The Life of Thomas Telford by Smiles
by Samuel Smiles
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Mr. Telford proposed an effective measure of improvement, which was taken in hand without loss of time, and carried out, greatly to the advantage of the trade of the district. The numerous bends in the canal were cut off, the water-way was greatly widened, the summit at Smethwick was cut down to the level on either side, and a straight canal, forty feet wide, without a lock, was thus formed as far as Bilston and Wolverhampton; while the length of the main line between Birmingham and Autherley, along the whole extent of the "Black country," was reduced from twenty-two to fourteen miles. At the same time the obsolete curvatures in Brindley's old canal were converted into separate branches or basins, for the accommodation of the numerous mines and manufactories on either side of the main line. In consequence of the alterations which had been made in the canal, it was found necessary to construct numerous large bridges. One of these—a cast iron bridge, at Galton, of 150 feet span—has been much admired for its elegance, lightness, and economy of material. Several others of cast iron were constructed at different points, and at one place the canal itself is carried along on an aqueduct of the same material as at Pont-Cysylltau. The whole of these extensive improvements were carried out in the short space of two years; and the result was highly satisfactory, "proving," as Mr. Telford himself observes, "that where business is extensive, liberal expenditure of this kind is true economy."

[Image] Galton Bridge, Birmingham Canal.

In 1825 Mr. Telford was called upon to lay out a canal to connect the Grand Trunk, at the north end of Harecastle Tunnel, with the rapidly improving towns of Congleton and Macclesfield. The line was twenty-nine miles in length, ten miles on one level from Harecastle to beyond Congleton; then, ascending 114 feet by eleven locks, it proceeded for five miles on a level past Macclesfield, and onward to join the Peak Forest Canal at Marple. The navigation was thus conducted upon two levels, each of considerable length; and it so happened that the trade of each was in a measure distinct, and required separate accommodation. The traffic of the whole of the Congleton district had ready access to the Grand Trunk system, without the labour, expense, and delay involved by passing the boats through locks; while the coals brought to Macclesfield to supply the mills there were carried throughout upon the upper level, also without lockage. The engineer's arrangement proved highly judicious, and furnishes an illustration of the tact and judgment which he usually displayed in laying out his works for practical uses. Mr Telford largely employed cast iron in the construction of this canal, using it in the locks and gates, as well as in an extensive aqueduct which it was necessary to construct over a deep ravine, after the plan pursued by him at, Pont-Cysylltau and other places.

The last canal constructed by. Mr. Telford was the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction, extending from the Birmingham Canal, near Wolverhampton, in nearly a direct line, by Market Drayton, Nantwich, and through the city of Chester, by the Ellesmere Canal, to Ellesmere Port on the Mersey. The proprietors of canals were becoming alarmed at the numerous railways projected through the districts heretofore served by their water-ways; and among other projects one was set on foot, as early as 1825, for constructing a line of railway from London to Liverpool. Mr. Telford was consulted as to the best means of protecting existing investments, and his advice was to render the canal system as complete as it could be made; for he entertained the conviction, which has been justified by experience, that such navigations possessed peculiar advantages for the conveyance of heavy goods, and that, if the interruptions presented by locks could be done away with, or materially reduced, a large portion of the trade of the country must continue to be carried by the water roads. The new line recommended by him was approved and adopted, and the works were commenced in 1826. A second complete route was thus opened up between Birmingham and Liverpool, and Manchester, by which the distance was shortened twelve miles, and the delay occasioned by 320 feet of upward and downward lockage was done away with.

Telford was justly proud of his canals, which were the finest works of their kind that had yet been executed in England. Capacious, convenient, and substantial, they embodied his most ingenious contrivances, and his highest engineering skill. Hence we find him writing to a friend at Langholm, that, so soon as he could find "sufficient leisure from his various avocations in his own unrivalled and beloved island," it was his intention to visit France and Italy, for the purpose of ascertaining what foreigners had been able to accomplish, compared with ourselves, in the construction of canals, bridges, and harbours. "I have no doubt," said he, "as to their inferiority. During the war just brought to a close, England has not only been able to guard her own head and to carry on a gigantic struggle, but at the same time to construct canals, roads, harbours, bridges—magnificent works of peace—the like of which are probably not to be found in the world. Are not these things worthy of a nation's pride?"

Footnotes for Chapter X.

*[1] Mr. Matthew Davidson, above referred to, was an excellent officer, but a strange cynical humourist in his way. He was a Lowlander, and had lived for some time in England, at the Pont Cysylltau works, where he had acquired a taste for English comforts, and returned to the North with a considerable contempt for the Highland people amongst whom he was stationed. He is said to have very much resembled Dr. Johnson in person and was so fond of books, and so well read in them, that he was called 'the Walking Library.' He used to say that if justice were done to the inhabitants of Inverness, there would be nobody left there in twenty years but the Provost and the hangman. Seeing an artist one day making a sketch in the mountains, he said it was the first time he had known what the hills were good for. And when some one was complaining of the weather in the Highlands, he looked sarcastically round, and observed that the rain certainly would not hurt the heather crop.

*[2] The misfortunes of the Caledonian Canal did not end with the life of Telford. The first vessel passed through it from sea to sea in October, 1822, by which time it had cost about a million sterling, or double the original estimate. Notwithstanding this large outlay, it appears that the canal was opened before the works had been properly completed; and the consequence was that they very shortly fell into decay. It even began to be considered whether the canal ought not to be abandoned. In 1838, Mr. James Walker, C.E., an engineer of the highest eminence, examined it, and reported fully on its then state, strongly recommending its completion as well as its improvement. His advice was eventually adopted, and the canal was finished accordingly, at an additional cost of about 200,000L., and the whole line was re-opened in 1847, since which time it has continued in useful operation. The passage from sea to sea at all times can now be depended on, and it can usually be made in forty-eight hours. As the trade of the North increases, the uses of the canal will probably become much more decided than they have heretofore, proved.

*[3] 'Brindley and the Early Engineers,' p. 267.

*[4] 'Life of Telford,' p. 82, 83.



Mr. Telford's extensive practice as a bridge-builder led his friend Southey to designate him "Pontifex Maximus." Besides the numerous bridges erected by him in the West of England, we have found him furnishing designs for about twelve hundred in the Highlands, of various dimensions, some of stone and others of iron. His practice in bridge-building had, therefore, been of an unusually extensive character, and Southey's sobriquet was not ill applied. But besides being a great bridge-builder, Telford was also a great road-maker. With the progress of industry and trade, the easy and rapid transit of persons and goods had come to be regarded as an increasing object of public interest. Fast coaches now ran regularly between all the principal towns of England; every effort being made, by straightening and shortening the roads, cutting down hills, and carrying embankments across valleys and viaducts over rivers, to render travelling by the main routes as easy and expeditious as possible.

Attention was especially turned to the improvement of the longer routes, and to perfecting the connection of London with the chief town's of Scotland and Ireland. Telford was early called upon to advise as to the repairs of the road between Carlisle and Glasgow, which had been allowed to fall into a wretched state; as well as the formation of a new line from Carlisle, across the counties of Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Wigton, to Port Patrick, for the purpose of ensuring a more rapid communication with Belfast and the northern parts of Ireland. Although Glasgow had become a place of considerable wealth and importance, the roads to it, north of Carlisle, continued in a very unsatisfactory state. It was only in July, 1788, that the first mail-coach from London had driven into Glasgow by that route, when it was welcomed by a procession of the citizens on horseback, who went out several miles to meet it. But the road had been shockingly made, and before long had become almost impassable. Robert Owen states that, in 1795, it took him two days and three nights' incessant travelling to get from Manchester to Glasgow, and he mentions that the coach had to cross a well-known dangerous mountain at midnight, called Erickstane Brae, which was then always passed with fear and trembling.*[1] As late as the year 1814 we find a Parliamentary Committee declaring the road between Carlisle and Glasgow to be in so ruinous a state as often seriously to delay the mail and endanger the lives of travellers. The bridge over Evan Water was so much decayed, that one day the coach and horses fell through it into the river, when "one passenger was killed, the coachman survived only a few days, and several other persons were dreadfully maimed; two of the horses being also killed."*[2] The remaining part of the bridge continued for some time unrepaired, just space enough being left for a single carriage to pass. The road trustees seemed to be helpless, and did nothing; a local subscription was tried and failed, the district passed through being very poor; but as the road was absolutely required for more than merely local purposes, it was eventually determined to undertake its reconstruction as a work of national importance, and 50,000L. was granted by Parliament with this object, under the provisions of the Act passed in 1816. The works were placed under Mr. Telford's charge; and an admirable road was very shortly under construction between Carlisle and Glasgow. That part of it between Hamilton and Glasgow, eleven miles in length, was however left in the hands of local trustees, as was the diversion of thirteen miles at the boundary of the counties of Lanark and Dumfries, for which a previous Act had been obtained. The length of new line constructed by Mr. Telford was sixty-nine miles, and it was probably the finest piece of road which up to that time had been made.

