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The Life of Thomas Telford by Smiles by Samuel Smiles

Part 5 out of 6

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preceding facts, "was a grievous disappointment to Mr. Telford,
and was in fact the one great bitter in his otherwise unalloyed cup
of happiness and prosperity. The undertaking was maligned by
thousands who knew nothing of its character. It became 'a dog with
a bad name,' and all the proverbial consequences followed.
The most absurd errors and misconceptions were propagated respecting
it from year to year, and it was impossible during Telford's lifetime
to stem the torrent of popular prejudice and objurgation. It must,
however, be admitted, after a long experience, that Telford was
greatly over-sanguine in his expectations as to the national uses
of the canal, and he was doomed to suffer acutely in his personal
feelings, little though he may have been personally to blame, the
consequences of what in this commercial country is regarded as so
much worse than a crime, namely, a financial mistake."*[2]

Mr. Telford's great sensitiveness made him feel the ill success of
this enterprise far more than most other men would have done.
He was accustomed to throw himself into the projects on which he
was employed with an enthusiasm almost poetic. He regarded them
not merely as so much engineering, but as works which were to be
instrumental in opening up the communications of the country and
extending its civilization. Viewed in this light, his canals,
roads, bridges, and harbours were unquestionably of great national
importance, though their commercial results might not in all cases
justify the estimates of their projectors. To refer to like
instances--no one can doubt the immense value and public uses of
Mr. Rennie's Waterloo Bridge or Mr. Robert Stephenson's Britannia
and Victoria Bridges, though every one knows that, commercially,
they have been failures. But it is probable that neither of these
eminent engineers gave himself anything like the anxious concern
that Telford did about the financial issue of his undertaking.
Were railway engineers to fret and vex themselves about the commercial
value of the schemes in which they have been engaged, there are few
of them but would be so haunted by the ghosts of wrecked speculations
that they could scarcely lay their heads upon their pillows for a
single night in peace.

While the Caledonian Canal was in progress, Mr. Telford was
occupied in various works of a similar kind in England and Scotland,
and also upon one in Sweden. In 1804, while on one of his journeys
to the north, he was requested by the Earl of Eglinton and others
to examine a project for making a canal from Glasgow to Saltcoats
and Ardrossan, on the north-western coast of the county of Ayr,
passing near the important manufacturing town of Paisley. A new
survey of the line was made, and the works were carried on during
several successive years until a very fine capacious canal was
completed, on the same level, as far as Paisley and Johnstown.
But the funds of the company falling short, the works were stopped,
and the canal was carried no further. Besides, the measures adopted
by the Clyde Trustees to deepen the bed of that river and enable
ships of large burden to pass up as high as Glasgow, had proved so
successful that the ultimate extension of the canal to Ardrossan
was no longer deemed necessary, and the prosecution of the work was
accordingly abandoned. But as Mr. Telford has observed, no person
suspected, when the canal was laid out in 1805, "that steamboats
would not only monopolise the trade of the Clyde, but penetrate
into every creek where there is water to float them, in the British
Isles and the continent of Europe, and be seen in every quarter of
the world."

Another of the navigations on which Mr. Telford was long employed
was that of the river Weaver in Cheshire. It was only twenty-four
miles in extent, but of considerable importance to the country
through which it passed, accommodating the salt-manufacturing
districts, of which the towns of Nantwich, Northwich, and Frodsham
are the centres. The channel of the river was extremely crooked
and much obstructed by shoals, when Telford took the navigation in
hand in the year 1807, and a number of essential improvements were
made in it, by means of new locks, weirs, and side cuts, which had
the effect of greatly improving the communications of these
important districts.

In the following year we find our engineer consulted, at the
instance of the King of Sweden, on the best mode of constructing
the Gotha Canal, between Lake Wenern and the Baltic, to complete
the communication with the North Sea. In 1808, at the invitation
of Count Platen, Mr. Telford visited Sweden and made a careful
survey of the district. The service occupied him and his
assistants two months, after which he prepared and sent in a series
of detailed plans and sections, together with an elaborate report
on the subject. His plans having been adopted, he again visited
Sweden in 1810, to inspect the excavations which had already been
begun, when he supplied the drawings for the locks and bridges.
With the sanction of the British Government, he at the same time
furnished the Swedish contractors with patterns of the most
improved tools used in canal making, and took with him a number of
experienced lock-makers and navvies for the purpose of instructing
the native workmen.

The construction of the Gotha Canal was an undertaking of great
magnitude and difficulty, similar in many respects to the
Caledonian Canal, though much more extensive. The length of
artificial canal was 55 miles, and of the whole navigation,
including the lakes, 120 miles. The locks are 120 feet long and
24 feet broad; the width of the canal at bottom being 42 feet,
and the depth of water 10 feet. The results, so far as the engineer
was concerned, were much more satisfactory than in the case of the
Caledonian Canal. While in the one case he had much obloquy to
suffer for the services he had given, in the other he was honoured
and feted as a public benefactor, the King conferring upon him the
Swedish order of knighthood, and presenting him with his portrait
set in diamonds.

Among the various canals throughout England which Mr. Telford was
employed to construct or improve, down to the commencement of the
railway era, were the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal, in 1818; the
Grand Trunk Canal, in 1822; the Harecastle Tunnel, which he
constructed anew, in 1824-7; the Birmingham Canal, in 1824; and the
Macclesfield, and Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canals, in 1825.
The Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company had been unable to
finish their works, begun some thirty years before; but with the
assistance of a loan of 160,000L. from the Exchequer Bill Loan
Commissioners, they were enabled to proceed with the completion of
their undertaking. A capacious canal was cut from Gloucester to
Sharpness Point, about eight miles down the Severn, which had the
effect of greatly improving the convenience of the port of
Gloucester; and by means of this navigation, ships of large burden
can now avoid the circuitous and difficult passage of the higher
part of the river, very much to the advantage of the trade of the

The formation of a new tunnel through Harecastle Hill, for the
better accommodation of the boats passing along the Grand Trunk
Canal, was a formidable work. The original tunnel, it will be
remembered,*[3] was laid out by Brindley, about fifty years
before, and occupied eleven years in construction. But the
engineering appliances of those early days were very limited; the
pumping powers of the steam-engine had not been fairly developed,
and workmen were as yet only half-educated in the expert use of
tools. The tunnel, no doubt, answered the purpose for which it was
originally intended, but it was very soon found too limited for the
traffic passing along the navigation. It was little larger than a
sewer, and admitted the passage of only one narrow boat, seven feet
wide, at a time, involving very heavy labour on the part of the men
who worked it through. This was performed by what was called
legging. The Leggers lay upon the deck of the vessel, or upon a
board slightly projecting from either side of it, and, by thrusting
their feet against the slimy roof or sides of the tunnel-walking
horizontally as it were -- they contrived to push it through.
But it was no better than horsework; and after "legging" Harecastle
Tunnel, which is more than a mile and a half long, the men were
usually completely exhausted, and as wet from perspiration as if
they had been dragged through the canal itself. The process
occupied about two hours, and by the time the passage of the tunnel
was made, there was usually a collection of boats at the other end
waiting their turn to pass. Thus much contention and confusion
took place amongst the boatmen--a very rough class of labourers--
and many furious battles were fought by the claimants for the first
turn "through." Regulations were found of no avail to settle these
disputes, still less to accommodate the large traffic which
continued to keep flowing along the line of the Grand Trunk,
and steadily increased with the advancing trade and manufactures of
the country. Loud complaints were made by the public, but they were
disregarded for many years; and it was not until the proprietors
were threatened with rival canals and railroads that they
determined on--what they could no longer avoid if they desired to
retain the carrying trade of the district the enlargement of the
Harecastle Tunnel.

Mr. Telford was requested to advise the Company what course was
most proper to be adopted in the matter, and after examining the
place, he recommended that an entirely new tunnel should be
constructed, nearly parallel with the old one, but of much larger
dimensions. The work was begun in 1824, and completed in 1827,
in less than three years. There were at that time throughout the
country plenty of skilled labourers and contractors, many of them
trained by their experience upon Telford's own works, where as
Brindley had in a great measure to make his workmen out of the
rawest material. Telford also had the advantage of greatly improved
machinery and an abundant supply of money--the Grand Trunk Canal
Company having become prosperous and rich, paying large dividends.
It is therefore meet, while eulogising the despatch with which he
was enabled to carry out the work, to point out that the much
greater period occupied in the earlier undertaking is not to be set
down to the disparagement of Brindley, who had difficulties to
encounter which the later engineer knew nothing of.

The length of the new tunnel is 2926 yards; it is 16 feet high and
14 feet broad, 4 feet 9 inches of the breadth being occupied by the
towing-path--for "legging" was now dispensed with, and horses
hauled along the boats instead of their being thrust through by
men. The tunnel is in so perfectly straight a line that its whole
length can be seen through at one view; and though it was
constructed by means of fifteen different pitshafts sunk to the
same line along the length of the tunnel, the workmanship is so
perfect that the joinings of the various lengths of brickwork are
scarcely discernible. The convenience afforded by the new tunnel
was very great, and Telford mentions that, on surveying it in 1829,
he asked a boatman coming; out of it how he liked it? "I only
wish," he replied, "that it reached all the way to Manchester!"

[Image] Cross Section of Harecastle Tunnel.

At the time that Mr. Telford was engaged upon the tunnel at
Harecastle, he was employed to improve and widen the Birmingham
Canal, another of Brindley's works. Though the accommodation
provided by it had been sufficient for the traffic when originally
constructed, the expansion of the trade of Birmingham and the
neighbourhood, accelerated by the formation of the canal itself,
had been such as completely to outgrow its limited convenience and
capacity, and its enlargement and improvement now became absolutely
necessary. Brindley's Canal, for the sake of cheapness of
construction--money being much scarcer and more difficult to be
raised in the early days of canals--was also winding and crooked;
and it was considered desirable to shorten and straighten it by
cutting off the bends at different places. At the point at which
the canal entered Birmingham, it had become "little better than a
crooked ditch, with scarcely the appearance of a towing-path, the
horses frequently sliding and staggering in the water, the
hauling-lines sweeping the gravel into the canal, and the
entanglement at the meeting of boats being incessant; whilst at the
locks at each end of the short summit at Smethwick crowds of
boatmen were always quarrelling, or offering premiums for a
preference of passage; and the mine-owners, injured by the delay,
were loud in their just complaints."*[4]

Mr. Telford proposed an effective measure of improvement, which
was taken in hand without loss of time, and carried out, greatly
to the advantage of the trade of the district. The numerous bends
in the canal were cut off, the water-way was greatly widened, the
summit at Smethwick was cut down to the level on either side, and a
straight canal, forty feet wide, without a lock, was thus formed
as far as Bilston and Wolverhampton; while the length of the main
line between Birmingham and Autherley, along the whole extent of
the "Black country," was reduced from twenty-two to fourteen miles.
At the same time the obsolete curvatures in Brindley's old canal
were converted into separate branches or basins, for the
accommodation of the numerous mines and manufactories on either
side of the main line. In consequence of the alterations which had
been made in the canal, it was found necessary to construct
numerous large bridges. One of these--a cast iron bridge,
at Galton, of 150 feet span--has been much admired for its elegance,
lightness, and economy of material. Several others of cast iron
were constructed at different points, and at one place the canal
itself is carried along on an aqueduct of the same material as at
Pont-Cysylltau. The whole of these extensive improvements were
carried out in the short space of two years; and the result was
highly satisfactory, "proving," as Mr. Telford himself observes,
"that where business is extensive, liberal expenditure of this kind
is true economy."

[Image] Galton Bridge, Birmingham Canal.

In 1825 Mr. Telford was called upon to lay out a canal to connect
the Grand Trunk, at the north end of Harecastle Tunnel, with the
rapidly improving towns of Congleton and Macclesfield. The line
was twenty-nine miles in length, ten miles on one level from
Harecastle to beyond Congleton; then, ascending 114 feet by eleven
locks, it proceeded for five miles on a level past Macclesfield,
and onward to join the Peak Forest Canal at Marple. The navigation
was thus conducted upon two levels, each of considerable length;
and it so happened that the trade of each was in a measure
distinct, and required separate accommodation. The traffic of the
whole of the Congleton district had ready access to the Grand Trunk
system, without the labour, expense, and delay involved by passing
the boats through locks; while the coals brought to Macclesfield to
supply the mills there were carried throughout upon the upper
level, also without lockage. The engineer's arrangement proved
highly judicious, and furnishes an illustration of the tact and
judgment which he usually displayed in laying out his works for
practical uses. Mr Telford largely employed cast iron in the
construction of this canal, using it in the locks and gates, as
well as in an extensive aqueduct which it was necessary to
construct over a deep ravine, after the plan pursued by him at,
Pont-Cysylltau and other places.

The last canal constructed by. Mr. Telford was the Birmingham and
Liverpool Junction, extending from the Birmingham Canal, near
Wolverhampton, in nearly a direct line, by Market Drayton,
Nantwich, and through the city of Chester, by the Ellesmere Canal,
to Ellesmere Port on the Mersey. The proprietors of canals were
becoming alarmed at the numerous railways projected through the
districts heretofore served by their water-ways; and among other
projects one was set on foot, as early as 1825, for constructing a
line of railway from London to Liverpool. Mr. Telford was
consulted as to the best means of protecting existing investments,
and his advice was to render the canal system as complete as it
could be made; for he entertained the conviction, which has been
justified by experience, that such navigations possessed peculiar
advantages for the conveyance of heavy goods, and that, if the
interruptions presented by locks could be done away with, or
materially reduced, a large portion of the trade of the country
must continue to be carried by the water roads. The new line
recommended by him was approved and adopted, and the works were
commenced in 1826. A second complete route was thus opened up
between Birmingham and Liverpool, and Manchester, by which the
distance was shortened twelve miles, and the delay occasioned by
320 feet of upward and downward lockage was done away with.

Telford was justly proud of his canals, which were the finest works
of their kind that had yet been executed in England. Capacious,
convenient, and substantial, they embodied his most ingenious
contrivances, and his highest engineering skill. Hence we find him
writing to a friend at Langholm, that, so soon as he could find
"sufficient leisure from his various avocations in his own
unrivalled and beloved island," it was his intention to visit
France and Italy, for the purpose of ascertaining what foreigners
had been able to accomplish, compared with ourselves, in the
construction of canals, bridges, and harbours. "I have no doubt,"
said he, "as to their inferiority. During the war just brought to
a close, England has not only been able to guard her own head and
to carry on a gigantic struggle, but at the same time to construct
canals, roads, harbours, bridges--magnificent works of peace--the
like of which are probably not to be found in the world. Are not
these things worthy of a nation's pride?"

Footnotes for Chapter X.

*[1] Mr. Matthew Davidson, above referred to, was an excellent
officer, but a strange cynical humourist in his way. He was a
Lowlander, and had lived for some time in England, at the Pont
Cysylltau works, where he had acquired a taste for English comforts,
and returned to the North with a considerable contempt for the
Highland people amongst whom he was stationed. He is said to
have very much resembled Dr. Johnson in person and was so fond
of books, and so well read in them, that he was called
'the Walking Library.' He used to say that if justice were done to
the inhabitants of Inverness, there would be nobody left there in
twenty years but the Provost and the hangman. Seeing an artist one
day making a sketch in the mountains, he said it was the first time
he had known what the hills were good for. And when some one was
complaining of the weather in the Highlands, he looked sarcastically
round, and observed that the rain certainly would not hurt the
heather crop.

*[2] The misfortunes of the Caledonian Canal did not end with the
life of Telford. The first vessel passed through it from sea to
sea in October, 1822, by which time it had cost about a million
sterling, or double the original estimate. Notwithstanding this
large outlay, it appears that the canal was opened before the works
had been properly completed; and the consequence was that they very
shortly fell into decay. It even began to be considered whether
the canal ought not to be abandoned. In 1838, Mr. James Walker,
C.E., an engineer of the highest eminence, examined it, and
reported fully on its then state, strongly recommending its
completion as well as its improvement. His advice was eventually
adopted, and the canal was finished accordingly, at an additional
cost of about 200,000L., and the whole line was re-opened in 1847,
since which time it has continued in useful operation. The passage
from sea to sea at all times can now be depended on, and it can
usually be made in forty-eight hours. As the trade of the North
increases, the uses of the canal will probably become much more
decided than they have heretofore, proved.

*[3] 'Brindley and the Early Engineers,' p. 267.

*[4] 'Life of Telford,' p. 82, 83.



Mr. Telford's extensive practice as a bridge-builder led his friend
Southey to designate him "Pontifex Maximus." Besides the numerous
bridges erected by him in the West of England, we have found him
furnishing designs for about twelve hundred in the Highlands, of
various dimensions, some of stone and others of iron. His practice
in bridge-building had, therefore, been of an unusually extensive
character, and Southey's sobriquet was not ill applied. But besides
being a great bridge-builder, Telford was also a great road-maker.
With the progress of industry and trade, the easy and rapid transit
of persons and goods had come to be regarded as an increasing
object of public interest. Fast coaches now ran regularly between
all the principal towns of England; every effort being made,
by straightening and shortening the roads, cutting down hills,
and carrying embankments across valleys and viaducts over rivers,
to render travelling by the main routes as easy and expeditious as

Attention was especially turned to the improvement of the longer
routes, and to perfecting the connection of London with the chief
town's of Scotland and Ireland. Telford was early called upon to
advise as to the repairs of the road between Carlisle and Glasgow,
which had been allowed to fall into a wretched state; as well as
the formation of a new line from Carlisle, across the counties of
Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Wigton, to Port Patrick, for the
purpose of ensuring a more rapid communication with Belfast and the
northern parts of Ireland. Although Glasgow had become a place of
considerable wealth and importance, the roads to it, north of
Carlisle, continued in a very unsatisfactory state. It was only in
July, 1788, that the first mail-coach from London had driven into
Glasgow by that route, when it was welcomed by a procession of the
citizens on horseback, who went out several miles to meet it.
But the road had been shockingly made, and before long had become
almost impassable. Robert Owen states that, in 1795, it took him
two days and three nights' incessant travelling to get from
Manchester to Glasgow, and he mentions that the coach had to cross
a well-known dangerous mountain at midnight, called Erickstane
Brae, which was then always passed with fear and trembling.*[1]
As late as the year 1814 we find a Parliamentary Committee
declaring the road between Carlisle and Glasgow to be in so ruinous
a state as often seriously to delay the mail and endanger the lives
of travellers. The bridge over Evan Water was so much decayed, that
one day the coach and horses fell through it into the river, when
"one passenger was killed, the coachman survived only a few days,
and several other persons were dreadfully maimed; two of the horses
being also killed."*[2] The remaining part of the bridge continued
for some time unrepaired, just space enough being left for a single
carriage to pass. The road trustees seemed to be helpless, and did
nothing; a local subscription was tried and failed, the district
passed through being very poor; but as the road was absolutely
required for more than merely local purposes, it was eventually
determined to undertake its reconstruction as a work of national
importance, and 50,000L. was granted by Parliament with this
object, under the provisions of the Act passed in 1816. The works
were placed under Mr. Telford's charge; and an admirable road was
very shortly under construction between Carlisle and Glasgow.
That part of it between Hamilton and Glasgow, eleven miles in length,
was however left in the hands of local trustees, as was the
diversion of thirteen miles at the boundary of the counties of
Lanark and Dumfries, for which a previous Act had been obtained.
The length of new line constructed by Mr. Telford was sixty-nine
miles, and it was probably the finest piece of road which up to
that time had been made.

His ordinary method of road-making in the Highlands was, first to
level and drain; then, like the Romans, to lay a solid pavement of
large stones, the round or broad end downwards, as close as they
could be set. The points of the latter were then broken off, and a
layer of stones broken to about the size of walnuts, was laid upon
them, and over all a little gravel if at hand. A road thus formed
soon became bound together, and for ordinary purposes was very

But where the traffic, as in the case of the Carlisle and Glasgow
road, was expected to be very heavy, Telford took much greater
pains. Here he paid especial attention to two points: first, to lay
it out as nearly as possible upon a level, so as to reduce the
draught to horses dragging heavy vehicles,--one in thirty being
about the severest gradient at any part of the road. The next point
was to make the working, or middle portion of the road, as firm and
substantial as possible, so as to bear, without shrinking, the
heaviest weight likely to be brought over it. With this object he
specified that the metal bed was to be formed in two layers, rising
about four inches towards the centre the bottom course being of
stones (whinstone, limestone, or hard freestone), seven inches in
depth. These were to be carefully set by hand, with the broadest
ends downwards, all crossbonded or jointed, no stone being more
than three inches wide on the top. The spaces between them were
then to be filled up with smaller stones, packed by hand, so as to
bring the whole to an even and firm surface. Over this a top course
was to be laid, seven inches in depth, consisting of properly
broken hard whinstones, none exceeding six ounces in weight, and
each to be able to pass through a circular ring, two inches and a
half in diameter; a binding of gravel, about an inch in thickness,
being placed over all. A drain crossed under the bed of the bottom
layer to the outside ditch in every hundred yards. The result was
an admirably easy, firm, and dry road, capable of being travelled
upon in all weathers, and standing in comparatively small need of

A similar practice was introduced in England about the same time by
Mr. Macadam; and, though his method was not so thorough as that of
Telford, it was usefully employed on most of the high roads
throughout the kingdom. Mr. Macadam's notice was first called to
the subject while acting as one of the trustees of a road in
Ayrshire. Afterwards, while employed as Government agent for
victualling the navy in the western parts of England, he continued
the study of road-making, keeping in view the essential conditions
of a compact and durable substance and a smooth surface. At that
time the attention of the Legislature was not so much directed to
the proper making and mending of the roads, as to suiting the
vehicles to them such as they were; and they legislated backwards
and forwards for nearly half a century as to the breadth of wheels.
Macadam was, on the other hand, of opinion that the main point was
to attend to the nature of the roads on which the vehicles were to
travel. Most roads were then made with gravel, or flints tumbled
upon them in their natural state, and so rounded that they had no
points of contact, and rarely became consolidated. When a heavy
vehicle of any sort passed over them, their loose structure
presented no resistance; the material was thus completely
disturbed, and they often became almost impassable. Macadam's
practice was this: to break the stones into angular fragments, so
that a bed several inches in depth should be formed, the material
best adapted for the purpose being fragments of granite,
greenstone, or basalt; to watch the repairs of the road carefully
during the process of consolidation, filling up the inequalities
caused by the traffic passing over it, until a hard and level
surface had been obtained. Thus made, the road would last for
years without further attention. in 1815 Mr. Macadam devoted
himself with great enthusiasm to road-making as a profession, and
being appointed surveyor-general of the Bristol roads, he had full
opportunities of exemplifying his system. It proved so successful
that the example set by him was quickly followed over the entire
kingdom. Even the streets of many large towns were Macadamised.
In carrying out his improvements, however, Mr. Macadam spent several
thousand pounds of his own money, and in 1825, having proved this
expenditure before a Committee of the House of Commons, the amount
was reimbursed to him, together with an honorary tribute of two
thousand pounds. Mr. Macadam died poor, but, as he himself said,
"a least an honest man." By his indefatigable exertions and his
success as a road-maker, by greatly saving animal labour,
facilitating commercial intercourse, and rendering travelling easy
and expeditious, he entitled himself to the reputation of a public

[Image] J. L. Macadam.

