The Life of Thomas Telford by Smiles
Samuel Smiles

Part 3 out of 6

making their way in the world, each man for himself. So they swarm
off--some to America, some to Australia, some to India, and some,
like Telford, work their way across the border and up to London."

One would scarcely have expected to find the birthplace of the
builder of the Menai Bridge and other great national works in so
obscure a corner of the kingdom. Possibly it may already have
struck the reader with surprise, that not only were all the early
engineers self-taught in their profession, but they were brought up
mostly in remote country places, far from the active life of great
towns and cities. But genius is of no locality, and springs alike
from the farmhouse, the peasant's hut, or the herd's shieling.
Strange, indeed, it is that the men who have built our bridges,
docks, lighthouses, canals, and railways, should nearly all have
been country-bred boys: Edwards and Brindley, the sons of small
farmers; Smeaton, brought up in his father's country house at
Austhorpe; Rennie, the son of a farmer and freeholder; and
Stephenson, reared in a colliery village, an engine-tenter's son.
But Telford, even more than any of these, was a purely country-bred
boy, and was born and brought up in a valley so secluded that it
could not even boast of a cluster of houses of the dimensions of a

Telford's father was a herd on the sheep-farm of Glendinning.
The farm consists of green hills, lying along the valley of the Meggat,
a little burn, which descends from the moorlands on the east, and
falls into the Esk near the hamlet of Westerkirk. John Telford's
cottage was little better than a shieling, consisting of four mud
walls, spanned by a thatched roof. It stood upon a knoll near the
lower end of a gully worn in the hillside by the torrents of many

The ground stretches away from it in a long sweeping slope up to
the sky, and is green to the top, except where the bare grey rocks
in some places crop out to the day. From the knoll may be seen
miles on miles of hills up and down the valley, winding in and out,
sometimes branching off into smaller glens, each with its gurgling
rivulet of peaty-brown water flowing down from the mosses above.
Only a narrow strip of arable land is here and there visible along
the bottom of the dale, all above being sheep-pasture, moors, and
rocks. At Glendinning you seem to have got almost to the world's end.
There the road ceases, and above it stretch trackless moors,
the solitude of which is broken only by the whimpling sound of the
burns on their way to the valley below, the hum of bees gathering
honey among the heather, the whirr of a blackcock on the wing, the
plaintive cry of the ewes at lambing-time, or the sharp bark of the
shepherd's dog gathering the flock together for the fauld.

[Image] Telford's Birthplace

In this cottage on the knoll Thomas Telford was born on the 9th of
August, 1757, and before the year was out he was already an orphan.
The shepherd, his father, died in the month of November, and was
buried in Westerkirk churchyard, leaving behind him his widow and
her only child altogether unprovided for. We may here mention that
one of the first things which that child did, when he had grown up
to manhood and could "cut a headstone," was to erect one with the
following inscription, hewn and lettered by himself, over his
father's grave: "IN MEMORY OF
NOVEMBER, 1757,"

a simple but poetical epitaph, which Wordsworth himself might have

The widow had a long and hard struggle with the world before her;
but she encountered it bravely. She had her boy to work for, and,
destitute though she was, she had him to educate. She was helped,
as the poor so often are, by those of her own condition, and there
is no sense of degradation in receiving such help. One of the
risks of benevolence is its tendency to lower the recipient to the
condition of an alms-taker. Doles from poor's-boxes have this
enfeebling effect; but a poor neighbour giving a destitute widow a
help in her time of need is felt to be a friendly act, and is alike
elevating to the character of both. Though misery such as is
witnessed in large towns was quite unknown in the valley, there was
poverty; but it was honest as well as hopeful, and none felt
ashamed of it. The farmers of the dale were very primitive*[4]
in their manners and habits, and being a warm-hearted, though by no
means a demonstrative race, they were kind to the widow and her
fatherless boy. They took him by turns to live with them at their
houses, and gave his mother occasional employment. In summer she
milked the ewes and made hay, and in harvest she went a-shearing;
contriving not only to live, but to be cheerful.

The house to which the widow and her son removed at the Whitsuntide
following the death of her husband was at a place called The Crooks,
about midway between Glendinning and Westerkirk. It was a thatched
cot-house, with two ends; in one of which lived Janet Telford
(more commonly known by her own name of Janet Jackson) and her son
Tom, and in the other her neighbour Elliot; one door being common to

[Image] Cottage at the Crooks.

Young Telford grew up a healthy boy, and he was so full of fun and
humour that he became known in the valley by the name of "Laughing
Tam." When he was old enough to herd sheep he went to live with a
relative, a shepherd like his father, and he spent most of his time
with him in summer on the hill-side amidst the silence of nature.
In winter he lived with one or other of the neighbouring farmers.
He herded their cows or ran errands, receiving for recompense his
meat, a pair of stockings, and five shillings a year for clogs.
These were his first wages, and as he grew older they were
gradually increased.

But Tom must now be put to school, and, happily, small though the
parish of Westerkirk was, it possessed the advantage of that
admirable institution, the parish school. The legal provision made
at an early period for the education of the people in Scotland,
proved one of their greatest boons. By imparting the rudiments of
knowledge to all, the parish schools of the country placed the
children of the peasantry on a more equal footing with the children
of the rich; and to that extent redressed the inequalities of
fortune. To start a poor boy on the road of life without
instruction, is like starting one on a race with his eyes bandaged
or his leg tied up. Compared with the educated son of the rich man,
the former has but little chance of sighting the winning post.

To our orphan boy the merely elementary teaching provided at the
parish school of Westerkirk was an immense boon. To master this was
the first step of the ladder he was afterwards to mount: his own
industry, energy, and ability must do the rest. To school
accordingly he went, still working a-field or herding cattle during
the summer months. Perhaps his own "penny fee" helped to pay the
teacher's hire; but it is supposed that his cousin Jackson defrayed
the principal part of the expense of his instruction. It was not
much that he learnt; but in acquiring the arts of reading, writing,
and figures, he learnt the beginnings of a great deal. Apart from
the question of learning, there was another manifest advantage to
the poor boy in mixing freely at the parish school with the sons of
the neighbouring farmers and proprietors. Such intercourse has an
influence upon a youth's temper, manners, and tastes, which is
quite as important in the education of character as the lessons of
the master himself; and Telford often, in after life, referred with
pleasure to the benefits which he had derived from his early school
friendships. Among those to whom he was accustomed to look back
with most pride, were the two elder brothers of the Malcolm family,
both of whom rose to high rank in the service of their country;
William Telford, a youth of great promise, a naval surgeon,
who died young; and the brothers William and Andrew Little, the former
of whom settled down as a farmer in Eskdale, and the latter,
a surgeon, lost his eyesight when on service off the coast of Africa.
Andrew Little afterwards established himself as a teacher at
Langholm, where he educated, amongst others, General Sir Charles
Pasley, Dr. Irving, the Custodier of the Advocate's Library at
Edinburgh; and others known to fame beyond the bounds of their
native valley. Well might Telford say, when an old man, full of
years and honours, on sitting down to write his autobiography,
"I still recollect with pride and pleasure my native parish of
Westerkirk, on the banks of the Esk, where I was born."

[Image] Westerkirk Church and School.

Footnotes for Chapter I.

*[1] Sir Waiter Scott, in his notes to the 'Minstrelsy of the
Scottish Border,' says that the common people of the high parts of
Liddlesdale and the country adjacent to this day hold the memory of
Johnnie Armstrong in very high respect.

*[2] It was long before the Reformation flowed into the secluded
valley of the Esk; but when it did, the energy of the Borderers
displayed itself in the extreme form of their opposition to the old
religion. The Eskdale people became as resolute in their
covenanting as they had before been in their free-booting; the
moorland fastnesses of the moss-troopers becoming the haunts of the
persecuted ministers in the reign of the second James. A little
above Langholm is a hill known as "Peden's View," and the well in
the green hollow at its foot is still called "Peden's Well"--that
place having been the haunt of Alexander Peden, the "prophet." His
hiding-place was among the alder-bushes in the hollow, while from
the hill-top he could look up the valley, and see whether the
Johnstones of Wester Hall were coming. Quite at the head of the
same valley, at a place called Craighaugh, on Eskdale Muir, one
Hislop, a young covenanter, was shot by Johnstone's men, and buried
where he fell; a gray slabstone still marking the place of his rest.
Since that time, however, quiet has reigned in Eskdale, and its
small population have gone about their daily industry from one
generation to another in peace. Yet though secluded and apparently
shut out by the surrounding hills from the outer world, there is
not a throb of the nation's heart but pulsates along the valley;
and when the author visited it some years since, he found that a
wave of the great Volunteer movement had flowed into Eskdale;
and the "lads of Langholm" were drilling and marching under their
chief, young Mr. Malcolm of the Burnfoot, with even more zeal than
in the populous towns and cities of the south.

*[3] The names of the families in the valley remain very nearly the
same as they were three hundred years ago--the Johnstones, Littles,
Scotts, and Beatties prevailing above Langholm; and the Armstrongs,
Bells, Irwins, and Graemes lower down towards Canobie and Netherby.
It is interesting to find that Sir David Lindesay, in his curious
drama published in 'Pinkerton's Scottish Poems' vol. ii., p. 156,
gives these as among the names of the borderers some three hundred
years since. One Common Thift, when sentenced to condign
punishment, thus remembers his Border friends in his dying speech:

"Adew! my bruther Annan thieves,
That holpit me in my mischeivis;
Adew! Grosaws, Niksonis, and Bells,
Oft have we fairne owrthreuch the fells:

Adew! Robsons, Howis, and Pylis,
That in our craft hes mony wilis:
Littlis, Trumbells, and Armestranges;
Baileowes, Erewynis, and Elwandis,
Speedy of flicht, and slicht of handis;
The Scotts of Eisdale, and the Gramis,
I haf na time to tell your nameis."

Telford, or Telfer, is an old name in the same neighbourhood,
commemorated in the well known border ballad of 'Jamie Telfer of
the fair Dodhead.' Sir W. Scott says, in the 'Minstrelsy,' that
"there is still a family of Telfers. residing near Langholm , who
pretend to derive their descent from the Telfers of the Dodhead."
A member of the family of "Pylis" above mentioned, is said to have
migrated from Ecclefechan southward to Blackburn, and there founded
the celebrated Peel family.

*[4] We were informed in the valley that about the time of Telford's
birth there were only two tea-kettles in the whole parish of
Westerkirk, one of which was in the house of Sir James Johnstone
of Wester Hall, and the other at "The Burn," the residence of
Mr. Pasley, grandfather of General Sir Charles Pasley.



The time arrived when young Telford must be put to some regular
calling. Was he to be a shepherd like his father and his uncle,
or was he to be a farm-labourer, or put apprentice to a trade?
There was not much choice; but at length it was determined to bind
him to a stonemason. In Eskdale that trade was for the most part
confined to the building of drystone walls, and there was very
little more art employed in it than an ordinarily neat-handed
labourer could manage. It was eventually decided to send the
youth--and he was now a strong lad of about fifteen--to a mason at
Lochmaben, a small town across the hills to the westward, where a
little more building and of a better sort--such as of farm-houses,
barns, and road-bridges--was carried on than in his own immediate
neighbourhood. There he remained only a few months; for his master
using him badly, the high-spirited youth would not brook it, and
ran away, taking refuge with his mother at The Crooks, very much to
her dismay.