His ordinary method of road-making in the Highlands was, first to level and drain; then, like the Romans, to lay a solid pavement of large stones, the round or broad end downwards, as close as they could be set. The points of the latter were then broken off, and a layer of stones broken to about the size of walnuts, was laid upon them, and over all a little gravel if at hand. A road thus formed soon became bound together, and for ordinary purposes was very durable.

But where the traffic, as in the case of the Carlisle and Glasgow road, was expected to be very heavy, Telford took much greater pains. Here he paid especial attention to two points: first, to lay it out as nearly as possible upon a level, so as to reduce the draught to horses dragging heavy vehicles,—one in thirty being about the severest gradient at any part of the road. The next point was to make the working, or middle portion of the road, as firm and substantial as possible, so as to bear, without shrinking, the heaviest weight likely to be brought over it. With this object he specified that the metal bed was to be formed in two layers, rising about four inches towards the centre the bottom course being of stones (whinstone, limestone, or hard freestone), seven inches in depth. These were to be carefully set by hand, with the broadest ends downwards, all crossbonded or jointed, no stone being more than three inches wide on the top. The spaces between them were then to be filled up with smaller stones, packed by hand, so as to bring the whole to an even and firm surface. Over this a top course was to be laid, seven inches in depth, consisting of properly broken hard whinstones, none exceeding six ounces in weight, and each to be able to pass through a circular ring, two inches and a half in diameter; a binding of gravel, about an inch in thickness, being placed over all. A drain crossed under the bed of the bottom layer to the outside ditch in every hundred yards. The result was an admirably easy, firm, and dry road, capable of being travelled upon in all weathers, and standing in comparatively small need of repairs.

A similar practice was introduced in England about the same time by Mr. Macadam; and, though his method was not so thorough as that of Telford, it was usefully employed on most of the high roads throughout the kingdom. Mr. Macadam's notice was first called to the subject while acting as one of the trustees of a road in Ayrshire. Afterwards, while employed as Government agent for victualling the navy in the western parts of England, he continued the study of road-making, keeping in view the essential conditions of a compact and durable substance and a smooth surface. At that time the attention of the Legislature was not so much directed to the proper making and mending of the roads, as to suiting the vehicles to them such as they were; and they legislated backwards and forwards for nearly half a century as to the breadth of wheels. Macadam was, on the other hand, of opinion that the main point was to attend to the nature of the roads on which the vehicles were to travel. Most roads were then made with gravel, or flints tumbled upon them in their natural state, and so rounded that they had no points of contact, and rarely became consolidated. When a heavy vehicle of any sort passed over them, their loose structure presented no resistance; the material was thus completely disturbed, and they often became almost impassable. Macadam's practice was this: to break the stones into angular fragments, so that a bed several inches in depth should be formed, the material best adapted for the purpose being fragments of granite, greenstone, or basalt; to watch the repairs of the road carefully during the process of consolidation, filling up the inequalities caused by the traffic passing over it, until a hard and level surface had been obtained. Thus made, the road would last for years without further attention. in 1815 Mr. Macadam devoted himself with great enthusiasm to road-making as a profession, and being appointed surveyor-general of the Bristol roads, he had full opportunities of exemplifying his system. It proved so successful that the example set by him was quickly followed over the entire kingdom. Even the streets of many large towns were Macadamised. In carrying out his improvements, however, Mr. Macadam spent several thousand pounds of his own money, and in 1825, having proved this expenditure before a Committee of the House of Commons, the amount was reimbursed to him, together with an honorary tribute of two thousand pounds. Mr. Macadam died poor, but, as he himself said, "a least an honest man." By his indefatigable exertions and his success as a road-maker, by greatly saving animal labour, facilitating commercial intercourse, and rendering travelling easy and expeditious, he entitled himself to the reputation of a public benefactor.

[Image] J. L. Macadam.

Owing to the mountainous nature of the country through which Telford's Carlisle and Glasgow road passes, the bridges are unusually numerous and of large dimensions. Thus, the Fiddler's Burn Bridge is of three arches, one of 150 and two of 105 feet span each. There are fourteen other bridges, presenting from one to three arches, of from 20 to 90 feet span. But the most picturesque and remarkable bridge constructed by Telford in that district was upon another line of road subsequently carried out by him, in the upper part of the county of Lanark, and crossing the main line of the Carlisle and Glasgow road almost at right angles. Its northern and eastern part formed a direct line of communication between the great cattle markets of Falkirk, Crief, and Doune, and Carlisle and the West of England. It was carried over deep ravines by several lofty bridges, the most formidable of which was that across the Mouse Water at Cartland Crags, about a mile to the west of Lanark. The stream here flows through a deep rocky chasm, the sides of which are in some places about four hundred feet high. At a point where the height of the rocks is considerably less, but still most formidable, Telford spanned the ravine with the beautiful bridge represented in the engraving facing this page, its parapet being 129 feet above the surface of the water beneath.

[Image] Cartland Crags Bridge.

The reconstruction of the western road from Carlisle to Glasgow, which Telford had thus satisfactorily carried out, shortly led to similar demands from the population on the eastern side of the kingdom. The spirit of road reform was now fairly on foot. Fast coaches and wheel-carriages of all kinds had become greatly improved, so that the usual rate of travelling had advanced from five or six to nine or ten miles an hour. The desire for the rapid communication of political and commercial intelligence was found to increase with the facilities for supplying it; and, urged by the public wants, the Post-Office authorities were stimulated to unusual efforts in this direction. Numerous surveys were made and roads laid out, so as to improve the main line of communication between London and Edinburgh and the intermediate towns. The first part of this road taken in hand was the worst—that lying to the north of Catterick Bridge, in Yorkshire. A new line was surveyed by West Auckland to Hexham, passing over Garter Fell to Jedburgh, and thence to Edinburgh; but was rejected as too crooked and uneven. Another was tried by Aldstone Moor and Bewcastle, and rejected for the same reason. The third line proposed was eventually adopted as the best, passing from Morpeth, by Wooler and Coldstream, to Edinburgh; saving rather more than fourteen miles between the two points, and securing a line of road of much more favourable gradients.

The principal bridge on this new highway was at Pathhead, over the Tyne, about eleven miles south of Edinburgh. To maintain the level, so as to avoid the winding of the road down a steep descent on one side of the valley and up an equally steep ascent on the other, Telford ran out a lofty embankment from both sides, connecting their ends by means of a spacious bridge. The structure at Pathhead is of five arches, each 50 feet span, with 25 feet rise from their springing, 49 feet above the bed of the river. Bridges of a similar character were also thrown over the deep ravines of Cranston Dean and Cotty Burn, in the same neighbourhood. At the same time a useful bridge was built on the same line of road at Morpeth, in Northumberland, over the river Wansbeck. It consisted of three arches, of which the centre one was 50 feet span, and two side-arches 40 feet each; the breadth between the parapets being 30 feet.

The advantages derived from the construction of these new roads were found to be so great, that it was proposed to do the like for the remainder of the line between London and Edinburgh; and at the instance of the Post-Office authorities, with the sanction of the Treasury, Mr. Telford proceeded to make detailed surveys of an entire new post-road between London and Morpeth. In laying it out, the main points which he endeavoured to secure were directness and flatness; and 100 miles of the proposed new Great North Road, south of York, were laid out in a perfectly straight line. This survey, which was begun in 1824, extended over several years; and all the requisite arrangements had been made for beginning the works, when the result of the locomotive competition at Rainhill, in 1829, had the effect of directing attention to that new method of travelling, fortunately in time to prevent what would have proved, for the most part, an unnecessary expenditure, on works soon to be superseded by a totally different order of things.

