Hanging on the staircase wall of my grandmother’s house in Wick there was a sepia-tinted photograph of Wick harbour in its heyday, chock-a-block with fishing boats and schooners and with quaysides lined with thousands of barrels.
She loved to tell us that in those days (the late nineteenth century) anyone could walk across the boats from one side of the harbour to the other ‘withoot ever getting their feet weet’. It was an image from the days when Wick was probably the biggest herring port in Europe, when fish-laden barrels were shipped from there to markets all across Europe and even into Russia. And it’s fair to say that none of this would have happened without the work of two men: politician Sir William Pulteney (born William Johnstone) and engineer Thomas Telford.
They are the reason why the south side of Wick is known as Pulteneytown and streets down by the harbour are called after Telford. Pulteney had been governor of the British Fisheries Society which, at the turn of the nineteenth century, set out to exploit the herring shoals off Scotland by ‘improving’ a string of fisher towns. It was Wick’s good fortune to be one of them. Pulteney hired for the job his protégé and fellow borderer, Thomas Telford. Between them they transformed the town into a thriving port with a double harbour from which some of my recent ancestors made a decent living, by Highland standards.
I thought of that picture while reading Julian Glover’s absorbing biography of Telford. In his preface he writes of his subject: ‘He matters to our age. He knew that what we call “infrastructure” shapes lives and nations…. He built things not for private gain but for progressive purpose, with the clear intent of creating a stronger and more united kingdom so that people from even the remotest valleys, such as the one in which he was born, could share in the British adventure of industry and empire.’ He might have added, or from remote coastal towns like Wick.
As an account of a hugely talented and ambitious architect-engineer and the times in which he lived Glover’s book would be hard to better. Drawing from a wide range of sources – personal letters, old biographies, press reports, diaries plus Telford’s autobiography – he paints a vivid picture of a man who was at once massively gifted, restless, ambitious, arrogant and utterly relentless in pursuit of his projects. It’s difficult to think of an architect or engineer who compares with Telford, unless perhaps the Welsh-American genius Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the process of describing Telford’s career Glover evokes a Georgian Britain that’s a long way from the demure idyll presented by Sunday evening TV. ‘Everything was in flux,’ he claims, ‘ideas, technologies, identities. Vulgar fortunes; foreign flavours; atheistic thoughts; terraced streets; London; novels; newspapers; MPs; city dealers; the Royal Navy; turnpike roads; iron, canals, coal and steam – all of these and more came together to fuel the new belching, swaggering Great Britain. To its critics – inside and out – the nation was something of a hooligan on a spree.’
It was amid this turbulence that young Telford emerged and then thrived. Born in 1757 in the upland parish of Westerkirk in what was then Dumfriesshire, he was raised by his widowed mother, and worked as a shepherd boy before being apprenticed to a local stone mason. Fiercely intelligent, and with ambitions to be a poet (he sent his efforts to Burns), in 1780 he walked the eighty miles to Edinburgh where he spent an unsuccessful year before returning to Eskdale. In 1782, like so many young Scots before and after, he took his talents and ambition onto the high road to London.
From then on Telford’s rise was almost inexorable. There’s no doubt he was an accomplished hustler with an eye for the main chance. He made the most of every contact he made. Among them were architects Robert Adam and William Chambers and of course the aforementioned William Pulteney. It is also true that Telford surrounded himself with first-class resident (i.e. site) engineers: Matthew Davidson, Thomas Rhodes, John Rickman, William Provis and John Gibb (great-grandfather of the famous British consultant engineer Sir Alexander Gibb). They were crucial. Without them Telford might never have achieved what he did.
‘Pictures of him from this period show a bluff man in a heavy coat with a thick mop of hair falling over his broad forehead and wide cheeks,’ Glover writes. ‘You can imagine him out in the rain, or helping to fix a loose shoe on a horse, or lighting a fire. He could see how something ought to be bolted together, could sketch out a rough calculation; could draw a structure with a practised eye and a pen. People enjoyed his company, loud-voiced and curious. They respected his dedication and his knack of getting to the practical heart of a problem, working it through until he found a solution.
Telford did not go in for so-called ‘signature’ buildings beloved of many ambitious architects. Just about every kind of man-made structure was grist to his mill. Eskdale Tam, the stone mason-turned-architect-turned-engineer produced what Britain needed: stone bridges, iron bridges, roads, canals, aqueducts, harbours, drainage schemes, new towns, churches, water works, railway schemes, even a prison, a courthouse and the restoration of a castle. Not to mention a canal cut through the centre of Sweden (his only foreign job).
