1757 – 1834
Thomas Telford (1757-1834), engineer whose works connected the United Kingdom, accelerating growth of trade and commerce
Telford was undoubtedly one of the greatest civil engineers of all time. His development of infrastructure in the Scottish Highlands created trade and wealth opportunities for what had been a remote and impoverished part of the nation. His works achieved more than treaties in creating a viable United Kingdom. Pontcsyllte Aqueduct was the supreme structural achievement of the canal age and "the most impressive work of art" ever seen by Sir Walter Scott. His cast-iron bridges such as Craigellachie reached unprecedented standards of economy and elegance. He took the art of bridge design to new levels, with the epoch-making Menai Suspension Bridge. His practical approach, underpinned with theoretical acuity (in advance of modern structural mechanics) and evidence through experimentation, earned him the respect of engineers worldwide. He was the obvious choice as first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a position he held for the last 14 years of his life.
1757 Born 9th August in Glendinning, Westerkirk, Dumfriesshire, son of a shepherd, John Telford and of Janet Jackson
1772 Age: 15 Apprenticed to a local stonemason, initially Lochmaben, then at Langholm
1787 Age: 30 Appointed Surveyor of Public Works, Shropshire
1790 Age: 33 Advised on improvements to Fishing Harbours in northern Scotland
1793 Age: 36 Appointed Engineer for the Ellesmere Canal, including Pontcsyllte Aqueduct
1801 Age: 44 Devised a masterplan for improving communications to the Scottish Highlands
1803 Age: 45 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 31st January
1803 Age: 46 Work began on the Caledonian Canal to Telford's design and under his supervision
1808 Age: 51 Appointed Engineer for the Gotha Canal, Sweden
1809 Age: 52 Awarded knighthood of the Swedish Order of Vasa
1815 Age: 58 Work began on Holyhead Road (London to Bangor)
1819 Age: 62 Designed the Menai Suspension bridge, longest span in the world when completed
1820 Age: 63 Appointed first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers
1821 Age: 64 Elected as a foreign member to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
1821 Age: 64 Labelled "The Colossus of Roads" by Robert Southey, later Poet Laureate
1824 Age: 67 Work began on St Katherine's Docks, London
1825 Age: 68 Work began on Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal
1827 Age: 70 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
1829 Age: 72 Work began on Dean Bridge, Edinburgh
1833 Age: 76 Work began on Broomielaw Bridge, Glasgow
1834 Age: 77 Died 2nd September. Buried in Westminster Abbey
Telford's greatest legacies are his many works of civil engineering still in use today, remarkable for their longevity and utility. Ellesmere Canal is now a World Heritage Site. Many of his canals, roads, bridges, docks, harbours, water supply schemes and even churches, remain in use some 200 years after their conception. He encouraged engineering excellence through the Institution of Civil Engineers, and his development of sound contract procedures greatly improved the governance and management of major engineering works. Telford new town is named after him.
Life of Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer, J Rickman (ed) (1838);
Review of Life of Thomas Telford, R Southey, Quarterly Review, Jan-Mar 1839
Lives of the Engineers, S Smiles (1861);
The Story of Telford, Sir A Gibb (1935);
Thomas Telford, LTC Rolt (1958);
Thomas Telford: Engineer, AE Penfold (ed) (1980);
Thomas Telford in Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain & Ireland (2002).
The Industrial Archaeology of Scotland - 2 - The Highlands and Islands Hume JR (1977) London
Telford Collection, Ironbridge;
Telford mss in: ICE archives; PRO; National Archives Scotland.
Statue outside civic centre in Telford new town
Statue by EH Baily erected in 1839 in St Andrew's Chapel, Westminster Abbey.
Thomas Telford Memorial, Bentpath, erected 1928, listed 1971 (relocated 1979)
A cairn with plaque at Glendinning is close to Telford's birthplace.
There are 11 portraits of Thomas Telford held in the National Portrait Gallery
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)