Main Index | Thomas Telford Topics Index

            Thomas Telford
               1757 - 1834

From this text an idea may be formed of the extraordinary progress which has been made in opening up the internal communications of this country during the last century.

Among the principal works executed by Telford in the course of his life, were the great highways constructed by him in North Wales and the Scottish Highlands, through districts formerly almost inaccessible, but which are now as easily traversed as any English county.

By means of these roads, and the facilities afforded by railways, the many are now enabled to visit with ease and comfort magnificent mountain scenery, which before was only the costly privilege of the few, at the same time that their construction has exercised a most beneficial influence on the population of the districts themselves.

The Highland roads, which were constructed with the active assistance of the Government, and were maintained partly at the public expense until within the last few years, had the effect of stimulating industry, improving agriculture, and converting a turbulent unemployed population into one of the most loyal and well-conditioned in the empire, the policy thus adopted with reference to the Highlands, and the beneficial results which have flowed from it, affording the strongest encouragement to Government in dealing in like manner with the internal communications of Ireland.

While the construction of the Highland roads was in progress, the late Robert Southey, poet laureate, visited the Highlands in company with his friend the engineer, and left on record an interesting account of his visit, in a manuscript now in the possession of Robert Rawlinson, C.E.

Thomas Telford was born in a little known village called Bentpath, in the valley of Eskdale, which lies in the eastern part of the county of Dumfriesshire in Scotland. Eskdale runs north and south, its lower end having been in former times the western march of the Scottish border. Near the entrance to Eskdale is a tall obelisk known locally as the 'Monument', erected on Whita Hill it is a memorial to Sir John Malcolm a former Governor of Bombay and one of the distinguished natives of the district. It looks far over the English borderlands which stretch away towards the south and marks the entrance to the hills of Eskdale which lie to the north. From that point upwards the valley gradually contracts, the road winding along the river's banks high above the river Esk that rushes swiftly over the rocky bed below.

A few miles upward from the lower end of Eskdale lies the town of Langholm and therein the Thomas Telford Library Garden stands another monument to the virtues of the Malcolm family in the statue erected to the memory of Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, a distinguished naval officer. Above Langholm the country becomes more hilly and moorland. In many places only a narrow strip of land by the river's side is left, until at length Eskdale contracts so much that the hills descend to the very road and there are only to be seen their steep heathery sides sloping up towards the sky on either side, and a small stream splashing and winding along the bottom of the valley.

Telford's Native District

From this brief description of the character of Eskdale scenery it may readily be supposed that the district is very thinly populated and that it never could have been capable of supporting a large number of inhabitants. Indeed previous to the union of the crowns of England and Scotland the principal branch of industry that existed in Eskdale was of a lawless kind. The people living on the two sides of the border looked upon each other's cattle as their own provided only they had the strength to "lift" them. They were in truth even during the time of peace kind of outcasts against whom the united powers of England and Scotland were often employed.

On the Scottish side of the Esk were the Johnstones and Armstrongs and on the English the Graemes of Netherby all clans being alike wild and lawless. It was a popular border saying that "Elliots and Armstrongs ride thieves a'" and an old historian says of the Graemes that "they were all stark moss troopers and errant thieves to England as well as Scotland outlawed." The neighbouring chiefs were no better: Scott of Buccleuch from whom the modern Duke is descended, and Scott of Harden the ancestor of the novelist being both renowned free-booters.

There stands at this day on the banks of the Esk only a few miles from the English border the ruin of an old pele tower called Gilnockie Tower in a situation which in point of natural beauty is scarcely equalled even in Scotland. It was the stronghold of a chief popularly known in his day as Johnnie Armstrong. He was a mighty reiver in the time of James V and the terror of his name is said to have extended as far as Newcastle-upon-Tyne, between which town and his stronghold on the Esk he was accustomed to levy blackmail or "protection and forbearance money" as it was called.

The King however determining to put down by the strong hand the depredations of the march men made a sudden expedition along the borders and Johnnie Armstrong having been so ill-advised as to make his appearance with his followers at a place called Carlenrig in Ettrick Forest between Hawick and Langholm, James ordered him to be executed. Had Johnnie Armstrong, like the Scotts and Kers and Johnstones of like calling been imprisoned before, he might possibly have lived to found a British peerage, but as it was the might of the Armstrong dynasty was for a time extinguished, only however to reappear after the lapse of a few centuries in the person of the engineer of Newcastle-upon-Tyne who invented the Armstrong gun.

The two centuries and a half which have elapsed since then have indeed seen extraordinary changes. The energy which the old borderers threw into their feuds has not become extinct but survives under more constructive aspects exhibiting itself in efforts to enlighten fertilize and enrich the country which their wasteful ardour before did so much to disturb and impoverish. The heads of the Buccleuch and Elliot family now sit in the British House of Lords. The descendant of Scott of Harden has achieved a world-wide reputation as a poet and novelist and the late Sir James Graham the representative of the Graemes of Netherby on the English side of the border was one of the most venerable and respected of British statesmen.

The border men who used to make such furious raids and forays have now come to regard each other across the imaginary line which divides them as friends and neighbours and they meet as competitors for victory only at agricultural meetings where they strive to win prizes for the biggest turnips or the most effective ploughing-machines while the men who followed their Johnstone or Armstrong chiefs to the fray have like Telford crossed the border with powers of road-making and bridge-building which have proved a source of increased civilization and wellbeing to the population of the entire United Kingdom.

The hamlet of Westerkirk with its parish church and school lies in a narrow part of the valley a few miles above Langholm. Westerkirk parish is long and narrow its boundaries being the hill-tops on either side of the dale. It is about seven miles long and two broad with a population of about 600 persons of all ages. Yet this number is quite as much as the district is able to support as is proved by its remaining as nearly as possible stationary from one generation to another.

