In the autumn of 1774 the teenage Thomas Telford was working as an apprentice mason in the pretty Dumfriesshire town of Langholm, helping to build the first of the almost 200 great British bridges that constitute one part of his vast and remarkable architectural legacy. And yet, even as the youngster hammered and chipped away at the granite setts and cobbles and placed them in pilings that still rise today to cross the chuckling waters of the River Esk, the engineering era that he would soon come to dominate was limping gamely to its end.
For, in the same autumn of 1774, not 200 miles away to the south, a middle-aged man named John Wilkinson was devising a technology to bore a perfectly circular hole in a huge block of iron – and when at last he succeeded in doing so, he formally commenced an era that dominated engineering for the next two centuries, and still profoundly affects us all around the world today.
What Wilkinson – a son of the razor-blade family – gave us was an appreciation of the concept of precision. What, on the other hand, Telford still represents, impeccably demonstrated in Julian Glover’s sensitive and surely definitive new biography, is the triumphal closing of an age of imprecision, a sepia-tinted celebration of the massive and the confident, of the rough and tough work of the forgemaster and the piledriver and the canal-digging navvy. Telford was one of the heroic figures – along with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and John Rennie – who helped construct the now mostly moss-covered, rust-and-verdigris-stained, Hovis-ad Britain that we still cherish.
“Even as he died his era was passing,” Glover writes in the preface to the biography. It might have been better to concede that it was passing not with Telford’s death, but almost as soon as he took up his gauge and chisel, his square, his level and his plumb, and embarked for Edinburgh and London, and then on his gypsy life and endlessly energetic hustle for work.
The trajectory of Telford’s life is an attractive one, greatly tempting to the legions who have previously written about him. (Samuel Smiles featured him prominently in his five-volume classic Lives of the Engineers, though he waspishly failed to accord the same privilege to either of the Brunels, father or son.) Telford was born in 1757 to a shepherding family in southern Scotland; when he died 77 years later he was interred in Westminster Abbey. He was born in threadbare circumstances; he was a sometime (and not half bad) poet, writing under the name Eskdale Tam; during a life quite careless of luxury or settlement (he mostly took rooms in a London coffee house) he made a fortune and gave generously of it, helping to fund the Institution of Civil Engineers and supporting the creation of rural libraries, and he died with an estate modestly endowed and sensibly distributed. And in between he built, prodigiously. Glover nicely sums up his achievement:
In his 77 years he worked on 184 big projects, among them 93 large bridges and aqueducts, 17 canals and 37 docks and harbours . . . He constructed . . . 1,200 miles of road and 1,076 bridges to open up the Highlands of Scotland and worked on . . . the best road built anywhere before the coming of the motor car. He was the architect of three churches in Shropshire and 32 in Scotland, as well as of houses, a prison and a courthouse.
Telford built the waterworks for four cities, straightened, dredged and made navigable four rivers, drained and made habitable four immense tracts of fen and designed the best routes for three railways – inadvertently helping to render obsolescent his own constructions, and his canals especially, which the locomotive and its new Iron Road would soon replace.
Each of us who grew up in and wandered through the British Isles has, I dare say, his own favourite creation by Telford. Mine is the Waterloo Bridge: not Rennie’s flawed and later demolished masterwork across the Thames, despite its many literary associations, but the more modest, single-span iron bridge that crosses the River Conwy at Betws-y-Coed in north Wales.
Back in my college days I used to travel along the Telford-designed A5 at least once a term to go walking in Snowdonia (staying always at what remains, in my view, the world’s nicest inn, the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel by Llanberis, which isn’t a Telford structure but, with its muscular architectural simplicity, looks as if it could be). There was a petrol station just over the Waterloo Bridge and, after getting fuel, we often used to stroll back and look with a sense of awe at the structure, which, despite the Ireland-bound juggernaut lorries that thunder across it today, remains essentially unaltered after two centuries.
I always liked the absence of triumphalism in the white-painted, raised-iron lettering below the metallic foliage on the spandrels. The legend simply states: “This arch was constructed in the same year the Battle of Waterloo was fought.” Not won. Just fought. Telford, a poet and a man of a delicate sensitivity not normally associated with the horny-handed corps of engineers, chose his words with care.
Had I journeyed onward (to get to Snowdon you turn left off Telford’s road at Capel Curig), I would have arrived, thirty-odd minutes’ driving later, at one of the two great monuments to Telford’s career, the stunningly elegant and also largely unaltered Menai Suspension Bridge. The completion of the bridge in 1826 is described in absorbing, chapter-length detail, as is that of the wondrous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which from 1805 onwards funnelled the Llangollen Canal into a narrow, cast-iron box and hoist it 126 feet above the River Dee.
Of these two majestic structures, the aqueduct must surely be the greater, not so much for its nobility of purpose, as an essential link in the fast-evolving commercial network that came to define Britain, but because it is such fun, a reminder of what a jovial genius our Eskdale Tam was. You sit at the sharp end of a narrowboat crossing the bridge, the water level not six inches from the iron lip, and peer over if you dare: scores of vertiginous feet below, the Dee is a thin trickle, the people are mere insects, and you do your level best not to lose your lunch upon them. And now, apparently, the canal is alive with otters; when each half-decade the engineers open a plug to drain it, they have to take care that none of the beasts is sucked down, too.
The book is not quite perfect. In the early sections, until the story really gets going, we are reminded that Glover was a Downing Street speechwriter, and there is rather too much of a breezily staccato tone that seems fashioned more for the teleprompter than for the fireside reader. I also would have liked more engineering than politics – the progress of 18th-century bills through parliament does rather less for me than would a summary of the projects’ various engineering challenges and the mathematics that solved them. And as to whether Telford – a bonny lad who remained a lifelong bachelor – may have harboured homosexual yearnings, the matter is somewhat too obliquely and coyly addressed in these pages, and not definitively answered.
Yet these are the very slightest of failings. Telford, a fine and important man, now at long last has the book that he deserves. That he belongs to an overtaken era is of little importance. He and his constructions helped to make Britain a physically united United Kingdom – which one hopes and trusts, Brexit or not, it will long continue to be.
Simon Winchester’s books include “Pacific: the Ocean of the Future” and “The Men Who United the States (both William Collins)
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine