Brunel: the man who built modern Britain

From awe-inspiring aqueducts to fast, smooth roads, no building project was, it seems, beyond the genius of Thomas Telford. Julian Glover hails an engineer whose achievements arguably outshine those of Brunel

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the Llangollen Canal over the valley of the River Dee, near Wrexham, North Wales. The aqueduct was built by Thomas Telford. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In 1829, two great engineers from two contrasting centuries clashed over the building of one famous bridge. The conflict pitted Thomas Telford (1757–1834) against Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–59) – the builder of magnificent canals and roads against the creator of the revolutionary Great Western Railway.

Though neither knew it at the time, this battle also marked the moment that Telford, celebrated in his lifetime as Britain’s greatest civil engineer but by that time old, unwell and out of his depth, began to be pushed aside in reputation by the 23-year-old Brunel.

Today the latter is a national hero, the embodiment of the can-do Victorian age, his best-known photographs showing him standing proud in his tall stovepipe hat. Telford, by contrast, is half-forgotten, his name attached to a 1960s new town in Shropshire but little else. His story deserves to be rediscovered – and the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol is a good place to start.

Few of those who now cross this fine structure each day realise that it was here that Brunel took on Telford – and won. It is a spectacular sight, slicing above wooded slopes that tumble down to the water below, and is celebrated as a monument to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s brilliance. But the story of its creation is complex. Brunel depended on others when he drew up his plans. The bridge was not finished until after his death, to an altered design. And its engineer was almost Telford – not Brunel.

Thomas Telford FRS, Scottish civil engineer, c 1810.
Engraving of Thomas Telford, c1810, by William Holl after a portrait by Samuel Lane. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Building bridges

To understand all that happened, you need to rewind beyond the birth of either engineer. In 1754, Bristol wine merchant William Vick died, leaving £1,000 in his will with instructions that it be invested until the sum reached £10,000. He had believed that this amount would be enough to pay for a much-needed stone bridge from one side of the 75-metre-deep Avon Gorge to the other.

By 1829 Vick’s legacy, now grown to £8,000, was still unspent. It was clear that a stone structure, if it could be built at all, would cost far more than that sum. So the city fathers decided to launch a competition inviting designs for a cheaper iron suspension bridge, using the latest technology of the day.

One man stood out as the obvious judge for the prize: Thomas Telford, the leading civil engineer in the land. Not long before, he had overseen the construction of the pioneering Menai suspension bridge, between mainland north Wales and the isle of Anglesey, which carried the new fast road (which he also engineered) from London to the port at Holyhead. When it opened in 1826 his edifice over the Menai strait was the most elaborate and impressive suspension bridge ever built – although not quite the first. It boosted Telford’s fame even more.

Yet his bridge-building career ended in humiliation in Bristol shortly afterwards. Examining entries to the competition for the Avon Gorge bridge – among them designs drawn up by the young Brunel – Telford dismissed them all as inadequate, and was asked, instead, to submit his own entry.

This could have resulted in the finest Telford creation of all. But rather than the bold and light structure the city had hoped for, he proposed three timid, shorter spans, held up by mock Gothic towers built from the bottom of the gorge. It was the product of an engineering mind that had lost its spark after more than six decades of relentless work.

The design was ridiculed. Brunel, in partic-ular, was openly scornful. “As the distance between the opposite rocks was considerably less than what had always been considered as within the limits to which suspension bridges might be carried,” he wrote to the committee after his rejection, “the idea of going to the bottom of such a valley for the purposes of raising at great expense two intermediate supporters hardly occurred to me.”

The younger man grabbed his chance. A second competition was run in which, initially, Brunel’s design was placed second – but with help from his father, the outstanding engineer Marc Brunel, he persuaded the judges to award him first prize.

“Isambard is appointed engineer to the Clifton Bridge,” Marc wrote triumphantly in his diary entry for 19 March 1830. “The most gratifying thing,” he noted, was that the defeated engineers included “Mr T…d” – the only name in the whole of the diary that he could not bring himself to spell out in full, so strong were his feelings.

Victory was the making of Brunel, though not quite of the Clifton bridge; construction was halted in 1831 amid financial trouble, and it was not completed until 1864, after his death. The project rooted Brunel in the city of Bristol, which he soon connected to London with the Great Western Railway.

The debacle was, though, almost the end for Telford. Though he continued to work until his death just over four years later – after which he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the first engineer to be given that honour – his time in the front rank of engineers was over.

By then, Britain was changing. The Georgian age was giving way to the Victorian, just as horsepower was being pushed aside by steam and canals, and roads giving way to new railways. Brunel was the engineer of the future, Thomas Telford of the past. Or so it seemed, for well over a century.

Today, however, there is fresh recognition of Telford’s importance to the industrial revolution and the creation of modern Britain. It is not to diminish Brunel’s flair and success to say that Telford deserves to be seen as his equal – and, in some ways, as more of a pioneer. Unlike Brunel, for instance, who was drilled to learn engineering by his father almost from birth, Telford’s youth offered no clear path to greatness.