But what becomes of the natural increase of families? "They swarm off!" was the explanation given out by a native of the valley. "If they remained at home, we should all be sunk in poverty scrambling with each other amongst these hills for a bare living, but our peasantry have a spirit above that they will not consent to sink they look up and our parish schools give them a power of making their way in the world each man for himself. So they swarm off some to America some to Australia some to India and some like Telford work their way across the border and down to London."

One would scarcely have expected to find the birthplace of the builder of the Menai Bridge and other great national works in so obscure a corner of the kingdom. Possibly it may already have struck the reader with surprise that not only were all the early engineers self-taught in their profession but they were brought up mostly in remote country places far from the active life of great towns and cities. But genius is of no locality and springs alike from the farmhouse the peasant's hut or the herd's shieling.

Glendinning farm c1830
       Glendinning farm c1830
Crook's cottage
     Crooks cottage mid 1800's
Strange indeed it is that the men who have built our bridges docks lighthouses canals and railways should nearly all have been country-bred boys: Edwards and Brindley the sons of small farmers, Smeaton brought up in his father's country house at Austhorpe, Rennie the son of a farmer and freeholder, and Stephenson reared in a colliery village an engine-tender's son. But Telford even more than any of these was a purely country-bred boy and was born and brought up in a valley so secluded that it could not even boast of a cluster of houses of the dimensions of a village. Telford's father was a herd on the sheep-farm of Glendinning. The farm consists of green hills lying along the valley of the Meggat a little burn which descends from the moorlands on the east and falls into the Esk near the hamlet of Westerkirk, known as Bentpath.
John Telford's cottage was little better than a shieling consisting of four mud walls spanned by a thatched roof. It stood upon a knoll near the lower end of a gully worn in the hillside by the torrents of many winters. The ground stretches away from it in a long sweeping slope up to the sky and is green to the top except where the bare grey rocks in some places crop out to the day. From the knoll may be seen miles of hills up and down the valley winding in and out sometimes branching off into smaller glens each with its gurgling rivulet of peaty water flowing down from the mosses above. Only a narrow strip of arable land is here and there visible along the bottom of the dale all above being sheep pasture moors and rocks. At Glendinning you seem to have got almost to the world's end. There the road ceases and above it stretch trackless moors the solitude of which is broken only by the whimpling sound of the burns on their way to the valley below the hum of bees gathering honey among the heather the whirr of a blackcock on the wing the plaintive cry of the ewes at lambing time or the sharp bark of the shepherd's dog gathering the flock together for the fauld.

Telford's Birthplace
In Crooks cottage on the knoll, Thomas Telford was born on the 9th of August 1757 and before the year was out he was already an orphan. The shepherd, his father died in the month of November and was buried in Westerkirk churchyard leaving behind him his widow and her only child altogether unprovided for. It is worthy of mention that one of the first things which that child did when he had grown up to manhood and could "cut a headstone" was to erect one with the following inscription hewn and lettered by himself over his father's grave:







a simple but poetical epitaph which Wordsworth himself might have written.

The widow had a long and hard struggle with the world before her, but she met it bravely. She had her boy to work for and destitute though she was, she had him to educate. She was helped as the poor so often are by those of her own condition and there is no sense of degradation in receiving such help. One of the risks of benevolence is its tendency to lower the recipient to the condition of an alms-taker. Doles from poor-boxes have this enfeebling effect, but a poor neighbour giving a destitute widow a help in her time of need is felt to be a friendly act.

Though misery such as is witnessed in large towns was quite unknown in the valley, there was poverty but it was honest as well as hopeful and none felt ashamed of it. The farmers of the dale were very primitive in their manners and habits being a warm-hearted, though by no means a demonstrative race, they were kind to the widow and her fatherless boy. They took him by turns to live with them at their houses and gave his mother occasional employment. In summer she milked the ewes and made hay, in harvest she went shearing, determined not only to live but to be cheerful.

The house to which the widow and her son removed at the Whitsuntide following the death of her husband was at a place called the Crooks, about midway between Glendinning and Westerkirk. It was a thatched cottage with two ends, in one of which lived Janet Telford (more commonly known by Janet Jackson) and her son Tom, and in the other her neighbour Elliot one door common to both.

Crooks Cottage
Young Telford grew up a healthy boy and he was so full of fun and humour that he became known in the valley by the name of "Laughing Tam." When he was old enough to herd sheep he went to live with a relative, a shepherd, and he spent most of his time with him in summer on the hillside amidst the silence of nature. In winter he lived with one or other of the neighbouring farmers. He herded their cows or ran errands receiving for payment, meat, a pair of stockings and five shillings a year for clogs. These were his first wages and as he grew older they were gradually increased.

Tom must now be put to school, and happily, small though the parish of Westerkirk was, it possessed the advantage of that admirable institution, the parish school. The legal provision made at an early period for the education of the people in Scotland proved one of their greatest boons. By imparting the rudiments of knowledge to all the parish schools of the country placed the children of the peasantry on an equal footing with the children of the rich and to that extent redressed the inequalities of fortune.

To start a poor boy on the road of life without instruction is like starting one on a race with his eyes bandaged or his leg tied up. Compared with the educated son of the rich man the former has but little chance of sighting the winning post. To our orphan boy the merely elementary teaching provided at the parish school of Westerkirk was an immense boon. To master this was the first step of the ladder he was afterwards to mount his own industry energy and ability must do the rest. To school accordingly he went still working in the field or herding cattle during the summer months. Perhaps his own 'penny fee' helped to pay the teacher's hire but it is supposed that his cousin Jackson defrayed the principal part of the expense of his instruction. It was not much that he learnt but in acquiring the arts of reading writing and figures he learnt the beginnings of a great deal.

