Thomas Telford (1757-1834)

The Scottish engineer and architect Thomas Telford was born in 1757 on a farm near the village of Eskdalemuir Kirk in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. His father was a shepherd who died the same year, and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. When he was 14 he became the apprentice of a stonemason, a job he held until 1779. Then he moved to London in 1782, where he was involved in additions to Somerset House.

In 1787 he became the first Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire, and was responsible for the renovation of Shrewsbury Castle and various churches and bridges. These included his first iron bridge at Buildwas. He was one of the first engineers to carefully test his materials before construction.

Telford’s reputation in Shropshire led him to be appointed to design and manage the construction of Ellesmere Canal from 1793 to 1805. This project included the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the River Dee, constructed using the new method of cast-iron troughs anchored in masonry. He also oversaw the building of Shrewsbury Canal in 1795, which included his design for another cast-iron aqueduct.

His other assignments and achievements included the rebuilding of London Bridge (1800); an enormous project to improve Highland communications that involved building over a thousand new bridges, 920 miles of new roads and 32 churches (1801); a canal commissioned by the king of Sweden (1806); the rebuilding of the London to Holyhead road; and the ‘Telford church’, a design for affordable churches commissioned by parliament (1823). He was nicknamed ‘the Colossus of Roads’ by his friend Robert Southey, a future poet laureate.

In 1820, Telford was made the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the town of Telford in Shropshire was named after him. He died in Westminster.