should have nothing in his house, and, being a constable, told him that he would carry him to gaol.  I interfered, and endeavoured to pacify the assailants of the poor man; when suddenly the landlord, snatching up a long knife, sliced off about a pound of raw bacon from a ham which hung overhead, and, presenting it to the Jew, swore that if he did not swallow it down at once he should not be allowed to go.  The man was in a worse plight than ever.  He said he was a 'poor Shoe,' and durst not eat that.  In the midst of the uproar, Church and King were forgotten, and eventually I prevailed upon the landlord to accept from me as much as enabled poor little Moses to get his meal of bread and cheese; and by the time the coach started they all seemed perfectly reconciled." [p.182]

    Telford was much gratified by his visit to Bath, and inspected its fine buildings with admiration.  But he thought that Mr. Wood, who, he says, "created modern Bath," had left no worthy successor.  In the buildings then in progress he saw clumsy designers at work, "blundering round about a meaning," if, indeed, there was any meaning at all in their designs, which he confessed he failed to see.  From Bath he went to London by coach, making the journey in safety, "although," he says, "the collectors had been doing duty on Hounslow Heath."  During his stay in London he carefully examined the principal public buildings by the light of the experience which he had gained since he last saw them.  He also spent a good deal of his time in studying rare and expensive works on architecture—the use of which he could not elsewhere procure—at the libraries of the Antiquarian Society and the British Museum.  There he perused the various editions of Vitruvius and Palladio, as well as Wren's 'Parentalia.'  He found a rich store of ancient architectural remains in the British Museum, which he studied with great care; antiquities from Athens, Baalbec, Palmyra, and Herculaneum; "so that," he says, "what with the information I was before possessed of, and that which I have now accumulated, I think I have obtained a tolerably good general notion of architecture."

    From London he proceeded to Oxford, where he carefully inspected its colleges and churches, afterwards expressing the great delight and profit which he had derived from his visit.  He was entertained while there by Mr. Robertson, an eminent mathematician, then superintending the publication of an edition of the works of Archimedes.  The architectural designs of buildings that most pleased him were those of Dr. Aldrich, Dean of Christchurch about the time of Sir Christopher Wren.  He tore himself from Oxford with great regret, proceeding by Birmingham on his way home to Shrewsbury: "Birmingham," he says, "famous for its buttons and locks, its ignorance and barbarism—its prosperity increases with the corruption of taste and morals.  Its nick-nacks, hardware, and gilt gimcracks are proofs of the former; and its locks and bars, and the recent barbarous conduct of its populace, [p.184] are evidences of the latter."  His principal object in visiting the place was to call upon a stained glass-maker respecting a window for the new church at Bridgenorth.

    On his return to Shrewsbury, Telford proposed to proceed with his favourite study of architecture; but this, said he, "will probably be very slowly, as I must attend to my every day employment," namely, the superintendence of the county road and bridge repairs, and the direction of the convicts' labour.  "If I keep my health, however," he added, "and have no unforeseen hindrance, it shall not be forgotten, but will be creeping on by degrees."  An unforeseen circumstance, though not a hindrance, did very shortly occur, which launched Telford upon a new career, for which his unremitting study, as well as his carefully improved experience, eminently fitted him: we refer to his appointment as engineer to the Ellesmere Canal Company.

    The conscientious carefulness with which Telford performed the duties entrusted to him, and the skill with which he directed the works placed under his charge, had secured the general approbation of the gentlemen of the county.  His straightforward and outspoken manner had further obtained for him the friendship of many of them.  At the meetings of quarter-sessions his plans had often to encounter considerable opposition, and, when called upon to defend them, he did so with such firmness, persuasiveness, and good temper, that he usually carried his point.  "Some of the magistrates are ignorant," he wrote in 1789, "and some are obstinate: though I must say that on the whole there is a very respectable bench, and with the sensible part I believe I am on good terms."  This was amply proved some four years later, when it became necessary to appoint an engineer to the Ellesmere Canal, on which occasion the magistrates, who were mainly the promoters of the undertaking, almost unanimously solicited their Surveyor to accept the office.

