Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the building of Britain
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WESTMINSTER ABBEY is a bewildering place, filled with statues and memorials and an apparently unending sea of tourists and visitors. But if, on entering by the north transept, you turn left and then left again — past the extraordinary Roubiliac memorial showing Death hurling a lightning bolt at the unfortunate Elizabeth Nightingale — you should be able to find a statue to Thomas Telford.
Larger than life, pensive, dignified, with an almost Roman nobility, it records his achievements and remarkable life story in its inscription: “The orphan son of a shepherd, self educated, he raised himself by his extraordinary talents and integrity from the humble condition of an operative mason, and became one of the most eminent civil engineers of the age.”
Telford’s rise is the stuff of legend, and his achievements are still more striking. Besides great landmarks such as the Menai Bridge and the vertigo-inducing aqueduct at Pontcysyllte, he oversaw the construction of more than 1000 bridges, 1200 miles of road, 43 ports or harbours, and innumerable waterways. All across the Highlands of Scotland, one encounters Telford: his roads, his Caledonian Canal, his delightful, practical little churches with their associated manse.
His impact on Britain was immense, enabling faster travel and better connections than ever before. Thanks to him, coaches took hours rather than days to reach their destination. The fastest enabled people to travel from Shrewsbury to London in just under 15 hours — or about the time it now takes Southern Rail to convey commuters the 13 miles from Purley to London Victoria.
Telford was a difficult man: one prone to exaggerate his own importance and to diminish the achievements of his collaborators. His projects didn’t always come off, either. But his was a heroic life, evocatively and enthusiastically captured in this consistently intelligent book.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.