TELFORD THE ROAD-MAKER
Thomas 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 towns 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. 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".
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 £50,000 was granted by Parliament with this object under the provisions of the Act passed in 1816. The works were placed under 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 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 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. 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 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. Macadam died a poor man, but as he himself said "a least an honest man." By his indefatigueable 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.
Fiddler's Burn Bridge
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, Doune, 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, its parapet being 129 feet above the surface of the water beneath.
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 Carter Fell to Jedburgh and thence to Edinburgh, but was rejected as too crooked and uneven. Another was tried by Alston 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, 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 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. But the traveller's perils were not at an end, comparatively speaking they had only begun. From Holyhead across the island of Anglesey 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 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 £10,000 was granted by Parliament to enable the necessary works to be begun. Attention was then turned to the state of the roads and here 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. The road across Anglesey 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 impractical.
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 mail 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. 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. 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 ¾ 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 exercised 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 ½ 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. 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 rubblework instead of sandstone. The largest bridges were of iron, that at Betws-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, 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.
Road above Nant Francon, 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 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 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. 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.
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 Telford was employed to execute the works, in the manner we propose to describe in the next chapter.
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 a matter of speculation amongst engineers. As early as 1776 Golborne proposed his plan of an embankment with a bridge in the middle of it, and a few years later in 1785 Nichols proposed a wooden viaduct furnished with drawbridges at Cadnant Island. Later still 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 Thomas 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.
Telford's proposed Cast Iron Bridge
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 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. 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.
Proposed Plan of Suspended Centering
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 to by mariners that the bridge would seriously affect if not destroy the navigation of the Strait, and this plan like Rennie's was eventually rejected.
Several years passed and during the interval 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.
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 Anglesey 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. Telford's plan was supported by 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.
Constructing the Menai Bridge
The necessary Act passed in the session of 1819 and Thomas 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.
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 Anglesey, a little 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 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 Anglesey 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 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. 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. 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. Thomas 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 deliberation, 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.
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 Anglesey 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, 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 Anglesey 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 Telford ascertained that the absolute weight of one of the main chains of the bridge between the points of suspension was 23½ tons requiring a strain of 39½ 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 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 Anglesey 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 Anglesey side, the ropes passing by means of blocks over the top of the pyramid of the 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 pipers 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.
The tide had by this time turned and bearing upon the side of the raft now getting free 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 breathless silence pervaded the watching multitude, and nothing was heard among the working party on the Anglesey side but the steady tramp of the men at the capstans, the shrill music of the pipers 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 Anglesey pyramid. 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 Anglesey. 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!
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. Thomas 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.
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 Anglesey 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 thousands of 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 reopening 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 carriageway being protected by oak guards placed seven feet and a half apart. Side railings were added, the tollhouses and approach roads were completed by the end of the year, and the Menai 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 tollhouses was £120,000. 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's 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."
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 underside 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 as 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.
DOCKS DRAINAGE AND BRIDGES
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 a 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 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 masterpiece of harbour construction. Alluding to the rapidity with which the works were completed 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 Thomas 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 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 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 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 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." The bridge was finished and opened in 1828.
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.
It was completed and opened in December 1831
Glasgow Bridge at Broomielaw
But the most important as it was the last of 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, 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 Thomas 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 it was wider than any river bridge in the kingdom.
Draining The Fens
Like most previous engineers of eminence, like Perry, Brindley, Smeaton and Rennie, Telford was in the course of his life extensively employed in the drainage of the Fen districts. He had been jointly concerned with Rennie in carrying out the important works of the Eau Brink Cut, and at 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 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 Wisbech. 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 Wisbech River threatened to become completely destroyed.
Such being the state of things it was determined to take the opinion of some eminent engineer and 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 Wisbech 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 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 Wisbech.
Telford confirmed 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 Wisbech rather than place a lock with draw doors at Lutton Leam Sluice as had been proposed by Rennie. He also suggested that the acute angle at the Horseshoe be cut off and the river deepened up to the bridge at Wisbech 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 Wisbech 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 Thomas 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 Wisbech. 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 6,000 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 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.
The whole of the new cuts were easily navigable being from 140 to 200 feet wide at bottom, whereas the old outlets had been variable and were often choked with shifting sand. The district was thus effectually opened up for navigation and a convenient transit afforded for coals and other articles of consumption. Wisbech became accessible to vessels of much larger burden and in the course of a few years after the construction of the Nene Outfall, the trade of the port had more than doubled. Telford himself towards the close of his life spoke with natural pride of the improvements which he had thus been in so great a measure instrumental in carrying out and which had so materially promoted the comfort prosperity and welfare of a very extensive district.
We may mention as a remarkable effect of the opening of the new outfall, that in a few hours the lowering of the waters was felt throughout the whole of the Fen level. The sluggish and stagnant drains, cuts, and leams in far distant places began actually to flow, and the sensation created was such that at Thorney near Peterborough some fifteen miles from the sea, the intelligence penetrated even to the congregation then sitting in church, for it was Sunday morning, that "the waters were running!" when immediately the whole flocked out, parson and all to see the great sight and acknowledge the blessings of science. A humble Fen poet of the last century thus quaintly predicted the moral results likely to arise from the improved drainage of his native district:-
The prophecy has indeed been fulfilled. The barbarous race of Fen-men has disappeared before the skill of the engineer. As the land has been drained the half-starved fowlers and fen-roamers have subsided into the ranks of steady industry, become farmers, traders, and labourers. The plough has passed over the bed of Holland Fen and the agriculturist reaps his increase more than a hundredfold.. Wide watery wastes formerly abounding in fish are now covered with waving crops of corn every summer. Sheep graze on the dry bottom of Whittlesea Mere and kine low where not many years since the silence of the waste was only disturbed by the croaking of frogs and the screaming of wild fowl. All this has been the result of the science of the engineer, the enterprise of the landowner, and the industry of our peaceful army of skilled labourers."With a change of elements suddenly
There shall a change of men and manners be;
Hearts thick and tough as hides shall feel remorse
And souls of sedge shall understand discourse;
New hands shall learn to work, forget to steal
New legs shall go to church, new knees to kneel."
Southey's Tour of the Highlands
At the time when Telford's Highland works were in full progress he persuaded his friend Southey the Poet Laureate, to accompany him on one of his visits of inspection as far north as the county of Sutherland in the autumn of 1819. Southey as was his custom, made careful notes of the tour which have been preserved, and consist in a great measure of an interesting resume of the engineer's operations in harbour-making road-making and canal-making north of the Tweed.
Southey reached Edinburgh by the Carlisle mail about the middle of August and was there joined by Thomas Telford and Mr and Mrs Rickman, who were to accompany him on the journey. They first proceeded to Linlithgow, Bannockburn, Stirling, Callendar, the Trosachs, and round by the head of Loch Earn to Killin Kenmore and by Aberfeldy to Dunkeld. At the latter place the poet admired Telford's beautiful bridge which forms a fine feature in the foreground of the incomparable picture which the scenery of Dunkeld always presents in whatever aspect it is viewed.
From Dunkeld the party proceeded to Dundee along the left bank of the Firth of Tay. The works connected with the new harbour were in active progress and the engineer lost no time in taking his friend to see them. Southey's account is as follows:-
"Before breakfast I went with Mr Telford to the harbour to look at his works which are of great magnitude and importance: a huge floating dock and the finest graving dock I ever saw. The town expends £70,000 on these improvements which will be completed in another year. What they take from the excavations serves to raise ground which was formerly covered by the tide, but will now be of the greatest value for wharves, yards etc. The local authorities originally proposed to build fifteen piers but Telford assured them that three would be sufficient, and in telling me this he said the creation of fifteen new Scotch peers was too strong a measure...."
"Telford's is a happy life, everywhere making roads, building bridges, forming canals, and creating harbours, works of sure solid permanent utility, everywhere employing a great number of persons, selecting the most meritorious and putting them forward in the world in his own way."
After the inspection at Dundee was over the party proceeded on their journey northward along the east coast:-
"Near Gourdon or Bervie harbour which is about a mile and a half on this side the town we met Mr Mitchell and Mr Gibbs two of Mr Telford's aides-de-camp who had come thus far to meet him. The former he calls his 'Tartar' from his cast of countenance which is very much like a Tartar's as well as from his Tartar-like mode of life, for in his office of overseer of the roads which are under the management of the Commissioners he travels on horseback not less than 6,000 miles a year. Mr Telford found him in the situation of a working mason who could scarcely read or write, but noticing him for his good conduct his activity and his firm steady character he has brought him forward, and Mitchell now holds a post of respectability and importance and performs his business with excellent ability."
After inspecting the little harbour of Bervie, one of the first works of the kind executed by Telford for the Commissioners, the party proceeded by Stonehaven and from thence along the coast to Aberdeen. Here the harbour works were visited and admired:-
"The quay is very fine", and Telford has carried out his pier 900 feet beyond the point where Smeaton's terminated. This great work which has cost £100,000 protects the entrance of the harbour from the whole force of the North Sea. A ship was entering it at the time of our visit, the Prince of Waterloo. She had been to America, had discharged her cargo at London, and we now saw her reach her own port in safety, a joyous and delightful sight."
The next point reached was Banff along the Don and the line of the Inverury Canal:-
"The approach to Banff is very fine, says Southey "by the Earl of Fife's grounds where the trees are surprisingly grown considering how near they are to the North Sea, Duff House- a square odd and not unhandsome pile built by Adams (one of the Adelphi brothers) some forty years ago, a good bridge of seven arches by Smeaton, the open sea not as we had hitherto seen it, grey under a leaden sky but bright and blue in the sunshine, Banff on the left of the bay, the River Doveran almost lost amid banks of shingle where it enters the sea, a white and tolerably high shore extending eastwards, a kirk with a high spire which serves as a sea-mark, and on the point about a mile to the east, the town of Macduff. At Banff we at once went to the pier about half finished on which £15,000 will be expended to the great benefit of this clean, cheerful and active little town. The pier was a busy scene, hand carts going to and fro over the railroads, cranes at work charging and discharging plenty of workmen, and fine masses of red granite from the Peterhead quarries. The quay was almost covered with barrels of herrings which women were busily employed in salting and packing."
The next visit was paid to the harbour works at Cullen which were sufficiently advanced to afford improved shelter for the fishing vessels of the little port:-
"When I stood upon the pier at low water, seeing the tremendous rocks with which the whole shore is bristled, and the open sea to which the place is exposed, it was with a proud feeling that I saw the first talents in the world employed by the British Government in works of such unostentatious but great immediate palpable and permanent utility. Already their excellent effects are felt. The fishing vessels were just coming in having caught about 300 barrels of herrings during the night....
"However the Forfeited Estates Fund may have been misapplied in past times the remainder could not be better invested than in these great improvements. Wherever a pier is needed if the people or the proprietors of the place will raise one half the necessary funds, Government supplies the other half. On these terms £20,000 are expending at Peterhead and £14,000 at Frazerburgh, and the works which we visited at Bervie and Banff, and many other such along this coast would never have been undertaken without such aid, public liberality thus inducing private persons to tax themselves heavily and expend with a good will much larger sums than could have been drawn from them by taxation." From Cullen the travellers proceeded in gigs to Fochabers, thence by Craigellachie Bridge which Southey greatly admired, along Speyside to Ballindalloch and Inverallen where Telford's new road was in course of construction across the moors towards Forres. The country for the greater part of the way was a wild waste, nothing but mountains and heather to be seen, yet the road was as perfectly made and maintained as if it had lain through a very Goschen. The next stages were to Nairn and Inverness from whence they proceeded to view the important works constructed at the crossing of the River Beauly:-
"At Lovat Bridge we turned aside and went four miles up the river along the Strathglass road, one of the new works and one of the most remarkable because of the difficulty of constructing it, and also because of the fine scenery which it commands....."
"Lovat Bridge by which we returned, is a plain handsome structure of five arches, two of 40 feet span, two of 50, and the centre one of 60. The curve is as little as possible. I learnt in Spain to admire straight bridges, but Mr Telford thinks there always ought to be some curve to enable the rain water to run off and because he would have the outline look like the segment of a large circle resting on the abutments. A double line over the arches gives a finish to the bridge and perhaps looks as well or almost as well as balustrades for not a sixpence has been allowed for ornament on these works. The sides are protected by water-wings which are embankments of stone to prevent the floods from extending on either side and attacking the flanks of the bridge."