    Indeed, Telford had become a general favourite in the county.  He was cheerful and cordial in his manner, though somewhat brusque.  Though now thirty-five years old, he had not lost the humorousness which had procured for him the sobriquet of "Laughing Tam."  He laughed at his own jokes as well as at others.  He was spoken of as jolly—a word then much more rarely as well as more choicely used than it is now.  Yet he had a manly spirit, and was very jealous of his independence.  All this made him none the less liked by free-minded men.  Speaking of the friendly support which he had throughout received from Mr. Pulteney, he said, "His good opinion has always been a great satisfaction to me; and the more so, as it has neither been obtained nor preserved by deceit, cringing, nor flattery.  On the contrary, I believe I am almost the only man that speaks out fairly to him, and who contradicts him the most. In fact, between us, we sometimes quarrel like tinkers; but I hold my ground, and when he sees I am right he quietly gives in."

    Although Mr. Pulteney's influence had no doubt assisted Telford in obtaining the appointment of surveyor, it had nothing to do with the unsolicited invitation which now emanated from the county gentlemen.  Telford was not even a candidate for the engineership, and had not dreamt of offering himself, so that the proposal came upon him entirely by surprise.  Though he admitted he had self-confidence, he frankly confessed that he had not a sufficient amount of it to justify him in aspiring to the office of engineer to one of the most important undertakings of the day.  The following is his own account of the circumstance:—

"My literary project [p.186-1] is at present at a stand, and may be retarded for some time to come, as I was last Monday appointed sole agent, architect, and engineer to the canal which is projected to join the Mersey, the Dee, and the Severn.  It is the greatest work, I believe, now in hand in this kingdom, and will not be completed for many years to come.  You will be surprised that I have not mentioned this to you before; but the fact is that I had no idea of any such appointment until an application was made to me by some of the leading gentlemen, and I was appointed, though many others had made much interest for the place.  This will be a great and laborious undertaking, but the line which it opens is vast and noble; and coming as the appointment does in this honourable way, I thought it too great an opportunity to be neglected, especially as I have stipulated for, and been allowed, the privilege of carrying on my architectural profession.  The work will require great labour and exertions, but it is worthy of them all." [p.186-2]

    Telford's appointment 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." [p.187]

    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.

    Though Telford intended to continue his architectural business, he decided to give up his county surveyorship and other minor matters, which, he said, "give a great deal of very unpleasant labour for little very little profit; in short they are like the calls of a country surgeon."  One part of his former business which he did not give up was what related to the affairs of Mr. Pulteney and Lady Bath, with whom he continued on intimate and friendly terms.  He incidentally mentions in one of his letters a graceful and charming act of her Ladyship.  On going into his room one day he found that, before setting out for Buxton, she had left upon his table a copy of Ferguson's 'Roman Republic,' in three quarto volumes, superbly bound and gilt.

    He now looked forward with anxiety to the commencement of the canal, the execution of which would necessarily call for great exertion on his part, as well as unremitting attention and industry; "for," said he, " besides the actual labour which necessarily attends so extensive a public work, there are contentions, jealousies, and prejudices, stationed like gloomy sentinels from one extremity of the line to the other.  But, as I have heard my mother say that an honest man might look the Devil in the face without being afraid, so we must just trudge along in the old way." [p.188]





Map of the original proposed route of the Ellesmere, canal published in 1795.
Picture Wikipedia.

THE Ellesmere Canal consists of a series of navigations proceeding from the river Dee in the vale of Llangollen.  One branch passes northward, near the towns of Ellesmere, Whitchurch, Nantwich, and the city of Chester, to Ellesmere Port on the Mersey; another, in a south-easterly direction, through the middle of Shropshire towards Shrewsbury on the Severn; and a third, in a south-westerly direction, by the town of Oswestry, to the Montgomeryshire Canal near Llanymynech; its whole extent, including the Chester Canal, incorporated with it, being about 112 miles.


    The success of the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal had awakened the attention of the landowners throughout England, but more especially in the districts immediately adjacent to the scene of the Duke's operations, as they saw with their own eyes the extraordinary benefits which had followed the opening up of the navigations.  The resistance of the landed gentry, which many of these schemes had originally to encounter, had now completely given way, and, instead of opposing canals, they were everywhere found anxious for their construction.  The navigations brought lime, coal, manure, and merchandise, almost to the farmers' doors, and provided them at the same time with ready means of conveyance for their produce to good markets.  Farms in remote situations were thus placed more on an equality with those in the neighbourhood of large towns; rents rose in consequence, and the owners of land everywhere became the advocates and projectors of canals.