Apart from the question of learning there was another advantage to the poor boy in mixing freely at the parish school with the sons of the neighbouring farmers and proprietors. Such intercourse has an influence upon a youth's temper manners and tastes which is quite as important in the education of character as the lessons of the master himself and Telford often in after life referred with pleasure to the benefits which he had derived from his early school days. Among those to whom he was accustomed to look back with most pride were the two elder brothers of the Malcolm family.

Both of them rose to high rank in the service of their country, William Telford, a naval surgeon who died young and the brothers William and Andrew Little, the former of whom settled down as a farmer in Eskdale and the latter a surgeon lost his eyesight when on service off the coast of Africa. Andrew Little afterwards established himself as a teacher at Langholm where he educated amongst others, General Sir Charles Pasley, Doctor Irving the Custodian of the Advocate's Library at Edinburgh, and others known to fame beyond the bounds of their native valley.

Well might Telford say when an old man full of years and honours on sitting down to write his autobiography "I still recollect with pride and pleasure my native parish of Westerkirk on the banks of the Esk where I was born."

An artist's impression of Westerkirk church and Bentpath bridge in 1736        Westerkirk Church and School

It was a long time before the Reformation flowed into the secluded valley of the Esk but when it did the energy of the Borderers displayed itself in the extreme form of their opposition to the old religion. The Eskdale people became as resolute in their covenanting as they had before been in their free-booting the moorland fastnesses of the moss troopers becoming the haunts of the persecuted ministers in the reign of the second James. A little above Langholm is a hill known as 'Peden's View' and the well in the green hollow at its foot is still called 'Peden's Well' that place having been the haunt of Alexander Peden the "prophet."

His hiding place was among the alder bushes in the hollow while from the hilltop he could look up the valley and see whether the Johnstones of Wester Hall were coming. Quite at the head of the same valley at a place called Craighaugh on Eskdale Muir one Hislop a young covenanter was shot by Johnstone's men and buried where he fell, a gray slabstone still marking the place of his rest. Since that time however quiet has reigned in Eskdale and its small population have gone about their daily industry from one generation to another in peace.

Yet though secluded and apparently shut out by the surrounding hills from the outer world there is not a throb of the nation's heart but pulsates along the valley and when a visit was made some years since it was found that a wave of the great Volunteer movement had flowed into Eskdale and the "lads of Langholm" were drilling and marching under their chief young Mr Malcolm of the Burnfoot with even more zeal than in the populous towns and cities of the south.

The names of the families in the valley remain very nearly the same as they were three hundred years ago the Johnstones, Littles, Scotts, and Beatties prevailing above Langholm, and the Armstrongs, Bells, Irwins, and Graemes lower down towards Canobie and Netherby. One Common Thift when sentenced to condign punishment thus remembers his Border friends in his dying speech:

"Adew! my bruther Annan thieves
That holpit me in my mischeivis
Adew! Grosaws Niksonis and Bells
Oft have we fairne owrthreuch the fells.

Adew! Robsons Howis and Pylis
That in our craft hes mony wilis
Littlis Trumbells and Armestranges
Baileowes Erewynis and Elwandis
Speedy of flicht and slicht of handis
The Scotts of Eisdale and the Gramis
I haf na time to tell your name is."

Learns Trade of Stonemason
The time arrived when young Telford must be put to some regular calling. Was he to be a shepherd like his father and his uncle or was he to be a farm labourer or put apprentice to a trade? There was not much choice, but at length it was determined to bind him to a stonemason. In Eskdale that trade was for the most part confined to the building of drystone walls and there was very little more art employed in it than an ordinarily neat-handed labourer could manage.

It was eventually decided to send the youth who was now a strong lad of about fifteen to a mason at Lochmaben a small town across the hills to the west where a little more building work of a better sort such as of farmhouses barns and road bridges was carried on than in his own immediate neighbourhood. There he remained only a few months for his master used him badly the high-spirited youth wouldn't put up with it and ran away taking refuge with his mother at the Crooks very much to her dismay.

What was now to be done with Tom? He was willing to do anything or go anywhere rather than back to his Lochmaben master. In this emergency his cousin Thomas Jackson the factor or land steward at Wester Hall offered to do what he could to induce Andrew Thomson a small mason at Langholm to take Telford for the remainder of his apprenticeship and to him he went accordingly. The business carried on by his new master was of a very humble sort. Telford in his autobiography states that most of the farmers' houses in the district then consisted of 'one storey of mud walls or rubble stones bedded in clay and thatched with straw rushes or heather the floors being of earth and the fire in the middle having a plastered creel chimney for the escape of the smoke while instead of windows small openings in the thick mud walls admitted a scanty light." The farm buildings were of a similarly wretched description.

The principal owner of the landed property in the neighbourhood was the Duke of Buccleuch. Shortly after the young Duke Henry succeeded to the title and estates in 1767 he introduced considerable improvements in the farmers' houses and farm steadings and the peasants' dwellings as well as in the roads throughout Eskdale. Thus a demand sprang up for masons' labour and Telford's master had no want of regular employment for his hands. Telford profited by the experience which this increase in the building operations of the neighbourhood gave him being employed in raising rough walls and farm enclosures as well as in erecting bridges across rivers wherever regular roads for wheel carriages were substituted for the horse tracks formerly in use.

During the greater part of his apprenticeship Telford lived in the little town of Langholm taking frequent opportunities of visiting his mother at the Crooks on Saturday evenings and accompanying her to the parish church of Westerkirk on Sundays. Langholm was then a very poor place being no better in that respect than the district that surrounded it. It consisted chiefly of mud hovels covered with thatch the principal building in it being the Tolbooth a stone and lime structure the upper part of which was used as a justice hall and the lower part as a gaol.

There were however a few good houses in the little town occupied by people of the better class and in one of these lived an elderly lady Miss Pasley one of the family of the Pasleys of Craig. As the town was so small that everybody in it knew everybody else the ruddy-cheeked laughing mason's apprentice soon became generally known to all the townspeople and amongst others to Miss Pasley. When she heard that he was the poor orphan boy from up the valley the son of the hard working widow woman Janet Jackson so "eident" and so industrious her heart warmed to the mason's apprentice and she sent for him to her house.

That was a proud day for Tom and when he called upon her he was not more pleased with Miss Pasley's kindness than delighted at the sight of her little library of books which contained more volumes than he had ever seen before. Having by this time acquired a strong taste for reading and exhausted all the little book stores of his friends the joy of the young mason may be imagined when Miss Pasley volunteered to lend him some books from her own library. Of course he eagerly and thankfully availed himself of the privilege, and thus while working as an apprentice and afterwards as a journeyman Telford gathered his first knowledge of British literature in which he was accustomed to the close of his life to take such pleasure.

He almost always had some book with him which he would snatch a few minutes to read in the intervals of his work and on winter evenings he occupied his spare time in poring over such volumes as came his way usually with no better light than the cottage fire. On one occasion Miss Pasley lent him 'Paradise Lost' and he took the book with him to the hillside to read. His delight was such that it fairly taxed his powers of expression to describe it. He could only say, "I read and read and glowred then read and read again." He was also a great admirer of Burns whose writings so inflamed his mind that at the age of twenty-two when barely out of his apprenticeship we find the young mason actually breaking out in verse.

By diligently reading all the books that he could borrow from friends and neighbours Telford made considerable progress in his learning and what with his scribbling of 'poetry' and various attempts at composition he had become so good and legible a writer that he was often called upon by his less educated acquaintances to pen letters for them to their distant friends. He was always willing to help them in this way, and the other working people of the town making use of his services in the same manner all the little domestic and family histories of the place soon became familiar to him.

One evening a Langholm man asked Tom to write a letter for him to his son in England, and when the young scribe read over what had been written to the old man's dictation the latter at the end of almost every sentence exclaimed "Capital! capital!" and at the close he said " Well! I declare Tom! Werricht himsel' couldna ha' written a better!" Wright being a well-known lawyer or "writer" in Langholm.

Journeyman at Langholm
His apprenticeship over Telford went on working as a journeyman at Langholm, his wages at the time being only eighteen pence a day. What was called the New Town was then in course of erection and there are houses still pointed out, in it the walls of which Telford helped to put together. In the town are three arched door heads of a more ornamental character than the rest of Telford's hewing, for he was already beginning to set up his pretensions as a craftsman and took pride in pointing to the superior handiwork which proceeded from his chisel.

About the same time the bridge connecting the Old with the New Town was built across the Esk at Langholm and upon that structure he was also employed. Many of the stones in it were hewn by his hand and on several of the blocks forming the land-breast his tool mark is still to be seen. Not long after the bridge was finished an unusually high flood or spate swept down the valley. The Esk was "roaring red frae bank to brae" and it was generally feared that the new brig would be carried away. Robin Hotson the master mason was from home at the time and his wife Tibby knowing that he was bound by his contract to maintain the fabric for a period of seven years was in a state of great alarm.

She ran from one person to another wringing her hands and sobbing "Oh! we'll be ruined we'll a' be ruined!". In her distress she thought of Telford in whom she had great confidence and called out "Oh! where's Tammy Telfer where's Tammy?" He was immediately sent for it was evening and he was soon found at the house of Miss Pasley. When he came running up Tibby exclaimed "Oh Tammy! they've been on the brig and they say its shakin'! It 'll be doon!" "Never you heed them Tibby", said Telford clapping her on the shoulder "there's nae fear o' the brig I like it a' the better that it shakes it proves its weel put thegither." Tibby's fears however were not so easily allayed and insisting that she heard the brig 'rumlin' she ran up so the neighbours afterwards used to say of her "and set her back against the parapet to hold it together". At this it is said 'Tam bodged and leuch' and Tibby observing how easily he took it at length grew more calm. It soon became clear enough that the bridge was sufficiently strong for the flood subsided without doing it any harm and it has stood the furious spates of over a century uninjured.

Telford acquired considerable general experience as a house-builder though the structures on which he was engaged were of a humble order being chiefly small farmhouses on the Duke of Buccleuch's estate with the usual out-buildings. Perhaps the most important of the jobs on which he was employed was the manse of Westerkirk where he was comparatively at home. The hamlet stands on a green hillside a little below the entrance to the valley of the Meggat. It consists of the kirk the minister's manse the parish-school and a few cottages every occupant of which was known to Telford. It is backed by the purple moors up which he loved to wander in his leisure hours and read the poems of Fergusson and Burns. The river Esk gurgles along its rocky bed in the bottom of the dale separated from the kirkyard by a steep bank covered with natural wood while near at hand behind the manse stretch the fine woods of Wester Hall where Telford was often wont to roam.

Valley of Eskdale
We can scarcely therefore wonder that amidst such pastoral scenery and reading such books as he did the poetic faculty of the country mason should have become so decidedly developed. It was while working at Westerkirk manse that he sketched the first draft of his descriptive poem entitled 'Eskdale' which was published in the 'Poetical Museum' in 1784. These early poetical efforts were at least useful in stimulating his self-education. For the practice of poetical composition while it cultivates the sentiment of beauty in thought and feeling is probably the best of all exercises in the art of writing correctly grammatically and expressively. By drawing a man out of his ordinary calling too it often furnishes him with a power of happy thinking which may in after life become a source of the purest pleasure and this we believe proved to be the case with Telford even though he ceased in later years to pursue the special cultivation of the art.