Nine miles further north they arrived at Dingwall near which a bridge similar to that at Beauly though wider had been constructed over the Conan. From thence they proceeded to Invergordon to Ballintraed (where another pier for fishing boats was in progress) to Tain and thence to Bonar Bridge over the Sheir twenty-four miles above the entrance to the Dornoch Firth where an iron bridge after the same model as that of Craigellachie had been erected. This bridge is of great importance, connecting as it does, the whole of the road traffic of the northern counties with the south. Southey speaks of it as:
"A work of such paramount utility that it is impossible to look at it without delight. A remarkable anecdote was told me concerning it. An inhabitant of Sutherland whose father was drowned at the Mickle Ferry in 1809, could never bear to set foot in a ferry-boat after the catastrophe and was consequently cut-off from communication with the south until this bridge was built. He then set out on a journey. As I went along the road by the side of the water I could see no bridge. At last I came in sight of something like a spider's web in the air. If this be it thought I, it will never do! But presently I came upon it, and oh! it is the finest thing that ever was made by God or man!" Sixteen miles north-east of Bonar Bridge Southey crossed Fleet Mound, another ingenious work of his friend Telford, but of an altogether different character. It was thrown across the River Fleet at the point at which it ran into the estuary or little land-locked bay outside known as Loch Fleet. At this point there had formerly been a ford, but as the tide ran far inland it could only be crossed at low water and travellers had often to wait for hours before they could proceed on their journey. The embouchure being too wide for a bridge, Telford formed an embankment across it 990 yards in length providing four flood-gates each 12 feet wide at its north end for the egress of the inland waters. These gates opened outwards and they were so hung as to shut with the rising of the tide. The holding back of the sea from the land inside the mound by this means had the effect of reclaiming a considerable extent of fertile carse, and which at the time of Southey's visit, though the work had only been completed the year before, was already under profitable cultivation. The principal use of the mound however was in giving support to the fine broad road which ran along its summit and thus completed the communication with the country to the north. Southey speaks in terms of high admiration of "the simplicity the beauty and utility of this great work."
This was the furthest limit of their journey, and the travellers retraced their steps southward halting at Clashmore Inn. "At breakfast was a handsome set of Worcester china. Upon noticing it to Mr Telford he told me that before these roads were made he fell in with some people from Worcestershire near the Ord of Caithness on their way northward with a cart load of crockery which they got over the mountains as best they could, and when they had sold all their ware they laid out the money in black cattle which they then drove to the south." The rest of Southey's journal is occupied with a description of the scenery of the Caledonian Canal and the principal difficulties encountered in the execution of the works which were still in progress. He was greatly struck with the flight of locks at the south end of the Canal where it enters Loch Eil near Corpach:-
"There being no pier yet formed we were carried to and from the boats on men's shoulders. We landed close to the sea shore. A sloop was lying in the fine basin above and the canal was full as far as the Staircase, a name given to the eight successive locks. Six of these were full and overflowing, and then we drew near enough to see people walking over the lock gates. It had more the effect of a scene in a pantomime than of anything in real life. The rise from lock to lock is eight feet, the length of the locks including the gates and abutments at both ends is 500 yards, the greatest piece of such masonry in the world and the greatest work of the kind beyond all comparison.
"A panorama painted from this place would include the highest mountain in Great Britain and its greatest work of art. That work is one of which the magnitude and importance become apparent when considered in relation to natural objects. The Pyramids would appear insignificant in such a situation for in them we should perceive only a vain attempt to vie with greater things. But here we see the powers of nature brought to act upon a great scale in subservience to the purposes of men, one river created another (and that a huge mountain-stream) shouldered out of its place and art and order assuming a character of sublimity. Sometimes a beck is conducted under the canal and passages called culverts serve as a roadway for men and beasts. We walked through one of these just lofty enough for a man of my stature to pass through with his hat on. It had a very singular effect to see persons emerging from this dark long narrow vault.
"Sometimes a brook is taken in, a cesspool is then made to receive what gravel it may bring down, after it has passed this pool the water flowing through three or four little arches and then over a paved bed and wall of masonry into the canal. These are called in-takes and opposite them an outlet is sometimes made for the waters of the canal if they should be above their proper level, or when the cross stream may bring down a rush. These outlets consist of two inclined planes of masonry one rising from the canal with a waste weir between them, and when the cross-stream comes down like a torrent instead of mingling with the canal it passes straight across. But these channels would be insufficient for carrying off the whole surplus waters in time of floods. At one place therefore, there are three sluices by which the whole canal from the Staircase to the Regulating Lock (about six miles) can be lowered a foot in an hour. The sluices were opened that we might see their effect.
"We went down the Bank and made our way round some wet ground till we got in front of the strong arch into which they open. The arch is about 25 feet high of great strength and built upon the rock. What would the Bourbons have given for such a cascade at Versailles? The rush and the spray and the force of the water reminded me more of the Reichenbach than of any other fall. That three small sluices each only 4 feet by 3 feet should produce an effect which brought the mightiest of the swiss waterfalls to my recollection, may appear incredible or at least like an enormous exaggeration. But the prodigious velocity with which the water is forced out by the pressure above explains the apparent wonder. And yet I beheld it only in half its strength, the depth above being at this time ten feet which will be twenty when the canal is completed. In a few minutes a river was formed of no inconsiderable breadth which ran like a torrent into the Lochy.
"On this part of the canal everything is completed except that the iron bridges for it which are now on their way are supplied by temporary ones. When the middle part shall be finished the Lochy which at present flows in its own channel above the Regulating Lock will be dammed there and made to join the Speyne by a new cut from the lake. The cut is made and a fine bridge built over it. We went into the cut and under the bridge which is very near the intended point of junction. The string courses were encrusted with stalactites in a manner singularly beautiful. Under the arches a strong mound of solid masonry is built to keep the water in dry seasons at a certain height, but in that mound a gap is left for the salmon and a way made through the rocks from the Speyne to this gap which they will soon find out."