    The dividends paid by the first companies were very high, and it was well known that the Duke's property was bringing him in immense wealth.  There was, therefore, no difficulty in getting the shares in new projects readily subscribed for: indeed Mr. Telford relates that at the first meeting of the Ellesmere projectors, so eager were the public, that four times the estimated expense was subscribed without hesitation.  Yet this navigation passed through a difficult country, necessarily involving very costly works; and as the district was but thinly inhabited, it did not present a very inviting prospect of dividends. [p.190]  But the mania had fairly set in, and it was determined that the canal should be made.  And whether the investment repaid the immediate proprietors or not, it unquestionably proved of immense advantage to the population of the districts through which it passed, and contributed to enhance the value of most of the adjoining property.

    The Act authorising the construction of the canal was obtained in 1793, and Telford commenced operations very shortly after his appointment in October of the same year.  His first business was to go carefully over the whole of the proposed line, and make a careful working survey, settling the levels of the different lengths, and the position of the locks, embankments, cuttings, and aqueducts.  In all matters of masonry work he felt himself master of the necessary details; but having had comparatively small experience of earthwork, and none of canal-making, he determined to take the advice of Mr. William Jessop on that part of the subject; and he cordially acknowledges the obligations he was under to that eminent engineer for the kind assistance which he received from him on many occasions.

    The heaviest and most important part of the undertaking was in carrying the canal through the rugged country between the rivers Dee and Ceriog, in the vale of Llangollen.  From Nantwich to Whitchurch the distance is 16 miles, and the rise 132 feet, involving nineteen locks; and from thence to Ellesmere, Chirk, Pont-Cysylltau, and the river Dee, 1¾ mile above Llangollen, the distance is 38¼ miles, and the rise 13 feet, involving only two locks.  The latter part of the undertaking presented the greatest difficulties; as, in order to avoid the expense of constructing numerous locks, which would also involve serious delay and heavy expense in working the navigation, it became necessary to contrive means for carrying the canal on the same level from one side of the respective valleys of the Dee and the Ceriog to the other; and hence the magnificent aqueducts of Chirk and Pont-Cysylltau, characterised by Phillips as "among the boldest efforts of human invention in modern times." [p.192]



The Chirk Aqueduct carries what is now the Llangollen Canal across the
Ceiriog Valley near Chirk, Wales.  Picture Wikipedia.

    The Chirk Aqueduct carries the canal across the valley of the Ceriog, between Chirk Castle and the village of that name.  At this point the valley is above 700 feet wide; the banks are steep, with a flat alluvial meadow between them, through which the river flows.  The country is finely wooded.  Chirk Castle stands on an eminence on its western side, with the Welsh mountains and Glen Ceriog as a background; the whole composing a landscape of great beauty, in the centre of which Telford's aqueduct forms a highly picturesque object.

    The aqueduct consists of ten arches of 40 feet span each.  The level of the water in the canal is 65 feet above the meadow, and 70 feet above the level of the river Ceriog.  The proportions of this work far exceeded everything of the kind that had up to that time been attempted in England.  It was a very costly structure but Telford, like Brindley, thought it better to incur a considerable capital outlay in maintaining the uniform level of the canal, than to raise and lower it up and down the sides of the valley by locks at a heavy expense in works, and a still greater cost in time and water.  The aqueduct is a splendid specimen of the finest class of masonry, and Telford showed himself a master of his profession by the manner in which he carried out the whole details of the undertaking.  The piers were carried up solid to a certain height, above which they were built hollow, with cross walls.  The spandrels also, above the springing of the arches, were constructed with longitudinal walls, and left hollow. [p.194]  The first stone was laid on the 17th of June, 1796, and the work was completed in the year 1801; the whole remaining in a perfect state to this day.