What was now to be done with Tom? He was willing to do anything or
go anywhere rather than back to his Lochmaben master. In this
emergency his cousin Thomas Jackson, the factor or land-steward at
Wester Hall, offered to do what he could to induce Andrew Thomson,
a small mason at Langholm, to take Telford for the remainder of his
apprenticeship; and to him he went accordingly. The business
carried on by his new master was of a very humble sort. Telford,
in his autobiography, states that most of the farmers' houses in the
district then consisted of "one storey of mud walls, or rubble
stones bedded in clay, and thatched with straw, rushes, or heather;
the floors being of earth, and the fire in the middle, having a
plastered creel chimney for the escape of the smoke; while, instead
of windows, small openings in the thick mud walls admitted a scanty
light." The farm-buildings were of a similarly wretched

The principal owner of the landed property in the neighbourhood was
the Duke of Buccleugh. Shortly after the young Duke Henry succeeded
to the title and estates, in 1767, he introduced considerable
improvements in the farmers' houses and farm-steadings, and the
peasants' dwellings, as well as in the roads throughout Eskdale.
Thus a demand sprang up for masons' labour, and Telford's master
had no want of regular employment for his hands. Telford profited
by the experience which this increase in the building operations of
the neighbourhood gave him; being employed in raising rough walls
and farm enclosures, as well as in erecting bridges across rivers
wherever regular roads for wheel carriages were substituted for the
horse-tracks formerly in use.

During the greater part of his apprenticeship Telford lived in the
little town of Langholm, taking frequent opportunities of visiting
his mother at The Crooks on Saturday evenings, and accompanying her
to the parish church of Westerkirk on Sundays. Langholm was then a
very poor place, being no better in that respect than the district
that surrounded it. It consisted chiefly of mud hovels, covered
with thatch--the principal building in it being the Tolbooth,
a stone and lime structure, the upper part of which was used as a
justice-hall and the lower part as a gaol. There were, however,
a few good houses in the little town, occupied by people of the
better class, and in one of these lived an elderly lady, Miss Pasley,
one of the family of the Pasleys of Craig. As the town was so
small that everybody in it knew everybody else, the ruddyy-cheeked,
laughing mason's apprentice soon became generally known to all the
townspeople, and amongst others to Miss Pasley. When she heard that
he was the poor orphan boy from up the valley, the son of the
hard-working widow woman, Janet Jackson, so "eident" and so
industrious, her heart warmed to the mason's apprentice, and she
sent for him to her house. That was a proud day for Tom; and when
he called upon her, he was not more pleased with Miss Pasley's
kindness than delighted at the sight of her little library of
books, which contained more volumes than he had ever seen before.

Having by this time acquired a strong taste for reading, and
exhausted all the little book stores of his friends, the joy of the
young mason may be imagined when Miss Pasley volunteered to lend
him some books from her own library. Of course, he eagerly and
thankfully availed himself of the privilege; and thus, while
working as an apprentice and afterwards as a journeyman, Telford
gathered his first knowledge of British literature, in which he was
accustomed to the close of his life to take such pleasure.
He almost always had some book with him, which he would snatch a
few minutes to read in the intervals of his work; and on winter
evenings he occupied his spare time in poring over such volumes as
came in his way, usually with no better light than the cottage
fire. On one occasion Miss Pasley lent him 'Paradise Lost,' and he
took the book with him to the hill-side to read. His delight was
such that it fairly taxed his powers of expression to describe it.
He could only say; "I read, and read, and glowred; then read, and
read again." He was also a great admirer of Burns, whose writings
so inflamed his mind that at the age of twenty-two, when barely out
of his apprenticeship, we find the young mason actually breaking
out in verse.*[1] By diligently reading all the books that he could
borrow from friends and neighbours, Telford made considerable
progress in his learning; and, what with his scribbling of "poetry"
and various attempts at composition, he had become so good and
legible a writer that he was often called upon by his less-educated
acquaintances to pen letters for them to their distant friends.
He was always willing to help them in this way; and, the other working
people of the town making use of his services in the same manner,
all the little domestic and family histories of the place soon
became familiar to him. One evening a Langholm man asked Tom to
write a letter for him to his son in England; and when the young
scribe read over what had been written to the old man's dictation,
the latter, at the end of almost every sentence, exclaimed,
"Capital! capital!" and at the close he said, "Well! I declare,
Tom! Werricht himsel' couldna ha' written a better!"--Wright being
a well-known lawyer or "writer" in Langholm.

His apprenticeship over, Telford went on working as a journeyman at
Langholm, his wages at the time being only eighteen pence a day.
What was called the New Town was then in course of erection,
and there are houses still pointed out in it, the walls of which
Telford helped to put together. In the town are three arched
door-heads of a more ornamental character than the rest, of Telford's
hewing; for he was already beginning to set up his pretensions as a
craftsman, and took pride in pointing to the superior handiwork
which proceeded from his chisel.

About the same time, the bridge connecting the Old with the New
Town was built across the Esk at Langholm, and upon that structure
he was also employed. Many of the stones in it were hewn by his
hand, and on several of the blocks forming the land-breast his
tool-mark is still to be seen.

Not long after the bridge was finished, an unusually high flood or
spate swept down the valley. The Esk was "roaring red frae bank to
brae," and it was generally feared that the new brig would be
carried away. Robin Hotson, the master mason, was from home at the
time, and his wife, Tibby, knowing that he was bound by his
contract to maintain the fabric for a period of seven years, was in
a state of great alarm. She ran from one person to another,
wringing her hands and sobbing, "Oh! we'll be ruined--we'll a' be
ruined!" In her distress she thought of Telford, in whom she had
great confidence, and called out, "Oh! where's Tammy Telfer--
where's Tammy?" He was immediately sent for. It was evening, and
he was soon found at the house of Miss Pasley. When he came
running up, Tibby exclaimed, "Oh, Tammy! they've been on the brig,
and they say its shakin'! It 'll be doon!" "Never you heed them,
Tibby," said Telford, clapping her on the shoulder, "there's nae
fear o' the brig. I like it a' the better that it shakes--
it proves its weel put thegither." Tibby's fears, however, were not
so easily allayed; and insisting that she heard the brig "rumlin,"
she ran up--so the neighbours afterwards used to say of her--and set
her back against the parapet to hold it together. At this, it is
said, "Tam bodged and leuch;" and Tibby, observing how easily he
took it, at length grew more calm. It soon became clear enough
that the bridge was sufficiently strong; for the flood subsided
without doing it any harm, and it has stood the furious spates of
nearly a century uninjured.

Telford acquired considerable general experience about the same
time as a house-builder, though the structures on which he was
engaged were of a humble order, being chiefly small farm-houses on
the Duke of Buccleugh's estate, with the usual out-buildings.
Perhaps the most important of the jobs on which he was employed was
the manse of Westerkirk, where he was comparatively at home.
The hamlet stands on a green hill-side, a little below the entrance
to the valley of the Meggat. It consists of the kirk, the minister's
manse, the parish-school, and a few cottages, every occupant of
which was known to Telford. It is backed by the purple moors,
up which he loved to wander in his leisure hours and read the poems
of Fergusson and Burns. The river Esk gurgles along its rocky bed
in the bottom of the dale, separated from the kirkyard by a steep
bank, covered with natural wood; while near at hand, behind the
manse, stretch the fine woods of Wester Hall, where Telford was
often wont to roam.

[Image] Valley of Eskdale, Westerkirk in the distance.

We can scarcely therefore wonder that, amidst such pastoral
scenery, and reading such books as he did, the poetic faculty of
the country mason should have become so decidedly developed.
It was while working at Westerkirk manse that he sketched the first
draft of his descriptive poem entitled 'Eskdale,' which was published
in the 'Poetical Museum' in 1784.*[2] These early poetical efforts
were at least useful in stimulating his self-education. For the
practice of poetical composition, while it cultivates the
sentiment of beauty in thought and feeling, is probably the best of
all exercises in the art of writing correctly, grammatically,
and expressively. By drawing a man out of his ordinary calling, too,
it often furnishes him with a power of happy thinking which may in
after life become a source of the purest pleasure; and this, we
believe, proved to be the case with Telford, even though he ceased
in later years to pursue the special cultivation of the art.

Shortly after, when work became slack in the district, Telford
undertook to do small jobs on his own account such as the hewing of
grave-stones and ornamental doorheads. He prided himself especially
upon his hewing, and from the specimens of his workmanship which
are still to be seen in the churchyards of Langholm and Westerkirk,
he had evidently attained considerable skill. On some of these
pieces of masonry the year is carved--1779, or 1780. One of the
most ornamental is that set into the wall of Westerkirk church,
being a monumental slab, with an inscription and moulding,
surmounted by a coat of arms, to the memory of James Pasley of Craig.
He had now learnt all that his native valley could teach him of the
art of masonry; and, bent upon self-improvement and gaining a
larger experience of life, as well as knowledge of his trade, he
determined to seek employment elsewhere. He accordingly left
Eskdale for the first time, in 1780, and sought work in Edinburgh,
where the New Town was then in course of erection on the elevated
land, formerly green fields, extending along the north bank of the
"Nor' Loch." A bridge had been thrown across the Loch in 1769,
the stagnant pond or marsh in the hollow had been filled up,
and Princes Street was rising as if by magic. Skilled masons were
in great demand for the purpose of carrying out these and the numerous
other architectural improvements which were in progress, and
Telford had no difficulty in obtaining employment.

Our stone-mason remained at Edinburgh for about two years, during
which he had the advantage of taking part in first-rate work and
maintaining himself comfortably, while he devoted much of his spare
time to drawing, in its application to architecture. He took the
opportunity of visiting and carefully studying the fine specimens
of ancient work at Holyrood House and Chapel, the Castle, Heriot's
Hospital, and the numerous curious illustrations of middle age
domestic architecture with which the Old Town abounds. He also made
several journeys to the beautiful old chapel of Rosslyn, situated
some miles to the south of Edinburgh, making careful drawings of
the more important parts of that building.

When he had thus improved himself, "and studied all that was to be
seen in Edinburgh, in returning to the western border," he says,
"I visited the justly celebrated Abbey of Melrose." There he was
charmed by the delicate and perfect workmanship still visible even
in the ruins of that fine old Abbey; and with his folio filled with
sketches and drawings, he made his way back to Eskdale and the
humble cottage at The Crooks. But not to remain there long.
He merely wished to pay a parting visit to his mother and other
relatives before starting upon a longer journey. "Having acquired,"
he says in his Autobiography, "the rudiments of my profession,
I considered that my native country afforded few opportunities of
exercising it to any extent, and therefore judged it advisable
(like many of my countrymen) to proceed southward, where industry
might find more employment and be better remunerated."

Before setting out, he called upon all his old friends and
acquaintances in the dale--the neighbouring farmers, who had
befriended him and his mother when struggling with poverty--his
schoolfellows, many of whom were preparing to migrate, like
himself, from their native valley--and the many friends and
acquaintances he had made while working as a mason in Langholm.
Everybody knew that Tom was going south, and all wished him God
speed. At length the leave-taking was over, and he set out for
London in the year 1782, when twenty-five years old. He had, like
the little river Meggat, on the banks of which he was born, floated
gradually on towards the outer world: first from the nook in the
valley, to Westerkirk school; then to Langholm and its little
circle; and now, like the Meggat, which flows with the Esk into the
ocean, he was about to be borne away into the wide world. Telford,
however, had confidence in himself, and no one had fears for him.
As the neighbours said, wisely wagging their heads, "Ah, he's an
auld-farran chap is Tam; he'll either mak a spoon or spoil a horn;
any how, he's gatten a good trade at his fingers' ends."

