Telford's Menai Bridge.

Telford's Menai Bridge.

Thomas Telford

1757 – 1834

Thomas Telford

Civil engineer whose works connected the United Kingdom, accelerating growth of trade and commerce

Engineering Achievements

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.

His Life

  1. 1757 Born 9th August in Glendinning, Westerkirk, Dumfriesshire, son of a shepherd, John Telford and of Janet Jackson
  2. 1772 Age: 15 Apprenticed to a local stonemason, initially Lochmaben, then at Langholm
  3. 1787 Age: 30 Appointed Surveyor of Public Works, Shropshire
  4. 1790 Age: 33 Advised on improvements to Fishing Harbours in northern Scotland
  5. 1793 Age: 36 Appointed Engineer for the Ellesmere Canal, including Pontcsyllte Aqueduct
  6. 1801 Age: 44 Devised a masterplan for improving communications to the Scottish Highlands
  7. 1803 Age: 45 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 31st January
  8. 1803 Age: 46 Work began on the Caledonian Canal to Telford's design and under his supervision
  9. 1808 Age: 51 Appointed Engineer for the Gotha Canal, Sweden
  10. 1809 Age: 52 Awarded knighthood of the Swedish Order of Vasa
  11. 1815 Age: 58 Work began on Holyhead Road (London to Bangor)
  12. 1819 Age: 62 Designed the Menai Suspension bridge, longest span in the world when completed
  13. 1820 Age: 63 Appointed first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers
  14. 1821 Age: 64 Elected as a foreign member to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  15. 1821 Age: 64 Labelled "The Colossus of Roads" by Robert Southey, later Poet Laureate
  16. 1824 Age: 67 Work began on St Katherine's Docks, London
  17. 1825 Age: 68 Work began on Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal
  18. 1827 Age: 70 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
  19. 1829 Age: 72 Work began on Dean Bridge, Edinburgh
  20. 1833 Age: 76 Work began on Broomielaw Bridge, Glasgow
  21. 1834 Age: 77 Died 2nd September. Buried in Westminster Abbey

His Legacy

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.

More Information

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)

His name is on one of 19 commemorative plaques to Civil Engineers (4 of them Scottish) fixed to the Dept of Civil Engineering Skempton Building of Imperial College, London.

Telford at Bannockburn

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