The most important road-improvements actually carried out under Mr. Telford's immediate superintendence were those on the western side of the island, with the object of shortening the distance and facilitating the communication between London and Dublin by way of Holyhead, as well as between London and Liverpool. At the time of the Union, the mode of transit between the capital of Ireland and the metropolis of the United Kingdom was tedious, difficult, and full of peril. In crossing the Irish Sea to Liverpool, the packets were frequently tossed about for days together. On the Irish side, there was scarcely the pretence of a port, the landing-place being within the bar of the river Liffey, inconvenient at all times, and in rough weather extremely dangerous. To avoid the long voyage to Liverpool, the passage began to be made from Dublin to Holyhead, the nearest point of the Welsh coast. Arrived there, the passengers were landed upon rugged, unprotected rocks, without a pier or landing convenience of any kind.*[3] But the traveller's perils were not at an end,—comparatively speaking they had only begun. From Holyhead, across the island of Anglesea, there was no made road, but only a miserable track, circuitous and craggy, full of terrible jolts, round bogs and over rocks, for a distance of twenty-four miles. Having reached the Menai Strait, the passengers had again to take to an open ferry-boat before they could gain the mainland. The tide ran with great rapidity through the Strait, and, when the wind blew strong, the boat was liable to be driven far up or down the channel, and was sometimes swamped altogether. The perils of the Welsh roads had next to be encountered, and these were in as bad a condition at the beginning of the present century as those of the Highlands above described. Through North Wales they were rough, narrow, steep, and unprotected, mostly unfenced, and in winter almost impassable. The whole traffic on the road between Shrewsbury and Bangor was conveyed by a small cart, which passed between the two places once a week in summer. As an illustration of the state of the roads in South Wales, which were quite as bad as those in the North, we may state that, in 1803, when the late Lord Sudeley took home his bride from the neighbourhood of Welshpool to his residence only thirteen miles distant, the carriage in which the newly married pair rode stuck in a quagmire, and the occupants, having extricated themselves from their perilous situation, performed the rest of their journey on foot.

The first step taken was to improve the landing-places on both the Irish and Welsh sides of St. George's Channel, and for this purpose Mr. Rennie was employed in 1801. The result was, that Howth on the one coast, and Holyhead on the other, were fixed upon as the most eligible sites for packet stations. Improvements, however, proceeded slowly, and it was not until 1810 that a sum of 10,000L. was granted by Parliament to enable the necessary works to be begun. Attention was then turned to the state of the roads, and here Mr. Telford's services were called into requisition. As early as 1808 it had been determined by the Post-Office authorities to put on a mail-coach between Shrewsbury and Holyhead; but it was pointed out that the roads in North Wales were so rough and dangerous that it was doubtful whether the service could be conducted with safety. Attempts were made to enforce the law with reference to their repair, and no less than twenty-one townships were indicted by the Postmaster-General. The route was found too perilous even for a riding post, the legs of three horses having been broken in one week.*[4] The road across Anglesea was quite as bad. Sir Henry Parnell mentioned, in 1819, that the coach had been overturned beyond Gwynder, going down one of the hills, when a friend of his was thrown a considerable distance from the roof into a pool of water. Near the post-office of Gwynder, the coachman had been thrown from his seat by a violent jolt, and broken his leg. The post-coach, and also the mail, had been overturned at the bottom of Penmyndd Hill; and the route was so dangerous that the London coachmen, who had been brought down to "work" the country, refused to continue the duty because of its excessive dangers. Of course, anything like a regular mail-service through such a district was altogether impracticable.

The indictments of the townships proved of no use; the localities were too poor to provide the means required to construct a line of road sufficient for the conveyance of mails and passengers between England and Ireland. The work was really a national one, to be carried out at the national cost. How was this best to be done? Telford recommended that the old road between Shrewsbury and Holyhead (109 miles long) should be shortened by about four miles, and made as nearly as possible on a level; the new line proceeding from Shrewsbury by Llangollen, Corwen, Bettws-y-Coed, Capel-Curig, and Bangor, to Holyhead. Mr. Telford also proposed to cross the Menai Strait by means of a cast iron bridge, hereafter to be described.

Although a complete survey was made in 1811, nothing was done for several years. The mail-coaches continued to be overturned, and stage-coaches, in the tourist season, to break down as before.*[5] The Irish mail-coach took forty one hours to reach Holyhead from the time of its setting out from St. Martin's-le-Grand; the journey was performed at the rate of only 6 3/4 miles an hour, the mail arriving in Dublin on the third day. The Irish members made many complaints of the delay and dangers to which they were exposed in travelling up to town. But, although there was much discussion, no money was voted until the year 1815, when Sir Henry Parnell vigorously took the question in hand and successfully carried it through. A Board of Parliamentary Commissioners was appointed, of which he was chairman, and, under their direction, the new Shrewsbury and Holyhead road was at length commenced and carried to completion, the works extending over a period of about fifteen years. The same Commissioners excrcised an authority over the roads between London and Shrewsbury; and numerous improvements were also made in the main line at various points, with the object of facilitating communication between London and Liverpool as well as between London and Dublin.

The rugged nature of the country through which the new road passed, along the slopes of rocky precipices and across inlets of the sea, rendered it necessary to build many bridges, to form many embankments, and cut away long stretches of rock, in order to secure an easy and commodious route. The line of the valley of the Dee, to the west of Llangollen, was selected, the road proceeding along the scarped sides of the mountains, crossing from point to point by lofty embankments where necessary; and, taking into account the character of the country, it must be acknowledged that a wonderfully level road was secured. While the gradients on the old road had in some cases been as steep as 1 in 6 1/2, passing along the edge of unprotected precipices, the new one was so laid out as to be no more than 1 in 20 at any part, while it was wide and well protected along its whole extent. Mr. Telford pursued the same system that he had adopted in the formation of the Carlisle and Glasgow road, as regards metalling, cross-draining, and fence-walling; for the latter purpose using schistus, or slate rubble-work, instead of sandstone. The largest bridges were of iron; that at Bettws-y-Coed, over the Conway—called the Waterloo Bridge, constructed in 1815—being a very fine specimen of Telford's iron bridge-work.

Those parts of the road which had been the most dangerous were taken in hand first, and, by the year 1819, the route had been rendered comparatively commodious and safe. Angles were cut off, the sides of hills were blasted away, and several heavy embankments run out across formidable arms of the sea. Thus, at Stanley Sands, near Holyhead, an embankment was formed 1300 yards long and 16 feet high, with a width of 34 feet at the top, along which the road was laid. Its breadth at the base was 114 feet, and both sides were coated with rubble stones, as a protection against storms. By the adoption of this expedient, a mile and a half was saved in a distance of six miles. Heavy embankments were also run out, where bridges were thrown across chasms and ravines, to maintain the general level. From Ty-Gwynn to Lake Ogwen, the road along the face of the rugged hill and across the river Ogwen was entirely new made, of a uniform width of 28 feet between the parapets, with an inclination of only 1 in 22 in the steepest place. A bridge was thrown over the deep chasm forming the channel of the Ogwen, the embankment being carried forward from the rook cutting, protected by high breastworks. From Capel-Curig to near the great waterfall over the river Lugwy, about a mile of new road was cut; and a still greater length from Bettws across the river Conway and along the face of Dinas Hill to Rhyddlanfair, a distance of 3 miles; its steepest descent being 1 in 22, diminishing to 1 in 45. By this improvement, the most difficult and dangerous pass along the route through North Wales was rendered safe and commodious.

[Image] Road Descent near Betws-y-Coed.

Another point of almost equal difficulty occurred near Ty-Nant, through the rocky pass of Glynn Duffrws, where the road was confined between steep rocks and rugged precipices: there the way was widened and flattened by blasting, and thus reduced to the general level; and so on eastward to Llangollen and Chirk, where the main Shrewsbury road to London was joined.*[6]

[Image] Road above Nant Frrancon, North Wales.

By means of these admirable roads the traffic of North Wales continues to be mainly carried on to this day. Although railways have superseded coach-roads in the more level districts, the hilly nature of Wales precludes their formation in that quarter to any considerable extent; and even in the event of railways being constructed, a large part of the traffic of every country must necessarily continue to pass over the old high roads. Without them even railways would be of comparatively little value; for a railway station is of use chiefly because of its easy accessibility, and thus, both for passengers and merchandise, the common roads of the country are as useful as ever they were, though the main post-roads have in a great measure ceased to be employed for the purposes for which they were originally designed.

The excellence of the roads constructed by Mr. Telford through the formerly inaccessible counties of North Wales was the theme of general praise; and their superiority, compared with those of the richer and more level districts in the midland and western English counties, becoming the subject of public comment, he was called upon to execute like improvements upon that part of the post-road which extended between Shrewsbury and the metropolis. A careful survey was made of the several routes from London northward by Shrewsbury as far as Liverpool; and the short line by Coventry, being 153 miles from London to Shrewsbury, was selected as the one to be improved to the utmost.