Telford had made all his previous journeys on foot; but this one he
made on horseback. It happened that Sir James Johnstone, the laird
of Wester Hall, had occasion to send a horse from Eskdale to a
member of his family in London, and he had some difficulty in
finding a person to take charge of it. It occurred to Mr. Jackson,
the laird's factor, that this was a capital opportunity for his
cousin Tom, the mason; and it was accordingly arranged that he
should ride the horse to town. When a boy, he had learnt rough
riding sufficiently well for the purpose; and the better to fit him
for the hardships of the road, Mr. Jackson lent him his buckskin
breeches. Thus Tom set out from his native valley well mounted,
with his little bundle of "traps" buckled behind him, and, after a
prosperous journey, duly reached London, and delivered up the horse
as he had been directed. Long after, Mr. Jackson used to tell the
story of his cousin's first ride to London with great glee, and he
always took care to wind up with--"but Tam forgot to send me back
my breeks!"

[Image] Lower Valley of the Meggat, the Crooks in the distance.

Footnotes for Chapter II.

*[1] In his 'Epistle to Mr. Walter Ruddiman,' first published in
'Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine,' in 1779, occur the following lines
addressed to Burns, in which Telford incidentally sketches himself
at the time, and hints at his own subsequent meritorious career;

"Nor pass the tentie curious lad,
Who o'er the ingle hangs his head,
And begs of neighbours books to read;
For hence arise
Thy country's sons, who far are spread,
Baith bold and wise."

*[2] The 'Poetical Museum,' Hawick, p.267. ' Eskdale' was
afterwards reprinted by Telford when living at Shrewsbury, when he
added a few lines by way of conclusion. The poem describes very
pleasantly the fine pastoral scenery of the district:--

"Deep 'mid the green sequester'd glens below,
Where murmuring streams among the alders flow,
Where flowery meadows down their margins spread,
And the brown hamlet lifts its humble head--
There, round his little fields, the peasant strays,
And sees his flock along the mountain graze;
And, while the gale breathes o'er his ripening grain,
And soft repeats his upland shepherd's strain,
And western suns with mellow radiance play.
And gild his straw-roof'd cottage with their ray,
Feels Nature's love his throbbing heart employ,
Nor envies towns their artificial joy."

The features of the valley are very fairly described. Its early
history is then rapidly sketched; next its period of border strife,
at length happily allayed by the union of the kingdoms, under which
the Johnstones, Pasleys, and others, men of Eskdale, achieve honour
and fame. Nor did he forget to mention Armstrong, the author of the
'Art of Preserving Health,' son of the minister of Castleton, a few
miles east of Westerkirk; and Mickle, the translator of the 'Lusiad,'
whose father was minister of the parish of Langholm; both of whom
Telford took a natural pride in as native poets of Eskdale.



A common working man, whose sole property consisted in his mallet
and chisels, his leathern apron and his industry, might not seem to
amount to much in "the great world of London." But, as Telford
afterwards used to say, very much depends on whether the man has
got a head with brains in it of the right sort upon his shoulders.
In London, the weak man is simply a unit added to the vast floating
crowd, and may be driven hither and thither, if he do not sink
altogether; while the strong man will strike out, keep his head
above water, and make a course for himself, as Telford did.
There is indeed a wonderful impartiality about London. There the
capable person usually finds his place. When work of importance is
required, nobody cares to ask where the man who can do it best
comes from, or what he has been, but what he is, and what he can
do. Nor did it ever stand in Telford's way that his father had been
a poor shepherd in Eskdale, and that he himself had begun his
London career by working for weekly wages with a mallet and chisel.

After duly delivering up the horse, Telford proceeded to present a
letter with which he had been charged by his friend Miss Pasley on
leaving Langholm. It was addressed to her brother, Mr. John Pasley,
an eminent London merchant, brother also of Sir Thomas Pasley, and
uncle of the Malcolms. Miss Pasley requested his influence on
behalf of the young mason from Eskdale, the bearer of the letter.
Mr. Pasley received his countryman kindly, and furnished him with
letters of introduction to Sir William Chambers, the architect of
Somerset House, then in course of erection. It was the finest
architectural work in progress in the metropolis, and Telford,
desirous of improving himself by experience of the best kind,
wished to be employed upon it. He did not, indeed, need any
influence to obtain work there, for good hewers were in demand; but
our mason thought it well to make sure, and accordingly provided
himself beforehand with the letter of introduction to the architect.
He was employed immediately, and set to work among the hewers,
receiving the usual wages for his labour.

Mr. Pasley also furnished him with a letter to Mr. Robert Adam,*[1]
another distinguished architect of the time; and Telford seems to
have been much gratified by the civility which he receives from
him. Sir William Chambers he found haughty and reserved, probably
being too much occupied to bestow attention on the Somerset House
hewer, while he found Adam to be affable and communicative.
"Although I derived no direct advantage from either," Telford says,
"yet so powerful is manner, that the latter left the most
favourable impression; while the interviews with both convinced me
that my safest plan was to endeavour to advance, if by slower steps,
yet by independent conduct."

There was a good deal of fine hewer's work about Somerset House,
and from the first Telford aimed at taking the highest place as an
artist and tradesman in that line.*[2] Diligence, carefulness,
and observation will always carry a man onward and upward; and before
long we find that Telford had succeeded in advancing himself to the
rank of a first-class mason. Judging from his letters written about
this time to his friends in Eskdale, he seems to have been very
cheerful and happy; and his greatest pleasure was in calling up
recollections of his native valley. He was full of kind remembrances
for everybody. "How is Andrew, and Sandy, and Aleck, and Davie?"
he would say; and "remember me to all the folk of the nook."
He seems to have made a round of the persons from Eskdale in or about
London before he wrote, as his letters were full of messages from
them to their friends at home; for in those days postage was dear,
and as much as possible was necessarily packed within the compass
of a working man's letter. In one, written after more than a
year's absence, he said he envied the visit which a young surgeon
of his acquaintance was about to pay to the valley; "for the
meeting of long absent friends," he added, "is a pleasure to be
equalled by few other enjoyments here below."

He had now been more than a year in London, during which he had
acquired much practical information both in the useful and
ornamental branches of architecture. Was he to go on as a working
mason? or what was to be his next move? He had been quietly making
his observations upon his companions, and had come to the
conclusion that they very much wanted spirit, and, more than all,
forethought. He found very clever workmen about him with no idea
whatever beyond their week's wages. For these they would make every
effort: they would work hard, exert themselves to keep their
earnings up to the highest point, and very readily "strike" to
secure an advance; but as for making a provision for the next week,
or the next year, he thought them exceedingly thoughtless. On the
Monday mornings they began "clean;" and on Saturdays their week's
earnings were spent. Thus they lived from one week to another--
their limited notion of "the week" seeming to bound their existence.

Telford, on the other hand, looked upon the week as only one of the
storeys of a building; and upon the succession of weeks, running on
through years, he thought that the complete life structure should
be built up. He thus describes one of the best of his fellow-workmen
at that time--the only individual he had formed an intimacy with:
"He has been six years at Somerset House, and is esteemed the
finest workman in London, and consequently in England. He works
equally in stone and marble. He has excelled the professed carvers
in cutting Corinthian capitals and other ornaments about this
edifice, many of which will stand as a monument to his honour.
He understands drawing thoroughly, and the master he works under
looks on him as the principal support of his business. This man,
whose name is Mr. Hatton, may be half a dozen years older than
myself at most. He is honesty and good nature itself, and is
adored by both his master and fellow-workmen. Notwithstanding his
extraordinary skill and abilities, he has been working all this
time as a common journeyman, contented with a few shillings a week
more than the rest; but I believe your uneasy friend has kindled a
spark in his breast that he never felt before." *[3]

In fact, Telford had formed the intention of inducing this
admirable fellow to join him in commencing business as builders on
their own account. "There is nothing done in stone or marble," he
says, "that we cannot do in the completest manner." Mr. Robert Adam,
to whom the scheme was mentioned, promised his support, and said he
would do all in his power to recommend them. But the great
difficulty was money, which neither of them possessed; and Telford,
with grief, admitting that this was an "insuperable bar," went no
further with the scheme.

About this time Telford was consulted by Mr. Pulteney*[4]
respecting the alterations making in the mansion at Wester Hall,
and was often with him on this business. We find him also writing
down to Langholm for the prices of roofing, masonry, and timber-work,
with a view to preparing estimates for a friend who was building a
house in that neighbourhood. Although determined to reach the
highest excellence as a manual worker, it is clear that he was
already aspiring to be something more. Indeed, his steadiness,
perseverance, and general ability, pointed him out as one well
worthy of promotion.

How he achieved his next step we are not informed; but we find him,
in July, 1784, engaged in superintending the erection of a house,
after a design by Mr. Samuel Wyatt, intended for the residence of
the Commissioner (now occupied by the Port Admiral) at Portsmouth
Dockyard, together with a new chapel, and several buildings
connected with the Yard. Telford took care to keep his eyes open to
all the other works going forward in the neighbourhood, and he
states that he had frequent opportunities of observing the various
operations necessary in the foundation and construction of
graving-docks, wharf-walls, and such like, which were among the
principal occupations of his after-life.

The letters written by him from Portsmouth to his Eskdale
correspondents about this time were cheerful and hopeful, like
those he had sent from London. His principal grievance was that he
received so few from home, but he supposed that opportunities for
forwarding them by hand had not occurred, postage being so dear as
scarcely then to be thought of. To tempt them to correspondence he
sent copies of the poems which he still continued to compose in the
leisure of his evenings: one of these was a 'Poem on Portsdown Hill.'
As for himself, he was doing very well. The buildings were
advancing satisfactorily; but, "above all," said he, "my proceedings
are entirely approved by the Commissioners and officers here--
so much so that they would sooner go by my advice than my master's,
which is a dangerous point, being difficult to keep their good
graces as well as his. However, I will contrive to manage it"*[5]

The following is his own account of the manner in which he was
usually occupied during the winter months while at Portsmouth Dock:--
"I rise in the morning at 7 (February 1st), and will get up
earlier as the days lengthen until it come to 5 o'clock.
I immediately set to work to make out accounts, write on matters of
business, or draw, until breakfast, which is at 9. Then I go into
the Yard about 10, see that all are at their posts, and am ready to
advise about any matters that may require attention. This, and
going round the several works, occupies until about dinner-time,
which is at 2; and after that I again go round and attend to what
may be wanted. I draw till 5; then tea; and after that I write,
draw, or read until half after 9; then comes supper and bed. This
my ordinary round, unless when I dine or spend an evening with a
friend; but I do not make many friends, being very particular, nay,
nice to a degree. My business requires a great deal of writing and
drawing, and this work I always take care to keep under by
reserving my time for it, and being in advance of my work rather
than behind it. Then, as knowledge is my most ardent pursuit, a
thousand things occur which call for investigation which would
pass unnoticed by those who are content to trudge only in the
beaten path. I am not contented unless I can give a reason for
every particular method or practice which is pursued. Hence I am
now very deep in chemistry. The mode of making mortar in the best
way led me to inquire into the nature of lime. Having, in pursuit
of this inquiry, looked into some books on chemistry, I perceived
the field was boundless; but that to assign satisfactory reasons
for many mechanical processes required a general knowledge of that
science. I have therefore borrowed a MS. copy of Dr. Black's
Lectures. I have bought his 'Experiments on Magnesia and
Quicklime,' and also Fourcroy's Lectures, translated from the
French by one Mr. Elliot, of Edinburgh. And I am determined to
study the subject with unwearied attention until I attain some
accurate knowledge of chemistry, which is of no less use in the
practice of the arts than it is in that of medicine." He adds, that
he continues to receive the cordial approval of the Commissioners
for the manner in which he performs his duties, and says, "I take
care to be so far master of the business committed to me as that
none shall be able to eclipse me in that respect."*[6] At the same
time he states he is taking great delight in Freemasonry, and is
about to have a lodge-room at the George Inn fitted up after his
plans and under his direction. Nor does he forget to add that he
has his hair powdered every day, and puts on a clean shirt three
times a week.