Shortly after when work became slack in the district Telford undertook to do small jobs on his own account such as the hewing of gravestones and ornamental doorheads. He prided himself especially upon his hewing and from the specimens of his workmanship which are still to be seen in the churchyards of Langholm and Westerkirk he had evidently attained considerable skill. On some of these pieces of masonry the year is carved 1779 or 1780. One of the most ornamental is that set into the wall of Westerkirk church being a monumental slab with an inscription and moulding surmounted by a coat of arms to the memory of James Pasley of Craig.

Telford had now learnt all that his native valley could teach him of the art of masonry and bent upon self-improvement and gaining a larger experience of life as well as knowledge of his trade he determined to seek employment elsewhere. He accordingly left Eskdale for the first time in 1780 and sought work in Edinburgh where the New Town was then in course of erection on the elevated land formerly green fields extending along the north bank of the 'Nor' Loch. A bridge had been thrown across the Loch in 1769 the stagnant pond or marsh in the hollow had been filled up and Princes Street was rising as if by magic. Skilled masons were in great demand for the purpose of carrying out these and the numerous other architectural improvements which were in progress and Telford had no difficulty in obtaining employment.

Our stone mason remained at Edinburgh for about two years during which he had the advantage of taking part in first-rate work and maintaining himself comfortably while he devoted much of his spare time to drawing in its application to architecture. He took the opportunity of visiting and carefully studying the fine specimens of ancient work at Holyrood House and Chapel the Castle Heriot's Hospital and the numerous curious illustrations of middle age domestic architecture with which the Old Town abounds. He also made several journeys to the beautiful old chapel of Rosslyn situated some miles to the south of Edinburgh making careful drawings of the more important parts of that building.

When he had thus improved himself 'and studied all that was to be seen in Edinburgh in returning to the western border' he says " I visited the justly celebrated Abbey of Melrose." There he was charmed by the delicate and perfect workmanship still visible even in the ruins of that fine old Abbey, and with his folio filled with sketches and drawings he made his way back to Eskdale and the humble cottage at the Crooks but not to remain there long. He merely wished to pay a parting visit to his mother and other relatives before starting upon a longer journey. 'Having acquired' he says in his autobiography "the rudiments of my profession I considered that my native country afforded few opportunities of exercising it to any extent and therefore judged it advisable to proceed southward where industry might find more employment and be better remunerated".

Before setting out he called upon all his old friends and acquaintances in the dale, the neighbouring farmers who befriended him and his mother when struggling with poverty, his schoolfellows many of whom were preparing to migrate from their native valley, many friends and acquaintances he had made while working as a mason in Langholm. Everybody knew that Tom was going south and all wished him God speed. At length the farewells were over and he set out for London in 1782 when twenty-five years old. He had like the little river Meggat on the banks of which he was born floated gradually on towards the outer world first from the nook in the valley to Westerkirk school then to Langholm and its little circle, and now like the Meggat which flows with the Esk into the ocean he was about to be borne away into the wide world. Telford however had confidence in himself and no one had fears for him. As the neighbours said wisely wagging their heads "Ah he's an auld-farran chap is Tam he'll either mak a spoon or spoil a horn anyhow he's gatten a good trade at his fingers' ends".

Telford had made all his previous journeys on foot but this one he made on horseback. It happened that Sir James Johnstone the laird of Wester Hall had occasion to send a horse from Eskdale to a member of his family in London and he had some difficulty in finding a person to take charge of it. It occurred to Mr Jackson the laird's factor that this was a capital opportunity for his cousin Tom the mason, and it was accordingly arranged that he should ride the horse to town. When a boy he had learnt rough riding sufficiently well for the purpose, and the better to fit him for the hardships of the road Mr Jackson lent him his buckskin breeches. Thus Tom set out from his native valley well mounted with his little bundle of 'traps' buckled behind him and after a prosperous journey duly reached London and delivered up the horse as he had been directed. Long after Mr Jackson used to tell the story of his cousin's first ride to London with great glee and he always took care to wind up with "but Tam forgot to send me back my breeks!"

Telford's Mason's mark   A Working Mason in London

A common working man whose sole property consisted of his mallet and chisels, his leather apron and his industry might not seem to amount to much in 'the great world of London.' But as Telford afterwards used to say very much depends on whether the man has got a head with brains in it of the right sort upon his shoulders. In London the weak man is simply a unit added to the vast floating crowd and may be driven hither and thither if he do not sink altogether, while the strong man will strike out keep his head above water and make a course for himself as Telford did. There is indeed a wonderful impartiality about London.

There the capable person usually finds his place. When work of importance is required nobody cares to ask where the man who can do it best comes from or what he has been but what he is and what he can do. Nor did it ever stand in Telford's way that his father had been a poor shepherd in Eskdale and that he himself had begun his London career by working for weekly wages with a mallet and chisel.

After duly delivering up the horse Telford proceeded to present a letter with which he had been charged by his friend Miss Pasley on leaving Langholm. It was addressed to her brother Mr John Pasley an eminent London merchant brother also of Sir Thomas Pasley and uncle of the Malcolms. Miss Pasley requested his influence on behalf of the young mason from Eskdale the bearer of the letter. Mr Pasley received his countryman kindly and furnished him with letters of introduction to Sir William Chambers the architect of Somerset House then in course of erection. It was the finest architectural work in progress in the metropolis and Telford desirous of improving himself by experience of the best kind wished to be employed upon it. He did not indeed need any influence to obtain work there for good hewers were in demand, but our mason thought it well to make sure and accordingly provided himself beforehand with the letter of introduction to the architect. He was employed immediately and set to work among the hewers receiving the usual wages for his labour.

