The Life of Thomas Telford by Smiles
by Samuel Smiles
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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 *[10] 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."*[11] 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!" *[12] 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,*[13] 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."*[14] Notwithstanding the theoretical ruin of England which pressed so heavy on his mind at this time, we find Telford strongly recommending his correspondent to send any good wrights he could find in his neighbourhood to Bath, where they would be enabled to earn twenty shillings or a guinea a week at piece-work— the wages paid at Langholm for similar work being only about half those amounts.

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,*[15] 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 versemaking.

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.

[Image] Shrewsbury Castle

Footnotes for Chapter IV.

*[1] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury Castle, 21st Feb., 1788.

*[2] This practice of noting down information, the result of reading and observation, was continued by Mr. Telford until the close of his life; his last pocket memorandum book, containing a large amount of valuable information on mechanical subjects—a sort of engineer's vade mecum—being printed in the appendix to the 4to. 'Life of Telford' published by his executors in 1838, pp. 663-90.

*[3] A medical man, a native of Eskdale, of great promise, who died comparatively young.

*[4] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm.

*[5] It would occupy unnecessary space to cite these poems. The following, from the verses in memory of William Telford, relates to schoolboy days, After alluding to the lofty Fell Hills, which formed part of the sheep farm of his deceased friend's father, the poet goes on to say:

"There 'mongst those rocks I'll form a rural seat, And plant some ivy with its moss compleat; I'll benches form of fragments from the stone, Which, nicely pois'd, was by our hands o'erthrown,— A simple frolic, but now dear to me, Because, my Telford, 'twas performed with thee. There, in the centre, sacred to his name, I'll place an altar, where the lambent flame Shall yearly rise, and every youth shall join The willing voice, and sing the enraptured line. But we, my friend, will often steal away To this lone seat, and quiet pass the day; Here oft recall the pleasing scenes we knew In early youth, when every scene was new, When rural happiness our moments blest, And joys untainted rose in every breast."

*[6] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 16th July, 1788.

*[7] Ibid.

*[8] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 16th July, 1788.

*[9] The discovery formed the subject of a paper read before the Society of Antiquaries in London on the 7th of May, 1789, published in the 'Archaeologia,' together with a drawing of the remains supplied by Mr. Telford.

*[10] An Eskdale crony. His son, Colonel Josias Stewart, rose to eminence in the East India Company's service, having been for many years Resident at Gwalior and Indore.

*[11] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 3rd Sept. 1788.

*[12] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, 8th October, 1789.

*[13] It was then under seventeen millions sterling, or about a fourth of what it is now.

*[14] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 28th July, 1791.

*[15] The writer of a memoir of Telford, in the 'Encyclopedia Britannica,' says:—"Andrew Little kept a private and very small school at Langholm. Telford did not neglect to send him a copy of Paine's 'Rights of Man;' and as he was totally blind, he employed one of his scholars to read it in the evenings. Mr. Little had received an academical education before he lost his sight; and, aided by a memory of uncommon powers, he taught the classics, and particularly Greek, with much higher reputation than any other schoolmaster within a pretty extensive circuit. Two of his pupils read all the Iliad, and all or the greater part of Sophocles. After hearing a long sentence of Greek or Latin distinctly recited, he could generally construe and translate it with little or no hesitation. He was always much gratified by Telford's visits, which were not infrequent, to his native district."



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."

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 effectuality 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.

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.

[Image] St. Mary Magdalen, Bridgenorth.

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." *[1] 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 nicknacks, hardware, and gilt gimcracks are proofs of the former; and its locks and bars, and the recent barbarous conduct of its populace,*[2] 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*[3] 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 a 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."*[4] 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."*[5] The salary at which Telford was engaged was 500L. 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 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."*[6]

Footnotes for Chapter V.

*[1] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, 10th March, 1793

*[2] Referring to the burning of Dr. Priestley's library.

*[3] The preparation of some translations from Buchanan which he had contemplated.

*[4] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, 29th September, 1793.

*[5] John Wilkinson and his brother William were the first of the great class of ironmasters. They possessed iron forges at Bersham near Chester, at Bradley, Brimbo, Merthyr Tydvil, and other places; and became by far the largest iron manufacturers of their day. For notice of them see 'Lives of Boulton and Watt,' p. 212.

*[6] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, 3rd November, 1793.



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.

[Image] Map of Ellesmere Canal

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.*[1] 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, 1 3/4 mile above Llangollen, the distance is 38 1/4 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 modem times."*[2] 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.

[Image] Chirk Aqueduct

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.*[3] 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.

