The Life of Thomas Telford by Smiles
Samuel Smiles

Part 6 out of 6

This was the furthest limit of their journey, and the travellers
retraced their steps southward, halting at Clashmore Inn:
"At breakfast," says Southey, "was a handsome set of Worcester china.
Upon noticing it to Mr. Telford, he told me that before these roads
were made, he fell in with some people from Worcestershire near the
Ord of Caithness, on their way northward with a cart load of
crockery, which they got over the mountains as best they could;
and, when they had sold all their ware, they laid out the money in
black cattle, which they then drove to the south."

The rest of Southey's journal is mainly occupied with a description
of the scenery of the Caledonian Canal, and the principal
difficulties encountered in the execution of the works, which were
still in active progress. He was greatly struck with the flight of
locks at the south end of the Canal, where it enters Loch Eil near

"There being no pier yet formed," he says, "we were carried to and
from the boats on men's shoulders. We landed close to the sea shore.
A sloop was lying in the fine basin above, and the canal was full
as far as the Staircase, a name given to the eight successive
locks. Six of these were full and overflowing; and then we drew
near enough to see persons walking over the lock-gates. It had
more the effect of a scene in a pantomime than of anything in real
life. The rise from lock to lock is eight feet,--sixty-four,
therefore, in all. The length of the locks, including the gates
and abutments at both ends, is 500 yards;-- the greatest piece of
such masonry in the world, and the greatest work of the kind beyond
all comparison.

"A panorama painted from this place would include the highest
mountain in Great Britain, and its greatest work of art. That work
is one of which the magnitude and importance become apparent, when
considered in relation to natural objects. The Pyramids would
appear insignificant in such a situation, for in them we should
perceive only a vain attempt to vie with greater things. But here
we see the powers of nature brought to act upon a great scale,
in subservience to the purposes of men; one river created, another
(and that a huge mountain-stream) shouldered out of its place, and
art and order assuming a character of sublimity. Sometimes a beck
is conducted under the canal, and passages called culverts serve as
a roadway for men and beasts. We walked through one of these, just
lofty enough for a man of my stature to pass through with his hat
on. It had a very singular effect to see persons emerging from this
dark, long, narrow vault. Sometimes a brook is taken in; a cesspool
is then made to receive what gravel it may bring down after it has
passed this pool, the water flowing through three or four little
arches, and then over a paved bed and wall of masonry into the canal.
These are called in-takes, and opposite them an outlet is sometimes
made for the waters of; the canal, if they should be above their
proper level; or when the cross-stream may bring down a rush.
These outlets consist of two inclined planes of masonry, one rising
from the canal with a pavement or waste weir between them; and when
the cross-stream comes down like a torrent, instead of mingling
with the canal, it passes straight across. But these channels
would be insufficient for carrying off the whole surplus waters in
time of floods. At one place, therefore, there are three sluices
by which the whole canal from the Staircase to the Regulating Lock
(about six miles) can be lowered a foot in an hour. The sluices
were opened that we might see their effect. We went down the Bank,
and made our way round some wet ground till we got in front of the
strong arch into which they open. The arch is about 25 feet high,
of great strength, and built upon the rock. What would the
Bourbons have given for such a cascade at Versailles? The rush and
the spray, and the force of the water, reminded me more of the
Reichenbach than of any other fall. That three small sluices, each
only 4 feet by 3 feet, should produce an effect which brought the
mightiest of the swiss waterfalls to my recollection, may appear
incredible, or at least like an enormous exaggeration. But the
prodigious velocity with which the water is forced out, by the
pressure above, explains the apparent wonder. And yet I beheld it
only in half its strength; the depth above being at this time ten
feet, which will be twenty when the canal is completed. In a few
minutes a river was formed of no inconsiderable breadth, which ran
like a torrent into the Lochy.

"On this part of the canal everything is completed, except that the
iron bridges for it, which are now on their way, are supplied by
temporary ones. When the middle part shall be finished, the Lochy,
which at present flows in its own channel above the Regulating Lock,
will be dammed there, and made to join the Speyne by a new cut from
the lake. The cut is made, and a fine bridge built over it.
We went into the cut and under the bridge, which is very near the
intended point of junction. The string-courses were encrusted with
stalactites in a manner singularly beautiful. Under the arches a
strong mound of solid masonry is built to keep the water in dry
seasons at a certain height; But in that mound a gap is left for
the salmon, and a way made through the rocks from the Speyne to
this gap, which they will soon find out."

Arrived at Dumbarton, Southey took leave of John Mitchell, who had
accompanied him throughout the tour, and for whom he seems to have
entertained the highest admiration:--

"He is indeed," says Southey, "a remarkable man, and well deserving
to be remembered. Mr. Telford found him a working mason, who could
scarcely read or write. But his good sense, his excellent conduct,
his steadiness and perseverance have been such, that he has been
gradually raised to be Inspector of all these Highland roads which
we have visited, and all of which are under the Commissioners' care
--an office requiring a rare union of qualities, among others
inflexible integrity, a fearless temper, and an indefatigable
frame. Perhaps no man ever possessed these requisites in greater
perfection than John Mitchell. Were but his figure less Tartarish
and more gaunt, he would be the very 'Talus' of Spenser. Neither
frown nor favour, in the course of fifteen years, have ever made
him swerve from the fair performance of his duty, though the lairds
with whom he has to deal have omitted no means of making him enter
into their views, and to do things or leave them undone, as might
suit their humour or interest. They have attempted to cajole and to
intimidate him alike in vain. They have repeatedly preferred
complaints against him in the hope of getting him removed from his
office, and a more flexible person appointed in his stead; and they
have not unfrequently threatened him with personal violence.
Even his life has been menaced. But Mitchell holds right on.
In the midst of his most laborious life, he has laboured to improve
himself with such success, that he has become a good accountant,
makes his estimates with facility, and carries on his official
correspondence in an able and highly intelligent manner. In the
execution of his office he travelled last year not less than 8800
miles, and every year he travels nearly as much. Nor has this life,
and the exposure to all winds and weathers, and the temptations
either of company or of solicitude at the houses at which he puts
up, led him into any irregularities. Neither has his elevation in
the slightest degree inflated him. He is still the same temperate,
industrious, modest, unassuming man, as when his good qualities
first attracted Mr. Telford's notice."