Mr Pasley also furnished him with a letter to Mr Robert Adam another distinguished architect of the time and Telford seems to have been much gratified by the civility which he receives from him. Sir William Chambers he found haughty and reserved probably being too much occupied to bestow attention on the Somerset House hewer while he found Adam to be affable and communicative. "Although I derived no direct advantage from either" Telford says "yet so powerful his manner that the latter left the most favourable impression, while the interviews with both convinced me that my safest plan was to endeavour to advance if by slower steps yet by independent conduct."

There was a good deal of fine hewer's work about Somerset House and from the first Telford aimed at taking the highest place as an artist and tradesman in that line. Diligence carefulness and observation will always carry a man onward and upward and before long we find that Telford had succeeded in advancing himself to the rank of a first-class mason. Judging from his letters written about this time to his friends in Eskdale he seems to have been very cheerful and happy and his greatest pleasure was in calling up recollections of his native valley. He was full of kind remembrances for everybody. "How is Andrew and Sandy and Aleck and Davie?" he would say and "remember me to all the folk of the nook."

He seems to have made a round of the persons from Eskdale in or about London before he wrote as his letters were full of messages from them to their friends at home for in those days postage was dear and as much as possible was necessarily packed within the compass of a working man's letter. In one written after more than a year's absence he said he envied the visit which a young surgeon of his acquaintance was about to pay to the valley "for the meeting of long absent friends" he added "is a pleasure to be equalled by few other enjoyments here below."

He had now been more than a year in London during which he had acquired much practical information both in the useful and ornamental branches of architecture. Was he to go on as a working mason? or what was his next move? He had been quietly making observations upon his companions and had come to the conclusion that they very much wanted spirit and more than all forethought. He found very clever workmen about him with no idea whatever beyond their week's wages. For these they would make every effort: they would work hard exert themselves to keep their earnings up to the highest point and very readily 'strike' to secure an advance but as for making a provision for the next week or the next year he thought them exceedingly thoughtless. On the Monday mornings they began 'clean' and on Saturdays their week's earnings were spent. Thus they lived from one week to another their limited notion of 'the week' seeming to bound their existence.

Telford on the other hand looked upon the week as only one of the storeys of a building and upon the succession of weeks running on through years he thought that the complete life structure should be built up. He thus describes one of the best of his fellow workmen at that time the only individual he had formed an intimacy with. "He has been six years at Somerset House and is esteemed the finest workman in London and consequently in England. He works equally in stone and marble. He has excelled the professed carvers in cutting Corinthian capitals and other ornaments about this edifice many of which will stand as a monument to his honour. He understands drawing thoroughly and the master he works under looks on him as the principal support of his business. This man whose name is Mr Hatton may be half a dozen years older than myself at most. He is honesty and good nature itself and is adored by both his master and fellow workmen. Notwithstanding his extraordinary skill and abilities he has been working all this time as a common journeyman contented with a few shillings a week more than the rest but I believe your uneasy friend has kindled a spark in his breast that he never felt before."

In fact Telford had formed the intention of inducing this admirable fellow to join him in commencing business as builders on their own account."There is nothing done in stone or marble" he says "that we cannot do in the completest manner." Mr Robert Adam to whom the scheme was mentioned promised his support and said he would do all in his power to recommend them but the great difficulty was money which neither of them possessed and Telford with grief admitting that this was an 'insuperable bar' went no further with the scheme.

About this time Telford was consulted by Mr Pulteney respecting the alterations making in the mansion at Wester Hall and was often with him on this business. We find him also writing down to Langholm for the prices of roofing masonry and timber-work with a view to preparing estimates for a friend who was building a house in that neighbourhood. Although determined to reach the highest excellence as a manual worker it is clear that he was already aspiring to be something more. His steadiness perseverance and general ability pointed him out as one well worthy of promotion.

Surveyor for Salop
Mr Pulteney member for Shrewsbury was the owner of extensive estates in that neighbourhood by virtue of his marriage with the niece of the last Earl of Bath. Having resolved to fit up the Castle there as a residence he bethought him of the young Eskdale mason who had some years before advised him as to the repairs of the Johnstone mansion at Wester Hall. Telford was soon found and engaged to go down to Shrewsbury to superintend the necessary alterations. Their execution occupied his attention for some time and during their progress he was so fortunate as to obtain the appointment of Surveyor of Public Works for the county of Salop otherwise known as Shropshire most probably through the influence of his patron. Indeed Telford was known to be so great a favourite with Mr Pulteney that at Shrewsbury he usually went by the name of "Young Pulteney."

Much of his attention was from this time occupied with the surveys and repairs of roads bridges and gaols and the supervision of all public buildings under the control of the magistrates of the county. He was also frequently called upon by the corporation of the borough of Shrewsbury to furnish plans for the improvement of the streets and buildings of that fine old town and many alterations were carried out under his direction during the period of his residence there.

While the Castle repairs were in course of execution, Telford was called upon by the justices to superintend the erection of a new gaol, the plans had already been prepared and settled. The benevolent Howard who devoted himself to gaol improvement, on hearing of the intentions of the magistrates, made a visit to Shrewsbury for the purpose of examining the plans and the circumstance is thus adverted to by Telford in one of his letters to his Eskdale correspondent "About ten days ago I had a visit from the celebrated John Howard Esq. I say I, for he was on his tour of gaols and infirmaries, and those of Shrewsbury being both under my direction, this was of course the cause of my being thus distinguished. I accompanied him through the infirmary and the gaol.