[Image] Pont-Cyslltau—Side view of Cast Iron Trough

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."*[4]

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 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,*[5] kept a vigilant eye upon the work, scamping was rendered impossible, and a first-rate piece of masonry was the result.

[Image] Pont-Cyslltau Aqueduct

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-way 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.*[6] The whole cost of this part of the canal was 47,018L., 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."

[Image] Section of Top of Pont-Cyslltau Aqueduct.

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."*[7] 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."*[8]

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 court-house 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."*[9] 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 quantifies, 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 observation 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.

Footnotes for Chapter VI.

*[1] The Ellesmere Canal now pays about 4 per cent. dividend.

*[2] 'A General History of Inland Navigation, Foreign and Domestic,' &c. By J. Phillips. Fourth edition. London, 1803.

*[3] [Image] Section of Pier

Telford himself thus modestly describes the merit of this original contrivance: "Previously to this time such canal aqueducts had been uniformly made to retain the water necessary for navigation by means of puddled earth retained by masonry; and in order to obtain sufficient breadth for this superstructure, the masonry of the piers, abutments, and arches was of massive strength; and after all this expense, and every imaginable precaution, the frosts, by swelling the moist puddle, frequently created fissures, which burst the masonry, and suffered the water to escape—nay, sometimes actually threw down the aqueducts; instances of this kind having occurred even in the works of the justly celebrated Brindley. It was evident that the increased pressure of the puddled earth was the chief cause of such failures: I therefore had recourse to the following scheme in order to a void using it. The spandrels of the stone arches were constructed with longitudinal walls, instead of being filled in with earth (as at Kirkcudbright Bridge), and across these the canal bottom was formed by cast iron plates at each side, infixed in square stone masonry. These bottom plates had flanches on their edges, and were secured by nuts and screws at every juncture. The sides of the canal were made water-proof by ashlar masonry, backed with hard burnt bricks laid in Parker's cement, on the outside of which was rubble stone work, like the rest of the aqueduct. The towing path had a thin bed of clay under the gravel, and its outer edge was protected by an iron railing. The width of the water-way is 11 feet; of the masonry on each side, 5 feet 6 inches; and the depth of the water in the canal, 5 feet. By this mode of construction the quantity of masonry is much diminished, and the iron bottom plate forms a continuous tie, preventing the side-walls from separation by lateral pressure of the contained water."—'Life of Telford,' p. 40.

*[4] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, 13th March, 1795.

*[5] Matthew Davidson had been Telford's fellow workman at Langholm, and was reckoned an excellent mason. He died at Inverness, where he had a situation on the Caledonian Canal.

*[6] Mr. Hughes, C.E., in his 'Memoir of William Jessop,' published in 'Weale's Quarterly Papers on Engineering,' points out the bold and original idea here adopted, of constructing a water-tight trough of cast iron, in which the water of the canal was to be carried over the valleys, instead of an immense puddled trough, in accordance with the practice until that time in use; and he adds, "the immense importance of this improvement on the old practice is apt to be lost sight of at the present day by those who overlook the enormous size and strength of masonry which would have been required to support a puddled channel at the height of 120 feet." Mr. Hughes, however, claims for Mr. Jessop the merit of having suggested the employment of iron, though, in our opinion, without sufficient reason.

Mr. Jessop was, no doubt, consulted by Mr. Telford on the subject; but the whole details of the design, as well as the suggestion of the use of iron (as admitted by Mr. Hughes himself), and the execution of the entire works, rested with the acting engineer. This is borne out by the report published by the Company immediately after the formal opening of the Canal in 1805, in which they state: "Having now detailed the particulars relative to the Canal, and the circumstances of the concern, the committee, in concluding their report, think it but justice due to Mr. Telford to state that the works have been planned with great skill and science, and executed with much economy and stability, doing him, as well as those employed by him, infinite credit. (Signed) Bridgewater."

*[7] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, 16th Sept., 1794.

*[8] lbid.

*[9] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Salop, 20th Aug., 1797.



Shrewsbury being situated in the immediate neighbourhood of the Black Country, of which coal and iron are the principal products, Telford's attention was naturally directed, at a very early period, to the employment of cast iron in bridge-building. The strength as well as lightness of a bridge of this material, compared with one of stone and lime, is of great moment where headway is ofimportance, or the difficulties of defective foundations have to be encountered. The metal can be moulded in such precise forms and so accurately fitted together as to give to the arching the greatest possible rigidity; while it defies the destructive influences of time and atmospheric corrosion with nearly as much certainty as stone itself.