No other engineer worked across Britain and Ireland in the way that Telford did. He left his stamp from the far north of Scotland down through the Highlands, into the Borders and all the way down through the Midlands of England to Wales and London. All of which involved endless, often brutal, travelling. ‘A shifting spirit ran through him, like a restless iron shadow,’ Glover claims. ‘He never settled. He kept on the move, year after year, on foot, by horse, by coach, observing, thinking, testing, designing, chivvying. He didn’t have a partner – man or woman – or any sort of close family, or even seem to need one.’
Thomas Telford: His talent ranges far and wide.
For all that, Telford was not unsociable. He had his circle of friends. Some of them – like Andrew and William Little – were from his home patch in Eskdale. He liked to visit them at least once a year, and corresponded endlessly with Andrew Little. Telford was well known to the gentry and aristocracy of England, many of whom appreciated his work. The austere Sir William Pulteney was more than a mentor, he was a genuine friend and admirer. Telford seemed to get on with most of the engineers with whom he worked. A few became his most loyal friends Engineers have been arguing for many years over which of Telford’s projects should be considered his masterpiece. To an extent, it’s a chalk and cheese exercise. How do you compare a high-soaring structure like the Menai suspension bridge in Wales with the locks and cuts of the Caledonian Canal? Or the aqueduct at Pontcysyllte (which Walter Scott described as a ‘stream in the sky’) with the crucial road from London to Shrewsbury? Or the causeway known as The Mound just south of Golspie to the waterworks in Liverpool? It can’t be done. The man’s talent ranges too far and too wide.
One of the lighter chapters in Glover’s book is his account of the foray into the Highlands that Telford took with his friend and colleague John Rickman and arguably Britain’s worst poet laureate, Robert Southey. Southey liked Telford a lot but hated Scotland and the Scots (who he thought were as ugly as the French). But Southey’s almost Boswellish account of the journey around north Britain makes enjoyable reading. And he does seem to have been impressed by Telford’s works, particularly the iron bridge at Craigellachie and the great locks at the Inverness end of the Caledonian Canal.
In his appendix Glover lists everything that Telford created, supervised or consulted on. It’s a testimony to the range and quantity of the engineer’s work: 104 bridges (stone, iron and timber), 37 docks and harbours (from Wick in the north to Dover in the south), 17 canals (the Caledonian and the Ellesmere being the most important), 25 road projects (including the connection to the Irish ferry at Holyhead). He lists four river ‘improvements’ (on the Severn, Clyde, Weaver and Dee) and four urban water supply works (in Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London), plus three railway projects (a technology which never caught Telford’s imagination). Glover does not list the 32 churches and 41 manses that were also built, probably because most of them have long gone.
In 1820, at a meeting of the newly-formed Institution of Civil Engineers it was decided that the body needed a prestigious president to give it more clout. Inevitably Telford’s name came up and after a month’s reflection he accepted the role and donated 31 books to get the Institution’s library started. He remained President of the ICE until his death 14 years later. In his will he left it £2000 and his enormous collection of technical papers. These days the ICE numbers many thousands, operates from rather grand premises in Westminster and every year presents a Thomas Telford Medal for work of engineering distinction.
There’s sadness in the story, too. When Telford died at his home in Westminster in September 1834 his death may have made the front page of The Times but, as Glover points out, the day had gone ‘when he could be counted as the country’s leading civil engineer’. That role was assumed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel who went on to become the icon of ninteenth-century engineering. And Telford, the shepherd boy from Eskdale who became Britain’s go-to engineer quickly faded from the scene, to the dismay of his friends like Rickman and Southey. But why did that happen?
‘The reason is not hard to find,’ Glover writes. ‘Technology shifted; newer creations came along; the purpose behind the things he built fell away; and the Victorian age found fresh heroes. Even as he died his era was passing. He built roads and canals but the craze which followed his death was for railways.’
I have one minor complaint. For some reason Glover describes Telford’s masterly Dean Bridge in Edinburgh as ‘remains’. Some remnant! That beautiful, four-arched structure still forms part of a main road out of Edinburgh. It carries loads that Telford could never have imagined: double-decker buses packed with passengers; 40-ton lorries laden with machinery; multi-wheeled loaders piled high with cars; an endless torrent of vehicles of all shapes and sizes. And Telford’s 165-year-old bridge copes with it all with surpassing ease. It is late Georgian engineering at its finest.
Man of Iron is a superb biography. Lengthy but rewarding, it sets Telford in the clash, clamour, stink and roar of Britain in the Georgian era. Now that the word ‘infrastructure’ seems to be on the lips of every government minister Glover has done well to revive the saga of Tam Telford. If nothing else, he shows how it was done 200 years ago when life was much more difficult, technologies far more basic and money just as difficult to come by.