I showed him the plans of the proposed new buildings and had much conversation with him on both subjects. In consequence of his suggestions as to the former I have revised and amended the plans so as to carry out a thorough reformation, and my alterations having been approved by a general board they have been referred to a committee to carry out. Mr Howard also took objection to the plan of the proposed gaol and requested me to inform the magistrates that in his opinion the interior courts were too small and not sufficiently ventilated, and the magistrates having approved his suggestions ordered the plans to be amended accordingly.

You may easily conceive how I enjoyed the conversation of this truly good man and how much I would strive to possess his good opinion. I regard him as the guardian angel of the miserable. He travels into all parts of Europe with the sole object of doing good merely for its own sake and not for the sake of men's praise. To give an instance of his delicacy and his desire to avoid public notice I may mention that being a Presbyterian he attended the meeting-house of that denomination in Shrewsbury on Sunday morning on which occasion I accompanied him but in the afternoon he expressed a wish to attend another place of worship his presence in the town having excited considerable curiosity though his wish was to avoid public recognition. Nay more he assures me that he hates travelling and was born to be a domestic man.

He never sees his country house but he says within himself "Oh! might I but rest here and never more travel three miles from home then should I be happy indeed!" But he has become so committed and so pledged himself to his own conscience to carry out his great work that he says he is doubtful whether he will ever be able to attain the desire of his heart life at home. He never dines out and scarcely takes time to dine at all he says he is growing old and has no time to lose. His manner is simplicity itself. Indeed I have never yet met so noble a being. He is going abroad again shortly on one of his long tours of mercy. The journey to which Telford here refers was Howard's last. In the following year he left England to return no more and the great and good man died at Cherson on the shores of the Black Sea less than two years after his interview with the young engineer at Shrewsbury.

Telford writes to his Langholm friend at the same time that he is working very hard and studying to improve himself in branches of knowledge in which he feels himself deficient. He is practising very temperate habits for half a year past he has taken to drinking water only avoiding all sweets and eating no "nick-nacks." He has 'sowens and milk' (oatmeal flummery) every night for his supper. His friend having asked his opinion of politics he says "he really knows nothing about them he had been so completely engrossed by his own business that he has not had time to read even a newspaper. But though an ignoramus in politics he has been studying lime which is more to his purpose."

If his friend can give him any information about that he will promise to read a newspaper now and then in the ensuing session of Parliament for the purpose of forming some opinion of politics: he adds however "not if it interfere with my business mind that!'" His friend told him that he proposed translating a system of chemistry. "Now you know" wrote Telford "that I am chemistry mad and if I were near you I would make you promise to communicate any information on the subject that you thought would be of service to your friend especially about calcareous matters and the mode of forming the best composition for building with as well above as below water. But not to be confined to that alone for you must know I have a book for the pocket which I always carry with me into which I have extracted the essence of Fourcroy's Lectures, Black on Quicklime, Scheele's Essays, Watson's Essays, and various points from the letters of my respected friend Dr Irving."

"So much for chemistry but I have also crammed into it facts relating to mechanics hydrostatics pneumatics and all manner of stuff to which I keep continually adding and it will be a charity to me if you will kindly contribute your mite." He says it has been and will continue to be his aim to endeavour to unite those "two frequently jarring pursuits literature and business" and he does not see why a man should be less efficient in the latter capacity because he has well informed stored and humanised his mind by the cultivation of letters. There was both good sense and sound practical wisdom in this view of Telford.

While the gaol was in course of erection after the improved plans suggested by Howard a variety of important matters occupied the county surveyor's attention. During the summer of 1788 he says he is very much occupied having about ten different jobs on hand roads bridges streets drainage-works gaol and infirmary. Yet he had time to write verses copies of which he forwarded to his Eskdale correspondent inviting his criticism. Several of these were elegiac lines somewhat exaggerated in their praises of the deceased though doubtless sincere.

Collapse of St Chad's Church

A particular circumstance of considerable interest occurred in the course of the same year (1788) which is worthy of passing notice. This was the fall of the church of St. Chad's at Shrewsbury. The church of St. Chad's was about four centuries old and stood greatly in need of repairs. The roof let in the rain upon the congregation and the parish 'vestry' met to settle the plans for mending it but they could not agree about the mode of procedure. In this emergency Telford was sent for and requested to advise what was best to he done. After a rapid glance at the interior which was in an exceedingly dangerous state he said to the churchwardens "Gentlemen we'll consult together on the outside if you please." He found that not only the roof but the walls of the church were in a most decayed state.

It appeared that in consequence of graves having been dug in the loose soil close to the shallow foundation of the north-west pillar of the tower it had sunk so as to endanger the whole structure. "I discovered" says he "that there were large fractures in the walls on tracing which I found that the old building was in a most shattered and decrepit condition though until then it had been scarcely noticed. Upon this I declined giving any recommendation as to the repairs of the roof unless they would come to the resolution to secure the more essential parts as the fabric appeared to me to be in a very alarming condition. I sent in a written report to the same effect." The parish vestry again met and the report was read but the meeting exclaimed against so extensive a proposal imputing mere motives of self-interest to the surveyor.

"Popular clamour" says Telford "overcame my report. 'These fractures' exclaimed the vestrymen 'have been there from time immemorial' and there were some otherwise sensible persons who remarked that professional men always wanted to carve out employment for themselves and that the whole of the necessary repairs could be done at a comparatively small expense." The vestry then called in another person a mason of the town and directed him to cut away the injured part of a particular pillar in order to underbuild it. On the second evening after the commencement of the operations the sexton was alarmed by a fall of lime dust and mortar when he attempted to toll the great bell on which he immediately desisted and left the church.