Southey concludes his journal at Longtown, a little town just
across the Scotch Border, in the following words:--

"Here we left Mr. Telford, who takes the mail for Edinburgh.

This parting company, after the thorough intimacy which a long
journey produces between fellow-travellers who like each other, is
a melancholy thing. A man more heartily to be liked, more worthy to
be esteemed and admired, I have never fallen in with; and therefore
it is painful to think how little likely it is that I shall ever
see much of him again,--how certain that I shall never see so much.
Yet I trust that he will not forget his promise of one day making
Keswick in his way to and from Scotland."

Before leaving the subject of Telford's public works in the
Highlands, it may be mentioned that 875 miles of new roads were
planned by him, and executed under his superintendence, at an
expense of 454,189L., of which about one-half was granted by
Parliament, and the remainder was raised by the localities
benefited. Besides the new roads, 255 miles of the old military
roads were taken in charge by him, and in many cases reconstructed
and greatly improved. The bridges erected in connexion with these
roads were no fewer than twelve hundred. Telford also between the
year 1823 and the close of his life, built forty-two Highland
churches in districts formerly unprovided with them, and capable of
accommodating some 22,000 persons.

Down to the year 1854, the Parliamentary grant of 5000L. a year
charged upon the Consolidated Fund to meet assessments and tolls of
the Highland roads, amounting to about 7500L. a year, was
transferred to the annual Estimates, when it became the subject of
annual revision; and a few years since the grant was suddenly
extinguished by an adverse vote of the House of Commons. The Board
of Commissioners had, therefore, nothing left but to deliver over
the roads to the several local authorities, and the harbours to the
proprietors of the adjacent lands, and to present to Parliament a
final account of their work and its results. Reviewing the whole,
they say that the operations of the Commission have been most
beneficial to the country concerned. They "found it barren and
uncultivated, inhabited by heritors without capital or enterprise,
and by a poor and ill-employed peasantry, and destitute of trade,
shipping, and manufactures. They leave it with wealthy proprietors,
a profitable agriculture, a thriving population, and active
industry; furnishing now its fair proportion of taxes to the
national exchequer, and helping by its improved agriculture to meet
the ever-increasing wants of the populous south."

Footnotes for Chapter XIV.

*[1] We have been indebted to Mr. Robert Rawlinson, C.E., in whose
possession the MS. now is, for the privilege of inspecting it, and
making the above abstract, which we have the less hesitation in
giving as it has not before appeared in print.

*[2] Mr. Rickman was the secretary to the Highland Roads

*[3] Referring to the famous battle of Bannockburn, Southey writes
--"This is the only great battle that ever was lost by the English.
At Hastings there was no disgrace. Here it was an army of lions
commanded by a stag."

*[4] See View of Banff facing p. 216.



When Mr. Telford had occasion to visit London on business during
the early period of his career, his quarters were at the Salopian
Coffee House, now the Ship Hotel, at Charing Cross. It is probable
that his Shropshire connections led him in the first instance to
the 'Salopian;' but the situation being near to the Houses of
Parliament, and in many respects convenient for the purposes of his
business, he continued to live there for no less a period than
twenty-one years. During that time the Salopian became a favourite
resort of engineers; and not only Telford's provincial associates,
but numerous visitors from abroad (where his works attracted even
more attention than they did in England) took up their quarters
there. Several apartments were specially reserved for Telford's
exclusive use, and he could always readily command any additional
accommodation for purposes of business or hospitality.

The successive landlords of the Salopian came to regard the
engineer as a fixture, and even bought and sold him from time to
time with the goodwill of the business. When he at length resolved,
on the persuasion of his friends, to take a house of his own, and
gave notice of his intention of leaving, the landlord, who had but
recently entered into possession, almost stood aghast. "What! leave
the house!" said he; "Why, Sir, I have just paid 750L. for you!"
On explanation it appeared that this price had actually been paid by
him to the outgoing landlord, on the assumption that Mr. Telford
was a fixture of the hotel; the previous tenant having paid 450L.
for him; the increase in the price marking very significantly the
growing importance of the engineer's position. There was, however,
no help for the disconsolate landlord, and Telford left the Salopian
to take possession of his new house at 24, Abingdon Street. Labelye,
the engineer of Westminster Bridge, had formerly occupied the
dwelling; and, at a subsequent period, Sir William Chambers, the
architect of Somerset House, Telford used to take much pleasure in
pointing out to his visitors the painting of Westminster Bridge,
impanelled in the wall over the parlour mantelpiece, made for
Labelye by an Italian artist whilst the bridge works were in
progress. In that house Telford continued to live until the close
of his life.