The Eskdale mason was evidently getting on, as he deserved to do.
But he was not puffed up. To his Langholm friend he averred that
"he would rather have it said of him that he possessed one grain of
good nature or good sense than shine the finest puppet in
Christendom." "Let my mother know that I am well," he wrote to
Andrew Little, "and that I will print her a letter soon."*[7]
For it was a practice of this good son, down to the period of his
mother's death, no matter how much burdened he was with business,
to set apart occasional times for the careful penning of a letter
in printed characters, that she might the more easily be able to
decipher it with her old and dimmed eyes by her cottage fireside at
The Crooks. As a man's real disposition usually displays itself
most strikingly in small matters--like light, which gleams the
most brightly when seen through narrow chinks--it will probably
be admitted that this trait, trifling though it may appear, was
truly characteristic of the simple and affectionate nature of the
hero of our story.

The buildings at Portsmouth were finished by the end of 1786, when
Telford's duties there being at an end, and having no engagement
beyond the termination of the contract, he prepared to leave, and
began to look about him for other employment.

Footnotes for Chapter III.

*[1] Robert and John Adam were architects of considerable repute in
their day. Among their London erections were the Adelphi Buildings,
in the Strand; Lansdowne House, in Berkeley Square; Caen Wood
House, near Hampstead (Lord Mansfield's); Portland Place, Regent's
Park; and numerous West End streets and mansions. The screen of the
Admiralty and the ornaments of Draper's Hall were also designed by

*[2] Long after Telford had become famous, he was passing over
Waterloo Bridge one day with a friend, when, pointing to some
finely-cut stones in the corner nearest the bridge, he said:
"You see those stones there; forty years since I hewed and laid them,
when working on that building as a common mason."

*[3]Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated London, July, 1783.

*[4] Mr., afterwards Sir William, Pulteney, was the second son of
Sir James Johnstone, of Wester Hall, and assumed the name of
Pulteney, on his marriage to Miss Pulteney, niece of the Earl of
Bath and of General Pulteney, by whom he succeeded to a large
fortune. He afterwards succeeded to the baronetcy of his elder
brother James, who died without issue in 1797. Sir William Pulteney
represented Cromarty, and afterwards Shrewsbury, where he usually
resided, in seven successive Parliaments. He was a great patron of
Telford's, as we shall afterwards find.

*[5] Letter to Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Portsmouth, July 23rd,

*[6] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Portsmouth
Dockyard, Feb. 1, 1786.

*[7] Ibid



Mr. Pulteney, member for Shrewsbury, was the owner of extensive
estates in that neighbourhood by virtue of his marriage with the
niece of the last Earl of Bath. Having resolved to fit up the
Castle there as a residence, he bethought him of the young Eskdale
mason, who had, some years before, advised him as to the repairs of
the Johnstone mansion at Wester Hall. Telford was soon found, and
engaged to go down to Shrewsbury to superintend the necessary
alterations. Their execution occupied his attention for some time,
and during their progress he was so fortunate as to obtain the
appointment of Surveyor of Public Works for the county of Salop,
most probably through the influence of his patron. Indeed, Telford
was known to be so great a favourite with Mr. Pulteney that at
Shrewsbury he usually went by the name of "Young Pulteney."

Much of his attention was from this time occupied with the surveys
and repairs of roads, bridges, and gaols, and the supervision of
all public buildings under the control of the magistrates of the
county. He was also frequently called upon by the corporation of
the borough of Shrewsbury to furnish plans for the improvement of
the streets and buildings of that fine old town; and many
alterations were carried out under his direction during the period
of his residence there.

While the Castle repairs were in course of execution, Telford was
called upon by the justices to superintend the erection of a new
gaol, the plans for which had already been prepared and settled.
The benevolent Howard, who devoted himself with such zeal to gaol
improvement, on hearing of the intentions of the magistrates, made
a visit to Shrewsbury for the purpose of examining the plans; and
the circumstance is thus adverted to by Telford in one of his
letters to his Eskdale correspondent:--"About ten days ago I had a
visit from the celebrated John Howard, Esq. I say I, for he was on
his tour of gaols and infirmaries; and those of Shrewsbury being
both under my direction, this was, of course, the cause of my being
thus distinguished. I accompanied him through the infirmary and the
gaol. I showed him the plans of the proposed new buildings, and had
much conversation with him on both subjects. In consequence of his
suggestions as to the former, I have revised and amended the plans,
so as to carry out a thorough reformation; and my alterations
having been approved by a general board, they have been referred to
a committee to carry out. Mr. Howard also took objection to the
plan of the proposed gaol, and requested me to inform the
magistrates that, in his opinion, the interior courts were too
small, and not sufficiently ventilated; and the magistrates, having
approved his suggestions, ordered the plans to be amended
accordingly. You may easily conceive how I enjoyed the conversation
of this truly good man, and how much I would strive to possess his
good opinion. I regard him as the guardian angel of the miserable.
He travels into all parts of Europe with the sole object of doing
good, merely for its own sake, and not for the sake of men's praise.
To give an instance of his delicacy, and his desire to avoid public
notice, I may mention that, being a Presbyterian, he attended the
meeting-house of that denomination in Shrewsbury on Sunday morning,
on which occasion I accompanied him; but in the afternoon he
expressed a wish to attend another place of worship, his presence
in the town having excited considerable curiosity, though his wish
was to avoid public recognition. Nay, more, he assures me that he
hates travelling, and was born to be a domestic man. He never sees
his country-house but he says within himself, 'Oh! might I but rest
here, and never more travel three miles from home; then should I be
happy indeed!' But he has become so committed, and so pledged
himself to his own conscience to carry out his great work, that he
says he is doubtful whether he will ever be able to attain the
desire of his heart--life at home. He never dines out, and scarcely
takes time to dine at all: he says he is growing old, and has no
time to lose. His manner is simplicity itself. Indeed, I have
never yet met so noble a being. He is going abroad again shortly
on one of his long tours of mercy."*[1] The journey to which
Telford here refers was Howard's last. In the following year he
left England to return no more; and the great and good man died at
Cherson, on the shores of the Black Sea, less than two years after
his interview with the young engineer at Shrewsbury.

Telford writes to his Langholm friend at the same time that he is
working very hard, and studying to improve himself in branches of
knowledge in which he feels himself deficient. He is practising
very temperate habits: for half a year past he has taken to
drinking water only, avoiding all sweets, and eating no
"nick-nacks." He has "sowens and milk,' (oatmeal flummery) every
night for his supper. His friend having asked his opinion of
politics, he says he really knows nothing about them; he had been
so completely engrossed by his own business that he has not had
time to read even a newspaper. But, though an ignoramus in
politics, he has been studying lime, which is more to his purpose.
If his friend can give him any information about that, he will
promise to read a newspaper now and then in the ensuing session of
Parliament, for the purpose of forming some opinion of politics:
he adds, however, "not if it interfere with my business--mind that!',
His friend told him that he proposed translating a system of
chemistry. "Now you know," wrote Telford, "that I am chemistry mad;
and if I were near you, I would make you promise to communicate any
information on the subject that you thought would be of service to
your friend, especially about calcareous matters and the mode of
forming the best composition for building with, as well above as
below water. But not to be confined to that alone, for you must
know I have a book for the pocket,*[2] which I always carry with me,
into which I have extracted the essence of Fourcroy's Lectures,
Black on Quicklime, Scheele's Essays, Watson's Essays, and various
points from the letters of my respected friend Dr. Irving.*[3]
So much for chemistry. But I have also crammed into it facts
relating to mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and all manner of
stuff, to which I keep continually adding, and it will be a charity
to me if you will kindly contribute your mite."*[4] He says it
has been, and will continue to be, his aim to endeavour to unite
those "two frequently jarring pursuits, literature and business;"
and he does not see why a man should be less efficient in the
latter capacity because he has well informed, stored, and humanized
his mind by the cultivation of letters. There was both good sense
and sound practical wisdom in this view of Telford.

While the gaol was in course of erection, after the improved plans
suggested by Howard, a variety of important matters occupied the
county surveyor's attention. During the summer of 1788 he says he
is very much occupied, having about ten different jobs on hand:
roads, bridges, streets, drainage-works, gaol, and infirmary.
Yet he had time to write verses, copies of which he forwarded to his
Eskdale correspondent, inviting his criticism. Several of these
were elegiac lines, somewhat exaggerated in their praises of the
deceased, though doubtless sincere. One poem was in memory of
George Johnstone, Esq., a member of the Wester Hall family, and
another on the death of William Telford, an Eskdale farmer's son,
an intimate friend and schoolfellow of our engineer.*[5] These,
however, were but the votive offerings of private friendship,
persons more immediately about him knowing nothing of his stolen
pleasures in versemaking. He continued to be shy of strangers,
and was very "nice," as he calls it, as to those whom he admitted
to his bosom.

Two circumstances of considerable interest occurred in the course
of the same year (1788), which are worthy of passing notice.
The one was the fall of the church of St. Chad's, at Shrewsbury;
the other was the discovery of the ruins of the Roman city of
Uriconium, in the immediate neighbourhood. The church of St. Chad's
was about four centuries old, and stood greatly in need of repairs.
The roof let in the rain upon the congregation, and the parish
vestry met to settle the plans for mending it; but they could not
agree about the mode of procedure. In this emergency Telford was
sent for, and requested to advise what was best to he done. After a
rapid glance at the interior, which was in an exceedingly dangerous
state, he said to the churchwardens, "Gentlemen, we'll consult
together on the outside, if you please." He found that not only the
roof but the walls of the church were in a most decayed state.
It appeared that, in consequence of graves having been dug in the
loose soil close to the shallow foundation of the north-west pillar
of the tower, it had sunk so as to endanger the whole structure.
"I discovered," says he, "that there were large fractures in the
walls, on tracing which I found that the old building was in a most
shattered and decrepit condition, though until then it had been
scarcely noticed. Upon this I declined giving any recommendation as
to the repairs of the roof unless they would come to the resolution
to secure the more essential parts, as the fabric appeared to me
to be in a very alarming condition. I sent in a written report to
the same effect." *[6]

The parish vestry again met, and the report was read; but the
meeting exclaimed against so extensive a proposal, imputing mere
motives of self-interest to the surveyor. "Popular clamour," says
Telford, "overcame my report. 'These fractures,' exclaimed the
vestrymen, 'have been there from time immemorial;' and there were
some otherwise sensible persons, who remarked that professional men
always wanted to carve out employment for themselves, and that the
whole of the necessary repairs could be done at a comparatively
small expense."*[7] The vestry then called in another person,
a mason of the town, and directed him to cut away the injured part
of a particular pillar, in order to underbuild it. On the second
evening after the commencement of the operations, the sexton was
alarmed by a fail of lime-dust and mortar when he attempted to toll
the great bell, on which he immediately desisted and left the
church. Early next morning (on the 9th of July), while the workmen
were waiting at the church door for the key, the bell struck four,
and the vibration at once brought down the tower, which overwhelmed
the nave, demolishing all the pillars along the north side, and
shattering the rest. "The very parts I had pointed out," says
Telford, "were those which gave way, and down tumbled the tower,
forming a very remarkable ruin, which astonished and surprised the
vestry, and roused them from their infatuation, though they have
not yet recovered from the shock."*[8]

The other circumstance to which we have above referred was the
discovery of the Roman city of Uriconium, near Wroxeter, about five
miles from Shrewsbury, in the year 1788. The situation of the place
is extremely beautiful, the river Severn flowing along its western
margin, and forming a barrier against what were once the hostile
districts of West Britain. For many centuries the dead city had
slept under the irregular mounds of earth which covered it, like
those of Mossul and Nineveh. Farmers raised heavy crops of turnips
and grain from the surface and they scarcely ever ploughed or
harrowed the ground without turning up Roman coins or pieces of
pottery. They also observed that in certain places the corn was
more apt to be scorched in dry weather than in others--a sure sign
to them that there were ruins underneath; and their practice, when
they wished to find stones for building, was to set a mark upon the
scorched places when the corn was on the ground, and after harvest
to dig down, sure of finding the store of stones which they wanted
for walls, cottages, or farm-houses. In fact, the place came to be
regarded in the light of a quarry, rich in ready-worked materials
for building purposes. A quantity of stone being wanted for the
purpose of erecting a blacksmith's shop, on digging down upon one
of the marked places, the labourers came upon some ancient works of
a more perfect appearance than usual. Curiosity was excited
--antiquarians made their way to the spot--and lo! they pronounced
the ruins to be neither more nor less than a Roman bath, in a
remarkably perfect state of preservation. Mr. Telford was requested
to apply to Mr. Pulteney, the lord of the manor, to prevent the
destruction of these interesting remains, and also to permit the
excavations to proceed, with a view to the buildings being
completely explored. This was readily granted, and Mr. Pulteney
authorised Telford himself to conduct the necessary excavations at
his expense. This he promptly proceeded to do, and the result was,
that an extensive hypocaust apartment was brought to light, with
baths, sudatorium, dressing-room, and a number of tile pillars
--all forming parts of a Roman floor--sufficiently perfect to show
the manner in which the building had been constructed and used.*[9]
Among Telford's less agreeable duties about the same time was that
of keeping the felons at work. He had to devise the ways and means
of employing them without risk of their escaping, which gave him
much trouble and anxiety. "Really," he said, "my felons are a very
troublesome family. I have had a great deal of plague from them,
and I have not yet got things quite in the train that I could wish.
I have had a dress made for them of white and brown cloth, in such
a way that they are pye-bald. They have each a light chain about
one leg. Their allowance in food is a penny loaf and a halfpenny
worth of cheese for breakfast; a penny loaf, a quart of soup, and
half a pound of meat for dinner; and a penny loaf and a halfpenny
worth of cheese for supper; so that they have meat and clothes at
all events. I employ them in removing earth, serving masons or
bricklayers, or in any common labouring work on which they can be
employed; during which time, of course, I have them strictly

Much more pleasant was his first sight of Mrs. Jordan at the
Shrewsbury theatre, where he seems to have been worked up to a
pitch of rapturous enjoyment. She played for six nights there at
the race time, during which there were various other'
entertainments. On the second day there was what was called an
Infirmary Meeting, or an assemblage of the principal county
gentlemen in the infirmary, at which, as county surveyor, Telford
was present. They proceeded thence to church to hear a sermon
preached for the occasion; after which there was a dinner, followed
by a concert. He attended all. The sermon was preached in the new
pulpit, which had just been finished after his design, in the
Gothic style; and he confidentially informed his Langholm
correspondent that he believed the pulpit secured greater
admiration than the sermon, With the concert he was completely
disappointed, and he then became convinced that he had no ear for
music. Other people seemed very much pleased; but for the life of
him he could make nothing of it. The only difference that he
recognised between one tune and another was that there was a
difference in the noise. "It was all very fine," he said, "I have
no doubt; but I would not give a song of Jock Stewart *[10] for the
whole of them. The melody of sound is thrown away upon me. One
look, one word of Mrs. Jordan, has more effect upon me than all the
fiddlers in England. Yet I sat down and tried to be as attentive as
any mortal could be. I endeavoured, if possible, to get up an
interest in what was going on; but it was all of no use. I felt no
emotion whatever, excepting only a strong inclination to go to
sleep. It must be a defect; but it is a fact, and I cannot help it.
I suppose my ignorance of the subject, and the want of musical
experience in my youth, may be the cause of it."*[11] Telford's
mother was still living in her old cottage at The Crooks. Since he
had parted from her, he had written many printed letters to keep
her informed of his progress; and he never wrote to any of his
friends in the dale without including some message or other to his
mother. Like a good and dutiful son, he had taken care out of his
means to provide for her comfort in her declining years. "She has
been a good mother to me," he said, "and I will try and be a good
son to her." In a letter written from Shrewsbury about this time,
enclosing a ten pound note, seven pounds of which were to be given
to his mother, he said, "I have from time to time written William
Jackson [his cousin] and told him to furnish her with whatever she
wants to make her comfortable; but there may be many little things
she may wish to have, and yet not like to ask him for. You will
therefore agree with me that it is right she should have a little
cash to dispose of in her own way.... I am not rich yet; but it
will ease my mind to set my mother above the fear of want. That has
always been my first object; and next to that, to be the somebody
which you have always encouraged me to believe I might aspire to
become. Perhaps after all there may be something in it!" *[12]
He now seems to have occupied much of his leisure hours in
miscellaneous reading. Among the numerous books which he read, he
expressed the highest admiration for Sheridan's 'Life of Swift.'
But his Langholm friend, who was a great politician, having invited
his attention to politics, Telford's reading gradually extended in
that direction. Indeed the exciting events of the French
Revolution then tended to make all men more or less politicians.
The capture of the Bastille by the people of Paris in 1789 passed
like an electric thrill through Europe. Then followed the
Declaration of Rights; after which, in the course of six months,
all the institutions which had before existed in France were swept
away, and the reign of justice was fairly inaugurated upon earth!

In the spring of 1791 the first part of Paine's 'Rights of Man'
appeared, and Telford, like many others, read it, and was at once
carried away by it. Only a short time before, he had admitted with
truth that he knew nothing of politics; but no sooner had he read
Paine than he felt completely enlightened. He now suddenly
discovered how much reason he and everybody else in England had for
being miserable. While residing at Portsmouth, he had quoted to his
Langholm friend the lines from Cowper's 'Task,' then just
published, beginning "Slaves cannot breathe in England;" but lo!
Mr. Paine had filled his imagination with the idea that England was
nothing but a nation of bondmen and aristocrats. To his natural
mind, the kingdom had appeared to be one in which a man had pretty
fair play, could think and speak, and do the thing he would,--
tolerably happy, tolerably prosperous, and enjoying many blessings.
He himself had felt free to labour, to prosper, and to rise from
manual to head work. No one had hindered him; his personal liberty
had never been interfered with; and he had freely employed his
earnings as he thought proper. But now the whole thing appeared a
delusion. Those rosy-cheeked old country gentlemen who came riding
into Shrewsbury to quarter sessions, and were so fond of their
young Scotch surveyor occupying themselves in building bridges,
maintaining infirmaries, making roads, and regulating gaols--
those county magistrates and members of parliament, aristocrats all,
were the very men who, according to Paine, were carrying the
country headlong to ruin!

If Telford could not offer an opinion on politics before, because
he "knew nothing about them," he had now no such difficulty. Had
his advice been asked about the foundations of a bridge, or the
security of an arch, he would have read and studied much before
giving it; he would have carefully inquired into the chemical
qualities of different kinds of lime--into the mechanical
principles of weight and resistance, and such like; but he had no
such hesitation in giving an opinion about the foundations of a
constitution of more than a thousand years' growth. Here, like
other young politicians, with Paine's book before him, he felt
competent to pronounce a decisive judgment at once. "I am
convinced," said he, writing to his Langholm friend, "that the
situation of Great Britain is such, that nothing short of some
signal revolution can prevent her from sinking into bankruptcy,
slavery, and insignificancy." He held that the national expenditure
was so enormous,*[13] arising from the corrupt administration of
the country, that it was impossible the "bloated mass" could hold
together any longer; and as he could not expect that "a hundred
Pulteneys," such as his employer, could be found to restore it to
health, the conclusion he arrived at was that ruin was
"inevitable."*[14] Notwithstanding the theoretical ruin of England
which pressed so heavy on his mind at this time, we find Telford
strongly recommending his correspondent to send any good wrights he
could find in his neighbourhood to Bath, where they would be
enabled to earn twenty shillings or a guinea a week at piece-work--
the wages paid at Langholm for similar work being only about half
those amounts.

In the same letter in which these observations occur, Telford
alluded to the disgraceful riots at Birmingham, in the course of
which Dr. Priestley's house and library were destroyed. As the
outrages were the work of the mob, Telford could not charge the
aristocracy with them; but with equal injustice he laid the blame
at the door of "the clergy," who had still less to do with them,
winding up with the prayer, "May the Lord mend their hearts and
lessen their incomes!"

Fortunately for Telford, his intercourse with the townspeople of
Shrewsbury was so small that his views on these subjects were never
known; and we very shortly find him employed by the clergy
themselves in building for them a new church in the town of
Bridgenorth. His patron and employer, Mr. Pulteney, however, knew
of his extreme views, and the knowledge came to him quite
accidentally. He found that Telford had made use of his frank to
send through the post a copy of Paine's 'Rights of Man' to his
Langholm correspondent,*[15] where the pamphlet excited as much
fury in the minds of some of the people of that town as it had done
in that of Telford himself. The "Langholm patriots "broke out into
drinking revolutionary toasts at the Cross, and so disturbed the
peace of the little town that some of them were confined for six
weeks in the county gaol.

Mr. Pulteney was very indignant at the liberty Telford had taken
with his frank, and a rupture between them seemed likely to ensue;
but the former was forgiving, and the matter went no further. It is
only right to add, that as Telford grew older and wiser, he became
more careful in jumping at conclusions on political topics.
The events which shortly occurred in France tended in a great measure
to heal his mental distresses as to the future of England. When the
"liberty" won by the Parisians ran into riot, and the "Friends of Man"
occupied themselves in taking off the heads of those who differed
from them, he became wonderfully reconciled to the enjoyment of the
substantial freedom which, after all, was secured to him by the
English Constitution. At the same time, he was so much occupied in
carrying out his important works, that he found but little time to
devote either to political speculation or to versemaking.

While living at Shrewsbury, he had his poem of 'Eskdale' reprinted
for private circulation. We have also seen several MS. verses by
him, written about the same period, which do not appear ever to
have been printed. One of these--the best--is entitled 'Verses to
the Memory of James Thomson, author of "Liberty, a poem;"' another
is a translation from Buchanan, 'On the Spheres;' and a third,
written in April, 1792, is entitled 'To Robin Burns, being a
postscript to some verses addressed to him on the establishment of
an Agricultural Chair in Edinburgh.' It would unnecessarily occupy
our space to print these effusions; and, to tell the truth, they
exhibit few if any indications of poetic power. No amount of
perseverance will make a poet of a man in whom the divine gift is
not born. The true line of Telford's genius lay in building and
engineering, in which direction we now propose to follow him.

[Image] Shrewsbury Castle

Footnotes for Chapter IV.

*[1] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury Castle,
21st Feb., 1788.

*[2] This practice of noting down information, the result of
reading and observation, was continued by Mr. Telford until the
close of his life; his last pocket memorandum book, containing a
large amount of valuable information on mechanical subjects--a sort
of engineer's vade mecum--being printed in the appendix to the 4to.
'Life of Telford' published by his executors in 1838, pp. 663-90.

*[3] A medical man, a native of Eskdale, of great promise, who died
comparatively young.

*[4] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm.