Arrived at Dumbarton, Southey took leave of John Mitchell who had accompanied him throughout the tour and for whom he seems to have entertained the highest admiration:-
"He is indeed a remarkable man and well deserves to be remembered. Telford found him a working mason who could scarcely read or write, but his good sense, excellent conduct, steadiness and perseverance have been such that he has been gradually raised to be Inspector of all these Highland roads which we have visited, and all of which are under the Commissioners' care, an office requiring a rare union of qualities, among others inflexible integrity, a fearless temper, and an indefatigable frame. Perhaps no man ever possessed these requisites in greater perfection than John Mitchell. Were but his figure less Tartarish and more gaunt he would be the very 'Talus' of Spenser. Neither frown nor favour in the course of fifteen years have ever made him swerve from the performance of his duty, though the lairds with whom he has to deal have omitted no means of making him enter into their views and to do things or leave them undone as might suit their humour or interest. They have attempted to cajole and to intimidate him in vain. They have repeatedly preferred complaints against him in the hope of getting him removed from his office and a more flexible person appointed in his stead, and they have not infrequently threatened him with personal violence, even his life has been menaced, but Mitchell holds right on. In the midst of his most laborious life he has laboured to improve himself with such success that he has become a good accountant, makes his estimates with facility, and carries on his official correspondence in an able and highly intelligent manner. In the execution of his office, he travelled last year not less than 8800 miles and every year he travels nearly as much. Nor has this life and the exposure to all winds and weathers, and the temptations either of company, or of solicitude at the houses at which he puts up led him into any irregularities. Neither has his elevation in the slightest degree inflated him, he is still the same temperate, industrious, modest, unassuming man as when his good qualities first attracted Mr Telford's notice."
Southey concludes his journal at Longtown, a little town just across the Scotch Border in the following words:-
"Here we left Mr Telford who takes the mail for Edinburgh. This parting company after the thorough intimacy which a long journey produces between fellow-travellers who like each other is a melancholy thing. A man more heartily to be liked, more worthy to be esteemed and admired, I have never fallen in with, and therefore it is painful to think how little likely it is that I shall ever see much of him again, how certain that I shall never see so much. Yet I trust that he will not forget his promise of one day making Keswick in his way to and from Scotland."
Before leaving the subject of Telford's public works in the Highlands it may be mentioned that 875 miles of new roads were planned by him and executed under his superintendence at an expense of £454,189 of which about one half was granted by Parliament and the remainder was raised by the localities benefited. Besides the new roads 255 miles of the old military roads were taken in charge by him and in many cases reconstructed and greatly improved. The bridges erected in connection with these roads were no fewer than 1200. Telford also between the year 1823 and the close of his life built forty-two Highland churches in districts formerly unprovided with them and capable of accommodating some 22,000 persons.
Down to the year 1854 the Parliamentary grant of £5,000 a year charged upon the Consolidated Fund to meet assessments and tolls of the Highland roads amounting to about £7,500 a year was transferred to the annual Estimates when it became the subject of annual revision, and a few years since the grant was suddenly extinguished by an adverse vote of the House of Commons. The Board of Commissioners had therefore nothing left but to deliver over the roads to the several local authorities and the harbours to the proprietors of the adjacent lands and to present to Parliament a final account of their work and its results. Reviewing the whole they say that the operations of the Commission have been most beneficial to the country concerned. "They found it barren and uncultivated inhabited by heritors without capital or enterprise, and by a poor and ill-employed peasantry and destitute of trade shipping and manufactures. They leave it with wealthy proprietors, a profitable agriculture, a thriving population, and active industry, furnishing now its fair proportion of taxes to the national exchequer, and helping by its improved agriculture to meet the ever-increasing wants of the populous south."
TELFORD'S FINAL YEARS
When Telford had occasion to visit London on business during the early period of his career his quarters were at the Salopian Coffee House, now the Ship Hotel at Charing Cross. It is probable that his Shropshire connections led him in the first instance to the 'Salopian', but the situation being near to the Houses of Parliament and in many respects convenient for the purposes of his business he continued to live there for no less than twenty-one years. During that time the Salopian became a favourite resort of engineers, and not only Telford's provincial associates, but numerous visitors from abroad (where his works attracted even more attention than they did in England) took up their quarters there. Several apartments were specially reserved for Telford's exclusive use and he could always readily command any additional accommodation for purposes of business or hospitality.
The successive landlords of the Salopian came to regard the engineer as a fixture and even bought and sold him from time to time with the goodwill of the business. When he at length resolved on the persuasion of his friends to take a house of his own and gave notice of his intention of leaving the landlord who had but recently entered into possession almost stood aghast. "What! leave the house! Why Sir I have just paid £750 for you!" On explanation it appeared that this price had actually been paid by him to the outgoing landlord on the assumption that Telford was a fixture of the hotel, the previous tenant having paid £450 for him, the increase in the price marking very significantly the growing importance of the engineer's position. There was however no help for the disconsolate landlord, and Telford left the Salopian to take possession of his new house at 24 Abingdon Street. Labelye the engineer of Westminster Bridge had formerly occupied the dwelling, and at a subsequent period Sir William Chambers the architect of Somerset House Telford used to take much pleasure in pointing out to his visitors the painting of Westminster Bridge impanelled in the wall over the parlour mantelpiece made for Labelye by an Italian artist whilst the bridge works were in progress. In that house Telford continued to live until the close of his life.
One of the subjects in which he took much interest during his later years was the establishment of the Institute of Civil Engineers. In 1818 a Society had been formed consisting principally of young men educated to civil and mechanical engineering, who occasionally met to discuss matters of interest relating to their profession. As early as the time of Smeaton, a social meeting of engineers was occasionally held at an inn in Holborn which was discontinued in 1792 in consequence of some personal differences amongst the members. It was revived in the following year under the auspices of Mr Jessop Mr Naylor, Mr Rennie, and Mr Whitworth and joined by other gentlemen of scientific distinction. They were accustomed to dine together every fortnight at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand spending the evening in conversation on engineering subjects. But as the numbers and importance of the profession increased the desire began to be felt especially among the junior members of the profession for an institution of a more enlarged character. Hence the movement above alluded to which led to an invitation being given to Telford to accept the office of President of the proposed Engineers' Institute. To this he consented and entered upon the duties of the office on the 21st of March 1820.
During the remainder of his life Telford continued to watch over the progress of the Society which gradually grew in importance and usefulness. He supplied it with the nucleus of a reference library, now it has become of great value to its members. He established the practice of recording the proceedings, minutes of discussions, and substance of the papers read which has led to the accumulation in the printed records of the Institute of a vast body of information as to engineering practice. In 1828 he exerted himself strenuously and successfully in obtaining a Charter of Incorporation for the Society, and finally at his death he left the Institute their first bequest of £2,000 together with many valuable books and a large collection of documents which had been subservient to his own professional labours."
In the distinguished position which he occupied it was natural that Telford should be called upon as he often was towards the close of his life to give his opinion and advice as to projects of public importance. Where strongly conflicting opinions were entertained on any subject his help was occasionally found most valuable, for he possessed great tact and suavity of manner which often enabled him to reconcile opposing interests when they stood in the way of important enterprises.