Evolution of an engineer

Thomas Telford was born in 1757 on a remote farm in the hills of the Scottish Borders, among a landscape little changed today, the gentle beauty of which illuminates any exploration of his life. Telford’s father, a farm labourer, died before his son’s first birthday, and the young Tammy Telfer – as he was known – was soon set to work guarding sheep on the fellsides.

He might have remained a poor farm worker all his life, but Telford was driven by a fiery internal energy. He forced himself to learn, to read books, and soon even to write poetry. In that he had something in common with Scotland’s greatest poet, Rabbie Burns, who also started life in a farm in the Borders, and whom Telford came to venerate.

Most of all, however, Telford wanted to build. He trained as a stone mason; among his early tasks, it is said, was carving his father’s gravestone, which can still be found in a quiet churchyard near his boyhood home; the inscription honours the older man as an “unblamable shepherd”.

From that point Telford drove himself forward and up, always looking for opportunities and useful connections. First he went to Edinburgh, then to London, where he worked on the building of the grand new Somerset House by the Thames. By the 1780s he was in Shropshire, the county where he made his name and found his calling, first as an architect and then as a civil engineer.

It was an extraordinary time to be in Shropshire, in a region that is now very rural but which at that time was at the forefront of the industrial revolution. The great ironworks in Coalbrookdale were pioneering new techniques, and the world’s first iron bridge had been built across the river Severn just before his arrival. It was here that Telford came to know the revolutionary possibilities of metal.

First, in 1797, he built – with help from others – a short, radical iron aqueduct on a new canal near what is now the town of Telford. But this was only a precursor to the great Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, opened in 1805, a ribbon of iron that still carries barges 38 metres above the river Dee on what is now known as the Llangollen Canal, just over the Welsh border from Shropshire. The Pontcysyllte is Telford’s monument just as the Clifton Suspension Bridge is Brunel’s. Both structures speak of individual genius and the ability to draw on the skills of others.

Some say that Telford should have shared the credit for his achievements more widely, though it was his skill in working with a team and managing many projects simultaneously that lifted him above the many other able engineers of the time. At Pontcysyllte, for instance, he was aided by a team including his nominal superior on the canal project, William Jessop. Men such as William Hazledine, the Shropshire ironmaster, went on to provide metalwork for most of Telford’s greatest iron bridges including the Menai.

Many of Telford’s young pupils also went on to great careers of their own, among them Thomas Brassey, who built thousands of miles of railways all over the globe, making himself rich in the process. In 1820 Telford became the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a body that shaped – and still shapes – the modern profession.

But Telford never became grand or formal, and shunned outward signs of wealth and status. Money never seemed to interest him much. Thick set, with dark hair, a rugged face and a Scottish accent, he was a man born to hard work outdoors who prided himself on his practical skills. He was also a flexible political operator with a deep, self-taught understanding of theory: his pocket notebooks are full of demanding mathematical calculations and architectural study. He read and wrote late into the night.

Telford worked hard and almost non-stop. There was no time and seemingly no desire for a marriage, family or partner. He had no siblings and, after the death of his mother, no immediate relations, but he had a number of close lifelong friends. In the right company he was cheerful, telling stories and making jokes with a sparkle in his eye that made people like him as soon as they met.

On the road

Telford was almost always on the move, keeping up a regular progress of inspection of his projects that, by the early years of the 19th century, reached into remote corners of England, Wales and Scotland. Roaming the country without a break, year in, year out, he must have travelled farther in Britain than any person alive – and even, perhaps, more than anyone ever had before.

In the Highlands, for instance, supported by government commissions, he oversaw the construction of almost 1,000 miles of roads and countless bridges including elegant, light iron structures, one of which still survives, leaping across the river Spey at Craigellachie.

Telford managed the construction of the wide Caledonian canal, running from sea to sea across the Great Glen between Inverness and Fort William. This relentless, difficult, muddy task took two decades and could have been the focus of a lifetime’s work. But Telford combined it with an extraordinary range of other schemes: rebuilding ports, erecting churches, designing water works, building bridges and constructing the fastest, best roads since the Roman era.

Telford’s famous express route from London to Holyhead smoothed the journey to Dublin – a route that grew in importance once the new United Kingdom was established in 1801. He upgraded the existing road from the capital to Birmingham and on to Shrewsbury, and engineered an elegant new section on through the hills of Snowdonia, including the fine suspension bridge at Menai and another by Conwy Castle – the only one to retain its original chains.

And still there was more: a canal across Sweden, advice to projects in India, Russia and Canada, the new St Katharine Docks in London. All of it was impressive but much of it was made redundant by technological change: the coming of steam and railways. Even as he died, in 1834, Telford was going out of date – and he knew it.

His creations are his memorial, built so well that the vast majority are still in use. You can drive on Telford’s roads, walk across his bridges and ride boats along his canals. They are worth searching out – and with them the story of a life that helped build modern Britain.

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Julian Glover is a journalist and author. His latest book, Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain, was published by Bloomsbury in January 2017.