Thomas Telford was born a year after John McAdam and died a year before him, so was a contemporary of his. He was a civil engineer, and a road, bridge and canal builder. He was so prolific that was dubbed the “Colossus of Roads” (a pun on the Colossus of Rhodes q.v.)
Telford was born poor but he gained a wealthy patron in the form of William Pulteney, and became an architect. He completed many projects and became a local celebrity in 1788 when he assessed a leaking roof at St Chad's Church in Shrewsbury and warned that the church was in imminent danger of collapse. His reputation was made locally when the church collapsed 3 days later.
In 1790 he designed a bridge carrying the London–Holyhead road over the River Severn at Montford. It was the first of some 40 bridges he built in Shropshire, which included one at Buildwas which was his first iron bridge. He was influenced by Abraham Darby's iron bridge at the town of Ironbridge which was the first ever bridge made of iron and had been built twenty-five years earlier. He thought it was over-designed for its function, with many of the component parts poorly cast. Telford’s bridge was 30 ft longer and half the weight,. Sadly, it no longer exists.
At the time, iron was a new material and using it in engineering projects was new and experimental. I made a film using about new materials which includes Abraham Darby’s bridge. You can see it on YouTube here.
By the end of his career Thomas Telford had built over a thousand bridges, over a thousand miles of roads and countless canals, churches and harbours. His roads used John McAdam’s construction method and all told he laid the infrastructure that enabled Britain to become an industrial powerhouse that could support an Empire.
But such was the speed of the Industrial Revolution that within a generation, the canals he created were made almost obsolete by both steam ships and steam trains. The future of transport would be rail, and would belong to engineers like George Stephenson.
His name lives on in the town of Telford in Shropshire and in the many roads which he straightened and levelled, to the relief of the horses pulling the stage coaches which proliferated through his and John McAdam’s lifetimes.
The world of long-distance coach travel.
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Britain’s roads were pretty impassable for most of our history. Coach travel was very difficult until they improved
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. Find out how coaches developed
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