Down to 1819, the road between London and Coventry was in a very bad state, being so laid as to become a heavy slough in wet weather. There were many steep hills which required to be cut down, in some parts of deep clay, in others of deep sand. A mail-coach had been tried to Banbury; but the road below Aylesbury was so bad, that the Post-office authorities were obliged to give it up. The twelve miles from Towcester to Daventry were still worse. The line of way was covered with banks of dirt; in winter it was a puddle of from four to six inches deep—quite as bad as it had been in Arthur Young's time; and when horses passed along the road, they came out of it a mass of mud and mire.*[7] There were also several steep and dangerous hills to be crossed; and the loss of horses by fatigue in travelling by that route at the time was very great.

Even the roads in the immediate neighbourhood of the metropolis were little better, those under the Highgate and Hampstead trust being pronounced in a wretched state. They were badly formed, on a clay bottom, and being undrained, were almost always wet and sloppy. The gravel was usually tumbled on and spread unbroken, so that the materials, instead of becoming consolidated, were only rolled about by the wheels of the carriages passing over them.

Mr. Telford applied the same methods in the reconstruction of these roads that he had already adopted in Scotland and Wales, and the same improvement was shortly felt in the more easy passage over them of vehicles of all sorts, and in the great acceleration of the mail service. At the same time, the line along the coast from Bangor, by Conway, Abergele, St. Asaph, and Holywell, to Chester, was greatly improved. As forming the mail road from Dublin to Liverpool, it was considered of importance to render it as safe and level as possible. The principal new cuts on this line were those along the rugged skirts of the huge Penmaen-Mawr; around the base of Penmaen-Bach to the town of Conway; and between St. Asaph and Holywell, to ease the ascent of Rhyall Hill.

But more important than all, as a means of completing the main line of communication between England and Ireland, there were the great bridges over the Conway and the Menai Straits to be constructed. The dangerous ferries at those places had still to be crossed in open boats, sometimes in the night, when the luggage and mails were exposed to great risks. Sometimes, indeed, they were wholly lost and passengers were lost with them. It was therefore determined, after long consideration, to erect bridges over these formidable straits, and Mr. Telford was employed to execute the works,—in what manner, we propose to describe in the next chapter.

Footnotes for Chapter XI.

*[1] 'Life of Robert Owen,' by himself.

*[2] 'Report from the Select Committee on the Carlisle and Glasgow Road,' 28th June, 1815.

*[3 A diary is preserved of a journey to Dublin from Grosvenor Square London, l2th June, 1787, in a coach and four, accompanied by a post-chaise and pair, and five outriders. The party reached Holyhead in four days, at a cost of 75L. 11s. 3d. The state of intercourse between this country and the sister island at this part of the account is strikingly set forth in the following entries:— "Ferry at Bangor, 1L. 10s.; expenses of the yacht hired to carry the party across the channel, 28L. 7s. 9d.; duty on the coach, 7L. 13s. 4d.; boats on shore, 1L. 1s.; total, 114L. 3s. 4d." —Roberts's 'Social History of the Southern Counties,' p. 504.

*[4] 'Second Report from Committee on Holyhead Roads and Harbours,' 1810. (Parliamentary paper.)

*[5] "Many parts of the road are extremely dangerous for a coach to travel upon. At several places between Bangor and Capel-Curig there are a number of dangerous precipices without fences, exclusive of various hills that want taking down. At Ogwen Pool there is a very dangerous place where the water runs over the road, extremely difficult to pass at flooded times. Then there is Dinas Hill, that needs a side fence against a deep precipice. The width of the road is not above twelve feet in the steepest part of the hill, and two carriages cannot pass without the greatest danger. Between this hill and Rhyddlanfair there are a number of dangerous precipices, steep hills, and difficult narrow turnings. From Corwen to Llangollen the road is very narrow, long, and steep; has no side fence, except about a foot and a half of mould or dirt, which is thrown up to prevent carriages falling down three or four hundred feet into the river Dee. Stage-coaches have been frequently overturned and broken down from the badness of the road, and the mails have been overturned; but I wonder that more and worse accidents have not happened, the roads are so bad."—Evidence of Mr. William Akers, of the Post-office, before Committee of the House of Commons, 1st June, 1815.

*[6] The Select Committee of the House of Commons, in reporting as to the manner in which these works were carried out, stated as follows:— "The professional execution of the new works upon this road greatly surpasses anything of the same kind in these countries. The science which has been displayed in giving the general line of the road a proper inclination through a country whose whole surface consists of a succession of rocks, bogs, ravines, rivers, and precipices, reflects the greatest credit upon the engineer who has planned them; but perhaps a still greater degree of professional skill has been shown in the construction, or rather the building, of the road itself. The great attention which Mr. Telford has devoted, to give to the surface of the road one uniform and moderately convex shape, free from the smallest inequality throughout its whole breadth; the numerous land drains, and, when necessary, shores and tunnels of substantial masonry, with which all the water arising from springs or falling in rain is instantly carried off; the great care with which a sufficient foundation is established for the road, and the quality, solidity, and disposition of the materials that are put upon it, are matters quite new in the system of road-making in these countries."— 'Report from the Select Committee on the Road from London to Holyhead in the year 1819.'

*[7] Evidence of William Waterhouse before the Select Committee, 10th March, 1819.



[Image] Map of Menai Strait [Ordnance Survey]

So long as the dangerous Straits of Menai had to be crossed in an open ferry-boat, the communication between London and Holyhead was necessarily considered incomplete. While the roads through North Wales were so dangerous as to deter travellers between England and Ireland from using that route, the completion of the remaining link of communication across the Straits was of comparatively little importance. But when those roads had, by the application of much capital, skill, and labour, been rendered so safe and convenient that the mail and stage coaches could run over them at the rate of from eight to ten miles an hour, the bridging of the Straits became a measure of urgent public necessity. The increased traffic by this route so much increased the quantity of passengers and luggage, that the open boats were often dangerously overloaded; and serious accidents, attended with loss of life and property, came to be of frequent occurrence.

The erection of a bridge over the Straits had long been matter of speculation amongst engineers. As early as 1776, Mr. Golborne proposed his plan of an embankment with a bridge in the middle of it; and a few years later, in 1785, Mr. Nichols proposed a wooden viaduct, furnished with drawbridges at Cadnant Island. Later still, Mr. Rennie proposed his design of a cast iron bridge. But none of these plans were carried out, and the whole subject remained in abeyance until the year 1810, when a commission was appointed to inquire and report as to the state of the roads between Shrewsbury, Chester, and Holyhead. The result was, that Mr. Telford was called upon to report as to the most effectual method of bridging the Menai Strait, and thus completing the communication with the port of embarkation for Ireland.

[Image] Telford's proposed Cast Iron Bridge

Mr. Telford submitted alternative plans for a bridge over the Strait: one at the Swilly Rock, consisting of three cast iron arches of 260 feet span, with a stone arch of 100 feet span between each two iron ones, to resist their lateral thrust; and another at Ynys-y-moch, to which he himself attached the preference, consisting of a single cast iron arch of 500 feet span, the crown of the arch to be 100 feet above high water of spring tides, and the breadth of the roadway to be 40 feet.

The principal objection taken to this plan by engineers generally, was the supposed difficulty of erecting a proper centering to support the arch during construction; and the mode by which Mr. Telford proposed to overcome this may be cited in illustration of his ready ingenuity in overcoming difficulties. He proposed to suspend the centering from above instead of supporting it from below in the usual manner—a contrivance afterwards revived by another very skilful engineer, the late Mr. Brunel. Frames, 50 feet high, were to be erected on the top of the abutments, and on these, strong blocks, or rollers and chains, were to be fixed, by means of which, and by the aid of windlasses and other mechanical powers, each separate piece of centering was to be raised into, and suspended in, its proper place. Mr. Telford regarded this method of constructing centres as applicable to stone as well as to iron arches; and indeed it is applicable, as Mr. Brunel held, to the building of the arch itself.*[1]

[Image] Proposed Plan of Suspended Centering

Mr. Telford anticipated that, if the method recommended by him were successfully adopted on the large scale proposed at Menai, all difficulties with regard to carrying bridges over deep ravines would be done away with, and a new era in bridge-building begun. For this and other reasons—but chiefly because of the much greater durability of a cast iron bridge compared with the suspension bridge afterwards adopted—it is matter of regret that he was not permitted to carry out this novel and grand design. It was, however, again objected by mariners that the bridge would seriously affect, if not destroy, the navigation of the Strait; and this plan, like Mr. Rennie's, was eventually rejected.