Owing to the mountainous nature of the country through which
Telford's Carlisle and Glasgow road passes, the bridges are
unusually numerous and of large dimensions. Thus, the Fiddler's
Burn Bridge is of three arches, one of 150 and two of 105 feet span
each. There are fourteen other bridges, presenting from one to
three arches, of from 20 to 90 feet span. But the most picturesque
and remarkable bridge constructed by Telford in that district was
upon another line of road subsequently carried out by him, in the
upper part of the county of Lanark, and crossing the main line of
the Carlisle and Glasgow road almost at right angles. Its northern
and eastern part formed a direct line of communication between the
great cattle markets of Falkirk, Crief, and Doune, and Carlisle and
the West of England. It was carried over deep ravines by several
lofty bridges, the most formidable of which was that across the
Mouse Water at Cartland Crags, about a mile to the west of Lanark.
The stream here flows through a deep rocky chasm, the sides of
which are in some places about four hundred feet high. At a point
where the height of the rocks is considerably less, but still most
formidable, Telford spanned the ravine with the beautiful bridge
represented in the engraving facing this page, its parapet being
129 feet above the surface of the water beneath.

[Image] Cartland Crags Bridge.

The reconstruction of the western road from Carlisle to Glasgow,
which Telford had thus satisfactorily carried out, shortly led to
similar demands from the population on the eastern side of the
kingdom. The spirit of road reform was now fairly on foot.
Fast coaches and wheel-carriages of all kinds had become greatly
improved, so that the usual rate of travelling had advanced from
five or six to nine or ten miles an hour. The desire for the rapid
communication of political and commercial intelligence was found to
increase with the facilities for supplying it; and, urged by the
public wants, the Post-Office authorities were stimulated to
unusual efforts in this direction. Numerous surveys were made and
roads laid out, so as to improve the main line of communication
between London and Edinburgh and the intermediate towns. The first
part of this road taken in hand was the worst--that lying to the
north of Catterick Bridge, in Yorkshire. A new line was surveyed by
West Auckland to Hexham, passing over Garter Fell to Jedburgh, and
thence to Edinburgh; but was rejected as too crooked and uneven.
Another was tried by Aldstone Moor and Bewcastle, and rejected for
the same reason. The third line proposed was eventually adopted as
the best, passing from Morpeth, by Wooler and Coldstream,
to Edinburgh; saving rather more than fourteen miles between the
two points, and securing a line of road of much more favourable

The principal bridge on this new highway was at Pathhead, over the
Tyne, about eleven miles south of Edinburgh. To maintain the
level, so as to avoid the winding of the road down a steep descent
on one side of the valley and up an equally steep ascent on the
other, Telford ran out a lofty embankment from both sides,
connecting their ends by means of a spacious bridge. The structure
at Pathhead is of five arches, each 50 feet span, with 25 feet rise
from their springing, 49 feet above the bed of the river. Bridges
of a similar character were also thrown over the deep ravines of
Cranston Dean and Cotty Burn, in the same neighbourhood. At the
same time a useful bridge was built on the same line of road at
Morpeth, in Northumberland, over the river Wansbeck. It consisted
of three arches, of which the centre one was 50 feet span, and two
side-arches 40 feet each; the breadth between the parapets being 30

The advantages derived from the construction of these new roads
were found to be so great, that it was proposed to do the like for
the remainder of the line between London and Edinburgh; and at the
instance of the Post-Office authorities, with the sanction of the
Treasury, Mr. Telford proceeded to make detailed surveys of an
entire new post-road between London and Morpeth. In laying it out,
the main points which he endeavoured to secure were directness and
flatness; and 100 miles of the proposed new Great North Road, south
of York, were laid out in a perfectly straight line. This survey,
which was begun in 1824, extended over several years; and all the
requisite arrangements had been made for beginning the works, when
the result of the locomotive competition at Rainhill, in 1829, had
the effect of directing attention to that new method of travelling,
fortunately in time to prevent what would have proved, for the most
part, an unnecessary expenditure, on works soon to be superseded by
a totally different order of things.

The most important road-improvements actually carried out under
Mr. Telford's immediate superintendence were those on the western
side of the island, with the object of shortening the distance and
facilitating the communication between London and Dublin by way of
Holyhead, as well as between London and Liverpool. At the time of
the Union, the mode of transit between the capital of Ireland and
the metropolis of the United Kingdom was tedious, difficult, and
full of peril. In crossing the Irish Sea to Liverpool, the packets
were frequently tossed about for days together. On the Irish side,
there was scarcely the pretence of a port, the landing-place being
within the bar of the river Liffey, inconvenient at all times, and
in rough weather extremely dangerous. To avoid the long voyage to
Liverpool, the passage began to be made from Dublin to Holyhead,
the nearest point of the Welsh coast. Arrived there, the
passengers were landed upon rugged, unprotected rocks, without a
pier or landing convenience of any kind.*[3] But the traveller's
perils were not at an end,--comparatively speaking they had only
begun. From Holyhead, across the island of Anglesea, there was no
made road, but only a miserable track, circuitous and craggy,
full of terrible jolts, round bogs and over rocks, for a distance of
twenty-four miles. Having reached the Menai Strait, the passengers
had again to take to an open ferry-boat before they could gain the
mainland. The tide ran with great rapidity through the Strait,
and, when the wind blew strong, the boat was liable to be driven
far up or down the channel, and was sometimes swamped altogether.
The perils of the Welsh roads had next to be encountered, and these
were in as bad a condition at the beginning of the present century
as those of the Highlands above described. Through North Wales
they were rough, narrow, steep, and unprotected, mostly unfenced,
and in winter almost impassable. The whole traffic on the road
between Shrewsbury and Bangor was conveyed by a small cart, which
passed between the two places once a week in summer. As an
illustration of the state of the roads in South Wales, which were
quite as bad as those in the North, we may state that, in 1803,
when the late Lord Sudeley took home his bride from the
neighbourhood of Welshpool to his residence only thirteen miles
distant, the carriage in which the newly married pair rode stuck in
a quagmire, and the occupants, having extricated themselves from
their perilous situation, performed the rest of their journey on

The first step taken was to improve the landing-places on both the
Irish and Welsh sides of St. George's Channel, and for this purpose
Mr. Rennie was employed in 1801. The result was, that Howth on the
one coast, and Holyhead on the other, were fixed upon as the most
eligible sites for packet stations. Improvements, however,
proceeded slowly, and it was not until 1810 that a sum of 10,000L.
was granted by Parliament to enable the necessary works to be
begun. Attention was then turned to the state of the roads,
and here Mr. Telford's services were called into requisition.
As early as 1808 it had been determined by the Post-Office authorities
to put on a mail-coach between Shrewsbury and Holyhead; but it was
pointed out that the roads in North Wales were so rough and
dangerous that it was doubtful whether the service could be
conducted with safety. Attempts were made to enforce the law with
reference to their repair, and no less than twenty-one townships
were indicted by the Postmaster-General. The route was found too
perilous even for a riding post, the legs of three horses having
been broken in one week.*[4] The road across Anglesea was quite as
bad. Sir Henry Parnell mentioned, in 1819, that the coach had been
overturned beyond Gwynder, going down one of the hills, when a
friend of his was thrown a considerable distance from the roof into
a pool of water. Near the post-office of Gwynder, the coachman had
been thrown from his seat by a violent jolt, and broken his leg.
The post-coach, and also the mail, had been overturned at the
bottom of Penmyndd Hill; and the route was so dangerous that the
London coachmen, who had been brought down to "work" the country,
refused to continue the duty because of its excessive dangers.
Of course, anything like a regular mail-service through such a
district was altogether impracticable.

The indictments of the townships proved of no use; the localities
were too poor to provide the means required to construct a line of
road sufficient for the conveyance of mails and passengers between
England and Ireland. The work was really a national one, to be
carried out at the national cost. How was this best to be done?
Telford recommended that the old road between Shrewsbury and
Holyhead (109 miles long) should be shortened by about four miles,
and made as nearly as possible on a level; the new line proceeding
from Shrewsbury by Llangollen, Corwen, Bettws-y-Coed, Capel-Curig,
and Bangor, to Holyhead. Mr. Telford also proposed to cross the
Menai Strait by means of a cast iron bridge, hereafter to be

Although a complete survey was made in 1811, nothing was done for
several years. The mail-coaches continued to be overturned, and
stage-coaches, in the tourist season, to break down as before.*[5]
The Irish mail-coach took forty one hours to reach Holyhead from
the time of its setting out from St. Martin's-le-Grand; the journey
was performed at the rate of only 6 3/4 miles an hour, the mail
arriving in Dublin on the third day. The Irish members made many
complaints of the delay and dangers to which they were exposed in
travelling up to town. But, although there was much discussion, no
money was voted until the year 1815, when Sir Henry Parnell
vigorously took the question in hand and successfully carried it
through. A Board of Parliamentary Commissioners was appointed, of
which he was chairman, and, under their direction, the new
Shrewsbury and Holyhead road was at length commenced and carried to
completion, the works extending over a period of about fifteen years.
The same Commissioners excrcised an authority over the roads
between London and Shrewsbury; and numerous improvements were also
made in the main line at various points, with the object of
facilitating communication between London and Liverpool as well as
between London and Dublin.