The Italians and French, who took the lead in engineering down almost to the end of last century, early detected the value of this material, and made several attempts to introduce it in bridge-building; but their efforts proved unsuccessful, chiefly because of the inability of the early founders to cast large masses of iron, and also because the metal was then more expensive than either stone or timber. The first actual attempt to build a cast iron bridge was made at Lyons in 1755, and it proceeded so far that one of the arches was put together in the builder's yard; but the project was abandoned as too costly, and timber was eventually used.

It was reserved for English manufacturers to triumph over the difficulties which had baffled the foreign iron-founders. Shortly after the above ineffectual attempt had been made, the construction of a bridge over the Severn near Broseley formed the subject of discussion among the adjoining owners. There had been a great increase in the coal, iron, brick, and pottery trades of the neighbourhood; and the old ferry between the opposite banks of the river was found altogether inadequate for the accommodation of the traffic. The necessity for a bridge had long been felt, and the project of constructing one was actively taken up in 1776 by Mr. Abraham Darby, the principal owner of the extensive iron works at Coalbrookdale. Mr. Pritchard, a Shrewsbury architect, prepared the design of a stone bridge of one arch, in which he proposed to introduce a key-stone of cast iron, occupying only a few feet at the crown of the arch. This plan was, however, given up as unsuitable; and another, with the entire arch of cast iron, was designed under the superintendence of Mr. Darby. The castings were made in the works at Coalbrookdale, and the bridge was erected at a point where the banks were of considerable height on both sides of the river. It was opened for traffic in 1779, and continues a most serviceable structure to this day, giving the name to the town of Ironbridge, which has sprung up in its immediate vicinity. The bridge consists of one semicircular arch, of 100 feet span, each of the great ribs consisting of two pieces only. Mr. Robert Stephenson has said of the structure—"If we consider that the manipulation of cast iron was then completely in its infancy, a bridge of such dimensions was doubtless a bold as well as an original undertaking, and the efficiency of the details is worthy of the boldness of the conception."*[1]

[Image] The first Iron Bridge, Coalbrookdale.

It is a curious circumstance that the next projector of an iron bridge—and that of a very bold design—was the celebrated, or rather the notorious, Tom Paine, whose political writings Telford had so much admired. The son of a decent Quaker of Thetford, who trained him to his own trade of a staymaker, Paine seems early to have contracted a dislike for the sect to which his father belonged. Arrived at manhood, he gave up staymaking to embrace the wild life of a privateersman, and served in two successive adventures. Leaving the sea, he became an exciseman, but retained his commission for only a year. Then he became an usher in a school, during which he studied mechanics and mathematics. Again appointed an exciseman, he was stationed at Lewes in Sussex, where he wrote poetry and acquired some local celebrity as a writer. He was accordingly selected by his brother excisemen to prepare their petition to Government for an increase of pay, *[2] — the document which he drew up procuring him introductions to Goldsmith and Franklin, and dismissal from his post. Franklin persuaded him to go to America; and there the quondam staymaker, privateersman, usher, poet, an a exciseman, took an active part in the revolutionary discussions of the time, besides holding the important office of Secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. Paine afterwards settled for a time at Philadelphia, where he occupied himself with the study of mechanical philosophy, electricity, mineralogy, and the use of iron in bridge-building. In 1787, when a bridge over the Schnylkill was proposed, without any river piers, as the stream was apt to be choked with ice in the spring freshets, Paine boldly offered to build an iron bridge with a single arch of 400 feet span. In the course of the same year, he submitted his design of the proposed bridge to the Academy of Sciences at Paris; he also sent a copy of his plan to Sir Joseph Banks for submission to the Royal Society; and, encouraged by the favourable opinions of scientific men, he proceeded to Rotherham, in Yorkshire, to have his bridge cast.*[3] An American gentleman, named Whiteside, having advanced money to Paine on security of his property in the States, to enable the bridge to be completed, the castings were duly made, and shipped off to London, where they were put together and exhibited to the public on a bowling-green at Paddington. The bridge was there visited by a large number of persons, and was considered to be a highly creditable work. Suddenly Paine's attention was withdrawn from its further prosecution by the publication of Mr. Burke's celebrated 'Thoughts on the French Revolution,' which he undertook to answer. Whiteside having in the meantime become bankrupt, Paine was arrested by his assignees, but was liberated by the assistance of two other Americans, who became bound for him. Paine, however, was by this time carried away by the fervour of the French Revolution, having become a member of the National Convention, as representative for Calais. The "Friends of Man," whose cause he had espoused, treated him scurvily, imprisoning him in the Luxembourg, where he lay for eleven months. Escaped to America, we find him in 1803 presenting to the American Congress a memoir on the construction of Iron Bridges, accompanied by several models. It does not appear, however, that Paine ever succeeded in erecting an iron bridge. He was a restless, speculative, unhappy being; and it would have been well for his memory if, instead of penning shallow infidelity, he had devoted himself to his original idea of improving the communications of his adopted country. In the meantime, however, the bridge exhibited at Paddington had produced important results. The manufacturers agreed to take it back as part of their debt, and the materials were afterwards used in the construction of the noble bridge over the Wear at Sunderland, which was erected in 1796.