Several years passed, and during the interval Mr. Telford was consulted as to the construction of a bridge over Runcorn Gap on the Mersey, above Liverpool. As the river was there about 1200 feet wide, and much used for purposes of navigation, a bridge of the ordinary construction was found inapplicable. But as he was required to furnish a plan of the most suitable structure, he proceeded to consider how the difficulties of the case were to be met. The only practicable plan, he thought, was a bridge constructed on the principle of suspension. Expedients of this kind had long been employed in India and America, where wide rivers were crossed by means of bridges formed of ropes and chains; and even in this country a suspension bridge, though of a very rude kind, had long been in use near Middleton on the Tees, where, by means of two common chains stretched across the river, upon which a footway of boards was laid, the colliers were enabled to pass from their cottages to the colliery on the opposite bank.

Captain (afterwards Sir Samuel) Brown took out a patent for forming suspension bridges in 1817; but it appears that Telford's attention had been directed to the subject before this time, as he was first consulted respecting the Runcorn Bridge in the year 1814, when he proceeded to make an elaborate series of experiments on the tenacity of wrought iron bars, with the object of employing this material in his proposed structure. After he had made upwards of two hundred tests of malleable iron of various qualities, he proceeded to prepare his design of a bridge, which consisted of a central opening of 1000 feet span, and two side openings of 500 feet each, supported by pyramids of masonry placed near the low-water lines. The roadway was to be 30 feet wide, divided into one central footway and two distinct carriageways of 12 feet each. At the same time he prepared and submitted a model of the central opening, which satisfactorily stood the various strains which were applied to it. This Runcorn design of 1814 was of a very magnificent character, perhaps superior even to that of the Menai Suspension Bridge, afterwards erected; but unhappily the means were not forthcoming to carry it into effect. The publication of his plan and report had, however, the effect of directing public attention to the construction of bridges on the suspension principle; and many were shortly after designed and erected by Telford and other engineers in different parts of the kingdom.

Mr. Telford continued to be consulted by the Commissioners of the Holyhead Roads as to the completion of the last and most important link in the line of communication between London and Holyhead, by bridging the Straits of Menai; and at one of their meetings in 1815, shortly after the publication of his Runcorn design, the inquiry was made whether a bridge upon the same principle was not applicable in this particular case. The engineer was instructed again to examine the Straits and submit a suitable plan and estimate, which he proceeded to do in the early part of 1818. The site selected by him as the most favourable was that which had been previously fixed upon for the projected cast iron bridge, namely at Ynys-y-moch—the shores there being bold and rocky, affording easy access and excellent foundations, while by spanning the entire channel between the low-water lines, and the roadway being kept uniformly 100 feet above the highest water at spring tide, the whole of the navigable waterway would be left entirely uninterrupted. The distance between the centres of the supporting pyramids was proposed to be of the then unprecedented width of 550 feet, and the height of the pyramids 53 feet above the level of the roadway. The main chains were to be sixteen in number, with a deflection of 37 feet, each composed of thirty-six bars of half-inch-square iron, so placed as to give a square of six on each side, making the whole chain about four inches in diameter, welded together for their whole length, secured by bucklings, and braced round with iron wire; while the ends of these great chains were to be secured by a mass of masonry built over stone arches between each end of the supporting piers and the adjoining shore. Four of the arches were to be on the Anglesea, and three on the Caernarvonshire side, each of them of 52 feet 6 inches span. The roadway was to be divided, as in the Runcorn design with a carriage way 12 feet wide on each side, and a footpath of 4 feet in the middle. Mr. Telford's plan was supported by Mr. Rennie and other engineers of eminence; and the Select Committee of the House of Commons, being satisfied as to its practicability, recommended Parliament to pass a Bill and to make a grant of money to enable the work to be carried into effect.

[Image] Outline of Menai Bridge

The necessary Act passed in the session of 1819, and Mr. Telford immediately proceeded to Bangor to make preparations for beginning the works. The first proceeding was to blast off the inequalities of the surface of the rock called Ynys-y-moch, situated on the western or Holyhead side of the Strait, at that time accessible only at low water. The object was to form an even surface upon it for the foundation of the west main pier. It used to be at this point, where the Strait was narrowest, that horned cattle were driven down, preparatory to swimming them across the channel to the Caernarvon side, when the tide was weak and at its lowest ebb. The cattle were, nevertheless, often carried away, the current being too strong for the animals to contend against it.

At the same time, a landing-quay was erected on Ynys-y-moch, which was connected with the shore by an embankment carrying lines of railway. Along these, horses drew the sledges laden with stone required for the work; the material being brought in barges from the quarries opened at Penmon Point, on the north-eastern extremity of the Isle of Anglesea, a little to the westward of the northern opening of the Strait. When the surface of the rock had been levelled and the causeway completed, the first stone of the main pier was laid by Mr. W.A. Provis, the resident engineer, on the 10th of August, 1819; but not the slightest ceremony was observed on the occasion.

Later in the autumn, preparations were made for proceeding with the foundations of the eastern main pier on the Bangor side of the Strait. After excavating the beach to a depth of 7 feet, a solid mass of rock was reached, which served the purpose of an immoveable foundation for the pier. At the same, time workshops were erected; builders, artisans, and labourers were brought together from distant quarters; vessels and barges were purchased or built for the special purpose of the work; a quay was constructed at Penmon Point for loading the stones for the piers; and all the requisite preliminary arrangements were made for proceeding with the building operations in the ensuing spring.

A careful specification of the masonry work was drawn up, and the contract was let to Messrs. Stapleton and Hall; but as they did not proceed satisfactorily, and desired to be released from the contract, it was relet on the same terms to Mr. John Wilson, one of Mr. Telford's principal contractors for mason work on the Caledonian Canal. The building operations were begun with great vigour early in 1820. The three arches on the Caernarvonshire side and the four on the Anglesea side were first proceeded with. They are of immense magnitude, and occupied four years in construction, having been finished late in the autumn of 1824. These piers are 65 feet in height from high-water line to the springing of the arches, the span of each being 52 feet 6 inches. The work of the main piers also made satisfactory progress, and the masonry proceeded so rapidly that stones could scarcely be got from the quarries in sufficient quantity to keep the builders at work. By the end of June about three hundred men were employed.

The two principal piers, each 153 feet in height, upon which the main chains of the bridge were to be suspended, were built with great care and under rigorous inspection. In these, as indeed in most of the masonry of the bridge, Mr. Telford adopted the same practice which he had employed in his previous bridge structures, that of leaving large void spaces, commencing above high water mark and continuing them up perpendicularly nearly to the level of the roadway. "I have elsewhere expressed my conviction," he says, when referring to the mode of constructing these piers, "that one of the most important improvements which I have been able to introduce into masonry consists in the preference of cross-walls to rubble, in the structure of a pier, or any other edifice requiring strength. Every stone and joint in such walls is open to inspection in the progress of the work, and even afterwards, if necessary; but a solid filling of rubble conceals itself, and may be little better than a heap of rubbish confined by side walls." The walls of these main piers were built from within as well as from without all the way up, and the inside was as carefully and closely cemented with mortar as the external face. Thus the whole pier was bound firmly together, and the utmost strength given, while the weight of the superstructure upon the lower parts of the work was reduced to its minimum.

[Image] Section of Main Pier

Over the main piers, the small arches intended for the roadways were constructed, each being 15 feet to the springing of the arch, and 9 feet wide. Upon these arches the masonry was carried upwards, in a tapering form, to a height of 53 feet above the level of the road. As these piers were to carry the immense weight of the suspension chains, great pains were taken with their construction, and all the stones, from top to bottom, were firmly bound together with iron dowels to prevent the possibility of their being separated or bulged by the immense pressure they had to withstand.

The most important point in the execution of the details of the bridge, where the engineer had no past experience to guide him, was in the designing and fixing of the wrought iron work. Mr. Telford had continued his experiments as to the tenacity of bar iron, until he had obtained several hundred distinct tests; and at length, after the most mature delilberation, the patterns and dimensions were finally arranged by him, and the contract for the manufacture of the whole was let to Mr. Hazeldean, of Shrewsbury, in the year 1820. The iron was to be of the best Shropshire, drawn at Upton forge, and finished and proved at the works, under the inspection of a person appointed by the engineer.