One of the subjects in which he took much interest during his later
years was the establishment of the Institute of Civil Engineers.
In 1818 a Society had been formed, consisting principally of young
men educated to civil and mechanical engineering, who occasionally
met to discuss matters of interest relating to their profession.
As early as the time of Smeaton, a social meeting of engineers was
occasionally held at an inn in Holborn, which was discontinued in
1792, in consequence of some personal differences amongst the
members. It was revived in the following year, under the auspices
of Mr. Jessop, Mr. Naylor, Mr. Rennie, and Mr. Whitworth, and
joined by other gentlemen of scientific distinction. They were
accustomed to dine together every fortnight at the Crown and Anchor
in the Strand, spending the evening in conversation on engineering
subjects. But as the numbers and importance of the profession
increased, the desire began to be felt, especially among the junior
members of the profession, for an institution of a more enlarged
character. Hence the movement above alluded to, which led to an
invitation being given to Mr. Telford to accept the office of
President of the proposed Engineers' Institute. To this he consented,
and entered upon the duties of the office on the 21st of March,
1820.*[1] During the remainder of his life, Mr. Telford continued
to watch over the progress of the Society, which gradually grew in
importance and usefulness. He supplied it with the nucleus of a
reference library, now become of great value to its members.
He established the practice of recording the proceedings,*[2] minutes
of discussions, and substance of the papers read, which has led to
the accumulation, in the printed records of the Institute, of a
vast body of information as to engineering practice. In 1828 he
exerted himself strenuously and successfully in obtaining a Charter
of Incorporation for the Society; and finally, at his death, he
left the Institute their first bequest of 2000L., together with
many valuable books, and a large collection of documents which had
been subservient to his own professional labours.

In the distinguished position which he occupied, it was natural
that Mr. Telford should be called upon, as he often was, towards
the close of his life, to give his opinion and advice as to
projects of public importance. Where strongly conflicting opinions
were entertained on any subject, his help was occasionally found
most valuable; for he possessed great tact and suavity of manner,
which often enabled him to reconcile opposing interests when they
stood in the way of important enterprises.

In 1828 he was appointed one of the commissioners to investigate
the subject of the supply of water to the metropolis, in conjunction
with Dr. Roget and Professor Brande, and the result was the very
able report published in that year. Only a few months before his
death, in 1834, he prepared and sent in an elaborate separate
report, containing many excellent practical suggestions, which had
the effect of stimulating the efforts of the water companies, and
eventually leading, to great improvements.

On the subject of roads, Telford continued to be the very highest
authority, his friend Southey jocularly styling him the "Colossus
of Roads." The Russian Government frequently consulted him with
reference to the new roads with which that great empire was being
opened up. The Polish road from Warsaw to Briesc, on the Russian
frontier, 120 miles in length, was constructed after his plans, and
it remains, we believe, the finest road in the Russian dominions to
this day.

[Image] Section of Polish Road

He was consulted by the Austrian Government on the subject of
bridges as well as roads. Count Szechenyi recounts the very
agreeable and instructive interview which he had with Telford when
he called to consult him as to the bridge proposed to be erected
across the Danube, between the towns of Buda and Pesth. On a
suspension bridge being suggested by the English engineer, the
Count, with surprise, asked if such an erection was possible under
the circumstances he had described? "We do not consider anything to
be impossible," replied Telford; "impossibilities exist chiefly in
the prejudices of mankind, to which some are slaves, and from which
few are able to emancipate themselves and enter on the path of
truth." But supposing a suspension bridge were not deemed advisable
under the circumstances, and it were considered necessary
altogether to avoid motion, "then," said he, "I should recommend
you to erect a cast iron bridge of three spans, each 400 feet; such
a bridge will have no motion, and though half the world lay a
wreck, it would still stand."*[3] A suspension bridge was
eventually resolved upon. It was constructed by one of Mr. Telford's
ablest pupils, Mr. Tierney Clark, between the years 1839 and 1850,
and is justly regarded as one of the greatest triumphs of English
engineering, the Buda-Pesth people proudly declaring it to be "the
eighth wonder of the world."

At a time when speculation was very rife--in the year 1825--
Mr. Telford was consulted respecting a grand scheme for cutting a
canal across the Isthmus of Darien; and about the same time he was
employed to resurvey the line for a ship canal--which had before
occupied the attention of Whitworth and Rennie--between Bristol and
the English Channel. But although he gave great attention to this
latter project, and prepared numerous plans and reports upon it,
and although an Act was actually passed enabling it to be carried
out, the scheme was eventually abandoned, like the preceding ones
with the same object, for want of the requisite funds.

Our engineer had a perfect detestation of speculative jobbing in
all its forms, though on one occasion he could not help being used
as an instrument by schemers. A public company was got up at
Liverpool, in 1827, to form a broad and deep ship canal, of about
seven miles in length, from opposite Liverpool to near Helbre
Isle, in the estuary of the Dee; its object being to enable the
shipping of the port to avoid the variable shoals and sand-banks
which obstruct the entrance to the Mersey. Mr. Telford entered on
the project with great zeal, and his name was widely quoted in its
support. It appeared, however, that one of its principal promoters,
who had secured the right of pre-emption of the land on which the
only possible entrance to the canal could be formed on the northern
side, suddenly closed with the corporation of Liverpool, who were
opposed to the plan, and "sold", his partners as well as the
engineer for a large sum of money. Telford, disgusted at being made
the instrument of an apparent fraud upon the public, destroyed all
the documents relating to the scheme, and never afterwards spoke of
it except in terms of extreme indignation.

About the same time, the formation of locomotive railways was
extensively discussed, and schemes were set on foot to construct
them between several of the larger towns. But Mr. Telford was now
about seventy years old; and, desirous of limiting the range of his
business rather than extending it, he declined to enter upon this
new branch of engineering. Yet, in his younger days, he had
surveyed numerous lines of railway--amongst others, one as early as
the year 1805, from Glasgow to Berwick, down the vale of the Tweed.
A line from Newcastle-on-Tyne to Carlisle was also surveyed and
reported on by him some years later; and the Stratford and Moreton
Railway was actually constructed under his direction. He made use
of railways in all his large works of masonry, for the purpose of
facilitating the haulage of materials to the points at which they
were required to be deposited or used. There is a paper of his on
the Inland Navigation of the County of Salop, contained in
'The Agricultural Survey of Shropshire,' in which he speaks of the
judicious use of railways, and recommends that in all future
surveys "it be an instruction to the engineers that they do examine
the county with a view of introducing iron railways wherever
difficulties may occur with regard to the making of navigable canals."
When the project of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was started,
we are informed that he was offered the appointment of engineer;
but he declined, partly because of his advanced age, but also out
of a feeling of duty to his employers, the Canal Companies, stating
that he could not lend his name to a scheme which, if carried out,
must so materially affect their interests.