The project of constructing a bridge at this place, where the rocky banks of the Wear rise to a great height oh both sides of the river, is due to Rowland Burdon, Esq., of Castle Eden, under whom Mr. T. Wilson served as engineer in carrying out his design. The details differed in several important respects from the proposed bridge of Paine, Mr. Burdon introducing several new and original features, more particularly as regarded the framed iron panels radiating towards the centre in the form of voussoirs, for the purpose of resisting compression. Mr. Phipps, C.E., in a report prepared by him at the instance of the late Robert Stephenson, under whose superintendence the bridge was recently repaired, observes, with respect to the original design,—"We should probably make a fair division of the honour connected with this unique bridge, by conceding to Burdon all that belongs to a careful elaboration and improvement upon the designs of another, to the boldness of taking upon himself the great responsibility of applying. this idea at once on so magnificent a scale, and to his liberality and public spirit in furnishing the requisite funds [to the amount of 22,000L.]; but we must not deny to Paine the credit of conceiving the construction of iron bridges of far larger span than had been made before his time, or of the important examples both as models and large constructions which he caused to be made and publicly exhibited. In whatever shares the merit of this great work may be apportioned, it must be admitted to be one of the earliest and greatest triumphs of the art of bridge construction." Its span exceeded that of any arch then known, being 236 feet, with a rise of 34 feet, the springing commencing at 95 feet above the bed of the river; and its height was such as to allow vessels of 300 tons burden to sail underneath without striking their masts. Mr. Stephenson characterised the bridge as "a structure which, as regards its proportions and the small quantity of material employed in its construction, will probably remain unrivalled."

[Image] Wear Bridge, at Sunderland.

The same year in which Burdon's Bridge was erected at Sunderland, Telford was building his first iron bridge over the Severn at Buildwas, at a point about midway between Shrewsbury and Bridgenorth. An unusually high flood having swept away the old bridge in the Year 1795, he was called upon, as surveyor for the county, to supply the plan of a new one. Having carefully examined the bridge at Coalbrookdale, and appreciated its remarkable merits, he determined to build the proposed bridge at Buildwas of iron; and as the waters came down with great suddenness from the Welsh mountains, he further resolved to construct it of only one arch, so as to afford the largest possible water-way.

He had some difficulty in inducing the Coalbrookdale iron-masters, who undertook the casting of the girders, to depart from the plan of the earlier structure; but he persisted in his design, which was eventually carried out. It consisted of a single arch of 130 feet span, the segment of a very large circle, calculated to resist the tendency of the abutments to slide inwards, which had been a defect of the Coalbrookdale bridge; the flat arch being itself sustained and strengthened by an outer ribbed one on each side, springing lower than the former and also rising higher, somewhat after the manner of timber-trussing. Although the span of the new bridge was 30 feet wider than the Coalbrookdale bridge, it contained less than half the quantity of iron; Buildwas bridge containing 173, whereas the other contained 378 tons. The new structure was, besides, extremely elegant in form; and when the centres were struck, the arch and abutments stood perfectly firm, and have remained so to this day. But the ingenious design of this bridge will be better explained by the following representation than by any description in words.*[4] The bridge at Buildwas, however, was not Telford's first employment of iron in bridge-building; for, the year before its erection, we find him writing to his friend at Langholm that he had recommended an iron aqueduct for the Shrewsbury Canal, "on a principle entirely new," and which he was "endeavouring to establish with regard to the application of iron."*[5] This iron aqueduct had been cast and fixed; and it was found to effect so great a saving in masonry and earthwork, that he was afterwards induced to apply the same principle, as we have already seen, in different forms, in the magnificent aqueducts of Chirk and Pont-Cysylltau.

