Thomas Telford

2007 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of legendary engineer, Thomas Telford, the greatest road, canal and bridge builder of his age.

Telford was born on the 9th August 1757 in Westerkirk, Scotland and he became the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and was renowned in his day as "Colossus of Roads". In 1787 he became Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire and as an architect he became involved with the renovation of Shrewsbury Castle, Shrewsbury Prison, St. Mary Magdalene Church in Bridgnorth and St. Michael’s Church in Madeley.

This work involved:

  • Shrewsbury Castle – Telford converted this from a derelict ruin into a house for the town’s MP. The folly Laura’s Tower (still seen within the grounds) was built for the MP’s wife.
  • St. Mary Magdalene Church in Bridgnorth – Telford built the roof of this church.

In 1788 Telford carried out the first excavations at the site of Wroxeter Roman City.

He also worked as a consultant on a leaking roof of St. Chad's Church in Shrewsbury. He discovered that the church actually needed major repairs and three days later the old church collapsed.

In 1790 Telford designed a bridge to carry the London-Hollyhead road over the River Severn at Montford (now known as Montford Bridge), nr Shrewsbury. This was the first of 40 bridges built in Shropshire. Others included bridges at Buildwas, Bridgnorth and Bewdley.

Buildwas bridge was Telford's first iron bridge which was influenced by the iron bridge in Ironbridge. One of his other bridges at Cound goes over the River Tern and it is preserved as a scheduled ancient monument.

Another of Telford's bridges was built at Dinham in Ludlow however it has now been replaced but one of the original arches remains and is incorporated within the new bridge. If you go over the bridge to the Millennium Green, you can still see the remains of the original bridge - the arch nearest to Ludlow town centre belongs to Telford's bridge.

By 1793 Telford's reputation had grown and he was appointed to manage the design and construction of the Ellesmere Canal (now known as the Llangollen Canal), which linked the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham via the north-west Shropshire town of Ellesmere, with Chester, utilising the existing Chester Canal, and then the River Mersey.

Among other structures, this involved the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the River Dee in the Vale of Llangollen, where Telford used a new method of construction consisting of troughs made from cast iron plates and fixed in masonry. The Ellesmere canal was completed in 1805.

Telford then became involved in the design and construction of the Shrewsbury Canal which was required to move large quantities of raw materials and coal. The original engineer, Josiah Clowes had died in 1795 and Telford stepped in to replace him. With 11 locks, 8 lift bridges and a 970 yard tunnel at Berwick (17 miles in length), it is a major engineering feat. However, the canal was finally abandoned in 1944, but some of the original bridges can still be found.

Another of Telford's many achievements was the design of the cast-iron aqueduct at Longdon-on-Tern which pre-dates the one at Pontcysyllte, and was substantially bigger than the UK's first cast-iron aqueduct, built by Benjamin Outram on the Derby Canal just months earlier. The viaduct at Longdon-on-Tern still remains 200 years later.

Using his experience during the Longden-on Tern project, Telford created his most impressive aqueducts at Chirk and Pontcysllte.

The Chirk aqueduct was built over the River Ceiriog between 1796 and 1801, it is 70 feet tall and has 10 spans. The railway viaduct was added in 1846 and it stands 30 feet above the canal. It is also special in that it is built half in England and half in Wales.

Pontcysllte known locally as ‘the waterway in the sky’ carries the Llangollen Canal 126 feet over the River Dee and is considered to be an engineering marvel. The name means connecting bridge. The Llangollen Canal takes in the beautiful scenery of North Shropshire. On its approach to Ellesmere it flows past the banks of Blakemere before entering a tunnel.

After Telford had built the above aqueducts, he left Shropshire to return to Scotland to build the Caledonian Canal. He did return to Shropshire to build his greatest and most ambitious canal. The Shropshire Union Canal, which would prove to be his last.

The Shropshire Union Canal (formerly the Birmingham & Liverpool Canal) links the Birmingham Canal network at Wolverhampton with the sea at Ellesmere Port and it links up the small canals on the way. The Shropshire Union Canal was still used for commercial traffic until 1958 and it runs past the Shropshire towns of WhitchurchEllesmere and Market Drayton.

In later years, Telford was responsible for building many roads especially the London to Hollyhead road which passed through what is now Telford. Telford pulled out all the stops in creating the 106 mile road between Shrewsbury & Holyhead which carved its way through the Welsh Hills and past Oswestry, following the Dee Valley through Chirk and Llangollen. Holyhead road is now known as the modern A5 between Shrewsbury & Hollyhead.

By 1820 Telford was appointed as the First President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held until his death. He died on the 2nd September 1834. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. He died before he saw the opening of the Shropshire Union Canal.

The Ironbridge Gorge Museums holds a collection of Telford's books and original documents.

The modern town of Telford was named in his honour in 1968. More recently, Thomas Telford School in Telford was also named after him in 1990. The school is one of 14 City Technology Colleges.