Towards the close of his life, he was afflicted by deafness, which
made him feel exceedingly uncomfortable in mixed society. Thanks to
a healthy constitution, unimpaired by excess and invigorated by
active occupation, his working powers had lasted longer than those
of most men. He was still cheerful, clear-headed, and skilful in
the arts of his profession, and felt the same pleasure in useful
work that he had ever done. It was, therefore, with difficulty that
he could reconcile himself to the idea of retiring from the field
of honourable labour, which he had so long occupied, into a state
of comparative inactivity. But he was not a man who could be idle,
and he determined, like his great predecessor Smeaton, to occupy
the remaining years of his life in arranging his engineering papers
for publication. Vigorous though he had been, he felt that the time
was shortly approaching when the wheels of life must stand still
altogether. Writing to a friend at Langholm, he said, "Having now
being occupied for about seventy-five years in incessant exertion,
I have for some time past arranged to decline the contest; but the
numerous works in which I am engaged have hitherto prevented my
succeeding. In the mean time I occasionally amuse myself with
setting down in what manner a long life has been laboriously, and I
hope usefully, employed." And again, a little later, he writes:
"During the last twelve months I have had several rubs; at
seventy-seven they tell more seriously than formerly, and call for
less exertion and require greater precautions. I fancy that few of
my age belonging to the valley of the Esk remain in the land of the

One of the last works on which Mr. Telford was professionally
consulted was at the instance of the Duke of Wellington--not many
years younger than himself, but of equally vigorous intellectual
powers--as to the improvement of Dover Harbour, then falling
rapidly to decay. The long-continued south-westerly gales of 1833-4
had the effect of rolling an immense quantity of shingle up Channel
towards that port, at the entrance to which it became deposited in
unusual quantities, so as to render it at times altogether
inaccessible. The Duke, as a military man, took a more than
ordinary interest in the improvement of Dover, as the military and
naval station nearest to the French coast; and it fell to him as
Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports to watch over the preservation of
the harbour, situated at a point in the English Channel which he
regarded as of great strategic importance in the event of a
continental war. He therefore desired Mr. Telford to visit the
place and give his opinion as to the most advisable mode of
procedure with a view to improving the harbour. The result was a
report, in which the engineer recommended a plan of sluicing,
similar to that adopted by Mr. Smeaton at Ramsgate, which was
afterwards carried out with considerable success by Mr. James
Walker, C.E.

This was his last piece of professional work. A few months later he
was laid up by bilious derangement of a serious character, which
recurred with increased violence towards the close of the year; and
on the 2nd of September, 1834, Thomas Telford closed his useful and
honoured career, at the advanced age of seventy-seven. With that
absence of ostentation which characterised him through life, he
directed that his remains should be laid, without ceremony, in the
burial ground of the parish church of St. Margaret's, Westminster.
But the members of the Institute of Civil Engineers, who justly
deemed him their benefactor and chief ornament, urged upon his
executors the propriety of interring him in Westminster Abbey.

[Image] Telford's Burial Place in Westminster Abbey

He was buried there accordingly, near the middle of the nave;
where the letters, "Thomas Telford, 1834, mark the place beneath
which he lies.*[5] The adjoining stone bears the inscription,
"Robert Stephenson, 1859," that engineer having during his life
expressed the wish that his body should be laid near that of
Telford; and the son of the Killingworth engineman thus sleeps by
the side of the son of the Eskdale shepherd.

It was a long, a successful, and a useful life which thus ended.
Every step in his upward career, from the poor peasant's hut in
Eskdale to Westminster Abbey, was nobly and valorously won. The man
was diligent and conscientious; whether as a working mason hewing
stone blocks at Somerset House, as a foreman of builders at
Portsmouth, as a road surveyor at Shrewsbury, or as an engineer of
bridges, canals, docks, and harbours. The success which followed
his efforts was thoroughly well-deserved. He was laborious,
pains-taking, and skilful; but, what was better, he was honest and
upright. He was a most reliable man; and hence he came to be
extensively trusted. Whatever he undertook, he endeavoured to excel
in. He would be a first-rate hewer, and he became one. He was
himself accustomed to attribute much of his success to the thorough
way in which he had mastered the humble beginnings of this trade.
He was even of opinion that the course of manual training he had
undergone, and the drudgery, as some would call it, of daily labour
--first as an apprentice, and afterwards as a journeyman mason--
had been of greater service to him than if he had passed through
the curriculum of a University.