*[5] It would occupy unnecessary space to cite these poems.
The following, from the verses in memory of William Telford, relates
to schoolboy days, After alluding to the lofty Fell Hills, which
formed part of the sheep farm of his deceased friend's father, the
poet goes on to say:

"There 'mongst those rocks I'll form a rural seat,
And plant some ivy with its moss compleat;
I'll benches form of fragments from the stone,
Which, nicely pois'd, was by our hands o'erthrown,--
A simple frolic, but now dear to me,
Because, my Telford, 'twas performed with thee.
There, in the centre, sacred to his name,
I'll place an altar, where the lambent flame
Shall yearly rise, and every youth shall join
The willing voice, and sing the enraptured line.
But we, my friend, will often steal away
To this lone seat, and quiet pass the day;
Here oft recall the pleasing scenes we knew
In early youth, when every scene was new,
When rural happiness our moments blest,
And joys untainted rose in every breast."

*[6] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 16th July, 1788.

*[7] Ibid.

*[8] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 16th July, 1788.

*[9] The discovery formed the subject of a paper read before the
Society of Antiquaries in London on the 7th of May, 1789, published
in the 'Archaeologia,' together with a drawing of the remains
supplied by Mr. Telford.

*[10] An Eskdale crony. His son, Colonel Josias Stewart, rose to
eminence in the East India Company's service, having been for many
years Resident at Gwalior and Indore.

*[11] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 3rd Sept. 1788.

*[12] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury,
8th October, 1789.

*[13] It was then under seventeen millions sterling, or about a
fourth of what it is now.

*[14] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 28th July, 1791.

*[15] The writer of a memoir of Telford, in the 'Encyclopedia
Britannica,' says:--"Andrew Little kept a private and very small
school at Langholm. Telford did not neglect to send him a copy of
Paine's 'Rights of Man;' and as he was totally blind, he employed
one of his scholars to read it in the evenings. Mr. Little had
received an academical education before he lost his sight; and,
aided by a memory of uncommon powers, he taught the classics, and
particularly Greek, with much higher reputation than any other
schoolmaster within a pretty extensive circuit. Two of his pupils
read all the Iliad, and all or the greater part of Sophocles.
After hearing a long sentence of Greek or Latin distinctly recited,
he could generally construe and translate it with little or no
hesitation. He was always much gratified by Telford's visits,
which were not infrequent, to his native district."



As surveyor for the county, Telford was frequently called upon by
the magistrates to advise them as to the improvement of roads and
the building or repair of bridges. His early experience of
bridge-building in his native district now proved of much service
to him, and he used often to congratulate himself, even when he had
reached the highest rank in his profession, upon the circumstances
which had compelled him to begin his career by working with his own
hands. To be a thorough judge of work, he held that a man must
himself have been practically engaged in it.

"Not only," he said, "are the natural senses of seeing and feeling
requisite in the examination of materials, but also the practised
eye, and the hand which has had experience of the kind and
qualities of stone, of lime, of iron, of timber, and even of earth,
and of the effects of human ingenuity in applying and combining all
these substances, are necessary for arriving at mastery in the
profession; for, how can a man give judicious directions unless he
possesses personal knowledge of the details requisite to effect
his ultimate purpose in the best and cheapest manner? It has
happened to me more than once, when taking opportunities of being
useful to a young man of merit, that I have experienced opposition
in taking him from his books and drawings, and placing a mallet,
chisel, or trowel in his hand, till, rendered confident by the
solid knowledge which experience only can bestow, he was qualified
to insist on the due performance of workmanship, and to judge of
merit in the lower as well as the higher departments of a
profession in which no kind or degree of practical knowledge is

The first bridge designed and built under Telford's superintendence
was one of no great magnitude, across the river Severn at Montford,
about four miles west of Shrewsbury. It was a stone bridge of three
elliptical arches, one of 58 feet and two of 55 feet span each.
The Severn at that point is deep and narrow, and its bed and banks
are of alluvial earth. It was necessary to make the foundations
very secure, as the river is subject to high floods; and this was
effectuality accomplished by means of coffer-dams. The building
was substantially executed in red sandstone, and proved a very
serviceable bridge, forming part of the great high road from
Shrewsbury into Wales. It was finished in the year 1792.

In the same year, we find Telford engaged as an architect in
preparing the designs and superintending the construction of the
new parish church of St. Mary Magdalen at Bridgenorth. It stands at
the end of Castle Street, near to the old ruined fortress perched
upon the bold red sandstone bluff on which the upper part of the
town is built. The situation of the church is very fine, and an
extensive view of the beautiful vale of the Severn is obtained from it.
Telford's design is by no means striking; "being," as he said,
"a regular Tuscan elevation; the inside is as regularly Ionic: its
only merit is simplicity and uniformity; it is surmounted by a
Doric tower, which contains the bells and a clock." A graceful
Gothic church would have been more appropriate to the situation,
and a much finer object in the landscape; but Gothic was not then
in fashion--only a mongrel mixture of many styles, without regard
to either purity or gracefulness. The church, however, proved
comfortable and commodious, and these were doubtless the points to
which the architect paid most attention.

[Image] St. Mary Magdalen, Bridgenorth.

His completion of the church at Bridgenorth to the satisfaction of
the inhabitants, brought Telford a commission, in the following
year, to erect a similar edifice at Coalbrookdale. But in the mean
time, to enlarge his knowledge and increase his acquaintance with
the best forms of architecture, he determined to make a journey to
London and through some of the principal towns of the south of
England. He accordingly visited Gloucester, Worcester, and Bath,
remaining several days in the last-mentioned city. He was charmed
beyond expression by his journey through the manufacturing
districts of Gloucestershire, more particularly by the fine scenery
of the Vale of Stroud. The whole seemed to him a smiling scene of
prosperous industry and middle-class comfort.

But passing out of this "Paradise," as he styled it, another stage
brought him into a region the very opposite. "We stopped," says he,
"at a little alehouse on the side of a rough hill to water the
horses, and lo! the place was full of drunken blackguards,
bellowing out 'Church and King!' A poor ragged German Jew happened
to come up, whom those furious loyalists had set upon and accused
of being a Frenchman in disguise. He protested that he was only a
poor German who 'cut de corns,' and that all he wanted was to buy a
little bread and cheese. Nothing would serve them but they must
carry him before the Justice. The great brawny fellow of a landlord
swore he should have nothing in his house, and, being a, constable,
told him that he would carry him to gaol. I interfered, and
endeavoured to pacify the assailants of the poor man; when suddenly
the landlord, snatching up a long knife, sliced off about a pound
of raw bacon from a ham which hung overhead, and, presenting it to
the Jew, swore that if he did not swallow it down at once he should
not be allowed to go. The man was in a worse plight than ever.
He said he was a 'poor Shoe,' and durst not eat that. In the midst
of the uproar, Church and King were forgotten, and eventually I
prevailed upon the landlord to accept from me as much as enabled
poor little Moses to get his meal of bread and cheese; and by the
time the coach started they all seemed perfectly reconciled." *[1]
Telford was much gratified by his visit to Bath, and inspected its
fine buildings with admiration. But he thought that Mr. Wood,
who, he says, "created modern Bath," had left no worthy
successor. In the buildings then in progress he saw clumsy
designers at work, "blundering round about a meaning"--if, indeed,
there was any meaning at all in their designs, which he confessed
he failed to see. From Bath he went to London by coach, making the
journey in safety, "although," he says, the collectors had been
doing duty on Hounslow Heath." During his stay in London he
carefully examined the principal public buildings by the light of
the experience which he had gained since he last saw them. He also
spent a good deal of his time in studying rare and expensive works
on architecture--the use of which he could not elsewhere procure--
at the libraries of the Antiquarian Society and the British Museum.
There he perused the various editions of Vitruvius and Palladio,
as well as Wren's 'Parentalia.' He found a rich store of ancient
architectural remains in the British Museum, which he studied with
great care: antiquities from Athens, Baalbec, Palmyra, and
Herculaneum; "so that," he says, "what with the information I was
before possessed of, and that which I have now accumulated, I think
I have obtained a tolerably good general notion of architecture."

From London he proceeded to Oxford, where he carefully inspected
its colleges and churches, afterwards expressing the great delight
and profit which he had derived from his visit. He was entertained
while there by Mr. Robertson, an eminent mathematician, then
superintending the publication of an edition of the works of
Archimedes. The architectural designs of buildings that most
pleased him were those of Dr. Aldrich, Dean of Christchurch about
the time of Sir Christopher Wren. He tore himself from Oxford with
great regret, proceeding by Birmingham on his way home to
Shrewsbury: "Birmingham," he says, "famous for its buttons and
locks, its ignorance and barbarism--its prosperity increases with
the corruption of taste and morals. Its nicknacks, hardware, and
gilt gimcracks are proofs of the former; and its locks and bars,
and the recent barbarous conduct of its populace,*[2] are evidences
of the latter." His principal object in visiting the place was to
call upon a stained glass-maker respecting a window for the new
church at Bridgenorth.

On his return to Shrewsbury, Telford proposed to proceed with his
favourite study of architecture; but this, said he, "will probably
be very slowly, as I must attend to my every day employment,"
namely, the superintendence of the county road and bridge repairs,
and the direction of the convicts' labour. "If I keep my health,
however," he added, "and have no unforeseen hindrance, it shall not
be forgotten, but will be creeping on by degrees." An unforeseen
circumstance, though not a hindrance, did very shortly occur, which
launched Telford upon a new career, for which his unremitting
study, as well as his carefully improved experience, eminently
fitted him: we refer to his appointment as engineer to the
Ellesmere Canal Company.

The conscientious carefulness with which Telford performed the
duties entrusted to him, and the skill with which he directed the
works placed under his charge, had secured the general approbation
of the gentlemen of the county. His straightforward and outspoken
manner had further obtained for him the friendship of many of them.
At the meetings of quarter-sessions his plans had often to encounter
considerable opposition, and, when called upon to defend them, he
did so with such firmness, persuasiveness, and good temper, that he
usually carried his point. "Some of the magistrates are ignorant,"
he wrote in 1789, "and some are obstinate: though I must say that
on the whole there is a very respectable bench, and with the
sensible part I believe I am on good terms." This was amply proved
some four years later, when it became necessary to appoint an
engineer to the Ellesmere Canal, on which occasion the magistrates,
who were mainly the promoters of the undertaking, almost
unanimously solicited their Surveyor to accept the office.

Indeed, Telford had become a general favourite in the county.
He was cheerful and cordial in his manner, though somewhat brusque.
Though now thirty-five years old, he had not lost the humorousness
which had procured for him the sobriquet of "Laughing Tam."
He laughed at his own jokes as well as at others. He was spoken of
as jolly--a word then much more rarely as well as more choicely used
than it is now. Yet he had a manly spirit, and was very jealous of
his independence. All this made him none the less liked by
free-minded men. Speaking of the friendly support which he had
throughout received from Mr. Pulteney, he said, "His good opinion
has always been a great satisfaction to me; and the more so, as it
has neither been obtained nor preserved by deceit, cringing, nor
flattery. On the contrary, I believe I am almost the only man that
speaks out fairly to him, and who contradicts him the most.
In fact, between us, we sometimes quarrel like tinkers; but I hold
my ground, and when he sees I am right he quietly gives in."