[Image] Cut showing fixing of the chains in the rock

The mode by which the land ends of these enormous suspension chains were rooted to the solid ground on either side of the Strait, was remarkably ingenious and effective. Three oblique tunnels were made by blasting the rock on the Anglesea side; they were each about six feet in diameter, the excavations being carried down an inclined plane to the depth of about twenty yards. A considerable width of rock lay between each tunnel, but at the bottom they were all united by a connecting horizontal avenue or cavern, sufficiently capacious to enable the workmen to fix the strong iron frames, composed principally of thick flat cast iron plates, which were engrafted deeply into the rock, and strongly bound together by the iron work passing along the horizontal avenue; so that, if the iron held, the chains could only yield by tearing up the whole mass of solid rock under which they were thus firmly bound.

A similar method of anchoring the main chains was adopted on the Caernarvonshire side. A thick bank of earth had there to be cut through, and a solid mass of masonry built in its place, the rock being situated at a greater distance from the main pier; involving a greater length of suspending chain, and a disproportion in the catenary or chord line on that side of the bridge. The excavation and masonry thereby rendered necessary proved a work of vast labour, and its execution occupied a considerable time; but by the beginning of the year 1825 the suspension pyramids, the land piers and arches, and the rock tunnels, had all been completed, and the main chains were firmly secured in them; the work being sufficiently advanced to enable the suspending of the chains to be proceeded with. This was by far the most difficult and anxious part of the undertaking.

With the same careful forethought and provision for every contingency which had distinguished the engineer's procedure in the course of the work, he had made frequent experiments to ascertain the actual power which would be required to raise the main chains to their proper curvature. A valley lay convenient for the purpose, a little to the west of the bridge on the Anglesea side. Fifty-seven of the intended vertical suspending rods, each nearly ten feet long and an inch square, having been fastened together, a piece of chain was attached to one end to make the chord line 570 feet in length; and experiments having been made and comparisons drawn, Mr. Telford ascertained that the absolute weight of one of the main chains of the bridge between the points of suspension was 23 1/2 tons, requiring a strain of 39 1/2 tons to raise it to its proper curvature. On this calculation the necessary apparatus required for the hoisting was prepared. The mode of action finally determined on for lifting the main chains, and fixing them into their places, was to build the central portion of each upon a raft 450 feet long and 6 feet wide, then to float it to the site of the bridge, and lift it into its place by capstans and proper tackle.

At length all was ready for hoisting the first great chain, and about the middle of April, 1825, Mr. Telford left London for Bangor to superintend the operations. An immense assemblage collected to witness the sight; greater in number than any that had been collected in the same place since the men of Anglesea, in their war-paint, rushing down to the beach, had shrieked defiance across the Straits at their Roman invaders on the Caernarvon shore. Numerous boats arrayed in gay colours glided along the waters; the day—the 26th of April—being bright, calm, and in every way propitious.

At half-past two, about an hour before high water, the raft bearing the main chain was cast off from near Treborth Mill, on the Caernarvon side. Towed by four boats, it began gradually to move from the shore, and with the assistance of the tide, which caught it at its further end, it swung slowly and majestically round to its position between the main piers, where it was moored. One end of the chain was then bolted to that which hung down the face of the Caernarvon pier; whilst the other was attached to ropes connected with strong capstans fixed on the Anglesea side, the ropes passing by means of blocks over the top of the pyramid of the Anglesea pier. The capstans for hauling in the ropes bearing the main chain, were two in number, manned by about 150 labourers. When all was ready, the signal was given to "Go along!" A Band of fifers struck up a lively tune; the capstans were instantly in motion, and the men stepped round in a steady trot. All went well. The ropes gradually coiled in. As the strain increased, the pace slackened a little; but "Heave away, now she comes!" was sung out. Round went the men, and steadily and safely rose the ponderous chain.

[Image] Cut of Bridge, showing state of Suspension Chain

The tide had by this time turned, and bearing upon the side of the raft, now getting freer of its load, the current floated it away from under the middle of the chain still resting on it, and it swung easily off into the water. Until this moment a breath less silence pervaded the watching multitude; and nothing was heard among the working party on the Anglesea side but the steady tramp of the men at the capstans, the shrill music of the fife, and the occasional order to "Hold on!" or "Go along!" But no sooner was the raft seen floating away, and the great chain safely swinging in the air, than a tremendous cheer burst forth along both sides of the Straits.

The rest of the work was only a matter of time. The most anxious moment had passed. In an hour and thirty-five minutes after the commencement of the hoisting, the chain was raised to its proper curvature, and fastened to the land portion of it which had been previously placed over the top of the Anglesea pyramid. Mr. Telford ascended to the point of fastening, and satisfied himself that a continuous and safe connection had been formed from the Caernarvon fastening on the rock to that on Anglesea. The announcement of the fact was followed by loud and prolonged cheering from the workmen, echoed by the spectators, and extending along the Straits on both sides, until it seemed to die away along the shores in the distance. Three foolhardy workmen, excited by the day's proceedings, had the temerity to scramble along the upper surface of the chain—which was only nine inches wide and formed a curvature of 590 feet—from one side of the Strait to the other!*[2] Far different were the feelings of the engineer who had planned this magnificent work. Its failure had been predicted; and, like Brindley's Barton Viaduct, it had been freely spoken of as a "castle in the air." Telford had, it is true, most carefully tested every part by repeated experiment, and so conclusively proved the sufficiency of the iron chains to bear the immense weight they would have to support, that he was thoroughly convinced as to the soundness of his principles of construction, and satisfied that, if rightly manufactured and properly put together, the chains would hold, and that the piers would sustain them. Still there was necessarily an element of uncertainty in the undertaking. It was the largest structure of the kind that had ever been attempted. There was the contingency of a flaw in the iron; some possible scamping in the manufacture; some little point which, in the multiplicity of details to be attended to, he might have overlooked, or which his subordinates might have neglected. It was, indeed, impossible but that he should feel intensely anxious as to the result of the day's operations. Mr. Telford afterwards stated to a friend, only a few months before his death, that for some time previous to the opening of the bridge, his anxiety was so great that he could scarcely sleep; and that a continuance of that condition must have very soon completely undermined his health. We are not, therefore, surprised to learn that when his friends rushed to congratulate him on the result of the first day's experiment, which decisively proved the strength and solidity of the bridge, they should have found the engineer on his knees engaged in prayer. A vast load had been taken off his mind; the perilous enterprise of the day had been accomplished without loss of life; and his spontaneous act was thankfulness and gratitude.

[Image] Menai Bridge

The suspension of the remaining fifteen chains was accomplished without difficulty. The last was raised and fixed on the 9th of July, 1825, when the entire line was completed. On fixing the final bolt, a band of music descended from the top of the suspension pier on the Anglesea side to a scaffolding erected over the centre of the curved part of the chains, and played the National Anthem amidst the cheering of many thousand persons assembled along the shores of the Strait: while the workmen marched in procession along the bridge, on which a temporary platform had been laid, and the St. David steam-packet of Chester passed under the chains towards the Smithy Rocks and back again, thus re-opening the navigation of the Strait.

In August the road platform was commenced, and in September the trussed bearing bars were all suspended. The road was constructed of timber in a substantial manner, the planking being spiked together, with layers of patent felt between the planks, and the carriage way being protected by oak guards placed seven feet and a half apart. Side railings were added; the toll-houses and approach-roads were completed by the end of the year; and the bridge was opened for public traffic on Monday, the 30th of January, 1826, when the London and Holyhead mailcoach passed over it for the first time, followed by the Commissioners of the Holyhead roads, the engineer, several stage-coaches, and a multitude of private persons too numerous to mention.

We may briefly add a few facts as to the quantities of materials used, and the dimensions of this remarkable structure. The total weight of iron was 2187 tons, in 33,265 pieces. The total length of the bridge is 1710 feet, or nearly a third of a mile; the distance between the points of suspension of the main bridge being 579 feet. The total sum expended by Government in its erection, including the embankment and about half a mile of new line of road on the Caernarvon side, together with the toll-houses, was 120,000L.

Notwithstanding the wonders of the Britannia Bridge subsequently erected by Robert Stephenson for the passage across the same strait of the Chester and Holyhead Railway, the Menai Bridge of Telford is by far the most picturesque object. "Seen as I approached it," says Mr. Roscoe, "in the clear light of an autumnal sunset, which threw an autumnal splendour on the wide range of hills beyond, and the sweep of richly variegated groves and plantations which covered their base—the bright sun, the rocky picturesque foreground, villas, spires, and towers here and there enlivening the prospect— the Menai Bridge appeared more like the work of some great magician than the mere result of man's skill and industry."

