- Thomas Telford (1757-1834)
Telford was born into a poor shepherd family on August 9, 1757, at Westerkirk, Dumfriesshire. His father died soon after his birth and, as a youngster, Telford had to herd cattle to earn money for the family. After a basic education (he later learned chemistry, drawing and poetry) he became an apprentice stone mason. He travelled the country in search of work and arrived in London in 1782.
A patron from Dumfries later obtained for him the post of surveyor of public works in Shropshire and his success at that led to being appointed to be in charge of the construction of the Ellesmere Canal in 1793. His good work there meant that in 1801 he was sent to survey the rural roads in Scotland, which were basically the military roads constructed by General Wade after the 1745 Jacobite Uprising>. In 1803 he was asked to implement his survey proposals and became the civil engineer for a huge government scheme to improve communications in the Highlands. In so doing, Telford built nearly a 1,000 miles of roads and 120 bridges over the next 20 years. He also constructed the Caledonian Canal> - 20 miles of canals linking 60 miles of freshwater lochs and he improved the harbours at Wick, Aberdeen, Peterhead, Banff and Leith.
Telford also worked in England (including the famous Menai Suspension Bridge> to Angelsey) and in Europe, building roads and gaining a reputation as the finest civil engineer of his day. He was involved in the construction of the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh and the Gotha Canal in Sweden. His nickname was "the Colossus of Roads".
In 1818 he helped to found the Institute of Civil Engineers and became its first president. Telford's aqueduct at Pont Cysylite>, on the Ellesmere canal in Cheshire, was described by Sir Walter Scott> as "the most impressive work of art I have ever seen."
Telford was a likeable and convivial man who was always ready with a story or a joke. His use of suspension bridges was a novelty and he was always nervous about them - on the day when the chains were to take the strain he was often found kneeling in prayer!
Telford died on 2 September, 1834 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. He continued to act as a consultant and engineer to the end of his life. Despite his prodigious output, he left very little in the way of wealth - he had often taken on projects for which he was not paid.
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