In 1828 he was appointed one of the commissioners to investigate the supply of water to the metropolis in conjunction with Doctor Roget and Professor Brande, and the result was the very able report published in that year. Only a few months before his death in 1834 he prepared and sent in an elaborate separate report containing many excellent practical suggestions which had the effect of stimulating the efforts of the water companies and eventually leading to great improvements.
On the subject of roads, Telford continued to be the very highest authority his friend Southey jocularly styling him the "Colossus of Roads." The Russian Government frequently consulted him with reference to the new roads with which that great empire was being opened up. The Polish road from Warsaw to Briesc on the Russian frontier 120 miles in length was constructed after his plans, and it remains, we believe the finest road in the Russian dominions to this day.
He was consulted by the Austrian Government on the subject of bridges as well as roads. Count Szechenyi recounts the very agreeable and instructive interview which he had with Telford when he called to consult him as to the bridge proposed to be erected across the Danube between the towns of Buda and Pest. On a suspension bridge being suggested by the English engineer, the Count with surprise asked if such an erection was possible under the circumstances he had described? "We do not consider anything to be impossible" replied Telford, "impossibilities exist chiefly in the prejudices of mankind to which some are slaves and from which few are able to emancipate themselves and enter on the path of truth, but supposing a suspension bridge were not deemed advisable under the circumstances and it were considered necessary altogether to avoid motion, then I should recommend you to erect a cast iron bridge of three spans each 400 feet, such a bridge will have no motion and though half the world lay a wreck it would still stand." A suspension bridge was eventually resolved upon. It was constructed by one of Telford's ablest pupils Mr Tierney Clark between the years 1839 and 1850 and is justly regarded as one of the greatest triumphs of English engineering the Buda-Pest people proudly declaring it to be "the eighth wonder of the world."
At a time when speculation was very rife in the year 1825, Telford was consulted respecting a grand scheme for cutting a canal across the Isthmus of Darien, and about the same time he was employed to resurvey the line for a ship canal, which had before occupied the attention of Whitworth and Rennie between Bristol and the English Channel. But although he gave great attention to this latter project and prepared numerous plans and reports upon it, and although an Act was actually passed enabling it to be carried out, the scheme was eventually abandoned like the preceding ones with the same object for want of the requisite funds.
Our engineer had a perfect detestation of speculative jobbing in all its forms, though on one occasion he could not help being used as an instrument by schemers. A public company was got up at Liverpool in 1827 to form a broad and deep ship canal of about seven miles in length from opposite Liverpool to near Helbre Isle in the estuary of the Dee, its object being to enable the shipping of the port to avoid the variable shoals and sand-banks which obstruct the entrance to the Mersey. Telford entered on the project with great zeal and his name was widely quoted in its support. It appeared however, that one of its principal promoters who had secured the right of pre-emption of the land on which the only possible entrance to the canal could be formed on the northern side suddenly closed by the corporation of Liverpool who were opposed to the plan and 'sold' his partners as well as the engineer for a large sum of money. Telford disgusted at being made the instrument of an apparent fraud upon the public destroyed all the documents relating to the scheme and never afterwards spoke of it except in terms of extreme indignation.
About the same time the formation of locomotive railways was extensively discussed and schemes were set on foot to construct them between several of the larger towns. But Telford was now about seventy years old and desirous of limiting the range of his business, rather than extending it he declined to enter upon this new branch of engineering. Yet in his younger days he had surveyed numerous lines of railway, amongst others one as early as the year 1805 from Glasgow to Berwick down the vale of the Tweed. A line from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Carlisle was also surveyed and reported on by him some years later, and the Stratford and Moreton Railway was actually constructed under his direction. He made use of railways in all his large works of masonry for the purpose of facilitating the haulage of materials to the points at which they were required to be deposited or used. There is a paper of his on the Inland Navigation of the County of Salop contained in 'The Agricultural Survey of Shropshire' in which he speaks of the judicious use of railways and recommends that in all future surveys "it be an instruction to the engineers that they do examine the county with a view of introducing iron railways wherever difficulties may occur with regard to the making of navigable canals." When the project of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was started we are informed that he was offered the appointment of engineer, but he declined partly because of his advanced age but also out of a feeling of duty to his employers the Canal Companies stating that he could not lend his name to a scheme, which if carried out must so materially affect their interests.
Towards the close of his life he was afflicted by deafness which made him feel exceedingly uncomfortable in mixed society. Thanks to a healthy constitution unimpaired by excess and invigorated by active occupation his working powers had lasted longer than those of most men. He was still cheerful clear-headed and skilful in the arts of his profession and felt the same pleasure in useful work that he had ever done. It was therefore with difficulty that he could reconcile himself to the idea of retiring from the field of honourable labour which he had so long occupied into a state of comparative inactivity. But he was not a man who could be idle, and he determined like his great predecessor Smeaton, to occupy the remaining years of his life in arranging his engineering papers for publication. Vigorous though he had been, he felt that the time was shortly approaching when the wheels of life must stand still altogether. Writing to a friend at Langholm he said "Having now being occupied for about seventy-five years in incessant exertion, I have for some time past arranged to decline the contest, but the numerous works in which I am engaged have hitherto prevented my succeeding. In the mean time I occasionally amuse myself with setting down in what manner a long life has been laboriously and I hope usefully employed." And again a little later he writes: "During the last twelve months I have had several rubs, at seventy-seven they tell more seriously than formerly and call for less exertion and require greater precautions. I fancy that few of my age belonging to the valley of the Esk remain in the land of the living."
One of the last works on which Thomas Telford was professionally consulted was at the instance of the Duke of Wellington, not many years younger than himself but of equally vigorous intellectual powers, as to the improvement of Dover Harbour then falling rapidly to decay. The long-continued south-westerly gales of 1833-4 had the effect of rolling an immense quantity of shingle up Channel towards that port at the entrance to which it became deposited in unusual quantities so as to render it at times altogether inaccessible. The Duke as a military man took a more than ordinary interest in the improvement of Dover as the military and naval station nearest to the French coast, and it fell to him as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports to watch over the preservation of the harbour situated at a point in the English Channel which he regarded as of great strategic importance in the event of a continental war. He therefore desired Telford to visit the place and give his opinion as to the most advisable mode of procedure with a view to improving the harbour. The result was a report in which the engineer recommended a plan of sluicing similar to that adopted by Smeaton at Ramsgate, which was afterwards carried out with considerable success by James Walker C.E.