The rugged nature of the country through which the new road passed,
along the slopes of rocky precipices and across inlets of the sea,
rendered it necessary to build many bridges, to form many
embankments, and cut away long stretches of rock, in order to
secure an easy and commodious route. The line of the valley of the
Dee, to the west of Llangollen, was selected, the road proceeding
along the scarped sides of the mountains, crossing from point to
point by lofty embankments where necessary; and, taking into
account the character of the country, it must be acknowledged that
a wonderfully level road was secured. While the gradients on the
old road had in some cases been as steep as 1 in 6 1/2, passing
along the edge of unprotected precipices, the new one was so laid
out as to be no more than 1 in 20 at any part, while it was wide
and well protected along its whole extent. Mr. Telford pursued the
same system that he had adopted in the formation of the Carlisle
and Glasgow road, as regards metalling, cross-draining, and
fence-walling; for the latter purpose using schistus, or slate
rubble-work, instead of sandstone. The largest bridges were of
iron; that at Bettws-y-Coed, over the Conway--called the Waterloo
Bridge, constructed in 1815--being a very fine specimen of
Telford's iron bridge-work.

Those parts of the road which had been the most dangerous were
taken in hand first, and, by the year 1819, the route had been
rendered comparatively commodious and safe. Angles were cut off,
the sides of hills were blasted away, and several heavy embankments
run out across formidable arms of the sea. Thus, at Stanley Sands,
near Holyhead, an embankment was formed 1300 yards long and 16 feet
high, with a width of 34 feet at the top, along which the road was
laid. Its breadth at the base was 114 feet, and both sides were
coated with rubble stones, as a protection against storms. By the
adoption of this expedient, a mile and a half was saved in a
distance of six miles. Heavy embankments were also run out, where
bridges were thrown across chasms and ravines, to maintain the
general level. From Ty-Gwynn to Lake Ogwen, the road along the face
of the rugged hill and across the river Ogwen was entirely new
made, of a uniform width of 28 feet between the parapets, with an
inclination of only 1 in 22 in the steepest place. A bridge was
thrown over the deep chasm forming the channel of the Ogwen, the
embankment being carried forward from the rook cutting, protected
by high breastworks. From Capel-Curig to near the great waterfall
over the river Lugwy, about a mile of new road was cut; and a still
greater length from Bettws across the river Conway and along the
face of Dinas Hill to Rhyddlanfair, a distance of 3 miles; its
steepest descent being 1 in 22, diminishing to 1 in 45. By this
improvement, the most difficult and dangerous pass along the route
through North Wales was rendered safe and commodious.

[Image] Road Descent near Betws-y-Coed.

Another point of almost equal difficulty occurred near Ty-Nant,
through the rocky pass of Glynn Duffrws, where the road was
confined between steep rocks and rugged precipices: there the way
was widened and flattened by blasting, and thus reduced to the
general level; and so on eastward to Llangollen and Chirk, where
the main Shrewsbury road to London was joined.*[6]

[Image] Road above Nant Frrancon, North Wales.

By means of these admirable roads the traffic of North Wales
continues to be mainly carried on to this day. Although railways
have superseded coach-roads in the more level districts, the hilly
nature of Wales precludes their formation in that quarter to any
considerable extent; and even in the event of railways being
constructed, a large part of the traffic of every country must
necessarily continue to pass over the old high roads. Without them
even railways would be of comparatively little value; for a railway
station is of use chiefly because of its easy accessibility, and
thus, both for passengers and merchandise, the common roads of the
country are as useful as ever they were, though the main post-roads
have in a great measure ceased to be employed for the purposes for
which they were originally designed.

The excellence of the roads constructed by Mr. Telford through the
formerly inaccessible counties of North Wales was the theme of
general praise; and their superiority, compared with those of the
richer and more level districts in the midland and western English
counties, becoming the subject of public comment, he was called
upon to execute like improvements upon that part of the post-road
which extended between Shrewsbury and the metropolis. A careful
survey was made of the several routes from London northward by
Shrewsbury as far as Liverpool; and the short line by Coventry,
being 153 miles from London to Shrewsbury, was selected as the one
to be improved to the utmost.

Down to 1819, the road between London and Coventry was in a very
bad state, being so laid as to become a heavy slough in wet
weather. There were many steep hills which required to be cut down,
in some parts of deep clay, in others of deep sand. A mail-coach
had been tried to Banbury; but the road below Aylesbury was so bad,
that the Post-office authorities were obliged to give it up. The
twelve miles from Towcester to Daventry were still worse. The line
of way was covered with banks of dirt; in winter it was a puddle of
from four to six inches deep--quite as bad as it had been in Arthur
Young's time; and when horses passed along the road, they came out
of it a mass of mud and mire.*[7] There were also several steep and
dangerous hills to be crossed; and the loss of horses by fatigue in
travelling by that route at the time was very great.

Even the roads in the immediate neighbourhood of the metropolis
were little better, those under the Highgate and Hampstead trust
being pronounced in a wretched state. They were badly formed,
on a clay bottom, and being undrained, were almost always wet and
sloppy. The gravel was usually tumbled on and spread unbroken,
so that the materials, instead of becoming consolidated, were only
rolled about by the wheels of the carriages passing over them.

Mr. Telford applied the same methods in the reconstruction of these
roads that he had already adopted in Scotland and Wales, and the
same improvement was shortly felt in the more easy passage over
them of vehicles of all sorts, and in the great acceleration of the
mail service. At the same time, the line along the coast from
Bangor, by Conway, Abergele, St. Asaph, and Holywell, to Chester,
was greatly improved. As forming the mail road from Dublin to
Liverpool, it was considered of importance to render it as safe
and level as possible. The principal new cuts on this line were
those along the rugged skirts of the huge Penmaen-Mawr; around the
base of Penmaen-Bach to the town of Conway; and between St. Asaph
and Holywell, to ease the ascent of Rhyall Hill.

But more important than all, as a means of completing the main line
of communication between England and Ireland, there were the great
bridges over the Conway and the Menai Straits to be constructed.
The dangerous ferries at those places had still to be crossed in
open boats, sometimes in the night, when the luggage and mails were
exposed to great risks. Sometimes, indeed, they were wholly lost
and passengers were lost with them. It was therefore determined,
after long consideration, to erect bridges over these formidable
straits, and Mr. Telford was employed to execute the works,--in
what manner, we propose to describe in the next chapter.

Footnotes for Chapter XI.

*[1] 'Life of Robert Owen,' by himself.

*[2] 'Report from the Select Committee on the Carlisle and Glasgow
Road,' 28th June, 1815.

*[3 A diary is preserved of a journey to Dublin from Grosvenor
Square London, l2th June, 1787, in a coach and four, accompanied by
a post-chaise and pair, and five outriders. The party reached
Holyhead in four days, at a cost of 75L. 11s. 3d. The state of
intercourse between this country and the sister island at this part
of the account is strikingly set forth in the following entries:--
"Ferry at Bangor, 1L. 10s.; expenses of the yacht hired to carry
the party across the channel, 28L. 7s. 9d.; duty on the coach, 7L.
13s. 4d.; boats on shore, 1L. 1s.; total, 114L. 3s. 4d."
--Roberts's 'Social History of the Southern Counties,' p. 504.

*[4] 'Second Report from Committee on Holyhead Roads and Harbours,'
1810. (Parliamentary paper.)

*[5] "Many parts of the road are extremely dangerous for a coach to
travel upon. At several places between Bangor and Capel-Curig there
are a number of dangerous precipices without fences, exclusive of
various hills that want taking down. At Ogwen Pool there is a very
dangerous place where the water runs over the road, extremely
difficult to pass at flooded times. Then there is Dinas Hill, that
needs a side fence against a deep precipice. The width of the road
is not above twelve feet in the steepest part of the hill, and two
carriages cannot pass without the greatest danger. Between this
hill and Rhyddlanfair there are a number of dangerous precipices,
steep hills, and difficult narrow turnings. From Corwen to
Llangollen the road is very narrow, long, and steep; has no side
fence, except about a foot and a half of mould or dirt, which is
thrown up to prevent carriages falling down three or four hundred
feet into the river Dee. Stage-coaches have been frequently
overturned and broken down from the badness of the road, and the
mails have been overturned; but I wonder that more and worse
accidents have not happened, the roads are so bad."--Evidence of
Mr. William Akers, of the Post-office, before Committee of the
House of Commons, 1st June, 1815.

*[6] The Select Committee of the House of Commons, in reporting as
to the manner in which these works were carried out, stated as
follows:-- "The professional execution of the new works upon this
road greatly surpasses anything of the same kind in these
countries. The science which has been displayed in giving the
general line of the road a proper inclination through a country
whose whole surface consists of a succession of rocks, bogs,
ravines, rivers, and precipices, reflects the greatest credit upon
the engineer who has planned them; but perhaps a still greater
degree of professional skill has been shown in the construction, or
rather the building, of the road itself. The great attention which
Mr. Telford has devoted, to give to the surface of the road one
uniform and moderately convex shape, free from the smallest
inequality throughout its whole breadth; the numerous land drains,
and, when necessary, shores and tunnels of substantial masonry,
with which all the water arising from springs or falling in rain is
instantly carried off; the great care with which a sufficient
foundation is established for the road, and the quality, solidity,
and disposition of the materials that are put upon it, are matters
quite new in the system of road-making in these countries."--
'Report from the Select Committee on the Road from London to
Holyhead in the year 1819.'

*[7] Evidence of William Waterhouse before the Select Committee,
10th March, 1819.



[Image] Map of Menai Strait [Ordnance Survey]

So long as the dangerous Straits of Menai had to be crossed in an
open ferry-boat, the communication between London and Holyhead was
necessarily considered incomplete. While the roads through North
Wales were so dangerous as to deter travellers between England and
Ireland from using that route, the completion of the remaining link
of communication across the Straits was of comparatively little
importance. But when those roads had, by the application of much
capital, skill, and labour, been rendered so safe and convenient
that the mail and stage coaches could run over them at the rate of
from eight to ten miles an hour, the bridging of the Straits became
a measure of urgent public necessity. The increased traffic by this
route so much increased the quantity of passengers and luggage,
that the open boats were often dangerously overloaded; and serious
accidents, attended with loss of life and property, came to be of
frequent occurrence.

The erection of a bridge over the Straits had long been matter of
speculation amongst engineers. As early as 1776, Mr. Golborne
proposed his plan of an embankment with a bridge in the middle of it;
and a few years later, in 1785, Mr. Nichols proposed a wooden
viaduct, furnished with drawbridges at Cadnant Island. Later still,
Mr. Rennie proposed his design of a cast iron bridge. But none of
these plans were carried out, and the whole subject remained in
abeyance until the year 1810, when a commission was appointed to
inquire and report as to the state of the roads between Shrewsbury,
Chester, and Holyhead. The result was, that Mr. Telford was called
upon to report as to the most effectual method of bridging the
Menai Strait, and thus completing the communication with the port
of embarkation for Ireland.

[Image] Telford's proposed Cast Iron Bridge

Mr. Telford submitted alternative plans for a bridge over the
Strait: one at the Swilly Rock, consisting of three cast iron
arches of 260 feet span, with a stone arch of 100 feet span between
each two iron ones, to resist their lateral thrust; and another at
Ynys-y-moch, to which he himself attached the preference,
consisting of a single cast iron arch of 500 feet span, the crown
of the arch to be 100 feet above high water of spring tides, and
the breadth of the roadway to be 40 feet.