Writing to his friend, Miss Malcolm, respecting a young man who
desired to enter the engineering profession, he in the first place
endeavoured to dissuade the lady from encouraging the ambition of
her protege, the profession being overstocked, and offering very
few prizes in proportion to the large number of blanks. "But,"
he added, "if civil engineering, notwithstanding these
discouragements, is still preferred, I may point out that the way
in which both Mr. Rennie and myself proceeded, was to serve a
regular apprenticeship to some practical employment--he to a
millwright, and I to a general house-builder. In this way we
secured the means, by hard labour, of earning a subsistence; and,
in time, we obtained by good conduct the confidence of our
employers and the public; eventually rising into the rank of what
is called Civil Engineering. This is the true way of acquiring
practical skill, a thorough knowledge of the materials employed in
construction, and last, but not least, a perfect knowledge of the
habits and dispositions of the workmen who carry out our designs.
This course, although forbidding to many a young person, who
believes it possible to find a short and rapid path to distinction,
is proved to be otherwise by the two examples I have cited. For my
own part, I may truly aver that 'steep is the ascent, and slippery
is the way.'"*[6] That Mr. Telford was enabled to continue to so
advanced an age employed on laborious and anxious work, was no
doubt attributable in a great measure to the cheerfulness of his
nature. He was, indeed, a most happy-minded man. It will be
remembered that, when a boy, he had been known in his valley as
"Laughing Tam." The same disposition continued to characterise him
in his old age. He was playful and jocular, and rejoiced in the
society of children and young people, especially when well-informed
and modest. But when they pretended to acquirements they did not
possess, he was quick to detect and see through them. One day a
youth expatiated to him in very large terms about a friend of his,
who had done this and that, and made so and so, and could do all
manner of wonderful things. Telford listened with great attention,
and when the youth had done - he quietly asked, with a twinkle in
his eye, "Pray, can your friend lay eggs?"

When in society he gave himself up to it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
He did not sit apart, a moody and abstracted "lion;" nor desire to
be regarded as "the great engineer," pondering new Menai Bridges;
But he appeared in his natural character of a simple, intelligent,
cheerful companion; as ready to laugh at his own jokes as at other
people's; and he was as communicative to a child as to any
philosopher of the party.

Robert Southey, than whom there was no better judge of a loveable
man, said of him, "I would go a long way for the sake of seeing
Telford and spending a few days in his company." Southey, as we
have seen, had the best opportunities of knowing him well; for a
long journey together extending over many weeks, is, probably,
better than anything else, calculated to bring out the weak as well
as the strong points of a friend: indeed, many friendships have
completely broken down under the severe test of a single week's
tour. But Southey on that occasion firmly cemented a friendship
which lasted until Telford's death. On one occasion the latter
called at the poet's house, in company with Sir Henry Parnell, when
engaged upon the survey of one of his northern roads. Unhappily
Southey was absent at the time; and, writing about the circumstance
to a correspondent, he said, "This was a mortification to me, in as
much as I owe Telford every kind of friendly attention, and like
him heartily."

Campbell, the poet, was another early friend of our engineer; and
the attachment seems to have been mutual. Writing to Dr. Currie,
of Liverpool, in 1802, Campbell says: "I have become acquainted with
Telford the engineer, 'a fellow of infinite humour,' and of strong
enterprising mind. He has almost made me a bridge-builder already;
at least he has inspired me with new sensations of interest in the
improvement and ornament of our country. Have you seen his plan of
London Bridge? or his scheme for a new canal in the North Highlands,
which will unite, if put in effect, our Eastern and Atlantic
commerce, and render Scotland the very emporium of navigation?
Telford is a most useful cicerone in London. He is so universally
acquainted, and so popular in his manners, that he can introduce
one to all kinds of novelty, and all descriptions of interesting
society." Shortly after, Campbell named his first son after
Telford, who stood godfather for the boy. Indeed, for many years,
Telford played the part of Mentor to the young and impulsive poet,
advising him about his course in life, trying to keep him steady,
and holding him aloof as much as possible from the seductive
allurements of the capital. But it was a difficult task, and
Telford's numerous engagements necessarily left the poet at many
seasons very much to himself. It appears that they were living
together at the Salopian when Campbell composed the first draft of
his poem of Hohenlinden; and several important emendations made in
it by Telford were adopted by Campbell. Although the two friends
pursued different roads in life, and for many years saw little of
each other, they often met again, especially after Telford took up
his abode at his house in Abingdon Street, where Campbell was a
frequent and always a welcome guest.

When engaged upon his surveys, our engineer was the same simple,
cheerful, laborious man. While at work, he gave his whole mind to
the subject in hand, thinking of nothing else for the time;
dismissing it at the close of each day's work, but ready to take it
up afresh with the next day's duties. This was a great advantage to
him as respected the prolongation of his working faculty. He did
not take his anxieties to bed with him, as many do, and rise up
with them in the morning; but he laid down the load at the end of
each day, and resumed it all the more cheerfully when refreshed and
invigorated by natural rest, It was only while the engrossing
anxieties connected with the suspension of the chains of Menai
Bridge were weighing heavily upon his mind, that he could not
sleep; and then, age having stolen upon him, he felt the strain
almost more than he could bear. But that great anxiety once fairly
over, his spirits speedily resumed their wonted elasticity.

When engaged upon the construction of the Carlisle and Glasgow
road, he was very fond of getting a few of the "navvy men," as he
called them, to join him at an ordinary at the Hamilton Arms Hotel,
Lanarkshire, each paying his own expenses. On such occasions
Telford would say that, though he could not drink, yet he would
carve and draw corks for them. One of the rules he laid down was
that no business was to be introduced from the moment they sat down
to dinner. All at once, from being the plodding, hard-working
engineer, with responsibility and thought in every feature, Telford
unbended and relaxed, and became the merriest and drollest of the
party. He possessed a great fund of anecdote available for such
occasions, had an extraordinary memory for facts relating to
persons and families, and the wonder to many of his auditors was,
how in all the world a man living in London should know so much
better about their locality and many of its oddities than they did

In his leisure hours at home, which were but few, he occupied
himself a good deal in the perusal of miscellaneous literature,
never losing his taste for poetry. He continued to indulge in the
occasional composition of verses until a comparatively late period
of his life; one of his most successful efforts being a translation
of the 'Ode to May,' from Buchanan's Latin poems, executed in a
very tender and graceful manner. That he might be enabled to peruse
engineering works in French and German, he prosecuted the study of
those languages, and with such success that he was shortly able to
read them with comparative ease. He occasionally occupied himself
in literary composition on subjects connected with his profession.
Thus he wrote for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, conducted by his
friend Sir David (then Dr.) Brewster, the elaborate and able
articles on Architecture, Bridge-building, and Canal-making.
Besides his contributions to that work, he advanced a considerable
sum of money to aid in its publication, which remained a debt due
to his estate at the period of his death.