The uses of cast iron in canal construction became more obvious with every year's successive experience; and Telford was accustomed to introduce it in many cases where formerly only timber or stone had been used. On the Ellesmere, and afterwards on the Caledonial Canal, he adopted cast iron lock-gates, which were found to answer well, being more durable than timber, and not liable like it to shrink and expand with alternate dryness and wet. The turnbridges which he applied to his canals, in place of the old drawbridges, were also of cast iron; and in some cases even the locks were of the same material. Thus, on a part of the Ellesmere Canal opposite Beeston Castle, in Cheshire, where a couple of locks, together rising 17 feet, having been built on a stratum of quicksand, were repeatedly undermined, the idea of constructing the entire locks of cast iron was suggested; and this unusual application of the new material was accomplished with entirely satisfactory results.

But Telford's principal employment of cast iron was in the construction of road bridges, in which he proved himself a master. His experience in these structures had become very extensive. During the time that he held the office of surveyor to the county of Salop, he erected no fewer than forty-two, five of which were of iron. Indeed, his success in iron bridge-building so much emboldened him, that in 1801, when Old London Bridge had become so rickety and inconvenient that it was found necessary to take steps to rebuild or remove it, he proposed the daring plan of a cast iron bridge of a single arch of not less than 600 feet span, the segment of a circle l450 feet in diameter. In preparing this design we find that he was associated with a Mr. Douglas, to whom many allusions are made in his private letters.*[6] The design of this bridge seems to have arisen out of a larger project for the improvement of the port of London. In a private letter of Telford's, dated the 13th May, 1800, he says:

"I have twice attended the Select Committee on the Fort of London, Lord Hawkesbury, Chairman. The subject has now been agitated for four years, and might have been so for many more, if Mr. Pitt had not taken the business out of the hands of the General Committee, and got it referred to a Select Committee. Last year they recommended that a system of docks should be formed in a large bend of the river opposite Greenwich, called the Isle of Dogs, with a canal across the neck of the bend. This part of the contemplated improvements is already commenced, and is proceeding as rapidly as the nature of the work will admit. It will contain ship docks for large vessels, such as East and West Indiamen, whose draught of water is considerable.

"There are now two other propositions under consideration. One is to form another system of docks at Wapping, and the other to take down London Bridge, rebuild it of such dimensions as to admit of ships of 200 tons passing under it, and form a new pool for ships of such burden between London and Blackfriars Bridges, with a set of regular wharves on each side of the river. This is with the view of saving lighterage and plunderage, and bringing the great mass of commerce so much nearer to the heart of the City. This last part of the plan has been taken up in a great measure from some statements I made while in London last year, and I have been called before the Committee to explain. I had previously prepared a set of plans and estimates for the purpose of showing how the idea might be carried out; and thus a considerable degree of interest has been excited on the subject. It is as yet, however, very uncertain how far the plans will be carried out. It is certainly a matter of great national importance to render the Port of London as perfect as possible."*[7]

Later in the same year he writes that his plans and propositions have been approved and recommended to be carried out, and he expects to have the execution of them. "If they will provide the ways and means," says he, "and give me elbow-room, I see my way as plainly as mending the brig at the auld burn." In November, 1801, he states that his view of London Bridge, as proposed by him, has been published, and much admired. On the l4th of April, 1802, he writes, "I have got into mighty favour with the Royal folks. I have received notes written by order of the King, the Prince of Wales, Duke of York, and Duke of Kent, about the bridge print, and in future it is to be dedicated to the King."

The bridge in question was one of the boldest of Telford's designs. He proposed by his one arch to provide a clear headway of 65 feet above high water. The arch was to consist of seven cast iron ribs, in segments as large as possible, and they were to be connected by diagonal cross-bracing, disposed in such a manner that any part of the ribs and braces could be taken out and replaced without injury to the stability of the bridge or interruption to the traffic over it. The roadway was to be 90 feet wide at the abutments and 45 feet in the centre; the width of the arch being gradually contracted towards the crown in order to lighten the weight of the structure. The bridge was to contain 6500 tons of iron, and the cost of the whole was to be 262,289L.

[Image] Telford's proposed One-arched Bridge over the Thames.