The principal objection taken to this plan by engineers generally,
was the supposed difficulty of erecting a proper centering to
support the arch during construction; and the mode by which
Mr. Telford proposed to overcome this may be cited in illustration
of his ready ingenuity in overcoming difficulties. He proposed to
suspend the centering from above instead of supporting it from
below in the usual manner--a contrivance afterwards revived by
another very skilful engineer, the late Mr. Brunel. Frames, 50 feet
high, were to be erected on the top of the abutments, and on these,
strong blocks, or rollers and chains, were to be fixed, by means of
which, and by the aid of windlasses and other mechanical powers,
each separate piece of centering was to be raised into, and
suspended in, its proper place. Mr. Telford regarded this method of
constructing centres as applicable to stone as well as to iron
arches; and indeed it is applicable, as Mr. Brunel held, to the
building of the arch itself.*[1]

[Image] Proposed Plan of Suspended Centering

Mr. Telford anticipated that, if the method recommended by him were
successfully adopted on the large scale proposed at Menai, all
difficulties with regard to carrying bridges over deep ravines
would be done away with, and a new era in bridge-building begun.
For this and other reasons--but chiefly because of the much greater
durability of a cast iron bridge compared with the suspension
bridge afterwards adopted--it is matter of regret that he was not
permitted to carry out this novel and grand design. It was,
however, again objected by mariners that the bridge would seriously
affect, if not destroy, the navigation of the Strait; and this
plan, like Mr. Rennie's, was eventually rejected.

Several years passed, and during the interval Mr. Telford was
consulted as to the construction of a bridge over Runcorn Gap on
the Mersey, above Liverpool. As the river was there about 1200 feet
wide, and much used for purposes of navigation, a bridge of the
ordinary construction was found inapplicable. But as he was
required to furnish a plan of the most suitable structure, he
proceeded to consider how the difficulties of the case were to be met.
The only practicable plan, he thought, was a bridge constructed on
the principle of suspension. Expedients of this kind had long been
employed in India and America, where wide rivers were crossed by
means of bridges formed of ropes and chains; and even in this
country a suspension bridge, though of a very rude kind, had long
been in use near Middleton on the Tees, where, by means of two
common chains stretched across the river, upon which a footway of
boards was laid, the colliers were enabled to pass from their
cottages to the colliery on the opposite bank.

Captain (afterwards Sir Samuel) Brown took out a patent for forming
suspension bridges in 1817; but it appears that Telford's attention
had been directed to the subject before this time, as he was first
consulted respecting the Runcorn Bridge in the year 1814, when he
proceeded to make an elaborate series of experiments on the
tenacity of wrought iron bars, with the object of employing this
material in his proposed structure. After he had made upwards of
two hundred tests of malleable iron of various qualities, he
proceeded to prepare his design of a bridge, which consisted of a
central opening of 1000 feet span, and two side openings of 500
feet each, supported by pyramids of masonry placed near the
low-water lines. The roadway was to be 30 feet wide, divided into
one central footway and two distinct carriageways of 12 feet each.
At the same time he prepared and submitted a model of the central
opening, which satisfactorily stood the various strains which were
applied to it. This Runcorn design of 1814 was of a very
magnificent character, perhaps superior even to that of the Menai
Suspension Bridge, afterwards erected; but unhappily the means were
not forthcoming to carry it into effect. The publication of his
plan and report had, however, the effect of directing public
attention to the construction of bridges on the suspension
principle; and many were shortly after designed and erected by
Telford and other engineers in different parts of the kingdom.

Mr. Telford continued to be consulted by the Commissioners of the
Holyhead Roads as to the completion of the last and most important
link in the line of communication between London and Holyhead,
by bridging the Straits of Menai; and at one of their meetings in
1815, shortly after the publication of his Runcorn design, the
inquiry was made whether a bridge upon the same principle was not
applicable in this particular case. The engineer was instructed
again to examine the Straits and submit a suitable plan and
estimate, which he proceeded to do in the early part of 1818.
The site selected by him as the most favourable was that which had
been previously fixed upon for the projected cast iron bridge,
namely at Ynys-y-moch--the shores there being bold and rocky,
affording easy access and excellent foundations, while by spanning
the entire channel between the low-water lines, and the roadway
being kept uniformly 100 feet above the highest water at spring tide,
the whole of the navigable waterway would be left entirely
uninterrupted. The distance between the centres of the supporting
pyramids was proposed to be of the then unprecedented width of 550
feet, and the height of the pyramids 53 feet above the level of the
roadway. The main chains were to be sixteen in number, with a
deflection of 37 feet, each composed of thirty-six bars of
half-inch-square iron, so placed as to give a square of six on each
side, making the whole chain about four inches in diameter, welded
together for their whole length, secured by bucklings, and braced
round with iron wire; while the ends of these great chains were to
be secured by a mass of masonry built over stone arches between
each end of the supporting piers and the adjoining shore. Four of
the arches were to be on the Anglesea, and three on the
Caernarvonshire side, each of them of 52 feet 6 inches span.
The roadway was to be divided, as in the Runcorn design with a
carriage way 12 feet wide on each side, and a footpath of 4 feet in
the middle. Mr. Telford's plan was supported by Mr. Rennie and other
engineers of eminence; and the Select Committee of the House of Commons,
being satisfied as to its practicability, recommended Parliament to
pass a Bill and to make a grant of money to enable the work to be
carried into effect.

[Image] Outline of Menai Bridge

The necessary Act passed in the session of 1819, and Mr. Telford
immediately proceeded to Bangor to make preparations for beginning
the works. The first proceeding was to blast off the inequalities
of the surface of the rock called Ynys-y-moch, situated on the
western or Holyhead side of the Strait, at that time accessible
only at low water. The object was to form an even surface upon it
for the foundation of the west main pier. It used to be at this
point, where the Strait was narrowest, that horned cattle were
driven down, preparatory to swimming them across the channel to the
Caernarvon side, when the tide was weak and at its lowest ebb. The
cattle were, nevertheless, often carried away, the current being
too strong for the animals to contend against it.

At the same time, a landing-quay was erected on Ynys-y-moch, which
was connected with the shore by an embankment carrying lines of
railway. Along these, horses drew the sledges laden with stone
required for the work; the material being brought in barges from
the quarries opened at Penmon Point, on the north-eastern extremity
of the Isle of Anglesea, a little to the westward of the northern
opening of the Strait. When the surface of the rock had been
levelled and the causeway completed, the first stone of the main
pier was laid by Mr. W.A. Provis, the resident engineer, on the
10th of August, 1819; but not the slightest ceremony was observed
on the occasion.

Later in the autumn, preparations were made for proceeding with the
foundations of the eastern main pier on the Bangor side of the
Strait. After excavating the beach to a depth of 7 feet, a solid
mass of rock was reached, which served the purpose of an immoveable
foundation for the pier. At the same, time workshops were erected;
builders, artisans, and labourers were brought together from
distant quarters; vessels and barges were purchased or built for
the special purpose of the work; a quay was constructed at Penmon
Point for loading the stones for the piers; and all the requisite
preliminary arrangements were made for proceeding with the building
operations in the ensuing spring.

A careful specification of the masonry work was drawn up, and the
contract was let to Messrs. Stapleton and Hall; but as they did not
proceed satisfactorily, and desired to be released from the contract,
it was relet on the same terms to Mr. John Wilson, one of Mr. Telford's
principal contractors for mason work on the Caledonian Canal.
The building operations were begun with great vigour early in 1820.
The three arches on the Caernarvonshire side and the four on the
Anglesea side were first proceeded with. They are of immense
magnitude, and occupied four years in construction, having been
finished late in the autumn of 1824. These piers are 65 feet in
height from high-water line to the springing of the arches, the
span of each being 52 feet 6 inches. The work of the main piers
also made satisfactory progress, and the masonry proceeded so
rapidly that stones could scarcely be got from the quarries in
sufficient quantity to keep the builders at work. By the end of
June about three hundred men were employed.

The two principal piers, each 153 feet in height, upon which the
main chains of the bridge were to be suspended, were built with
great care and under rigorous inspection. In these, as indeed in
most of the masonry of the bridge, Mr. Telford adopted the same
practice which he had employed in his previous bridge structures,
that of leaving large void spaces, commencing above high water mark
and continuing them up perpendicularly nearly to the level of the
roadway. "I have elsewhere expressed my conviction," he says, when
referring to the mode of constructing these piers, "that one of the
most important improvements which I have been able to introduce
into masonry consists in the preference of cross-walls to rubble,
in the structure of a pier, or any other edifice requiring strength.
Every stone and joint in such walls is open to inspection in the
progress of the work, and even afterwards, if necessary; but a
solid filling of rubble conceals itself, and may be little better
than a heap of rubbish confined by side walls." The walls of these
main piers were built from within as well as from without all the
way up, and the inside was as carefully and closely cemented with
mortar as the external face. Thus the whole pier was bound firmly
together, and the utmost strength given, while the weight of the
superstructure upon the lower parts of the work was reduced to its

[Image] Section of Main Pier

Over the main piers, the small arches intended for the roadways
were constructed, each being 15 feet to the springing of the arch,
and 9 feet wide. Upon these arches the masonry was carried
upwards, in a tapering form, to a height of 53 feet above the
level of the road. As these piers were to carry the immense weight
of the suspension chains, great pains were taken with their
construction, and all the stones, from top to bottom, were firmly
bound together with iron dowels to prevent the possibility of their
being separated or bulged by the immense pressure they had to

The most important point in the execution of the details of the
bridge, where the engineer had no past experience to guide him, was
in the designing and fixing of the wrought iron work. Mr. Telford
had continued his experiments as to the tenacity of bar iron, until
he had obtained several hundred distinct tests; and at length,
after the most mature delilberation, the patterns and dimensions
were finally arranged by him, and the contract for the manufacture
of the whole was let to Mr. Hazeldean, of Shrewsbury, in the year
1820. The iron was to be of the best Shropshire, drawn at Upton
forge, and finished and proved at the works, under the inspection
of a person appointed by the engineer.

[Image] Cut showing fixing of the chains in the rock

The mode by which the land ends of these enormous suspension chains
were rooted to the solid ground on either side of the Strait, was
remarkably ingenious and effective. Three oblique tunnels were made
by blasting the rock on the Anglesea side; they were each about six
feet in diameter, the excavations being carried down an inclined
plane to the depth of about twenty yards. A considerable width of
rock lay between each tunnel, but at the bottom they were all
united by a connecting horizontal avenue or cavern, sufficiently
capacious to enable the workmen to fix the strong iron frames,
composed principally of thick flat cast iron plates, which were
engrafted deeply into the rock, and strongly bound together by the
iron work passing along the horizontal avenue; so that, if the iron
held, the chains could only yield by tearing up the whole mass of
solid rock under which they were thus firmly bound.

