If ever there was a boy made good in the world who did great things for North Wales, the Scottish designer and engineering genius Thomas Telford has to rate amongst the finest. Born into poverty to a lowly Shepherd John and his wife Janet in August 1757 in the tiny hamlet of Glendinning, Westerkirk in Dumfries, his father had one of the toughest lives imaginable.
It took its toll and he died in his early 40s only 3 months after Thomas was born, leaving his mother Janet (nee Jackson – yes really!) homeless since they lost their tiny cottage which went with her husband’s job. They moved into one room in her brother’s house not far away. Thomas’ brother died in infancy leaving Thomas the only child and he was apprenticed to a stonemason in his teens but after being treated badly, ran back home. He was then found another apprenticeship and this proved his making, as he had access to a wealthy local lady’s library so he became an avid reader.
Years later he moved to London and then to Portsmouth where he made more and more wealthy contacts and took on commissions which took him all over the country – one of which was for Sir William Pultney, building a new prison in Shrewsbury. His stone work was outstanding and he also had an eye for innovative design too which made him unique as an engineer.
His work for Pultney then took him to North Wales in 1795 with a commission to build a canal and aqueduct over the river Dee. With his trusted colleagues Matthew Davidson and right-hand man William Jessop it took 10 years to build the “Stream in the Sky” 126ft high and it’s innovative design made it a World Heritage Site in 2009. You can walk or sail a narrow boat or even canoe over the aqueduct if you have a head for heights.
In 1800 with the Act of Union with Ireland, Irish MPs needed to get to Parliament in London and it was such an horrendous journey that in 1815 the Government commissioned Telford to build a new 260 mile road from London to Holyhead in North Wales, where a Ferry sailed to Dublin. The famous A5 which opend in 1826 still exists today and is a major feat of engineering. It culminated with the stunningly beautiful Menai Bridge – the first bridge crossing from mainland Wales to the Isle of Anglesey. There are now 2 bridges with the Britannia Bridge added in 1850 as a railway bridge – now a road bridge too. Today the Menai bridge is too narrow for large vehicles but a must do if you have a car!
So roads, bridges, canals in North Wales and much more in Scotland too, this guy was seriously talented. He died in 1834 having become very wealthy and the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. His portrait hangs in their offices in London and shows our very own Pontcysyllte Aqueduct behind him. The translation of the name means “the bridge that connects” and his title of the Colossus of Roads, given to him by poet and friend Robert Southey, seems rather apt!
That famous portrait!