Notwithstanding the pains that Telford took in the course of his
life to acquire a knowledge of the elements of natural science,
it is somewhat remarkable to find him holding; acquirements in
mathematics so cheap. But probably this is to be accounted for by
the circumstance of his education being entirely practical, and
mainly self-acquired. When a young man was on one occasion
recommended to him as a pupil because of his proficiency in
mathematics, the engineer expressed the opinion that such
acquirements were no recommendation. Like Smeaton, he held that
deductions drawn from theory were never to be trusted; and he
placed his reliance mainly on observation, experience, and
carefully-conducted experiments. He was also, like most men of
strong practical sagacity, quick in mother wit, and arrived rapidly
at conclusions, guided by a sort of intellectual instinct which can
neither be defined nor described.*[7] Although occupied as a
leading engineer for nearly forty years-- having certified
contractors' bills during that time amounting to several millions
sterling--he died in comparatively moderate circumstances. Eminent
constructive ability was not very highly remunerated in Telford's
time, and he was satisfied with a rate of pay which even the
smallest "M. I. C. E." would now refuse to accept. Telford's
charges were, however, perhaps too low; and a deputation of members
of the profession on one occasion formally expostulated with him on
the subject.

Although he could not be said to have an indifference for money, he
yet estimated it as a thing worth infinitely less than character;
and every penny that he earned was honestly come by. He had no
wife, *[8] nor family, nor near relations to provide for,--only
himself in his old age. Not being thought rich, he was saved the
annoyance of being haunted by toadies or pestered by parasites. His
wants were few, and his household expenses small; and though he
entertained many visitors and friends, it was in a quiet way and on
a moderate scale. The small regard he had for personal dignity may
be inferred from the fact, that to the last he continued the
practice, which he had learnt when a working mason, of darning his
own stockings.*[9]

Telford nevertheless had the highest idea of the dignity of his
profession; not because of the money it would produce, but of the
great things it was calculated to accomplish. In his most
confidential letters we find him often expatiating on the noble
works he was engaged in designing or constructing, and the national
good they were calculated to produce, but never on the pecuniary
advantages he himself was to derive from them. He doubtless prized,
and prized highly, the reputation they would bring him; and, above
all, there seemed to be uppermost in his mind, especially in the
earlier part of his career, while many of his schoolfellows were
still alive, the thought of "What will they say of this in
Eskdale?" but as for the money results to himself, Telford seemed,
to the close of his life, to regard them as of comparatively small

During the twenty-one years that he acted as principal engineer for
the Caledonian Canal, we find from the Parliamentary returns that
the amount paid to him for his reports, detailed plans, and
superintendence, was exactly 237L. a year. Where he conceived any
works to be of great public importance, and he found them to be
promoted by public-spirited persons at their own expense, he
refused to receive any payment for his labour, or even repayment of
the expenses incurred by him. Thus, while employed by the
Government in the improvement of the Highland roads, he persuaded
himself that he ought at the same time to promote the similar
patriotic objects of the British Fisheries Society, which were
carried out by voluntary subscription; and for many years he acted
as their engineer, refusing to accept any remuneration whatever for
his trouble.*[10]

Telford held the sordid money-grubber in perfect detestation.
He was of opinion that the adulation paid to mere money was one of
the greatest dangers with which modern society was threatened.
"I admire commercial enterprise," he would say; "it is the vigorous
outgrowth of our industrial life: I admire everything that gives it
free scope:, as, wherever it goes, activity, energy, intelligence--
all that we call civilization--accompany it; but I hold that the
aim and end of all ought not to be a mere bag, of money, but
something far higher and far better."

Writing once to his Langholm correspondent about an old schoolfellow,
who had grown rich by scraping, Telford said: "Poor Bob L---- His
industry and sagacity were more than counterbalanced by his
childish vanity and silly avarice, which rendered his friendship
dangerous, and his conversation tiresome. He was like a man in
London, whose lips, while walking by himself along the streets,
were constantly ejaculating 'Money! Money!' But peace to Bob's
memory: I need scarcely add, confusion to his thousands!" Telford
was himself most careful in resisting the temptations to which men
in his position are frequently exposed; but he was preserved by his
honest pride, not less than by the purity of his character.
He invariably refused to receive anything in the shape of presents
or testimonials from persons employed under him. He would not have
even the shadow of an obligation stand in the way of his duty to
those who employed him to watch over and protect their interests.
During the many years that he was employed on public works, no one
could ever charge him in the remotest degree with entering into a
collusion with contractors. He looked upon such arrangements as
degrading and infamous, and considered that they meant nothing less
than an inducement to "scamping," which he would never tolerate.

His inspection of work was most rigid. The security of his
structures was not a question of money, but of character. As human
life depended upon their stability, not a point was neglected that
could ensure it. Hence, in his selection of resident engineers and
inspectors of works, he exercised the greatest possible precautions;
and here his observation of character proved of essential value.
Mr. Hughes says he never allowed any but his most experienced and
confidential assistants to have anything to do with exploring the
foundations of buildings he was about to erect. His scrutiny into
the qualifications of those employed about such structures extended
to the subordinate overseers, and even to the workmen, insomuch
that men whose general habits had before passed unnoticed, and
whose characters had never been inquired into, did not escape his
observation when set to work in operations connected with
foundations.*[11] If he detected a man who gave evidences of
unsteadiness, inaccuracy, or carelessness, he would reprimand the
overseer for employing such a person, and order him to be removed
to some other part of the undertaking where his negligence could do
no harm. And thus it was that Telford put his own character,
through those whom he employed, into the various buildings which he
was employed to construct.