A similar method of anchoring the main chains was adopted on the
Caernarvonshire side. A thick bank of earth had there to be cut
through, and a solid mass of masonry built in its place, the rock
being situated at a greater distance from the main pier; involving
a greater length of suspending chain, and a disproportion in the
catenary or chord line on that side of the bridge. The excavation
and masonry thereby rendered necessary proved a work of vast
labour, and its execution occupied a considerable time; but by the
beginning of the year 1825 the suspension pyramids, the land piers
and arches, and the rock tunnels, had all been completed, and the
main chains were firmly secured in them; the work being
sufficiently advanced to enable the suspending of the chains to be
proceeded with. This was by far the most difficult and anxious part
of the undertaking.

With the same careful forethought and provision for every
contingency which had distinguished the engineer's procedure in the
course of the work, he had made frequent experiments to ascertain
the actual power which would be required to raise the main chains
to their proper curvature. A valley lay convenient for the purpose,
a little to the west of the bridge on the Anglesea side.
Fifty-seven of the intended vertical suspending rods, each nearly
ten feet long and an inch square, having been fastened together, a
piece of chain was attached to one end to make the chord line 570
feet in length; and experiments having been made and comparisons
drawn, Mr. Telford ascertained that the absolute weight of one of
the main chains of the bridge between the points of suspension was
23 1/2 tons, requiring a strain of 39 1/2 tons to raise it to its
proper curvature. On this calculation the necessary apparatus
required for the hoisting was prepared. The mode of action finally
determined on for lifting the main chains, and fixing them into
their places, was to build the central portion of each upon a raft
450 feet long and 6 feet wide, then to float it to the site of the
bridge, and lift it into its place by capstans and proper tackle.

At length all was ready for hoisting the first great chain, and
about the middle of April, 1825, Mr. Telford left London for Bangor
to superintend the operations. An immense assemblage collected to
witness the sight; greater in number than any that had been
collected in the same place since the men of Anglesea, in their
war-paint, rushing down to the beach, had shrieked defiance across
the Straits at their Roman invaders on the Caernarvon shore.
Numerous boats arrayed in gay colours glided along the waters; the
day--the 26th of April--being bright, calm, and in every way

At half-past two, about an hour before high water, the raft bearing
the main chain was cast off from near Treborth Mill, on the
Caernarvon side. Towed by four boats, it began gradually to move
from the shore, and with the assistance of the tide, which caught
it at its further end, it swung slowly and majestically round to
its position between the main piers, where it was moored. One end
of the chain was then bolted to that which hung down the face of
the Caernarvon pier; whilst the other was attached to ropes
connected with strong capstans fixed on the Anglesea side, the
ropes passing by means of blocks over the top of the pyramid of the
Anglesea pier. The capstans for hauling in the ropes bearing the
main chain, were two in number, manned by about 150 labourers. When
all was ready, the signal was given to "Go along!" A Band of fifers
struck up a lively tune; the capstans were instantly in motion, and
the men stepped round in a steady trot. All went well. The ropes
gradually coiled in. As the strain increased, the pace slackened a
little; but "Heave away, now she comes!" was sung out. Round went
the men, and steadily and safely rose the ponderous chain.

[Image] Cut of Bridge, showing state of Suspension Chain

The tide had by this time turned, and bearing upon the side of the
raft, now getting freer of its load, the current floated it away
from under the middle of the chain still resting on it, and it
swung easily off into the water. Until this moment a breath less
silence pervaded the watching multitude; and nothing was heard
among the working party on the Anglesea side but the steady tramp
of the men at the capstans, the shrill music of the fife, and the
occasional order to "Hold on!" or "Go along!" But no sooner was the
raft seen floating away, and the great chain safely swinging in the
air, than a tremendous cheer burst forth along both sides of the

The rest of the work was only a matter of time. The most anxious
moment had passed. In an hour and thirty-five minutes after the
commencement of the hoisting, the chain was raised to its proper
curvature, and fastened to the land portion of it which had been
previously placed over the top of the Anglesea pyramid. Mr. Telford
ascended to the point of fastening, and satisfied himself that a
continuous and safe connection had been formed from the Caernarvon
fastening on the rock to that on Anglesea. The announcement of the
fact was followed by loud and prolonged cheering from the workmen,
echoed by the spectators, and extending along the Straits on both
sides, until it seemed to die away along the shores in the distance.
Three foolhardy workmen, excited by the day's proceedings, had the
temerity to scramble along the upper surface of the chain--which
was only nine inches wide and formed a curvature of 590 feet--from
one side of the Strait to the other!*[2] Far different were the
feelings of the engineer who had planned this magnificent work.
Its failure had been predicted; and, like Brindley's Barton Viaduct,
it had been freely spoken of as a "castle in the air." Telford had,
it is true, most carefully tested every part by repeated experiment,
and so conclusively proved the sufficiency of the iron chains to
bear the immense weight they would have to support, that he was
thoroughly convinced as to the soundness of his principles of
construction, and satisfied that, if rightly manufactured and
properly put together, the chains would hold, and that the piers
would sustain them. Still there was necessarily an element of
uncertainty in the undertaking. It was the largest structure of
the kind that had ever been attempted. There was the contingency
of a flaw in the iron; some possible scamping in the manufacture;
some little point which, in the multiplicity of details to be
attended to, he might have overlooked, or which his subordinates
might have neglected. It was, indeed, impossible but that he
should feel intensely anxious as to the result of the day's
operations. Mr. Telford afterwards stated to a friend, only a few
months before his death, that for some time previous to the opening
of the bridge, his anxiety was so great that he could scarcely
sleep; and that a continuance of that condition must have very soon
completely undermined his health. We are not, therefore, surprised
to learn that when his friends rushed to congratulate him on the
result of the first day's experiment, which decisively proved the
strength and solidity of the bridge, they should have found the
engineer on his knees engaged in prayer. A vast load had been
taken off his mind; the perilous enterprise of the day had been
accomplished without loss of life; and his spontaneous act was
thankfulness and gratitude.

[Image] Menai Bridge

The suspension of the remaining fifteen chains was accomplished
without difficulty. The last was raised and fixed on the 9th of
July, 1825, when the entire line was completed. On fixing the final
bolt, a band of music descended from the top of the suspension pier
on the Anglesea side to a scaffolding erected over the centre of
the curved part of the chains, and played the National Anthem
amidst the cheering of many thousand persons assembled along the
shores of the Strait: while the workmen marched in procession along
the bridge, on which a temporary platform had been laid, and the
St. David steam-packet of Chester passed under the chains towards
the Smithy Rocks and back again, thus re-opening the navigation of
the Strait.

In August the road platform was commenced, and in September the
trussed bearing bars were all suspended. The road was constructed
of timber in a substantial manner, the planking being spiked
together, with layers of patent felt between the planks, and the
carriage way being protected by oak guards placed seven feet and a
half apart. Side railings were added; the toll-houses and
approach-roads were completed by the end of the year; and the
bridge was opened for public traffic on Monday, the 30th of January,
1826, when the London and Holyhead mailcoach passed over it for the
first time, followed by the Commissioners of the Holyhead roads,
the engineer, several stage-coaches, and a multitude of private
persons too numerous to mention.

We may briefly add a few facts as to the quantities of materials
used, and the dimensions of this remarkable structure. The total
weight of iron was 2187 tons, in 33,265 pieces. The total length of
the bridge is 1710 feet, or nearly a third of a mile; the distance
between the points of suspension of the main bridge being 579 feet.
The total sum expended by Government in its erection, including the
embankment and about half a mile of new line of road on the
Caernarvon side, together with the toll-houses, was 120,000L.

Notwithstanding the wonders of the Britannia Bridge subsequently
erected by Robert Stephenson for the passage across the same strait
of the Chester and Holyhead Railway, the Menai Bridge of Telford is
by far the most picturesque object. "Seen as I approached it," says
Mr. Roscoe, "in the clear light of an autumnal sunset, which threw
an autumnal splendour on the wide range of hills beyond, and the
sweep of richly variegated groves and plantations which covered
their base--the bright sun, the rocky picturesque foreground,
villas, spires, and towers here and there enlivening the prospect--
the Menai Bridge appeared more like the work of some great magician
than the mere result of man's skill and industry."

[Image] Conway Suspension Bridge

Shortly after the Menai Bridge was begun, it was determined by the
Commissioners of the Holyhead road that a bridge of similar design
should be built over the estuary of the Conway, immediately
opposite the old castle at that place, and which had formerly been
crossed by an open ferry boat. The first stone was laid on the
3rd of April, 1822, and the works having proceeded satisfactorily,
the bridge and embankment approaching it were completed by the summer
of 1826. But the operations being of the same kind as those
connected with the larger structure above described, though of a
much less difficult character, it is unnecessary to enter into any
details as to the several stages of its construction. In this
bridge the width between the centres of the supporting towers is
327 feet, and the height of the under side of the roadway above
high water of spring tides only 15 feet. The heaviest work was an
embankment as its eastern approach, 2015 feet in length and about
300 feet in width at its highest part.

It will be seen, from the view of the bridge given on the opposite
page, that it is a highly picturesque structure, and combines,
with the estuary which it crosses, and the ancient castle of Conway,
in forming a landscape that is rarely equalled.

Footnotes for Chapter XII.

*[1] In an article in the 'Edinburgh Review,' No. exli., from the
pen of Sir David Brewster, the writer observes:--"Mr. Telford's
principle of suspending and laying down from above the centering of
stone and iron bridges is, we think, a much more fertile one than
even he himself supposed. With modifications, by no means
considerable, and certainly practicable, it appears to us that the
voussoirs or archstones might themselves be laid down from above,
and suspended by an appropriate mechanism till the keystone was
inserted. If we suppose the centering in Mr. Telford's plan to be
of iron, this centering itself becomes an iron bridge, each rib of
which is composed of ten pieces of fifty feet each; and by
increasing the number of suspending chains, these separate pieces
or voussoirs having been previously joined together, either
temporarily or permanently, by cement or by clamps, might be laid
into their place, and kept there by a single chain till the road
was completed. The voussoirs, when united, might be suspended from
a general chain across the archway, and a platform could be added
to facilitate the operations." This is as nearly as possible the
plan afterwards revived by Mr. Brunel, and for the originality of
which, we believe, he has generally the credit, though it clearly
belongs to Telford.

*[2] A correspondent informs us of a still more foolhardy exploit
performed on the occasion. He says, "Having been present, as a boy
from Bangor grammar school, on the 26th of April, when the first
chain was carried across, an incident occurred which made no small
impression on my mind at the time. After the chain had reached its
position, a cobbler of the neighbourhood crawled to the centre of
the curve, and there finished a pair of shoes; when, having
completed his task, he returned in safety to the Caernarvon side!
I need not say that we schoolboys appreciated his feat of
foolhardiness far more than Telford's master work."