    The other great aqueduct on the Ellesmere Canal, named Pont-Cysylltau, is of even greater dimensions, and a far more striking object in the landscape.  Sir Walter Scott spoke of it to Southey as "the most impressive work of art he had ever seen."  It is situated about four miles to the north of Chirk, at the crossing of the Dee, in the romantic vale of Llangollen.  The north bank of the river is very abrupt; but on the south side the acclivity is more gradual.  The lowest part of the valley in which the river runs is 127 feet beneath the water-level of the canal; and it became a question with the engineer whether the valley was to be crossed, as originally intended, by locking down one side and up the other—which would have involved seven or eight locks on each side—or by carrying it directly across by means of an aqueduct.

    The execution of the proposed locks would have been very costly, and the working of them in carrying on the navigation would necessarily have involved a great waste of water, which was a serious objection, inasmuch as the supply was estimated to be no more than sufficient to provide for the unavoidable lockage and leakage of the summit level.  Hence Telford was strongly in favour of an aqueduct; but, as we have already seen in the case of that at Chirk, the height of the work was such as to render it impracticable to construct it in the usual manner, upon masonry piers and arches of sufficient breadth and strength to afford room for a puddled water-way, which would have been extremely hazardous as well as expensive.  He was therefore under the necessity of contriving some more safe and economical method of procedure; and he again resorted to the practice which he had adopted in the construction of the Chirk Aqueduct, but on a much larger scale.



    It will be understood that many years elapsed between the period at which Telford was appointed engineer to the Ellesmere Canal and the designing of these gigantic works.  He had in the meantime been carefully gathering experience from a variety of similar undertakings on which he was employed, and bringing his observations of the strength of materials and the different forms of construction to bear upon the plans under his consideration for the great aqueducts of Chirk and Pont-Cysylltau.  In 1795 he was appointed engineer to the Shrewsbury Canal, which extends from that town to the collieries and ironworks in the neighbourhood of Wrekin, crossing the rivers Roden and Tern, and Ketley Brook, after which it joins the Dorrington and Shropshire Canals.  Writing to his Eskdale friend, Telford said: "Although this canal is only eighteen miles long, yet there are many important works in its course—several locks, a tunnel about half a mile long, and two aqueducts.  For the most considerable of these last, I have just recommended an aqueduct of iron.  It has been approved, and will be executed under my direction, upon a principle entirely new, and which I am endeavouring to establish with regard to the application of iron." [p.199]


Telford's cast-iron aqueduct (1796) at Longden-on-Tern, Shrewsbury Canal,
the world's first large-scale iron navigable aqueduct.  Picture Wikipedia.

    It was the same principle which he applied to the great aqueducts of the Ellesmere Canal now under consideration.  He had a model made of part of the proposed aqueduct for Pont-Cysylltau, showing the piers, ribs, towing-path, and side railing, with a cast iron trough for the canal.  The model being approved, the design was completed; the ironwork was ordered for the summit, and the masonry of the piers then proceeded.  The foundation-stone was laid on the 25th July, 1795, by Richard Myddelton, Esq., of Chirk Castle, M.P., and the work was not finished until the year 1803,—thus occupying a period of nearly eight years in construction.


The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct carries the Llangollen Canal over the valley of the River Dee, Wales. Completed in 1805, it is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain and a World Heritage Site.
Pictures Wikipedia.

    The aqueduct is approached on the south side by an embankment 1500 feet in length, extending from the level of the water-way in the canal until its perpendicular height at the "tip" is 97 feet; thence it is carried to the opposite side of the valley, over the river Dee, upon piers supporting nineteen arches, extending to the length of 1007 feet.  The height of the piers above low water in the river is 121 feet. The lower part of each was built solid for 70 feet, all above being hollow, for the purpose of saving masonry as well as ensuring good workmanship.  The outer walls of the hollow portion are only two feet thick, with cross inner walls.  As each stone was exposed to inspection, and as both Telford and his confidential foreman, Matthew Davidson, [p200-1] kept a vigilant eye upon the work, scamping was rendered impossible, and a first-rate piece of masonry was the result.

    Upon the top of the masonry was set the cast iron trough for the canal, with its towing-path and side-rails, all accurately fitted and bolted together, forming a completely water-tight canal, with a water-wav of 11 feet 10 inches, of which the towing-path, standing upon iron pillars rising from the bed of the canal, occupied 4 feet 8 inches, leaving a space of 7 feet 2 inches for the boat. [p.200-2]  The whole cost of this part of the canal was £47,018, which was considered by Telford a moderate sum compared with what it must have cost if executed after the ordinary manner.  The aqueduct was formally opened for traffic in 1805.  "And thus," said Telford, "has been added a striking feature to the beautiful vale of Llangollen, where formerly was the fastness of Owen Glendower, but which, now cleared of its entangled woods, contains a useful line of intercourse between England and Ireland, and the water drawn from the once sacred Devon furnishes the means of distributing prosperity over the adjacent land of the Saxons."