But though Telford was comparatively indifferent about money, he
was not without a proper regard for it, as a means of conferring
benefits on others, and especially as a means of being independent.
At the close of his life he had accumulated as much as, invested at
interest, brought him in about 800L. a year, and enabled him to
occupy the house in Abingdon Street in which he died. This was
amply sufficient for his wants, and more than enough for his
independence. It enabled him also to continue those secret acts of
benevolence which constituted perhaps the most genuine pleasure of
his life. It is one of the most delightful traits in this excellent
man's career to find him so constantly occupied in works of
spontaneous charity, in quarters so remote and unknown that it is
impossible the slightest feeling of ostentation could have sullied
the purity of the acts. Among the large mass of Telford's private
letters which have been submitted to us, we find frequent reference
to sums of money transmitted for the support of poor people in his
native valley. At new year's time he regularly sent remittances of
from 30L. to 50L., to be distributed by the kind Miss Malcolm of
Burnfoot, and, after her death, by Mr. Little, the postmaster at
Langholm; and the contributions thus so kindly made, did much to
fend off the winter's cold, and surround with many small comforts
those who most needed help, but were perhaps too modest to ask

Many of those in the valley of the Esk had known of Telford in his
younger years as a poor barefooted boy; though now become a man of
distinction, he had too much good sense to be ashamed of his humble
origin; perhaps he even felt proud that, by dint of his own
valorous and persevering efforts, he had been able to rise so much
above it. Throughout his long life, his heart always warmed at the
thought of Eskdale. He rejoiced at the honourable rise of Eskdale
men as reflecting credit upon his "beloved valley." Thus, writing
to his Langholm correspondent with reference to the honours
conferred on the different members of the family of Malcolm, he
said: "The distinctions so deservedly bestowed upon the Burnfoot
family, establish a splendid era in Eskdale; and almost tempt your
correspondent to sport his Swedish honours, which that grateful
country has repeatedly, in spite of refusal, transmitted."

It might be said that there was narrowness and provincialism in
this; But when young men are thrown into the world, with all its
temptations and snares, it is well that the recollections of home
and kindred should survive to hold them in the path of rectitude,
and cheer them in their onward and upward course in life. And there
is no doubt that Telford was borne up on many occasions by the
thought of what the folks in the valley would say about him and his
progress in life, when they met together at market, or at the
Westerkirk porch on Sabbath mornings. In this light, provincialism
or local patriotism is a prolific source of good, and may be
regarded as among the most valuable and beautiful emanations of the
parish life of our country. Although Telford was honoured with the
titles and orders of merit conferred upon him by foreign monarchs,
what he esteemed beyond them all was the respect and gratitude of
his own countrymen; and, not least, the honour which his really
noble and beneficent career was calculated to reflect upon "the
folks of the nook," the remote inhabitants of his native Eskdale.

When the engineer proceeded to dispose of his savings by will,
which he did a few months before his death, the distribution was a
comparatively easy matter. The total amount of his bequeathments
was 16,600L.*[13] About one-fourth of the whole he set apart for
educational purposes, --2000L. to the Civil Engineers' Institute,
and 1000L. each to the ministers of Langholm and Westerkirk, in
trust for the parish libraries. The rest was bequeathed, in sums
of from 200L. to 500L., to different persons who had acted as
clerks, assistants, and surveyors, in his various public works; and
to his intimate personal friends. Amongst these latter were Colonel
Pasley, the nephew of his early benefactor; Mr. Rickman, Mr. Milne,
and Mr. Hope, his three executors; and Robert Southey and Thomas
Campbell, the poets. To both of these last the gift was most
welcome. Southey said of his: "Mr. Telford has most kindly and
unexpectedly left me 500L., with a share of his residuary property,
which I am told will make it amount in all to 850L. This is truly a
godsend, and I am most grateful for it. It gives me the comfortable
knowledge that, if it should please God soon to take me from this
world, my family would have resources fully sufficient for their
support till such time as their affairs could be put in order, and
the proceeds of my books, remains, &c., be rendered available.
I have never been anxious overmuch, nor ever taken more thought for
the morrow than it is the duty of every one to take who has to earn
his livelihood; but to be thus provided for at this time I feel to
be an especial blessing.'"*[14] Among the most valuable results of
Telford's bequests in his own district, was the establishment of
the popular libraries at Langholm and Westerkirk, each of which now
contains about 4000 volumes. That at Westerkirk had been
originally instituted in the year 1792, by the miners employed to
work an antimony mine (since abandoned) on the farm of Glendinning,
within sight of the place where Telford was born. On the
dissolution of the mining company, in 1800, the little collection
of books was removed to Kirkton Hill; but on receipt of Telford's
bequest, a special building was erected for their reception at Old
Bentpath near the village of Westerkirk. The annual income derived
from the Telford fund enabled additions of new volumes to be made
to it from time to time; and its uses as a public institution were
thus greatly increased. The books are exchanged once a month, on
the day of the full moon; on which occasion readers of all ages and
conditions,--farmers, shepherds, ploughmen, labourers, and their
children,--resort to it from far and near, taking away with them as
many volumes as they desire for the month's readings.

Thus there is scarcely a cottage in the valley in which good books
are not to be found under perusal; and we are told that it is a
common thing for the Eskdale shepherd to take a book in his plaid
to the hill-side--a volume of Shakespeare, Prescott, or Macaulay--
and read it there, under the blue sky, with his sheep and the green
hills before him. And thus, so long as the bequest lasts, the good,
great engineer will not cease to be remembered with gratitude in
his beloved Eskdale.