[Image] Conway Suspension Bridge

Shortly after the Menai Bridge was begun, it was determined by the Commissioners of the Holyhead road that a bridge of similar design should be built over the estuary of the Conway, immediately opposite the old castle at that place, and which had formerly been crossed by an open ferry boat. The first stone was laid on the 3rd of April, 1822, and the works having proceeded satisfactorily, the bridge and embankment approaching it were completed by the summer of 1826. But the operations being of the same kind as those connected with the larger structure above described, though of a much less difficult character, it is unnecessary to enter into any details as to the several stages of its construction. In this bridge the width between the centres of the supporting towers is 327 feet, and the height of the under side of the roadway above high water of spring tides only 15 feet. The heaviest work was an embankment as its eastern approach, 2015 feet in length and about 300 feet in width at its highest part.

It will be seen, from the view of the bridge given on the opposite page, that it is a highly picturesque structure, and combines, with the estuary which it crosses, and the ancient castle of Conway, in forming a landscape that is rarely equalled.

Footnotes for Chapter XII.

*[1] In an article in the 'Edinburgh Review,' No. exli., from the pen of Sir David Brewster, the writer observes:—"Mr. Telford's principle of suspending and laying down from above the centering of stone and iron bridges is, we think, a much more fertile one than even he himself supposed. With modifications, by no means considerable, and certainly practicable, it appears to us that the voussoirs or archstones might themselves be laid down from above, and suspended by an appropriate mechanism till the keystone was inserted. If we suppose the centering in Mr. Telford's plan to be of iron, this centering itself becomes an iron bridge, each rib of which is composed of ten pieces of fifty feet each; and by increasing the number of suspending chains, these separate pieces or voussoirs having been previously joined together, either temporarily or permanently, by cement or by clamps, might be laid into their place, and kept there by a single chain till the road was completed. The voussoirs, when united, might be suspended from a general chain across the archway, and a platform could be added to facilitate the operations." This is as nearly as possible the plan afterwards revived by Mr. Brunel, and for the originality of which, we believe, he has generally the credit, though it clearly belongs to Telford.

*[2] A correspondent informs us of a still more foolhardy exploit performed on the occasion. He says, "Having been present, as a boy from Bangor grammar school, on the 26th of April, when the first chain was carried across, an incident occurred which made no small impression on my mind at the time. After the chain had reached its position, a cobbler of the neighbourhood crawled to the centre of the curve, and there finished a pair of shoes; when, having completed his task, he returned in safety to the Caernarvon side! I need not say that we schoolboys appreciated his feat of foolhardiness far more than Telford's master work."



It will have been observed, from the preceding narrative, how much had already been accomplished by skill and industry towards opening up the material resources of the kingdom. The stages of improvement which we have recorded indeed exhibit a measure of the vital energy which has from time to time existed in the nation. In the earlier periods of engineering history, the war of man was with nature. The sea was held back by embankments. The Thames, instead of being allowed to overspread the wide marshes on either bank, was confined within limited bounds, by which the navigable depth of its channel was increased, at the same time that a wide extent of land was rendered available for agriculture.

In those early days, the great object was to render the land more habitable, comfortable, and productive. Marshes were reclaimed, and wastes subdued. But so long as the country remained comparatively closed against communication, and intercourse was restricted by the want of bridges and roads, improvement was extremely slow. For, while roads are the consequence of civilisation, they are also among its most influential causes. We have seen even the blind Metcalf acting as an effective instrument of progress in the northern counties by the formation of long lines of road. Brindley and the Duke of Bridgewater carried on the work in the same districts, and conferred upon the north and north-west of England the blessings of cheap and effective water communication. Smeaton followed and carried out similar undertakings in still remoter places, joining the east and west coasts of Scotland by the Forth and Clyde Canal, and building bridges in the far north. Rennie made harbours, built bridges, and hewed out docks for shipping, the increase in which had kept pace with the growth of our home and foreign trade. He was followed by Telford, whose long and busy life, as we have seen, was occupied in building bridges and making roads in all directions, in districts of the country formerly inaccessible, and therefore comparatively barbarous. At length the wildest districts of the Highlands and the most rugged mountain valleys of North Wales were rendered as easy of access as the comparatively level counties in the immediate neighbourhood of the metropolis.

During all this while, the wealth and industry of the country had been advancing with rapid strides. London had grown in population and importance. Many improvements had been effected in the river, But the dock accommodation was still found insufficient; and, as the recognised head of his profession, Mr. Telford, though now grown old and fast becoming infirm, was called upon to supply the requisite plans. He had been engaged upon great works for upwards of thirty years, previous to which he had led the life of a working mason. But he had been a steady, temperate man all his life; and though nearly seventy, when consulted as to the proposed new docks, his mind was as able to deal with the subject in all its bearings as it had ever been; and he undertook the work.

In 1824 a new Company was formed to provide a dock nearer to the heart of the City than any of the existing ones. The site selected was the space between the Tower and the London Docks, which included the property of St. Katherine's Hospital. The whole extent of land available was only twenty-seven acres of a very irregular figure, so that when the quays and warehouses were laid out, it was found that only about ten acres remained for the docks; but these, from the nature of the ground, presented an unusual amount of quay room. The necessary Act was obtained in 1825; the works were begun in the following year; and on the 25th of October, 1828, the new docks were completed and opened for business.

The St. Katherine Docks communicate with the river by means of an entrance tide-lock, 180 feet long and 45 feet wide, with three pairs of gates, admitting either one very large or two small vessels at a time. The lock-entrance and the sills under the two middle lock-gates were fixed at the depth of ten feet under the level of low water of ordinary spring tides. The formation of these dock-entrances was a work of much difficulty, demanding great skill on the part of the engineer. It was necessary to excavate the ground to a great depth below low water for the purpose of getting in the foundations, and the cofferdams were therefore of great strength, to enable them, when pumped out by the steam-engine, to resist the lateral pressure of forty feet of water at high tide. The difficulty was, however, effectually overcome, and the wharf walls, locks, sills and bridges of the St. Katherine Docks are generally regarded as a master-piece of harbour construction. Alluding to the rapidity with which the works were completed, Mr. Telford says: "Seldom, indeed never within my knowledge, has there been an instance of an undertaking; of this magnitude, in a very confined situation, having been perfected in so short a time;.... but, as a practical engineer, responsible for the success of difficult operations, I must be allowed to protest against such haste, pregnant as it was, and ever will be, with risks, which, in more instances than one, severely taxed all my experience and skill, and dangerously involved the reputation of the directors as well as of their engineer."

Among the remaining bridges executed by Mr. Telford, towards the close of his professional career, may be mentioned those of Tewkesbury and Gloucester. The former town is situated on the Severn at its confluence with the river Avon, about eleven miles above Gloucester. The surrounding district was rich and populous; but being intersected by a large river, without a bridge, the inhabitants applied to Parliament for powers to provide so necessary a convenience. The design first proposed by a local architect was a bridge of three arches; but Mr. Telford, when called upon to advise the trustees, recommended that, in order to interrupt the navigation as little as possible, the river should be spanned by a single arch; and he submitted a design of such a character, which was approved and subsequently erected. It was finished and opened in April, 1826.

This is one of the largest as well as most graceful of Mr. Telford's numerous cast iron bridges. It has a single span of 170 feet, with a rise of only 17 feet, consisting of six ribs of about three feet three inches deep, the spandrels being filled in with light diagonal work. The narrow Gothic arches in the masonry of the abutments give the bridge a very light and graceful appearance, at the same time that they afford an enlarged passage for the high river floods.

The bridge at Gloucester consists of one large stone arch of 150 feet span. It replaced a structure of great antiquity, of eight arches, which had stood for about 600 years. The roadway over it was very narrow, and the number of piers in the river and the small dimensions of the arches offered considerable obstruction to the navigation. To give the largest amount of waterway, and at the same time reduce the gradient of the road over the bridge to the greatest extent, Mr. Telford adopted the following expedient. He made the general body of the arch an ellipse, 150 feet on the chord-line and 35 feet rise, while the voussoirs, or external archstones, being in the form of a segment, have the same chord, with only 13 feet rise. "This complex form," says Mr. Telford, "converts each side of the vault of the arch into the shape of the entrance of a pipe, to suit the contracted passage of a fluid, thus lessening the flat surface opposed to the current of the river whenever the tide or upland flood rises above the springing of the middle of the ellipse, that being at four feet above low water; whereas the flood of 1770 rose twenty feet above low water of an ordinary spring-tide, which, when there is no upland flood, rises only eight or nine feet."*[1] The bridge was finished and opened in 1828.