Although Mr. Pulteney's influence had no doubt assisted Telford in
obtaining the appointment of surveyor, it had nothing to do with
the unsolicited invitation which now emanated from the county
gentlemen. Telford was not even a candidate for the engineership,
and had not dreamt of offering himself, so that the proposal came
upon him entirely by surprise. Though he admitted he had
self-confidence, he frankly confessed that he had not a sufficient
amount of it to justify him in aspiring to the office of engineer
to one of the most important undertakings of the day. The following
is his own account of the circumstance:--

"My literary project*[3] is at present at a stand, and may be
retarded for some time to come, as I was last Monday appointed sole
agent, architect, and engineer to the canal which is projected to
join the Mersey, the Dee, and the Severn. It is the greatest work,
I believe, now in hand in this kingdom, and will not be completed
for many years to come. You will be surprised that I have not
mentioned this to you before; but the fact is that I had no idea of
any such appointment until an application was made to me by some of
the leading gentlemen, and I was appointed, though many others had
made much interest for the place. This will be a great and
laborious undertaking, but the line which it opens is vast and
noble; and coming as the appointment does in this honourable way,
I thought it too great a opportunity to be neglected, especially as I
have stipulated for, and been allowed, the privilege of carrying on
my architectural profession. The work will require great labour
and exertions, but it is worthy of them all."*[4] Telford's
appointment was duly confirmed by the next general meeting of the
shareholders of the Ellesmere Canal. An attempt was made to get up
a party against him, but it failed. "I am fortunate," he said, "in
being on good terms with most of the leading men, both of property
and abilities; and on this occasion I had the decided support of
the great John Wilkinson, king of the ironmasters, himself a host.
I travelled in his carriage to the meeting, and found him much
disposed to be friendly."*[5] The salary at which Telford was
engaged was 500L. a year, out of which he had to pay one clerk and
one confidential foreman, besides defraying his own travelling
expenses. It would not appear that after making these
disbursements much would remain for Telford's own labour; but in
those days engineers were satisfied with comparatively small pay,
and did not dream of making large fortunes.

Though Telford intended to continue his architectural business,
he decided to give up his county surveyorship and other minor matters,
which, he said, "give a great deal of very unpleasant labour for
very little profit; in short they are like the calls of a country
surgeon." One part of his former business which he did not give up
was what related to the affairs of Mr. Pulteney and Lady Bath, with
whom he continued on intimate and friendly terms. He incidentally
mentions in one of his letters a graceful and charming act of her
Ladyship. On going into his room one day he found that, before
setting out for Buxton, she had left upon his table a copy of
Ferguson's 'Roman Republic,' in three quarto volumes, superbly
bound and gilt.

He now looked forward with anxiety to the commencement of the
canal, the execution of which would necessarily call for great
exertion on his part, as well as unremitting attention and
industry; "for," said he, "besides the actual labour which
necessarily attends so extensive a public work, there are
contentions, jealousies, and prejudices, stationed like gloomy
sentinels from one extremity of the line to the other. But, as I
have heard my mother say that an honest man might look the Devil in
the face without being afraid, so we must just trudge along in the
old way."*[6]

Footnotes for Chapter V.

*[1] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury,
10th March, 1793

*[2] Referring to the burning of Dr. Priestley's library.

*[3] The preparation of some translations from Buchanan which he
had contemplated.

*[4] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury,
29th September, 1793.

*[5] John Wilkinson and his brother William were the first of the
great class of ironmasters. They possessed iron forges at Bersham
near Chester, at Bradley, Brimbo, Merthyr Tydvil, and other places;
and became by far the largest iron manufacturers of their day.
For notice of them see 'Lives of Boulton and Watt,' p. 212.

*[6] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury,
3rd November, 1793.



The ellesmere canal consists of a series of navigations proceeding
from the river Dee in the vale of Llangollen. One branch passes
northward, near the towns of Ellesmere, Whitchurch, Nantwich, and
the city of Chester, to Ellesmere Port on the Mersey; another,
in a south-easterly direction, through the middle of Shropshire
towards Shrewsbury on the Severn; and a third, in a south-westerly
direction, by the town of Oswestry, to the Montgomeryshire Canal
near Llanymynech; its whole extent, including the Chester Canal,
incorporated with it, being about 112 miles.

[Image] Map of Ellesmere Canal

The success of the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal had awakened the
attention of the landowners throughout England, but more especially
in the districts immediately adjacent to the scene of the Duke's
operations, as they saw with their own eyes the extraordinary
benefits which had followed the opening up of the navigations.
The resistance of the landed gentry, which many of these schemes had
originally to encounter, had now completely given way, and, instead
of opposing canals, they were everywhere found anxious for their
construction. The navigations brought lime, coal, manure, and
merchandise, almost to the farmers' doors, and provided them at the
same time with ready means of conveyance for their produce to good
markets. Farms in remote situations were thus placed more on an
equality with those in the neighbourhood of large towns; rents rose
in consequence, and the owners of land everywhere became the
advocates and projectors of canals.

The dividends paid by the first companies were very high, and it
was well known that the Duke's property was bringing him in immense
wealth. There was, therefore, no difficulty in getting the shares
in new projects readily subscribed for: indeed Mr. Telford relates
that at the first meeting of the Ellesmere projectors, so eager
were the public, that four times the estimated expense was
subscribed without hesitation. Yet this navigation passed through
a difficult country, necessarily involving very costly works; and
as the district was but thinly inhabited, it did not present a very
inviting prospect of dividends.*[1] But the mania had fairly set
in, and it was determined that the canal should be made. And
whether the investment repaid the immediate proprietors or not, it
unquestionably proved of immense advantage to the population of the
districts through which it passed, and contributed to enhance the
value of most of the adjoining property.

The Act authorising the construction of the canal was obtained in
1793, and Telford commenced operations very shortly after his
appointment in October of the same year. His first business was to
go carefully over the whole of the proposed line, and make a careful
working survey, settling the levels of the different lengths,
and the position of the locks, embankments, cuttings, and aqueducts.
In all matters of masonry work he felt himself master of the
necessary details; but having had comparatively small experience of
earthwork, and none of canal-making, he determined to take the
advice of Mr. William Jessop on that part of the subject; and he
cordially acknowledges the obligations he was under to that eminent
engineer for the kind assistance which he received from him on many

The heaviest and most important part of the undertaking was in
carrying the canal through the rugged country between the rivers
Dee and Ceriog, in the vale of Llangollen. From Nantwich to
Whitchurch the distance is 16 miles, and the rise 132 feet,
involving nineteen locks; and from thence to Ellesmere, Chirk,
Pont-Cysylltau, and the river Dee, 1 3/4 mile above Llangollen, the
distance is 38 1/4 miles, and the rise 13 feet, involving only two
locks. The latter part of the undertaking presented the greatest
difficulties; as, in order to avoid the expense of constructing
numerous locks, which would also involve serious delay and heavy
expense in working the navigation, it became necessary to contrive
means for carrying the canal on the same level from one side of the
respective valleys of the Dee and the Ceriog to the other; and
hence the magnificent aqueducts of Chirk and Pont-Cysylltau,
characterised by Phillips as "among the boldest efforts of human
invention in modem times."*[2] The Chirk Aqueduct carries the canal
across the valley of the Ceriog, between Chirk Castle and the
village of that name. At this point the valley is above 700 feet
wide; the banks are steep, with a flat alluvial meadow between
them, through which the river flows. The country is finely
wooded. Chirk Castle stands on an eminence on its western side,
with the Welsh mountains and Glen Ceriog as a background; the whole
composing a landscape of great beauty, in the centre of which
Telford's aqueduct forms a highly picturesque object.

[Image] Chirk Aqueduct

The aqueduct consists of ten arches of 40 feet span each.
The level of the water in the canal is 65 feet above the meadow,
and 70 feet above the level of the river Ceriog. The proportions
of this work far exceeded everything of the kind that had up to
that time been attempted in England. It was a very costly structure;
but Telford, like Brindley, thought it better to incur a considerable
capital outlay in maintaining the uniform level of the canal, than
to raise and lower it up and down the sides of the valley by locks
at a heavy expense in works, and a still greater cost in time and
water. The aqueduct is a splendid specimen of the finest class of
masonry, and Telford showed himself a master of his profession by
the manner in which he carried out the whole details of the
undertaking. The piers were carried up solid to a certain height,
above which they were built hollow, with cross walls. The spandrels
also, above the springing of the arches, were constructed with
longitudinal walls, and left hollow.*[3] The first stone was laid
on the 17th of June, 1796, and the work was completed in the year
1801; the whole remaining in a perfect state to this day.

The other great aqueduct on the Ellesmere Canal, named Pont-Cysylltau,
is of even greater dimensions, and a far more striking object in
the landscape. Sir Walter Scott spoke of it to Southey as "the
most impressive work of art he had ever seen." It is situated about
four miles to the north of Chirk, at the crossing of the Dee, in
the romantic vale of Llangollen. The north bank of the river is
very abrupt; but on the south side the acclivity is more gradual.
The lowest part of the valley in which the river runs is 127 feet
beneath the water-level of the canal; and it became a question with
the engineer whether the valley was to be crossed, as originally
intended, by locking down one side and up the other--which would
have involved seven or eight locks on each side--or by carrying it
directly across by means of an aqueduct.

The execution of the proposed locks would have been very costly,
and the working of them in carrying on the navigation would
necessarily have involved a great waste of water, which was a
serious objection, inasmuch as the supply was estimated to be no
more than sufficient to provide for the unavoidable lockage and
leakage of the summit level. Hence Telford was strongly in favour
of an aqueduct; but, as we have already seen in the case of that at
Chirk, the height of the work was such as to render it impracticable
to construct it in the usual manner, upon masonry piers and arches
of sufficient breadth and strength to afford room for a puddled
water-way, which would have been extremely hazardous as well as
expensive. He was therefore under the necessity of contriving some
more safe and economical method of procedure; and he again resorted
to the practice which he had adopted in the construction of the
Chirk Aqueduct, but on a much larger scale.

[Image] Pont-Cyslltau--Side view of Cast Iron Trough

It will be understood that many years elapsed between the period at
which Telford was appointed engineer to the Ellesmere Canal and the
designing of these gigantic works. He had in the meantime been
carefully gathering experience from a variety of similar
undertakings on which he was employed, and bringing his
observations of the strength of materials and the different forms
of construction to bear upon the plans under his consideration for
the great aqueducts of Chirk and Pont-Cysylltau. In 1795 he was
appointed engineer to the Shrewsbury Canal, which extends from that
town to the collieries and ironworks in the neighbourhood of
Wrekin, crossing the rivers Roden and Tern, and Ketley Brook, after
which it joins the Dorrington and Shropshire Canals. Writing to his
Eskdale friend, Telford said : "Although this canal is only
eighteen miles long, yet there are many important works in its
course--several locks, a tunnel about half a mile long, and two
aqueducts. For the most considerable of these last, I have just
recommended an aqueduct of iron. It has been approved, and will be
executed under my direction, upon a principle entirely new, and
which I am endeavouring to establish with regard to the application
of iron."*[4]

It was the same principle which he applied to the great aqueducts
of the Ellesmere Canal now under consideration. He had a model made
of part of the proposed aqueduct for Pont-Cysylltau, showing the
piers, ribs, towing-path, and side railing, with a cast iron trough
for the canal. The model being approved, the design was completed;
the ironwork was ordered for the summit, and the masonry of the
piers then proceeded. The foundation-stone was laid on the 25th
July, 1795, by Richard Myddelton, Esq., of Chirk Castle, M.P., and
the work was not finished until the year 1803,--thus occupying a
period of nearly eight years in construction.

The aqueduct is approached on the south side by an embankment 1500
feet in length, extending from the level of the water-way in the
canal until its perpendicular height at the "tip" is 97 feet;
thence it is carried to the opposite side of the valley, over the
river Dee, upon piers supporting nineteen arches, extending to the
length of 1007 feet. The height of the piers above low water in the
river is 121 feet. The lower part of each was built solid for 70
feet, all above being hollow, for the purpose of saving masonry as
well as ensuring good workmanship. The outer walls of the hollow
portion are only two feet thick, with cross inner walls. As each
stone was exposed to inspection, and as both Telford and his
confidential foreman, Matthew Davidson,*[5] kept a vigilant eye
upon the work, scamping was rendered impossible, and a first-rate
piece of masonry was the result.