It will have been observed, from the preceding narrative, how much
had already been accomplished by skill and industry towards opening
up the material resources of the kingdom. The stages of improvement
which we have recorded indeed exhibit a measure of the vital energy
which has from time to time existed in the nation. In the earlier
periods of engineering history, the war of man was with nature.
The sea was held back by embankments. The Thames, instead of being
allowed to overspread the wide marshes on either bank, was confined
within limited bounds, by which the navigable depth of its channel
was increased, at the same time that a wide extent of land was
rendered available for agriculture.

In those early days, the great object was to render the land more
habitable, comfortable, and productive. Marshes were reclaimed, and
wastes subdued. But so long as the country remained comparatively
closed against communication, and intercourse was restricted by the
want of bridges and roads, improvement was extremely slow.
For, while roads are the consequence of civilisation, they are also
among its most influential causes. We have seen even the blind
Metcalf acting as an effective instrument of progress in the
northern counties by the formation of long lines of road. Brindley
and the Duke of Bridgewater carried on the work in the same
districts, and conferred upon the north and north-west of England
the blessings of cheap and effective water communication. Smeaton
followed and carried out similar undertakings in still remoter
places, joining the east and west coasts of Scotland by the Forth
and Clyde Canal, and building bridges in the far north. Rennie made
harbours, built bridges, and hewed out docks for shipping, the
increase in which had kept pace with the growth of our home and
foreign trade. He was followed by Telford, whose long and busy
life, as we have seen, was occupied in building bridges and making
roads in all directions, in districts of the country formerly
inaccessible, and therefore comparatively barbarous. At length the
wildest districts of the Highlands and the most rugged mountain
valleys of North Wales were rendered as easy of access as the
comparatively level counties in the immediate neighbourhood of the

During all this while, the wealth and industry of the country had
been advancing with rapid strides. London had grown in population
and importance. Many improvements had been effected in the river,
But the dock accommodation was still found insufficient; and, as
the recognised head of his profession, Mr. Telford, though now
grown old and fast becoming infirm, was called upon to supply the
requisite plans. He had been engaged upon great works for upwards
of thirty years, previous to which he had led the life of a working
mason. But he had been a steady, temperate man all his life; and
though nearly seventy, when consulted as to the proposed new docks,
his mind was as able to deal with the subject in all its bearings
as it had ever been; and he undertook the work.

In 1824 a new Company was formed to provide a dock nearer to the
heart of the City than any of the existing ones. The site selected
was the space between the Tower and the London Docks, which
included the property of St. Katherine's Hospital. The whole extent
of land available was only twenty-seven acres of a very irregular
figure, so that when the quays and warehouses were laid out, it was
found that only about ten acres remained for the docks; but these,
from the nature of the ground, presented an unusual amount of quay
room. The necessary Act was obtained in 1825; the works were begun
in the following year; and on the 25th of October, 1828, the new
docks were completed and opened for business.

The St. Katherine Docks communicate with the river by means of an
entrance tide-lock, 180 feet long and 45 feet wide, with three
pairs of gates, admitting either one very large or two small
vessels at a time. The lock-entrance and the sills under the two
middle lock-gates were fixed at the depth of ten feet under the
level of low water of ordinary spring tides. The formation of these
dock-entrances was a work of much difficulty, demanding great skill
on the part of the engineer. It was necessary to excavate the
ground to a great depth below low water for the purpose of getting
in the foundations, and the cofferdams were therefore of great
strength, to enable them, when pumped out by the steam-engine, to
resist the lateral pressure of forty feet of water at high tide.
The difficulty was, however, effectually overcome, and the wharf
walls, locks, sills and bridges of the St. Katherine Docks are
generally regarded as a master-piece of harbour construction.
Alluding to the rapidity with which the works were completed,
Mr. Telford says: "Seldom, indeed never within my knowledge, has there
been an instance of an undertaking; of this magnitude, in a very
confined situation, having been perfected in so short a time;....
but, as a practical engineer, responsible for the success of
difficult operations, I must be allowed to protest against such
haste, pregnant as it was, and ever will be, with risks, which, in
more instances than one, severely taxed all my experience and
skill, and dangerously involved the reputation of the directors as
well as of their engineer."

Among the remaining bridges executed by Mr. Telford, towards the
close of his professional career, may be mentioned those of
Tewkesbury and Gloucester. The former town is situated on the
Severn at its confluence with the river Avon, about eleven miles
above Gloucester. The surrounding district was rich and populous;
but being intersected by a large river, without a bridge, the
inhabitants applied to Parliament for powers to provide so
necessary a convenience. The design first proposed by a local
architect was a bridge of three arches; but Mr. Telford, when
called upon to advise the trustees, recommended that, in order to
interrupt the navigation as little as possible, the river should be
spanned by a single arch; and he submitted a design of such a
character, which was approved and subsequently erected. It was
finished and opened in April, 1826.

This is one of the largest as well as most graceful of Mr. Telford's
numerous cast iron bridges. It has a single span of 170 feet, with
a rise of only 17 feet, consisting of six ribs of about three feet
three inches deep, the spandrels being filled in with light
diagonal work. The narrow Gothic arches in the masonry of the
abutments give the bridge a very light and graceful appearance,
at the same time that they afford an enlarged passage for the high
river floods.

The bridge at Gloucester consists of one large stone arch of 150
feet span. It replaced a structure of great antiquity, of eight
arches, which had stood for about 600 years. The roadway over it
was very narrow, and the number of piers in the river and the small
dimensions of the arches offered considerable obstruction to the
navigation. To give the largest amount of waterway, and at the same
time reduce the gradient of the road over the bridge to the
greatest extent, Mr. Telford adopted the following expedient.
He made the general body of the arch an ellipse, 150 feet on the
chord-line and 35 feet rise, while the voussoirs, or external
archstones, being in the form of a segment, have the same chord,
with only 13 feet rise. "This complex form," says Mr. Telford,
"converts each side of the vault of the arch into the shape of the
entrance of a pipe, to suit the contracted passage of a fluid, thus
lessening the flat surface opposed to the current of the river
whenever the tide or upland flood rises above the springing of the
middle of the ellipse, that being at four feet above low water;
whereas the flood of 1770 rose twenty feet above low water of an
ordinary spring-tide, which, when there is no upland flood, rises
only eight or nine feet."*[1] The bridge was finished and opened in

[Image] Dean Bridge, Edinburgh.

The last structures erected after our engineer's designs were at
Edinburgh and Glasgow: his Dean Bridge at the former place, and his
Jamaica Street Bridge at the latter, being regarded as among his
most successful works. Since his employment as a journeyman mason
at the building of the houses in Princes Street, Edinburgh, the New
Town had spread in all directions. At each visit to it on his way
to or from the Caledonian Canal or the northern harbours, he had
been no less surprised than delighted at the architectural
improvements which he found going forward. A new quarter had risen
up during his lifetime, and had extended northward and westward in
long lines of magnificent buildings of freestone, until in 1829 its
further progress was checked by the deep ravine running along the
back of the New Town, in the bottom of which runs the little Water
of Leith. It was determined to throw a stone bridge across this
stream, and Telford was called upon to supply the design. The point
of crossing the valley was immediately behind Moray Place, which
stands almost upon its verge, the sides being bold, rocky, and
finely wooded. The situation was well adapted for a picturesque
structure, such as Telford was well able to supply. The depth of
the ravine to be spanned involved great height in the piers, the
roadway being 106 feet above the level of the stream. The bridge
was of four arches of 90 feet span each, and its total length 447
feet; the breadth between the parapets for the purposes of the
roadway and footpaths being 39 feet.*[2] It was completed and
opened in December, 1831.

But the most important, as it was the last, of Mr. Telford's stone
bridges was that erected across the Clyde at the Broomielaw,
Glasgow. Little more than fifty years since, the banks of the river
at that place were literally covered with broom--and hence its
name--while the stream was scarcely deep enough to float a
herring-buss. Now, the Broomielaw is a quay frequented by ships of
the largest burden, and bustling with trade and commerce. Skill and
enterprise have deepened the Clyde, dredged away its shoals, built
quays and wharves along its banks, and rendered it one of the
busiest streams in the world,

It has become a great river thoroughfare, worked by steam. On its
waters the first steamboat ever constructed for purposes of traffic
in Europe was launched by Henry Bell in 1812; and the Clyde boats
to this day enjoy the highest prestige.

The deepening of the river at the Broomielaw had led to a gradual
undermining of the foundations of the old bridge, which was
situated close to the principal landing-place. A little above it,
was an ancient overfall weir, which had also contributed to scour
away the foundations of the piers. Besides, the bridge was felt to
be narrow, inconvenient, and ill-adapted for accommodating the
immense traffic passing across the Clyde at that point. It was,
therefore, determined to take down the old structure, and Build a
new one; and Mr. Telford was called upon to supply the design.
The foundation was laid with great ceremony on the 18th of March, 1833,
and the new bridge was completed and opened on the 1st of January,
1836, rather more than a year after the engineer's death. It is a
very fine work, consisting of seven arches, segments of circles,
the central arch being 58 feet 6 inches; the span of the adjoining
arches diminishing to 57 feet 9 inches, 55 feet 6 inches, and 52
feet respectively. It is 560 feet in length, with an open waterway
of 389 feet, and its total width of carriageway and footpath is 60
feet, or wider, at the time it was built, than any river bridge in
the kingdom.

[Image] Glasgow Bridge

Like most previous engineers of eminence--like Perry, Brindley,
Smeaton, and Rennie--Mr. Telford was in the course of his life
extensively employed in the drainage of the Fen districts. He had
been jointly concerned with Mr. Rennie in carrying out the
important works of the Eau Brink Cut, and at Mr. Rennie's death he
succeeded to much of his practice as consulting engineer.

It was principally in designing and carrying out the drainage of
the North Level that Mr. Telford distinguished himself in Fen
drainage. The North Level includes all that part of the Great
Bedford Level situated between Morton's Leam and the river Welland,
comprising about 48,000 acres of land. The river Nene, which brings
down from the interior the rainfall of almost the entire county of
Northampton, flows through nearly the centre of the district.
In some places the stream is confined by embankments, in others it
flows along artificial outs, until it enters the great estuary of
the Wash, about five miles below Wisbeach. This town is situated on
another river which flows through the Level, called the Old Nene.
Below the point of junction of these rivers with the Wash, and
still more to seaward, was South Holland Sluice, through which the
waters of the South Holland Drain entered the estuary. At that
point a great mass of silt had accumulated, which tended to choke
up the mouths of the rivers further inland, rendering their
navigation difficult and precarious, and seriously interrupting the
drainage of the whole lowland district traversed by both the Old
and New Nene. Indeed the sands were accumulating at such a rate,
that the outfall of the Wisbeach River threatened to become
completely destroyed.