Early next morning (on the 9th of July) while the workmen were waiting at the church door for the key the bell struck four and the vibration at once brought down the tower which overwhelmed the nave demolishing all the pillars along the north side and shattering the rest. "The very parts I had pointed out" says Telford "were those which gave way and down tumbled the tower forming a very remarkable ruin which astonished and surprised the vestry and roused them from their infatuation though they have not yet recovered from the shock."

How he achieved his next step we are not informed ,but we find him in July 1784 engaged in superintending the erection of a house after a design by Samuel Wyatt intended for the residence of the Commissioner at Portsmouth Dockyard together with a new chapel and several buildings connected with the Yard. Telford took care to keep his eyes open to all the other works going forward in the neighbourhood and he states that he had frequent opportunities of observing the various operations necessary in the foundation and construction of graving docks wharf walls and such like which were among the principal occupations of his after-life.

The letters written by him from Portsmouth to his Eskdale correspondents about this time were cheerful and hopeful like those he had sent from London. His principal grievance was that he received so few from home but he supposed that opportunities for forwarding them by hand had not occurred postage being so dear as scarcely then to be thought of. To tempt them to correspondence he sent copies of the poems which he still continued to compose in the leisure of his evenings. One of these was a 'Poem on Portsdown Hill.' As for himself he was doing very well. The buildings were advancing satisfactorily, but "above all" said he, "my proceedings are entirely approved by the Commissioners and officers here so much so that they would sooner go by my advice than my master's which is a dangerous point being difficult to keep their good graces as well as his. However I will contrive to manage it."

A Typical Working Day
The following is his own account of the manner in which he was usually occupied during the winter months while at Portsmouth Dock. "I rise in the morning at 7 (February 1st) and will get up earlier as the days lengthen until it come to 5 o'clock. I immediately set to work to make out accounts, write on matters of business or draw until breakfast which is at 9. Then I go into the Yard about 10, see that all are at their posts and am ready to advise about any matters that may require attention. This and going round the several works occupies until about dinner time which is at 2, and after that I again go round and attend to what may be wanted.

I draw till 5, then tea, and after that I write draw or read until half after 9, then comes supper and bed. This my ordinary round unless when I dine or spend an evening with a friend, but I do not make many friends being very particular, nay nice to a degree. My business requires a great deal of writing and drawing and this work I always take care to keep under by reserving my time for it and being in advance of my work rather than behind it. Then as knowledge is my most ardent pursuit a thousand things occur which call for investigation, which would pass unnoticed by those who are content to trudge only in the beaten path. I am not contented unless I can give a reason for every particular method or practice which is pursued.

Hence I am now very deep in chemistry. The mode of making mortar in the best way led me to inquire into the nature of lime. Having in pursuit of this inquiry looked into some books on chemistry, I perceived the field was boundless, but that to assign satisfactory reasons for many mechanical processes required a general knowledge of that science. I have borrowed a copy of Dr Black's Lectures. I have bought his 'Experiments on Magnesia and Quicklime' and also Fourcroy's Lectures translated from the French by Elliot of Edinburgh, and I am determined to study the subject with unwearied attention until I attain some accurate knowledge of chemistry which is of no less use in the practice of the arts than it is in that of medicine. " He adds that he continues to receive the approval of the Commissioners for the manner in which he performs his duties and says "I take care to be so far master of the business committed to me as that none shall be able to eclipse me in that respect. " At the same time he states he is taking great delight in Freemasonry and is about to have a lodge room at the George Inn fitted up after his plans and under his direction. Nor does he forget to add that he has his hair powdered every day and puts on a clean shirt three times a week.

The Eskdale mason was evidently getting on as he deserved to do, but he was not puffed up. To his Langholm friend he averred that "he would rather have it said of him that he possessed one grain of good nature or good sense than shine the finest puppet in Christendom." Also "let my mother know that I am well and that I will print her a letter soon." for it was a practice of this good son down to the period of his mother's death no matter how much burdened he was with business to set apart occasional times for the careful penning of a letter in printed characters that she might the more easily be able to decipher it with her old and dimmed eyes by her cottage fireside at the Crooks.

As a man's real disposition usually displays itself most strikingly in small matters like light which gleams the most brightly when seen through narrow chinks it will probably be admitted that this trait trifling though it may appear was truly characteristic of the simple and affectionate nature of the hero of our story. The buildings at Portsmouth were finished by the end of 1786 when Telford's duties there being at an end and having no engagement beyond the termination of the contract he prepared to leave and began to look about him for other employment.

Robert and John Adam were architects of considerable repute in their day. Among their London erections were the Adelphi Buildings in the Strand, Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square Caen Wood House near Hampstead (Lord Mansfield's) Portland Place Regent's Park, and numerous West End streets and mansions. The screen of the Admiralty and the ornaments of Draper's Hall were also designed by them.

Telford wrote to his Eskdale friend Andrew Little around that time in it he said "The following from the verses in memory of William Telford "relates to schoolboy days. After alluding to the lofty Fell Hills which formed part of the sheep farm of his deceased friend's father the poet goes on to say:

There 'mongst those rocks I'll form a rural seat
And plant some ivy with its moss compleat
I'll benches form of fragments from the stone
Which nicely pois'd was by our hands o'erthrown
A simple frolic but now dear to me
Because my Telford 'twas performed with thee.

There in the centre sacred to his name
I'll place an altar where the lambent flame
Shall yearly rise and every youth shall join
The willing voice and sing the enraptured line.

But we my friend will often steal away
To this lone seat and quiet pass the day
Here oft recall the pleasing scenes we knew
In early youth when every scene was new
When rural happiness our moments blest
And joys untainted rose in every breast.

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

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