[Image] Pont-Cyslltau Aqueduct

Upon the top of the masonry was set the cast iron trough for the
canal, with its towing-path and side-rails, all accurately fitted
and bolted together, forming a completely water-tight canal, with a
water-way of 11 feet 10 inches, of which the towing-path, standing
upon iron pillars rising from the bed of the canal, occupied 4 feet
8 inches, leaving a space of 7 feet 2 inches for the boat.*[6]
The whole cost of this part of the canal was 47,018L., which was
considered by Telford a moderate sum compared with what it must
have cost if executed after the ordinary manner. The aqueduct was
formally opened for traffic in 1805. "And thus," said Telford, "has
been added a striking feature to the beautiful vale of Llangollen,
where formerly was the fastness of Owen Glendower, but which, now
cleared of its entangled woods, contains a useful line of
intercourse between England and Ireland; and the water drawn from
the once sacred Devon furnishes the means of distributing
prosperity over the adjacent land of the Saxons."

[Image] Section of Top of Pont-Cyslltau Aqueduct.

It is scarcely necessary to refer to the other works upon this
canal, some of which were of considerable magnitude, though they
may now seem dwarfed by comparison with the works of recent
engineers, Thus, there were two difficult tunnels cut through hard
rock, under the rugged ground which separates the valleys of the
Dee and the Ceriog. One of these is 500 and the other 200 yards in
length. To ensure a supply of water for the summit of the canal,
the lake called Bala Pool was dammed up by a regulating weir, and
by its means the water was drawn off at Llandisilio when required
for the purposes of the navigation; the navigable feeder being six
miles long, carried along the bank of the Llangollen valley.
All these works were skilfully executed; and when the undertaking
was finished, Mr. Telford may be said to have fairly established
his reputation as an engineer of first rate ability.

We now return to Telford's personal history during this important
period of his career. He had long promised himself a visit to his
dear Eskdale, and the many friends he had left there; but more
especially to see his infirm mother, who had descended far into the
vale of years, and longed to see her son once more before she died.
He had taken constant care that she should want for nothing.
She formed the burden of many of his letters to Andrew Little.
"Your kindness in visiting and paying so much attention to her,"
said he, "is doing me the greatest favour which you could possibly
confer upon me." He sent his friend frequent sums of money, which
he requested him to lay out in providing sundry little comforts for
his mother, who seems to have carried her spirit of independence so
far as to have expressed reluctance to accept money even from her
own son. "I must request," said he, "that you will purchase and
send up what things may be likely to be wanted, either for her or
the person who may be with her, as her habits of economy will
prevent her from getting plenty of everything, especially as she
thinks that I have to pay for it, which really hurts me more than
anything else."*[7] Though anxious to pay his intended visit, he
was so occupied with one urgent matter of business and another that
he feared it would be November before he could set out. He had to
prepare a general statement as to the navigation affairs for a
meeting of the committee; he must attend the approaching Salop
quarter sessions, and after that a general meeting of the Canal
Company; so that his visit must be postponed for yet another month.
"Indeed," said he, "I am rather distressed at the thoughts of
running down to see a kind parent in the last stage of decay, on
whom I can only bestow an affectionate look, and then leave her:
her mind will not be much consoled by this parting, and the
impression left upon mine will be more lasting; than pleasant."*[8]

He did, however, contrive to run down to Eskdale in the following
November. His mother was alive, but that was all. After doing what
he could for her comfort, and providing that all her little wants
were properly attended to, he hastened back to his responsible
duties in connection with the Ellesmere Canal. When at Langholm,
he called upon his former friends to recount with them the incidents
of their youth. He was declared to be the same "canty" fellow as
ever, and, though he had risen greatly in the world, he was "not a
bit set up." He found one of his old fellow workmen, Frank Beattie,
become the principal innkeeper of the place. "What have you made of
your mell and chisels?" asked Telford. "Oh!" replied Beattie,
"they are all dispersed--perhaps lost." "I have taken better care
of mine," said Telford; "I have them all locked up in a room at
Shrewsbury, as well as my old working clothes and leather apron:
you know one can never tell what may happen."

He was surprised, as most people are who visit the scenes of their
youth after a long absence, to see into what small dimensions
Langholm had shrunk. That High Street, which before had seemed so
big, and that frowning gaol and court-house in the Market Place,
were now comparatively paltry to eyes that had been familiar with
Shrewsbury, Portsmouth, and London. But he was charmed, as ever,
with the sight of the heather hills and the narrow winding valley--

"Where deep and low the hamlets lie
Beneath their little patch of sky,
And little lot of stars."

On his return southward, he was again delighted by the sight of old
Gilnockie Castle and the surrounding scenery. As he afterwards
wrote to his friend Little, "Broomholm was in all his glory."
Probably one of the results of this visit was the revision of the
poem of 'Eskdale,' which he undertook in the course of the
following spring, putting in some fresh touches and adding many new
lines, whereby the effect of the whole was considerably improved.
He had the poem printed privately, merely for distribution amongst
friends; being careful," as he said, that "no copies should be
smuggled and sold."

Later in the year we find him, on his way to London on business,
sparing a day or two for the purpose of visiting the Duke of
Buckingham's palace and treasures of art at Stowe; afterwards
writing out an eight-page description of it for the perusal of his
friends at Langholm. At another time, when engaged upon the viaduct
at Pont-Cysylltau, he snatched a few day's leisure to run through
North Wales, of which he afterwards gave a glowing account to his
correspondent. He passed by Cader Idris, Snowdon, and Penmaen Mawr.
"Parts of the country we passed through," he says, "very much
resemble the lofty green hills and woody vales of Eskdale. In other
parts the magnificent boldness of the mountains, the torrents,
lakes, and waterfalls, give a special character to the scenery,
unlike everything of the kind I had before seen. The vale of
Llanrwst is peculiarly beautiful and fertile. In this vale is the
celebrated bridge of Inigo Jones; but what is a much more
delightful circumstance, the inhabitants of the vale are the most
beautiful race of people I have ever beheld; and I am much
astonished that this never seems to have struck the Welsh tourists.
The vale of Llangollen is very fine, and not the least interesting
object in it, I can assure you, is Davidson's famous aqueduct
[Pont-Cysylltau], which is already reckoned among the wonders of
Wales. Your old acquaintance thinks nothing of having three or
four carriages at his door at a time."*[9] It seems that, besides
attending to the construction of the works, Telford had to
organise the conduct of the navigation at those points at which the
canal was open for traffic. By the middle of 1797 he states that
twenty miles were in working condition, along which coal and lime
were conveyed in considerable quantifies, to the profit of the
Company and the benefit of the public; the price of these articles
having already in some places been reduced twenty-five, and in
others as much as fifty, per cent. "The canal affairs," he says in
one of his letters, "have required a good deal of exertion, though
we are on the whole doing well. But, besides carrying on the
works, it is now necessary to bestow considerable attention on the
creating and guiding of a trade upon those portions which are
executed. This involves various considerations, and many
contending and sometimes clashing interests. In short, it is the
working of a great machine: in the first place, to draw money out
of the pockets of a numerous proprietary to make an expensive
canal, and then to make the money return into their pockets by the
creation of a business upon that canal." But, as if all this
business were not enough, he was occupied at the same time in
writing a book upon the subject of Mills. In the year 1796 he had
undertaken to draw up a paper on this topic for the Board of
Agriculture, and by degrees it had grown into a large quarto
volume, illustrated by upwards of thirty plates. He was also
reading extensively in his few leisure moments; and among the solid
works which he perused we find him mentioning Robertson's
'Disquisitions on Ancient India,' Stewart's 'Philosophy of the
Human Mind,' and Alison's 'Principles of Taste.' As a relief from
these graver studies, he seems, above all things, to have taken
peculiar pleasure" In occasionally throwing off a bit of
poetry. Thus, when laid up at an hotel in Chester by a blow on his
leg, which disabled him for some weeks, he employed part of his
time in writing his 'Verses on hearing of the Death of Robert
Burns.' On another occasion, when on his way to London, and
detained for a night at Stratford-on-Avon, he occupied the evening
at his inn in composing some stanzas, entitled 'An Address to the
River Avon.' And when on his way back to Shrewsbury, while resting
for the night at Bridgenorth, he amused himself with revising and
copying out the verses for the perusal of Andrew Little.
"There are worse employments," he said,"when one has an hour to
spare from business;" and he asked his friend's opinion of the
composition. It seems to have been no more favourable than the
verses deserved; for, in his next letter, Telford says, "I think
your observation respecting the verses to the Avon are correct.
It is but seldom I have time to versify; but it is to me something
like what a fiddle is to others, I apply to it in order to relieve
my mind, after being much fatigued with close attention to

It is very pleasant to see the engineer relaxing himself in this
way, and submitting cheerfully to unfavourable criticism, which is
so trying to even the best of tempers. The time, however, thus
taken from his regular work was not loss, but gain. Taking the
character of his occupation into account, it was probably the best
kind of relaxation he could have indulged in. With his head full of
bridges and viaducts, he thus kept his heart open to the influences
of beauty in life and nature; and, at all events, the writing of
verses, indifferent though they might have been, proved of this
value to him--that it cultivated in him the art of writing better

Footnotes for Chapter VI.

*[1] The Ellesmere Canal now pays about 4 per cent. dividend.

*[2] 'A General History of Inland Navigation, Foreign and
Domestic,' &c. By J. Phillips. Fourth edition. London, 1803.

*[3] [Image] Section of Pier

Telford himself thus modestly describes the merit of this original
contrivance: "Previously to this time such canal aqueducts had been
uniformly made to retain the water necessary for navigation by
means of puddled earth retained by masonry; and in order to obtain
sufficient breadth for this superstructure, the masonry of the
piers, abutments, and arches was of massive strength; and after all
this expense, and every imaginable precaution, the frosts, by
swelling the moist puddle, frequently created fissures, which burst
the masonry, and suffered the water to escape--nay, sometimes
actually threw down the aqueducts; instances of this kind having
occurred even in the works of the justly celebrated Brindley.
It was evident that the increased pressure of the puddled earth was
the chief cause of such failures: I therefore had recourse to the
following scheme in order to a void using it. The spandrels of the
stone arches were constructed with longitudinal walls, instead of
being filled in with earth (as at Kirkcudbright Bridge), and across
these the canal bottom was formed by cast iron plates at each side,
infixed in square stone masonry. These bottom plates had flanches
on their edges, and were secured by nuts and screws at every
juncture. The sides of the canal were made water-proof by ashlar
masonry, backed with hard burnt bricks laid in Parker's cement, on
the outside of which was rubble stone work, like the rest of the
aqueduct. The towing path had a thin bed of clay under the gravel,
and its outer edge was protected by an iron railing. The width of
the water-way is 11 feet; of the masonry on each side, 5 feet 6
inches; and the depth of the water in the canal, 5 feet. By this
mode of construction the quantity of masonry is much diminished,
and the iron bottom plate forms a continuous tie, preventing the
side-walls from separation by lateral pressure of the contained
water."--'Life of Telford,' p. 40.

*[4] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury,
13th March, 1795.

*[5] Matthew Davidson had been Telford's fellow workman at Langholm,
and was reckoned an excellent mason. He died at Inverness,
where he had a situation on the Caledonian Canal.

*[6] Mr. Hughes, C.E., in his 'Memoir of William Jessop,' published
in 'Weale's Quarterly Papers on Engineering,' points out the bold
and original idea here adopted, of constructing a water-tight
trough of cast iron, in which the water of the canal was to be
carried over the valleys, instead of an immense puddled trough,
in accordance with the practice until that time in use; and he adds,


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