The originality of the design was greatly admired, though there were many who received with incredulity the proposal to bridge the Thames by a single arch, and it was sarcastically said of Telford that he might as well think of "setting the Thames on fire." Before any outlay was incurred in building the bridge, the design was submitted to the consideration of the most eminent scientific and practical men of the day; after which evidence was taken at great length before a Select Committee which sat on the subject. Among those examined on the occasion were the venerable James Watt of Birmingham, Mr. John Rennie, Professor Button of Woolwich, Professors Playfair and Robison of Edinburgh, Mr. Jessop, Mr.Southern, and Dr. Maskelyne. Their evidence will still be found interesting as indicating the state at which constructive science had at that time arrived in England.*[8] There was a considerable diversity of opinion among the witnesses, as might have been expected; for experience was as yet very limited as to the resistance of cast iron to extension and compression. Some of them anticipated immense difficulty in casting pieces of metal of the necessary size and exactness, so as to secure that the radiated joints should be all straight and bearing. Others laid down certain ingenious theories of the arch, which did not quite square with the plan proposed by the engineer. But, as was candidly observed by Professor Playfair in concluding his report—"It is not from theoretical men that the most valuable information in such a case as the present is to be expected. When a mechanical arrangement becomes in a certain degree complicated, it baffles the efforts of the geometer, and refuses to submit to even the most approved methods of investigation. This holds good particularly of bridges, where the principles of mechanics, aided by all the resources of the higher geometry, have not yet gone further than to determine the equilibrium of a set of smooth wedges acting on one another by pressure only, and in such circumstances as, except in a philosophical experiment, can hardly ever be realised. It is, therefore, from men educated in the school of daily practice and experience, and who to a knowledge of general principles have added, from the habits of their profession, a certain feeling of the justness or insufficiency of any mechanical contrivance, that the soundest opinions on a matter of this kind can be obtained."

It would appear that the Committee came to the general conclusion that the construction of the proposed bridge was practicable and safe; for the river was contracted to the requisite width, and the preliminary works were actually begun. Mr. Stephenson says the design was eventually abandoned, owing more immediately to the difficulty of constructing the approaches with such a head way, which would have involved the formation of extensive inclined planes from the adjoining streets, and thereby led to serious inconvenience, and the depreciation of much valuable property on both sides of the river.*[9] Telford's noble design of his great iron bridge over the Thames, together with his proposed embankment of the river, being thus definitely abandoned, he fell back upon his ordinary business as an architect and engineer, in the course of which he designed and erected several stone bridges of considerable magnitude and importance.

In the spring of 1795, after a long continued fall of snow, a sudden thaw raised a heavy flood in the Severn, which carried away many bridges—amongst others one at Bewdley, in Worcestershire,— when Telford was called upon to supply a design for a new structure. At the same time, he was required to furnish a plan for a new bridge near the town of Bridgenorth; "in short," he wrote to his friend, "I have been at it night and day." So uniform a success had heretofore attended the execution of his designs, that his reputation as a bridge-builder was universally acknowledged. "Last week," he says, "Davidson and I struck the centre of an arch of 76 feet span, and this is the third which has been thrown this summer, none of which have shrunk a quarter of an inch."

Bewdley Bridge is a handsome and substantial piece of masonry. The streets on either side of it being on low ground, land arches were provided at both ends for the passage of the flood waters; and as the Severn was navigable at the point crossed, it was considered necessary to allow considerably greater width in the river arches than had been the case in the former structure. The arches were three in number—one of 60 feet span and two of 52 feet, the land arches being of 9 feet span. The works were proceeded with and the bridge was completed during the summer of 1798, Telford writing to his friend in December of that year— "We have had a remarkably dry summer and autumn; after that an early fall of snow and some frost, followed by rain. The drought of the summer was unfavourable to our canal working; but it has enabled us to raise Bewdley Bridge as if by enchantment. We have thus built a magnificent bridge over the Severn in one season, which is no contemptible work for John Simpson*[10] and your humble servant, amidst so many other great undertakings. John Simpson is a treasure—a man of great talents and integrity. I met with him here by chance, employed and recommended him, and he has now under his charge all the works of any magnitude in this great and rich district."

[Image] Bewdley Bridge.

Another of our engineer's early stone bridges, which may be mentioned in this place, was erected by him in 1805, over the river Dee at Tongueland in the county of Kirkcudbright. It is a bold and picturesque bridge, situated in a lovely locality. The river is very deep at high water there, the tide rising 20 feet. As the banks were steep and rocky, the engineer determined to bridge the stream by a single arch of 112 feet span. The rise being considerable, high wingwalls and deep spandrels were requisite; but the weight of the structure was much lightened by the expedient which he adopted of perforating the wings, and building a number of longitudinal walls in the spandrels, instead of filling them with earth or inferior masonry, as had until then been the ordinary practice. The ends of these walls, connected and steadied by the insertion of tee-stones, were built so as to abut against the back of the arch-stones and the cross walls of each abutment. Thus great strength as well as lightness was secured, and a very graceful and at the same time substantial bridge was provided for the accommodation of the district.*[11]

[Image] Tongueland Bridge.