This was his last piece of professional work. A few months later he was laid up by bilious derangement of a serious character which recurred with increased violence towards the close of the year, and on the 2nd of September 1834 Thomas Telford closed his useful and honoured career at the advanced age of seventy-seven. With that absence of ostentation which characterised him through life, he directed that his remains should be laid without ceremony in the burial ground of the parish church of Saint Margaret's, Westminster. But the members of the Institute of Civil Engineers who justly deemed him their benefactor and chief ornament, urged upon his executors the propriety of interring him in Westminster Abbey.
It was a long a successful and a useful life which thus ended. Every step in his upward career from the poor peasant's hut in Eskdale to Westminster Abbey was nobly and valorously won. The man was diligent and conscientious, whether as a working mason hewing stone blocks at Somerset House, as a foreman of builders at Portsmouth, as a road surveyor at Shrewsbury, or as an engineer of bridges, canals, docks, and harbours. The success which followed his efforts was thoroughly well-deserved. He was laborious pains-taking and skilful, but what was better, he was honest and upright. He was a most reliable man, and hence he came to be extensively trusted. Whatever he undertook he endeavoured to excel in. He would be a first-rate hewer and he became one. He was himself accustomed to attribute much of his success to the thorough way in which he had mastered the humble beginnings of this trade. He was even of opinion that the course of manual training he had undergone and the drudgery as some would call it of daily labour, first as an apprentice and afterwards as a journeyman mason, had been of greater service to him than if he had passed through the curriculum of a University. Writing to his friend Miss Malcolm respecting a young man who desired to enter the engineering profession, he in the first place endeavoured to dissuade the lady from encouraging the ambition of her protege, the profession being overstocked and offering very few prizes in proportion to the large number of blanks. "But, he added,"if civil engineering notwithstanding these discouragements is still preferred, I may point out that the way in which both Mr Rennie and myself proceeded was to serve a regular apprenticeship to some practical employment, he to a millwright and I to a general house-builder. In this way we secured the means by hard labour of earning a subsistence, and in time we obtained by good conduct the confidence of our employers and the public, eventually rising into the rank of what is called Civil Engineering.
This is the true way of acquiring practical skill, a thorough knowledge of the materials employed in construction, and last but not least a perfect knowledge of the habits and dispositions of the workmen who carry out our designs. This course, although forbidding to many a young person who believes it possible to find a short and rapid path to distinction, is proved to be otherwise by the two examples I have cited. For my own part I may truly aver that 'steep is the ascent and slippery is the way.'" That Telford was enabled to continue to so advanced an age employed on laborious and anxious work was no doubt attributable in a great measure to the cheerfulness of his nature. He was indeed a most happy-minded man. It will be remembered that when a boy he had been known in his valley as "Laughing Tam." The same disposition continued to characterise him in his old age. He was playful and jocular and rejoiced in the society of children and young people especially when well-informed and modest. But when they pretended to acquirements they did not possess he was quick to detect and see through them. One day a youth expatiated to him in very large terms about a friend of his who had done this and that and made so and so and could do all manner of wonderful things. Telford listened with great attention and when the youth had done he quietly asked with a twinkle in his eye "Pray can your friend lay eggs?"
When in society he gave himself up to it and thoroughly enjoyed it. He did not sit apart, a moody and abstracted 'lion', nor desire to be regarded as 'the great engineer' pondering new Menai Bridges. But he appeared in his natural character of a simple intelligent cheerful companion, as ready to laugh at his own jokes as at other people's, and he was as communicative to a child as to any philosopher of the party.
Robert Southey than whom there was no better judge of a loveable man said of him, "I would go a long way for the sake of seeing Telford and spending a few days in his company." Southey as we have seen had the best opportunities of knowing him well, for a long journey together extending over many weeks is probably better than anything else calculated to bring out the weak as well as the strong points of a friend. Indeed many friendships have completely broken down under the severe test of a single week's tour. But Southey on that occasion firmly cemented a friendship which lasted until Telford's death. On one occasion the latter called at the poet's house when engaged upon the survey of one of his northern roads. Unhappily Southey was absent at the time, and writing about the circumstance to a correspondent he said "This was a mortification to me in as much as I owe Telford every kind of friendly attention and like him heartily."
Campbell the poet was another early friend of our engineer, and the attachment seems to have been mutual. Writing to Doctor Currie of Liverpool in 1802 Campbell says: "I have become acquainted with Telford the engineer 'a fellow of infinite humour' and of strong enterprising mind. He has almost made me a bridge-builder already, at least he has inspired me with new sensations of interest in the improvement and ornament of our country. Have you seen his plan of London Bridge? or his scheme for a new canal in the North Highlands which will unite if put in effect our Eastern and Atlantic commerce and render Scotland the very emporium of navigation? Telford is a most useful cicerone in London. He is so universally acquainted and so popular in his manners that he can introduce one to all kinds of novelty and all descriptions of interesting society." Shortly after Campbell named his first son after Telford who stood godfather for the boy. Indeed for many years Telford played the part of Mentor to the young and impulsive poet advising him about his course in life trying to keep him steady and holding him aloof as much as possible from the seductive allurements of the capital. But it was a difficult task and Telford's numerous engagements necessarily left the poet at many seasons very much to himself. It appears that they were living together at the Salopian when Campbell composed the first draft of his poem of Hohenlinden, and several important emendations made in it by Telford were adopted by Campbell. Although the two friends pursued different roads in life, and for many years saw little of each other, they often met again especially after Telford took up his abode at his house in Abingdon Street where Campbell was a frequent and always a welcome guest.
When engaged upon his surveys our engineer was the same simple cheerful laborious man. While at work he gave his whole mind to the subject in hand, thinking of nothing else for the time, dismissing it at the close of each day's work, but ready to take it up afresh with the next day's duties. This was a great advantage to him as respected the prolongation of his working faculty. He did not take his anxieties to bed with him as many do and rise up with them in the morning, but he laid down the load at the end of each day and resumed it all the more cheerfully when refreshed and invigorated by natural rest. It was only while the engrossing anxieties connected with the suspension of the chains of Menai Bridge were weighing heavily upon his mind, that he could not sleep, and then age having stolen upon him he felt the strain almost more than he could bear. But that great anxiety once fairly over his spirits speedily resumed their wonted elasticity.
