Telford, the man who built bridges

It is often invigorating to read of high achievers who managed without the formal qualifications and training usually required. Such a man was Thomas Telford, born on August 9th, 1757. He built bridges - some 40 in Shropshire alone - yet at aged 14 it was to a stonemason he was apprenticed. He then worked in Portsmouth dockyard, and although untrained, was soon working on some of the major projects involving their design and management.

By the time he was 30 he was appointed Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire. There is a telling anecdote that, when consulted by St Chad’s Church in Shrewsbury about their leaking roof, he warned them it could easily collapse. When it did so 3 days later, his reputation was enhanced.

Telford was just getting into his stride. He inspected Abraham Darby’s famous bridge at Ironbridge and thought he could do better. His own bridge, even though 30 foot wider in span, weighed only half as much. His most famous work is probably the Menai suspension bridge connecting Anglesey to the mainland. It was then the longest suspension bridge ever built, spanning 580 feet, and is regarded as a work of art, now listed as ‘Heritage.’

He constructed canals as well, notably the Ellesmere Canal and the Shrewsbury Canal. He did roads, too, including sections of the main Northern route from London to Holyhead. His friend, the Poet Laureate of the day, Robert Southey, dubbed him “The Colossus of Roads.” And he constructed the St Katharine Docks near Tower Bridge in London. He was elected the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, not bad for an unqualified lad from Scotland.

Such were the heady and exciting days of the early Industrial Revolution, that people could achieve great things if they had talent, ambition and determination. The Britain of the day fostered and rewarded such people, and had the courage to back them undertaking impressive things never done before. It was not conservative in the small “c” sense, but hungry for change that brought improvement.

It is very much a spirit that could be recaptured today. The planning laws that strangle development would have to be changed, as would the appeal procedures that allow a few obstinate opponents of change to tie things up for years in the courts. The tax system would need to be overhauled to allow people to gather the rewards of risk. Perhaps most of all, it would require a change in attitudes, one that would see people respect and admire giants like Telford, treating them as role models to inspire emulation, rather than trying to bring them down. It could all be done, and as the UK moves away from the bureaucracy that is Brussels, it might be done. All it would take is a country determined to make it happen.