In his letters written about this time, Telford seems to have been very full of employment, which required him to travel about a great deal. "I have become," said he, "a very wandering being, and am scarcely ever two days in one place, unless detained by business, which, however, occupies my time very completely." At another time he says, "I am tossed about like a tennis ball: the other day I was in London, since that I have been in Liverpool, and in a few days I expect to be at Bristol. Such is my life; and to tell you the truth, I think it suits my disposition."

Another work on which Telford was engaged at this time was a project for supplying the town of Liverpool with water conveyed through pipes in the same manner as had long before been adopted in London. He was much struck by the activity and enterprise apparent in Liverpool compared with Bristol. "Liverpool," he said, "has taken firm root in the country by means of the canals" it is young, vigorous, and well situated. Bristol is sinking in commercial importance: its merchants are rich and indolent, and in their projects they are always too late. Besides, the place is badly situated. There will probably arise another port there somewhat nearer the Severn; but Liverpool will nevertheless continue of the first commercial importance, and their water will be turned into wine. We are making rapid progress in this country— I mean from Liverpool to Bristol, and from Wales to Birmingham. This is an extensive and rich district, abounding in coal, lime, iron, and lead. Agriculture too is improving, and manufactures are advancing at rapid strides towards perfection. Think of such a mass of population, industrious, intelligent, and energetic, in continual exertion! In short, I do not believe that any part of the world, of like dimensions, ever exceeded Great Britain, as it now is, in regard to the production of wealth and the practice of the useful arts."*[12] Amidst all this progress, which so strikingly characterized the western districts of England, Telford also thought that there was a prospect of coming improvement for Ireland. "There is a board of five members appointed by Parliament, to act as a board of control over all the inland navigations, &c., of Ireland. One of the members is a particular friend of mine, and at this moment a pupil, as it were, anxious for information. This is a noble object: the field is wide, the ground new and capable of vast improvement. To take up and manage the water of a fine island is like a fairy tale, and, if properly conducted, it would render Ireland truly a jewel among the nations."*[13] It does not, however, appear that Telford was ever employed by the board to carry out the grand scheme which thus fired his engineering imagination.

Mixing freely with men of all classes, our engineer seems to have made many new friends and acquaintances about this time. While on his journeys north and south, he frequently took the opportunity of looking in upon the venerable James Watt—"a great and good man," he terms him—at his house at Heathfield, near Birmingham. At London he says he is "often with old Brodie and Black, each the first in his profession, though they walked up together to the great city on foot,*[14] more than half a century ago—Gloria!" About the same time we find him taking interest in the projects of a deserving person, named Holwell, a coal-master in Staffordshire, and assisting him to take out a patent for boring wooden pipes; "he being a person," says Telford, "little known, and not having capital, interest, or connections, to bring the matter forward."

Telford also kept up his literary friendships and preserved his love for poetical reading. At Shrewsbury, one of his most intimate friends was Dr. Darwin, son of the author of the 'Botanic Garden.' At Liverpool, he made the acquaintance of Dr. Currie, and was favoured with a sight of his manuscript of the ' Life of Burns,' then in course of publication. Curiously enough, Dr. Currie had found among Burns's papers a copy of some verses, addressed to the poet, which Telford recognised as his own, written many years before while working as a mason at Langholm. Their purport was to urge Burns to devote himself to the composition of poems of a serious character, such as the 'Cotter's Saturday Night.' With Telford's permission, several extracts from his Address to Burns were published in 1800 in Currie's Life of the poet. Another of his literary friendships, formed about the same time, was that with Thomas Campbell, then a very young man, whose 'Pleasures of Hope' had just made its appearance. Telford, in one of his letters, says, "I will not leave a stone unturned to try to serve the author of that charming poem. In a subsequent communication*[15] he says, "The author of the 'Pleasures of Hope' has been here for some time. I am quite delighted with him. He is the very spirit of poetry. On Monday I introduced him to the King's librarian, and I imagine some good may result to him from the introduction."