When engaged upon the construction of the Carlisle and Glasgow road he was very fond of getting a few of the 'navvy men' as he called them, to join him at an 'ordinary' night at the Hamilton Arms Hotel Lanarkshire each paying his own expenses. On such occasions Telford would say that though he could not drink yet he would carve and draw corks for them. One of the rules he laid down was that no business was to be introduced from the moment they sat down to dinner. All at once from being the hard-working engineer with responsibility and thought in every feature, Telford unbended and relaxed and became the merriest and drollest of the party. He possessed a great fund of anecdote for such occasions had an extraordinary memory for facts relating to persons and families, and the wonder to many of his auditors was how in all the world a man living in London should know so much better about their locality and many of its oddities than they did themselves.
In his leisure hours at home, which were but few, he occupied himself a good deal in the perusal of miscellaneous literature, never losing his taste for poetry. He continued to indulge in the occasional composition of verses until a comparatively late period of his life, one of his most successful efforts being a translation of the 'Ode to May' from Buchanan's Latin poems executed in a very tender and graceful manner. That he might be enabled to peruse engineering works in French and German, he prosecuted the study of those languages and with such success that he was shortly able to read them with comparative ease. He occasionally occupied himself in literary composition on subjects connected with his profession. Thus he wrote for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia conducted by his friend Sir David (then Doctor) Brewster the elaborate and able articles on Architecture Bridge-building, and Canal-making. Besides his contributions to that work he advanced a considerable sum of money to aid in its publication which remained a debt due to his estate at the period of his death.
Notwithstanding the pains that Telford took in the course of his life to acquire a knowledge of the elements of natural science, it is somewhat remarkable to find him holding acquirements in mathematics so cheap. But probably this is to be accounted for by the circumstance of his education being entirely practical and mainly self-acquired. When a young man was on one occasion recommended to him as a pupil because of his proficiency in mathematics, the engineer expressed the opinion that such acquirements were no recommendation. Like Smeaton he held that deductions drawn from theory were never to be trusted, and he placed his reliance mainly on observation, experience, and carefully conducted experiments. He was also like most men of strong practical sagacity, quick in mother wit and arrived rapidly at conclusions guided by intellectual instinct which can neither be defined nor described. Although occupied as a leading engineer for nearly forty years, having certified contractors' bills during that time amounting to several millions sterling, he died in comparatively moderate circumstances. Eminent constructive ability was not very highly remunerated in Telford's time and he was satisfied with a rate of pay which even the smallest 'M. I. C. E.' would now refuse to accept. Telford's charges were perhaps too low, and a deputation of members of the profession on one occasion formally expostulated with him on the subject.
Although he could not be said to have an indifference for money, he yet estimated it as a thing worth infinitely less than character, and every penny that he earned was honestly come by. He had no wife nor family, nor near relations to provide for, only himself in his old age. Not being thought rich he was saved the annoyance of being haunted by toadies or pestered by parasites. His wants were few and his household expenses small, and though he entertained many visitors and friends it was in a quiet way and on a moderate scale. The small regard he had for personal dignity may be inferred from the fact that to the last he continued the practice which he had learnt when a working mason of darning his own stockings.
Telford nevertheless had the highest idea of the dignity of his profession, not because of the money it would produce, but of the great things it was calculated to accomplish. In his most confidential letters we find him often expatiating on the noble works he was engaged in designing or constructing, and the national good they were calculated to produce but never on the pecuniary advantages he himself was to derive from them. He doubtless prized and prized highly the reputation they would bring him, and above all there seemed to be uppermost in his mind especially in the earlier part of his career, while many of his schoolfellows were still alive the thought of "What will they say of this in Eskdale?" but as for the money results, to himself Telford seemed to the close of his life to regard them as of comparatively small moment.
During the twenty-one years that he acted as principal engineer for the Caledonian Canal, we find from the Parliamentary returns that the amount paid to him for his reports, detailed plans and superintendence was exactly £237 a year. Where he conceived any works to be of great public importance, and he found them to be promoted by public-spirited persons at their own expense he refused to receive any payment for his labour or even repayment of the expenses incurred by him. Thus while employed by the Government in the improvement of the Highland roads he persuaded himself that he ought at the same time to promote the similar patriotic objects of the British Fisheries Society which were carried out by voluntary subscription, and for many years he acted as their engineer refusing to accept any remuneration whatever for his trouble.
Telford held the sordid money-grubber in perfect detestation. He was of opinion that the adulation paid to mere money was one of the greatest dangers with which modern society was threatened. "I admire commercial enterprise, it is the vigorous outgrowth of our industrial life: I admire everything that gives it free scope: as wherever it goes, activity, energy, intelligence, all that we call civilization accompany it, but I hold that the aim and end of all ought not to be a mere bag of money but something far higher and far better." Writing once to his Langholm correspondent about an old schoolfellow who had grown rich by scraping, Telford said: "Poor Bob L----, his industry and sagacity were more than counterbalanced by his childish vanity and silly avarice which rendered his friendship dangerous and his conversation tiresome. He was like a man in London whose lips while walking by himself along the streets were constantly ejaculating 'Money! Money!' But peace to Bob's memory: I need scarcely add confusion to his thousands!" Telford was himself most careful in resisting the temptations to which men in his position are frequently exposed, but he was preserved by his honest pride, not less than by the purity of his character. He invariably refused to receive anything in the shape of presents or testimonials from persons employed under him. He would not have even the shadow of an obligation stand in the way of his duty to those who employed him to watch over and protect their interests. During the many years that he was employed on public works no one could ever charge him in the remotest degree with entering into a collusion with contractors. He looked upon such arrangements as degrading and infamous, and considered that they meant nothing less than an inducement to "scamping" which he would never tolerate.
His inspection of work was most rigid. The security of his structures was not a question of money but of character. As human life depended upon their stability, not a point was neglected that could ensure it. Hence in his selection of resident engineers and inspectors of works he exercised the greatest possible precautions, and here his observation of character proved of essential value. Mr Hughes says he never allowed any but his most experienced and confidential assistants to have anything to do with exploring the foundations of buildings he was about to erect. His scrutiny into the qualifications of those employed about such structures extended to the subordinate overseers and even to the workmen, insomuch that men whose general habits had before passed unnoticed and whose characters had never been inquired into did not escape his observation when set to work in operations connected with foundations. If he detected a man who gave evidences of unsteadiness, inaccuracy or carelessness he would reprimand the overseer for employing such a person and order him to be removed to some other part of the undertaking where his negligence could do no harm. And thus it was that Telford put his own character through those whom he employed into the various buildings which he was employed to construct.