    It is scarcely necessary to refer to the other works upon this canal, some of which were of considerable magnitude, though they may now seem dwarfed by comparison with the works of recent engineers.  Thus, there were two difficult tunnels cut through hard rock, under the rugged ground which separates the valleys of the Dee and the Ceriog.  One of these is 500 and the other 200 yards in length.  To ensure a supply of water for the summit of the canal, the lake called Bala Pool was dammed up by a regulating weir, and by its means the water was drawn off at Llandisilio when required for the purposes of the navigation; the navigable feeder being six miles long, carried along the bank of the Llangollen valley.  All these works were skilfully executed; and when the undertaking was finished, Mr. Telford may be said to have fairly established his reputation as an engineer of first-rate ability.

    We now return to Telford's personal history during this important period of his career.  He had long promised himself a visit to his dear Eskdale, and the many friends he had left there; but more especially to see his infirm mother, who had descended far into the vale of years, and longed to see her son once more before she died.  He had taken constant care that she should want for nothing.  She formed the burden of many of his letters to Andrew Little.  "Your kindness in visiting and paying so much attention to her," said he, "is doing me the greatest favour which you could possibly confer upon me."  He sent his friend frequent sums of money, which he requested him to lay out in providing sundry little comforts for his mother, who seems to have carried her spirit of independence so far as to have expressed reluctance to accept money even from her own son.  "I must request," said he, "that you will purchase and send up what things may be likely to be wanted, either for her or the person who may be with her, as her habits of economy will prevent her from getting plenty of everything, especially as she thinks that I have to pay for it, which really hurts me more than anything else." [p.202]  Though anxious to pay his intended visit, he was so occupied with one urgent matter of business and another that he feared it would be November before he could set out.  He had to prepare a general statement as to the navigation affairs for a meeting of the committee; he must attend the approaching Salop quarter sessions, and after that a general meeting of the Canal Company; so that his visit must be postponed for yet another month.  "Indeed," said he, "I am rather distressed at the thoughts of running down to see a kind parent in the last stage of decay, on whom I can only bestow an affectionate look, and then leave her: her mind will not be much consoled by this parting, and the impression left upon mine will be more lasting than pleasant." [p.203]

    He did, however, contrive to run down to Eskdale in the following November.  His mother was alive, but that was all.  After doing what he could for her comfort, and providing that all her little wants were properly attended to, he hastened back to his responsible duties in connection with the Ellesmere Canal.  When at Langholm, he called upon his former friends to recount with them the incidents of their youth.  He was declared to be the same "canty" fellow as ever, and, though he had risen greatly in the world, he was "not a bit set up."  He found one of his old fellow workmen, Frank Beattie, become the principal innkeeper of the place.  "What have you made of your mell and chisels?" asked Telford.  "Oh!" replied Beattie, "they are all dispersed perhaps lost."  "I have taken better care of mine," said Telford; "I have them all locked up in a room at Shrewsbury, as well as my old working clothes and leather apron: you know one can never tell what may happen."

    He was surprised, as most people are who visit the scenes of their youth after a long absence, to see into what small dimensions Langholm had shrunk.  That High Street, which before had seemed so big, and that frowning gaol and courthouse in the Market Place, were now comparatively paltry to eyes that had been familiar with Shrewsbury, Portsmouth, and London.  But he was charmed, as ever, with the sight of the heather hills and the narrow winding valley—

"Where deep and low the hamlets lie
 Beneath their little patch of sky,
 And little lot of stars."

On his return southward, he was again delighted by the sight of old Gilnockie Castle and the surrounding scenery.  As he afterwards wrote to his friend Little, "Broomholm was in all his glory."  Probably one of the results of this visit was the revision of the poem of 'Eskdale,' which he undertook in the course of the following spring, putting in some fresh touches and adding many new lines, whereby the effect of the whole was considerably improved.  He had the poem printed privately, merely for distribution amongst friends; "being careful," as he said, that "no copies should be smuggled and sold."

    Later in the year we find him, on his way to London on business, sparing a day or two for the purpose of visiting the Duke of Buckingham's palace and treasures of art at Stowe; afterwards writing out an eight-page description of it for the perusal of his friends at Langholm.  At another time, when engaged upon the viaduct at Pont Cysylltau he snatched a few day's leisure to run through North Wales, of which he afterwards gave a glowing account to his correspondent.  He passed by Cader Idris, Snowdon, and Penmaen Mawr.  "Parts of the country we passed through," he says, "very much resemble the lofty green hills and woody vales of Eskdale.  In other parts the magnificent boldness of the mountains, the torrents, lakes, and waterfalls, give a special character to the scenery, unlike everything of the kind I had before seen.  The vale of Llanrwst is peculiarly beautiful and fertile.  In this vale is the celebrated bridge of Inigo Jones; but what is a much more delightful circumstance, the inhabitants of the vale are the most beautiful race of people I have ever beheld; and I am much astonished that this never seems to have struck the Welsh tourists.  The vale of Llangollen is very fine, and not the least interesting object in it, I can assure you, is Davidson's famous aqueduct [Pont-Cysylltau], which is already reckoned among the wonders of Wales.  Your old acquaintance thinks nothing of having three or four carriages at his door at a time." [p.205]

    It seems that, besides attending to the construction of the works, Telford had to organise the conduct of the navigation at those points at which the canal was open for traffic.  By the middle of 1797 he states that twenty miles were in working condition, along which coal and lime were conveyed in considerable quantities, to the profit of the Company and the benefit of the public; the price of these articles having already in some places been reduced twenty-five, and in others as much as fifty, per cent.  "The canal affairs," he says in one of his letters, "have required a good deal of exertion, though we are on the whole doing well.  But, besides carrying on the works, it is now necessary to bestow considerable attention on the creating and guiding of a trade upon those portions which are executed.  This involves various considerations, and many contending and sometimes clashing interests.  In short, it is the working of a great machine: in the first place, to draw money out of the pockets of a numerous proprietary to make an expensive canal, and then to make the money return into their pockets by the creation of a business upon that canal."

    But, as if all this business were not enough, he was occupied at the same time in writing a book upon the subject of Mills.  In the year 1796 he had undertaken to draw up a paper on this topic for the Board of Agriculture, and by degrees it had grown into a large quarto volume, illustrated by upwards of thirty plates.  He was also reading extensively in his few leisure moments; and among the solid works which he perused we find him mentioning Robertson's 'Disquisitions on Ancient India,' Stewart's 'Philosophy of the Human Mind,' and Alison's 'Principles of Taste.'  As a relief from these graver studies, he seems, above all things, to have taken peculiar pleasure in occasionally throwing off a bit of poetry.  Thus, when laid up at an hotel in Chester by a blow on his leg, which disabled him for some weeks, he employed part of his time in writing his 'Verses on hearing of the Death of Robert Burns.'  On another occasion, when on his way to London, and detained for a night at Stratford-on-Avon, he occupied the evening at his inn in composing some stanzas, entitled 'An Address to the River Avon.'  And when on his way back to Shrewsbury, while resting for the night at Bridgenorth, he amused himself with revising and copying out the verses for the perusal of Andrew Little.  "There are worse employments," he said, "when one has an hour to spare from business;" and he asked his friend's opinion of the composition.  It seems to have been no more favourable than the verses deserved; for, in his next letter, Telford says, "I think your observations respecting the verses to the Avon are correct.  It is but seldom I have time to versify; but it is to me something like what a fiddle is to others.  I apply to it in order to relieve my mind, after being much fatigued with close attention to business."

    It is very pleasant to see the engineer relaxing himself in this way, and submitting cheerfully to unfavourable criticism, which is so trying to even the best of tempers.  The time, however, thus taken from his regular work was not loss, but gain.  Taking the character of his occupation into account, it was probably the best kind of relaxation he could have indulged in.  With his head full of bridges and viaducts, he thus kept his heart open to the influences of beauty in life and nature; and, at all events, the writing of verses, indifferent though they might have been, proved of this value to him—that it cultivated in him the art of writing better prose.


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