In the midst of his plans of docks, canals, and bridges, he wrote letters to his friends about the peculiarities of Goethe's poems and Kotzebue's plays, Roman antiquities, Buonaparte's campaign in Egypt, and the merits of the last new book. He confessed, however, that his leisure for reading was rapidly diminishing in consequence of the increasing professional demands upon his time; but he bought the 'Encyclopedia Britannica,' which he described as "a perfect treasure, containing everything, and always at hand." He thus rapidly described the manner in which his time was engrossed. "A few days since, I attended a general assembly of the canal proprietors in Shropshire. I have to be at Chester again in a week, upon an arbitration business respecting the rebuilding of the county hall and gaol; but previous to that I must visit Liverpool, and afterwards proceed into Worcestershire. So you see what sort of a life I have of it. It is something like Buonaparte, when in Italy, fighting battles at fifty or a hundred miles distance every other day. However, plenty of employment is what every professional man is seeking after, and my various occupations now require of me great exertions, which they certainly shall have so long as life and health are spared to me."*[16] Amidst all his engagements, Telford found time to make particular inquiry about many poor families formerly known to him in Eskdale, for some of whom he paid house-rent, while he transmitted the means of supplying others with coals, meal, and necessaries, during the severe winter months,—a practice which he continued to the close of his life.

Footnotes for Chapter VII.

*[1] 'Encyclopedia Britannica,' 8th ed. Art. "Iron Bridges."

*[2] According to the statement made in the petition drawn by Paine, excise officers were then (1772) paid only 1s. 9 1/4d. a day.

*[3] In England, Paine took out a patent for his Iron Bridge in 1788. Specification of Patents (old law) No. 1667.

*[4] [Image] Buildwas Bridge.

The following are further details: "Each of the main ribs of the flat arch consists of three pieces, and at each junction they are secured by a grated plate, which connects all the parallel ribs together into one frame. The back of each abutment is in a wedge-shape, so as to throw off laterally much of the pressure of the earth. Under the bridge is a towing path on each side of the river. The bridge was cast in an admirable manner by the Coalbrookdale iron-masters in the year 1796, under contract with the county magistrates. The total cost was 6034L. l3s. 3d."

*[5] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, l8th March, 1795.

*[6] Douglas was first mentioned to Telford, in a letter from Mr. Pasley, as a young man, a native of Bigholmes, Eskdale, who had, after serving his time there as a mechanic, emigrated to America, where he showed such proofs of mechanical genius that he attracted the notice of Mr. Liston, the British Minister, who paid his expenses home to England, that his services might not be lost to his country, and at the same time gave him a letter of introduction to the Society of Arts in London. Telford, in a letter to Andrew Little, dated 4th December, 1797, expressed a desire "to know more of this Eskdale Archimedes." Shortly after, we find Douglas mentioned as having invented a brick machine, a shearing-machine, and a ball for destroying the rigging of ships; for the two former of which he secured patents. He afterwards settled in France, where he introduced machinery for the improved manufacture of woollen cloth; and being patronised by the Government, he succeeded in realising considerable wealth, which, how ever, he did not live to enjoy.

*[7] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated London, l3th May, 1800.

*[8] The evidence is fairly set forth in 'Cresy's Encyclopedia of Civil Engineering,' p. 475.

*[9] Article on Iron Bridges, in the 'Encyclopedia Britannica,' Edinburgh, 1857.

*[10] His foreman of masons at Bewdley Bridge, and afterwards his assistant in numerous important works.

*[11] The work is thus described in Robert Chambers's ' Picture of Scotland':—"Opposite Compston there is a magnificent new bridge over the Dee. It consists of a single web, the span of which is 112 feet; and it is built of vast blocks of freestone brought from the isle of Arran. The cost of this work was somewhere about 7000L. sterling; and it may be mentioned, to the honour of the Stewartry, that this sum was raised by the private contributions of the gentlemen of the district. From Tongueland Hill, in the immediate vicinity of the bridge, there is a view well worthy of a painter's eye, and which is not inferior in beauty and magnificence to any in Scotland."

*[12] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Salop, 13th July, 1799.

*[13] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Liverpool, 9th September, 1800.

*[14] Brodie was originally a blacksmith. He was a man of much ingenuity and industry, and introduced many improvements in iron work; he invented stoves for chimneys, ships' hearths, &c. He had above a hundred men working in his London shop, besides carrying on an iron work at Coalbrookdale. He afterwards established a woollen manufactory near Peebles.

*[15] Dated London, l4th April, 1802.

*[16] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Salop, 30th November, 1799.



In an early chapter of this volume we have given a rapid survey of the state of Scotland about the middle of last century. We found a country without roads, fields lying uncultivated, mines unexplored, and all branches of industry languishing, in the midst of an idle, miserable, and haggard population. Fifty years passed, and the state of the Lowlands had become completely changed. Roads had been made, canals dug, coal-mines opened up, ironworks established; manufactures were extending in all directions; and Scotch agriculture, instead of being the worst, was admitted to be the best in the island.

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