[Image] Dean Bridge, Edinburgh.

The last structures erected after our engineer's designs were at Edinburgh and Glasgow: his Dean Bridge at the former place, and his Jamaica Street Bridge at the latter, being regarded as among his most successful works. Since his employment as a journeyman mason at the building of the houses in Princes Street, Edinburgh, the New Town had spread in all directions. At each visit to it on his way to or from the Caledonian Canal or the northern harbours, he had been no less surprised than delighted at the architectural improvements which he found going forward. A new quarter had risen up during his lifetime, and had extended northward and westward in long lines of magnificent buildings of freestone, until in 1829 its further progress was checked by the deep ravine running along the back of the New Town, in the bottom of which runs the little Water of Leith. It was determined to throw a stone bridge across this stream, and Telford was called upon to supply the design. The point of crossing the valley was immediately behind Moray Place, which stands almost upon its verge, the sides being bold, rocky, and finely wooded. The situation was well adapted for a picturesque structure, such as Telford was well able to supply. The depth of the ravine to be spanned involved great height in the piers, the roadway being 106 feet above the level of the stream. The bridge was of four arches of 90 feet span each, and its total length 447 feet; the breadth between the parapets for the purposes of the roadway and footpaths being 39 feet.*[2] It was completed and opened in December, 1831.

But the most important, as it was the last, of Mr. Telford's stone bridges was that erected across the Clyde at the Broomielaw, Glasgow. Little more than fifty years since, the banks of the river at that place were literally covered with broom—and hence its name—while the stream was scarcely deep enough to float a herring-buss. Now, the Broomielaw is a quay frequented by ships of the largest burden, and bustling with trade and commerce. Skill and enterprise have deepened the Clyde, dredged away its shoals, built quays and wharves along its banks, and rendered it one of the busiest streams in the world,

It has become a great river thoroughfare, worked by steam. On its waters the first steamboat ever constructed for purposes of traffic in Europe was launched by Henry Bell in 1812; and the Clyde boats to this day enjoy the highest prestige.

The deepening of the river at the Broomielaw had led to a gradual undermining of the foundations of the old bridge, which was situated close to the principal landing-place. A little above it, was an ancient overfall weir, which had also contributed to scour away the foundations of the piers. Besides, the bridge was felt to be narrow, inconvenient, and ill-adapted for accommodating the immense traffic passing across the Clyde at that point. It was, therefore, determined to take down the old structure, and Build a new one; and Mr. Telford was called upon to supply the design. The foundation was laid with great ceremony on the 18th of March, 1833, and the new bridge was completed and opened on the 1st of January, 1836, rather more than a year after the engineer's death. It is a very fine work, consisting of seven arches, segments of circles, the central arch being 58 feet 6 inches; the span of the adjoining arches diminishing to 57 feet 9 inches, 55 feet 6 inches, and 52 feet respectively. It is 560 feet in length, with an open waterway of 389 feet, and its total width of carriageway and footpath is 60 feet, or wider, at the time it was built, than any river bridge in the kingdom.

[Image] Glasgow Bridge

Like most previous engineers of eminence—like Perry, Brindley, Smeaton, and Rennie—Mr. Telford was in the course of his life extensively employed in the drainage of the Fen districts. He had been jointly concerned with Mr. Rennie in carrying out the important works of the Eau Brink Cut, and at Mr. Rennie's death he succeeded to much of his practice as consulting engineer.

It was principally in designing and carrying out the drainage of the North Level that Mr. Telford distinguished himself in Fen drainage. The North Level includes all that part of the Great Bedford Level situated between Morton's Leam and the river Welland, comprising about 48,000 acres of land. The river Nene, which brings down from the interior the rainfall of almost the entire county of Northampton, flows through nearly the centre of the district. In some places the stream is confined by embankments, in others it flows along artificial outs, until it enters the great estuary of the Wash, about five miles below Wisbeach. This town is situated on another river which flows through the Level, called the Old Nene. Below the point of junction of these rivers with the Wash, and still more to seaward, was South Holland Sluice, through which the waters of the South Holland Drain entered the estuary. At that point a great mass of silt had accumulated, which tended to choke up the mouths of the rivers further inland, rendering their navigation difficult and precarious, and seriously interrupting the drainage of the whole lowland district traversed by both the Old and New Nene. Indeed the sands were accumulating at such a rate, that the outfall of the Wisbeach River threatened to become completely destroyed.

Such being the state of things, it was determined to take the opinion of some eminent engineer, and Mr. Rennie was employed to survey the district and recommend a measure for the remedy of these great evils. He performed this service in his usually careful and masterly manner; but as the method which he proposed, complete though it was, would have seriously interfered with the trade of Wisbeach, by leaving it out of the line of navigation and drainage which he proposed to open up, the corporation of that town determined to employ another engineer; and Mr Telford was selected to examine and report upon the whole subject, keeping in view the improvement of the river immediately adjacent to the town of Wisbeach.

Mr. Telford confirmed Mr. Rennie's views to a large extent, more especially with reference to the construction of an entirely new outfall, by making an artificial channel from Kindersleys Cut to Crab-Hole Eye anchorage, by which a level lower by nearly twelve feet would be secured for the outfall waters; but he preferred leaving the river open to the tide as high as Wisbeach, rather than place a lock with draw-doors at Lutton Leam Sluice, as had been proposed by Mr. Rennie. He also suggested that the acute angle at the Horseshoe be cut off and the river deepened up to the bridge at Wisbeach, making a new cut along the bank on the south side of the town, which should join the river again immediately above it, thereby converting the intermediate space, by draw-doors and the usual contrivances, into a floating dock. Though this plan was approved by the parties interested in the drainage, to Telford's great mortification it was opposed by the corporation of Wisbeach, and like so many other excellent schemes for the improvement of the Fen districts, it eventually fell to the ground.

The cutting of a new outfall for the river Nene, however, could not much longer be delayed without great danger to the reclaimed lands of the North Level, which, but for some relief of the kind, must shortly have become submerged and reduced to their original waste condition. The subject was revived in 1822, and Mr. Telford was again called upon, in conjunction with Sir John Rennie, whose father had died in the preceding year, to submit a plan of a new Nene Outfall; but it was not until the year 1827 that the necessary Act was obtained, and then only with great difficulty and cost, in consequence of the opposition of the town of Wisbeach. The works consisted principally of a deep cut or canal, about six miles in length, penetrating far through the sand banks into the deep waters of the Wash. They were begun in 1828, and brought to completion in 1830, with the most satisfactory results. A greatly improved outfall was secured by thus carrying. the mouths of the rivers out to sea, and the drainage of the important agricultural districts through which the Nene flows was greatly benefited; while at the same time nearly 6000 acres of valuable corn-growing land were added to the county of Lincoln.

But the opening of the Nene Outfall was only the first of a series of improvements which eventually included the whole of the valuable lands of the North Level, in the district situated between the Nene and the Welland. The opening at Gunthorpe Sluice, which was the outfall for the waters of the Holland Drain, was not less than eleven feet three inches above low water at Crab-Hole; and it was therefore obvious that by lowering this opening a vastly improved drainage of the whole of the level district, extending from twenty to thirty miles inland, for which that sluice was the artificial outlet, would immediately be secured. Urged by Mr. Telford, an Act for the purpose of carrying out the requisite improvement was obtained in 1830, and the excavations having been begun shortly after, were completed in 1834.

A new cut was made from Clow's Cross to Gunthorpe Sluice, in place of the winding course of the old Shire Drain; besides which, a bridge was erected at Cross Keys, or Sutton Wash, and an embankment was made across the Salt Marshes, forming a high road, which, with the bridges previously erected at Fossdyke and Lynn, effectually connected the counties of Norfolk and Lincoln. The result of the improved outfall was what the engineer had predicted. A thorough natural drainage was secured for an extensive district, embracing nearly a hundred thousand acres of fertile land, which had before been very ineffectually though expensively cleared of the surplus water by means of windmills and steam-engines. The productiveness of the soil was greatly increased, and the health and comfort of the inhabitants promoted to an extent that surpassed all previous expectation.

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