Though Telford was comparatively indifferent about money, he was not without a proper regard for it as a means of conferring benefits on others and especially as a means of being independent. At the close of his life he had accumulated as much as invested at interest brought him in about £800. a year and enabled him to occupy the house in Abingdon Street in which he died. This was amply sufficient for his wants and more than enough for his independence. It enabled him also to continue those secret acts of benevolence which constituted perhaps the most genuine pleasure of his life. It is one of the most delightful traits in this excellent man's career to find him so constantly occupied in works of spontaneous charity in quarters so remote and unknown that it is impossible the slightest feeling of ostentation could have sullied the purity of the acts. Among the large mass of Telford's private letters we find frequent reference to sums of money sent for the support of poor people in his native valley. At new year's time he regularly sent remittances of £30 to £50 to be distributed by the kind Miss Malcolm of Burnfoot, and after her death by Mr Little the postmaster at Langholm, and the contributions thus so kindly made did much to fend off the winter's cold and surround with many small comforts, those who most needed help but were perhaps too modest to ask it.
Many of those in the valley of the Esk had known of Telford in his younger years as a poor barefooted boy, though now become a man of distinction he had too much good sense to be ashamed of his humble origin, perhaps he even felt proud that by dint of his own valorous and persevering efforts, he had been able to rise so much above it. Throughout his long life his heart always warmed at the thought of Eskdale. He rejoiced at the honourable rise of Eskdale men as reflecting credit upon his "beloved valley." Thus writing to his Langholm correspondent with reference to the honours conferred on the different members of the family of Malcolm he said: "The distinctions so deservedly bestowed upon the Burnfoot family establish a splendid era in Eskdale, and almost tempt your correspondent to sport his Swedish honours which that grateful country has repeatedly in spite of refusal transmitted."
It might be said that there was narrowness and provincialism in this, but when young men are thrown into the world with all its temptations and snares, it is well that the recollections of home and kindred should survive to hold them in the path of rectitude and cheer them in their onward and upward course in life. And there is no doubt that Telford was borne up on many occasions by the thought of what the folks in the valley would say about him and his progress in life when they met together at market or at the Westerkirk porch on Sabbath mornings. In this light provincialism or local patriotism is a prolific source of good and may be regarded as among the most valuable and beautiful emanations of the parish life of our country. Although Telford was honoured with the titles and orders of merit conferred upon him by foreign monarchs, what he esteemed beyond them all was the respect and gratitude of his own countrymen, and not least the honour which his really noble and beneficent career was calculated to reflect upon "the folks of the nook" the remote inhabitants of his native Eskdale.
When the engineer proceeded to dispose of his savings by will, which he did a few months before his death, the distribution was a comparatively easy matter. The total amount of his bequeathments was £16,600 About one-fourth of the whole he set apart for educational purposes, £2,000 to the Civil Engineers' Institute and £1,000 each to the ministers of Langholm and Westerkirk in trust for the parish libraries. The rest was bequeathed in sums of from £200 to £500 to different persons who had acted as clerks, assistants, and surveyors in his various public works, and to his intimate personal friends. Amongst these latter were Colonel Pasley the nephew of his early benefactor, Mr Rickman, Mr Milne, and Mr Hope, his three executors, Robert Southey and Thomas Campbell the poets. To both of these last the gift was most welcome. Southey said of his: "Mr Telford has most kindly and unexpectedly left me £500 with a share of his residuary property which I am told will make it amount in all to £850. This is truly a godsend and I am most grateful for it. It gives me the comfortable knowledge that if it should please God soon to take me from this world my family would have resources fully sufficient for their support till such time as their affairs could be put in order and the proceeds of my books remains be rendered available. I have never been anxious overmuch nor ever taken more thought for the morrow than it is the duty of every one to take who has to earn his livelihood, but to be thus provided for at this time I feel to be an especial blessing. Among the most valuable results of Telford's bequests in his own district was the establishment of the popular libraries at Langholm and Westerkirk, each of which now contains about 4000 volumes. That at Westerkirk had been originally instituted in the year 1792 by the miners employed to work an antimony mine (since abandoned) on the farm of Glendinning within sight of the place where Telford was born. On the dissolution of the mining company in 1800 the little collection of books was removed to Kirkton Hill, but on receipt of Telford's bequest a special building was erected for their reception at Old Bentpath near the village of Westerkirk. The annual income derived from the Telford fund enabled additions of new volumes to be made to it from time to time, and its uses as a public institution were thus greatly increased. The books are exchanged once a month on the day of the full moon, on which occasion readers of all ages and conditions, farmers, shepherds, ploughmen, labourers and their children resort to it from far and near taking away with them as many volumes as they desire for the month's readings.
Thus there is scarcely a cottage in the valley in which good books are not to be found under perusal, and we are told that it is a common thing for the Eskdale shepherd to take a book in his plaid to the hillside, a volume of Shakespeare, Prescott, or Macaulay, and read it there under the blue sky with his sheep and the green hills before him. And thus so long as the bequest lasts the good great engineer will not cease to be remembered with gratitude in his beloved Eskdale.
We are informed by Joseph Mitchell Esq. C.E. of the origin of this practice. Mr Mitchell was a pupil of Telford's living with him in his house at 24 Abingdon Street. It was the engineer's custom to have a dinner party every Tuesday after which his engineering friends were invited to accompany him to the Institution, the meetings of which were then held on Tuesday evenings in a house in Buckingham Street Strand. The meetings did not usually consist of more than twenty to thirty persons. Mr Mitchell took notes of the conversations which followed the reading of the papers. Telford afterwards found his pupil extending the notes on which he asked permission to read them, and was so much pleased that he took them to the next meeting and read them to the members. Mr Mitchell was then formally appointed reporter of conversations to the Institute, and the custom having been continued, a large mass of valuable practical information has thus been placed on record.
A statue of Thomas Telford by Bailey was placed in the east aisle of the north transept known as the Islip Chapel. It is considered a fine work but its effect is quite lost in consequence of the crowded state of the aisle which has very much the look of a sculptor's workshop. The subscription raised for the purpose of erecting the statue was £1,000 of which £200 was paid to the Dean for permission to place it within the Abbey.
Westminster Abbey He was buried in Westminster Abbey accordingly to the middle of the nave, where the letters "Thomas Telford 1834 mark the place beneath which he lies."
The adjoining stone bears the inscription "Robert Stephenson 1859" that engineer having during his life expressed the wish that his body should be laid near that of Telford, and the son of the Killingworth engineman thus sleeps by the side of the son of the Eskdale shepherd.