Footnotes for Chapter XV.

*[1] In his inaugural address to the members on taking the chair,
the President pointed out that the principles of the Institution
rested on the practical efforts and unceasing perseverance of the
members themselves. "In foreign countries," he said, "similar
establishments are instituted by government, and their members and
proceedings are under their control; but here, a different course
being adopted, it becomes incumbent on each individual member to
feel that the very existence and prosperity of the Institution
depend, in no small degree, on his personal conduct and exertions;
and my merely mentioning the circumstance will, I am convinced, be
sufficient to command the best efforts of the present and future

*[2] We are informed by Joseph Mitchell, Esq., C.E., of the origin
of this practice. Mr. Mitchell was a pupil of Mr. Telford's, living
with him in his house at 24, Abingdon Street. It was the engineer's
custom to have a dinner party every Tuesday, after which his
engineering friends were invited to accompany him to the Institution,
the meetings of which were then held on Tuesday evenings in a house
in Buckingham Street, Strand. The meetings did not usually consist
of more than from twenty to thirty persons. Mr. Mitchell took
notes of the conversations which followed the reading of the papers.
Mr. Telford afterwards found his pupil extending the notes,
on which he asked permission to read them, and was so much pleased
that he took them to the next meeting and read them to the members.
Mr. Mitchell was then formally appointed reporter of conversations
to the Institute; and the custom having been continued, a large
mass of valuable practical information has thus been placed on

*[3] Supplement to Weale's 'Bridges,' Count Szechenyi's Report, p. 18.

*[4] Letter to Mrs. Little, Langholm, 28th August, 1833.

*[5] A statue of him, by Bailey, has since been placed in the east
aisle of the north transept, known as the Islip Chapel. It is
considered a fine work, but its effect is quite lost in consequence
of the crowded state of the aisle, which has very much the look of
a sculptor's workshop. The subscription raised for the purpose of
erecting the statue was 1000L., of which 200L. was paid to the Dean
for permission to place it within the Abbey.

*[6] Letter to Miss Malcolm, Burnfoot, Langholm, dated 7th October,

*[7] Sir David Brewster, observes on this point: "It is difficult
to analyse that peculiar faculty of mind which directs a successful
engineer who is not guided by the deductions of the exact sciences;
but it must consist mainly in the power of observing the effects of
natural causes acting in a variety of circumstances; and in the
judicious application of this knowledge to cases when the same
causes come into operation. But while this sagacity is a prominent
feature in the designs of Mr. Telford, it appears no less
distinctly in the choice of the men by whom they were to be
practically executed. His quick perception of character, his
honesty of purpose, and his contempt for all otheracquirements,--
save that practical knowledge and experience which was best fitted
to accomplish, in the best manner, the object he had in view,--have
enables him to leave behind him works of inestimable value, and
monuments of professional celebrity which have not been surpassed
either in Britain or in Europe."--'Edinburgh Review,' vol. lxx. p. 46.

*[8] It seems singular that with Telford's great natural powers of
pleasing, his warm social temperament, and his capability of
forming ardent attachments for friends, many of them women, he
should never have formed an attachment of the heart. Even in his
youthful and poetical days, the subject of love, so frequently the
theme of boyish song, is never alluded to; while his school
friendships are often recalled to mind and, indeed, made the
special subject of his verse. It seems odd to find him, when at
Shrewsbury--a handsome fellow, with a good position, and many
beautiful women about him--addressing his friend, the blind
schoolmaster at Langholm, as his "Stella"!

*[9] Mr. Mitchell says: "He lived at the rate of about 1200L. a
year. He kept a carriage, but no horses, and used his carriage
principally for making his journeys through the country on business.
I once accompanied him to Bath and Cornwall, when he made me keep
an accurate journal of all I saw. He used to lecture us on being
independent, even in little matters, and not ask servants to do for
us what we might easily do for ourselves. He carried in his pocket
a small book containing needles, thread, and buttons, and on an
emergency was always ready to put in a stitch. A curious habit he
had of mending his stockings, which I suppose he acquired when a
working mason. He would not permit his housekeeper to touch them,
but after his work at night, about nine or half past, he would go
up stairs, and take down a lot, and sit mending them with great
apparent delight in his own room till bed-time. I have frequently
gone in to him with some message, and found him occupied with this

*[10] "The British Fisheries Society," adds Mr. Rickman, "did not
suffer themselves to be entirely outdone in liberality, and shortly
before his death they pressed upon Mr. Telford a very handsome gift
of plate, which, being inscribed with expressions of their
thankfulness and gratitude towards him, he could not possibly
refuse to accept."--'Life of Telford,' p. 283.

*[11] Weale's 'Theory. Practice, and Architecture of Bridges,'
vol.i.: 'Essay on Foundations of Bridges,' by T. Hughes, C.E., p. 33.

*[12] Letter to Mr. William Little, Langholm, 24th January, 1815.

*[13] Telford thought so little about money, that he did not even
know the amount he died possessed of. It turned out that instead of
16,600L. it was about 30,000L.; so that his legatees had their
bequests nearly doubled. For many years he had abstained from
drawing the dividends on the shares which he held in the canals and
other public companies in which he was concerned. At the money
panic of 1825, it was found that he had a considerable sum lying in
the hands of his London bankers at little or no interest, and it
was only on the urgent recommendation of his friend, Sir P. Malcolm,
that he invested it in government securities, then very low.

*[14] 'Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey,' vol. iv.,
p. 391. We may here mention that the last article which Southey
wrote for the 'Quarterly' was his review of the ' Life of Telford.'


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