Such being the state of things, it was determined to take the
opinion of some eminent engineer, and Mr. Rennie was employed to
survey the district and recommend a measure for the remedy of these
great evils. He performed this service in his usually careful and
masterly manner; but as the method which he proposed, complete
though it was, would have seriously interfered with the trade of
Wisbeach, by leaving it out of the line of navigation and drainage
which he proposed to open up, the corporation of that town
determined to employ another engineer; and Mr Telford was selected
to examine and report upon the whole subject, keeping in view the
improvement of the river immediately adjacent to the town of

Mr. Telford confirmed Mr. Rennie's views to a large extent, more
especially with reference to the construction of an entirely new
outfall, by making an artificial channel from Kindersleys Cut to
Crab-Hole Eye anchorage, by which a level lower by nearly twelve
feet would be secured for the outfall waters; but he preferred
leaving the river open to the tide as high as Wisbeach, rather than
place a lock with draw-doors at Lutton Leam Sluice, as had been
proposed by Mr. Rennie. He also suggested that the acute angle at
the Horseshoe be cut off and the river deepened up to the bridge at
Wisbeach, making a new cut along the bank on the south side of the
town, which should join the river again immediately above it,
thereby converting the intermediate space, by draw-doors and the
usual contrivances, into a floating dock. Though this plan was
approved by the parties interested in the drainage, to Telford's
great mortification it was opposed by the corporation of Wisbeach,
and like so many other excellent schemes for the improvement of the
Fen districts, it eventually fell to the ground.

The cutting of a new outfall for the river Nene, however, could not
much longer be delayed without great danger to the reclaimed lands
of the North Level, which, but for some relief of the kind, must
shortly have become submerged and reduced to their original waste
condition. The subject was revived in 1822, and Mr. Telford was
again called upon, in conjunction with Sir John Rennie, whose
father had died in the preceding year, to submit a plan of a new
Nene Outfall; but it was not until the year 1827 that the necessary
Act was obtained, and then only with great difficulty and cost, in
consequence of the opposition of the town of Wisbeach. The works
consisted principally of a deep cut or canal, about six miles in
length, penetrating far through the sand banks into the deep waters
of the Wash. They were begun in 1828, and brought to completion in
1830, with the most satisfactory results. A greatly improved
outfall was secured by thus carrying. the mouths of the rivers out
to sea, and the drainage of the important agricultural districts
through which the Nene flows was greatly benefited; while at the
same time nearly 6000 acres of valuable corn-growing land were
added to the county of Lincoln.

But the opening of the Nene Outfall was only the first of a series
of improvements which eventually included the whole of the valuable
lands of the North Level, in the district situated between the Nene
and the Welland. The opening at Gunthorpe Sluice, which was the
outfall for the waters of the Holland Drain, was not less than
eleven feet three inches above low water at Crab-Hole; and it was
therefore obvious that by lowering this opening a vastly improved
drainage of the whole of the level district, extending from twenty
to thirty miles inland, for which that sluice was the artificial
outlet, would immediately be secured. Urged by Mr. Telford, an Act
for the purpose of carrying out the requisite improvement was
obtained in 1830, and the excavations having been begun shortly
after, were completed in 1834.

A new cut was made from Clow's Cross to Gunthorpe Sluice, in place
of the winding course of the old Shire Drain; besides which, a
bridge was erected at Cross Keys, or Sutton Wash, and an embankment
was made across the Salt Marshes, forming a high road, which, with
the bridges previously erected at Fossdyke and Lynn, effectually
connected the counties of Norfolk and Lincoln. The result of the
improved outfall was what the engineer had predicted. A thorough
natural drainage was secured for an extensive district, embracing
nearly a hundred thousand acres of fertile land, which had before
been very ineffectually though expensively cleared of the surplus
water by means of windmills and steam-engines. The productiveness
of the soil was greatly increased, and the health and comfort of
the inhabitants promoted to an extent that surpassed all previous

The whole of the new cuts were easily navigable, being from 140 to
200 feet wide at bottom, whereas the old outlets had been variable
and were often choked with shifting sand. The district was thus
effectually opened up for navigation, and a convenient transit
afforded for coals and other articles of consumption. Wisbeach
became accessible to vessels of much larger burden, and in the
course of a few years after the construction of the Nene Outfall,
the trade of the port had more than doubled. Mr. Telford himself,
towards the close of his life, spoke with natural pride of the
improvements which he had thus been in so great a measure
instrumental in carrying out, and which had so materially promoted
the comfort, prosperity, and welfare of a very extensive

We may mention, as a remarkable effect of the opening of the new
outfall, that in a few hours the lowering of the waters was felt
throughout the whole of the Fen level. The sluggish and stagnant
drains, cuts, and leams in far distant places, began actually to
flow; and the sensation created was such, that at Thorney, near
Peterborough, some fifteen miles from the sea, the intelligence
penetrated even to the congregation then sitting in church--for it
was Sunday morning--that "the waters were running!" when
immediately the whole flocked out, parson and all, to see the great
sight, and acknowledge the blessings of science. A humble Fen poet
of the last century thus quaintly predicted the moral results
likely to arise from the improved drainage of his native district:-

"With a change of elements suddenly
There shall a change of men and manners be;
Hearts thick and tough as hides shall feel remorse,
And souls of sedge shall understand discourse;
New hands shall learn to work, forget to steal,
New legs shall go to church, new knees to kneel."

The prophecy has indeed been fulfilled. The barbarous race of
Fen-men has disappeared before the skill of the engineer. As the
land has been drained, the half-starved fowlers and fen-roamers
have subsided into the ranks of steady industry--become farmers,
traders, and labourers. The plough has passed over the bed of
Holland Fen, and the agriculturist reaps his increase more than a
hundred fold.. Wide watery wastes, formerly abounding in fish,
are now covered with waving crops of corn every summer. Sheep graze
on the dry bottom of Whittlesea Mere, and kine low where not many
years since the silence of the waste was only disturbed by the
croaking of frogs and the screaming of wild fowl. All this has been
the result of the science of the engineer, the enterprise of the
landowner, and the industry of our peaceful army of skilled

Footnotes for Chapter XIII.

*[1] Telford's Life, p261

*[2] The piers are built internally with hollow compartments, as at
the Menai Bridge, the side walls being 3 feet thick and the cross
walls 2 feet. Projecting from the piers and abutments are pilasters
of solid masonry. The main arches have their springing 70 feet from
the foundations and rise 30 feet; and at 20 feet higher, other
arches, of 96 feet span and 10 feet rise, are constructed; the face
of these, projecting before the main arches and spandrels,
producing a distinct external soffit of 5 feet in breadth.
This, with the peculiar piers, constitutes the principal distinctive
feature in the, bridge.

*[3] "The Nene Outfall channel," says Mr. Tycho Wing,
"was projected by the late Mr. Rennie in 1814, and executed jointly
by Mr. Telford and the present Sir John Rennie. But the scheme of
the North Level Drainage was eminently the work of Mr. Telford,
and was undertaken upon his advice and responsibility, when only a
few persons engaged in the Nene Outfall believed that the latter
could be made, or if made, that it could be maintained. Mr. Telford
distinguished himself by his foresight and judicious counsels at
the most critical periods of that great measure, by his unfailing
confidence in its success, and by the boldness and sagacity which
prompted him to advise the making of the North Level drainage, in
full expectation of the results for the sake of which the Nene
Outfall was undertaken, and which are now realised to the extent of
the most sanguine hopes."

*[4] Now that the land actually won has been made so richly
productive, the engineer is at work with magnificent schemes of
reclamation of lands at present submerged by the sea. The Norfolk
Estuary Company have a scheme for reclaiming 50,000 acres; the
Lincolnshire Estuary Company, 30,000 acres; and the Victoria Level
Company, 150,000 acres--all from the estuary of the Wash. By the
process called warping, the land is steadily advancing upon the
ocean, and before many years have passed, thousands of acres of the
Victoria Level will have been reclaimed for purposes of



While Telford's Highland works were in full progress, he persuaded
his friend Southey, the Poet Laureate, to accompany him on one of
his visits of inspection, as far north as the county of Sutherland,
in the autumn of 1819. Mr. Southey, as was his custom, made careful
notes of the tour, which have been preserved,*[1] and consist in a
great measure of an interesting resume of the engineer's operations
in harbour-making, road-making, and canal-making north of the Tweed.

Southey reached Edinburgh by the Carlisle mail about the middle of
August, and was there joined by Mr. Telford, and Mr. and Mrs.
Rickman,*[2] who were to accompany him on the journey. They first
proceeded to Linlithgow, Bannockburn,*[3] Stirling, Callendar, the
Trosachs, and round by the head of Loch Earn to Killin, Kenmore,
and by Aberfeldy to Dunkeld. At the latter place, the poet admired
Telford's beautiful bridge, which forms a fine feature in the
foreground of the incomparable picture which the scenery of Dunkeld
always presents in whatever aspect it is viewed.

From Dunkeld the party proceeded to Dundee, along the left bank of
the Firth of Tay. The works connected with the new harbour were in
active progress, and the engineer lost no time in taking his friend
to see them. Southey's account is as follows:--

"Before breakfast I went with Mr. Telford to the harbour, to look
at his works, which are of great magnitude and importance: a huge
floating dock, and the finest graving dock I ever saw. The town
expends 70,000L. on these improvements, which will be completed in
another year. What they take from the excavations serves to raise
ground which was formerly covered by the tide, but will now be of
the greatest value for wharfs, yards, &c. The local authorities
originally proposed to build fifteen piers, but Telford assured
them that three would be sufficient; and, in telling me this, he
said the creation of fifteen new Scotch peers was too strong a

"Telford's is a happy life; everywhere making roads, building
bridges, forming canals, and creating harbours--works of sure,
solid, permanent utility; everywhere employing a great number of
persons, selecting the most meritorious, and putting them forward
in the world in his own way."

After the inspection at Dundee was over, the party proceeded on
their journey northward, along the east coast:--

"Near Gourdon or Bervie harbour, which is about a mile and a half
on this side the town, we met Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Gibbs, two of
Mr. Telford's aides-de-camp, who had come thus far to meet him. The
former he calls his 'Tartar,' from his cast of countenance, which
is very much like a Tartar's, as well as from his Tartar-like mode
of life; for, in his office of overseer of the roads, which are
under the management of the Commissioners, he travels on horseback
not less than 6000 miles a year. Mr. Telford found him in the
situation of a working mason, who could scarcely read or write; but
noticing him for his good conduct, his activity, and his firm
steady character, he, has brought him forward; and Mitchell now
holds a post of respectability and importance, and performs his
business with excellent ability."

After inspecting the little harbour of Bervie, one of the first
works of the kind executed by Telford for the Commissioners, the
party proceeded by Stonehaven, and from thence along the coast to
Aberdeen. Here the harbour works were visited and admired:--

"The quay," says Southey, "is very fine; and Telford has carried
out his pier 900 feet beyond the point where Smeaton's terminated.
This great work, which has cost 100,000L., protects the entrance
of the harbour from the whole force of the North Sea. A ship was
entering it at the time of our visit, the Prince of Waterloo.
She had been to America; had discharged her cargo at London; and we
now saw her reach her own port in safety--a joyous and delightful

The next point reached was Banff, along the Don and the line of the
Inverury Canal:--

"The approach to Banff is very fine,"*[4] says Southey, "by the
Earl of Fife's grounds, where the trees are surprisingly grown,
considering how near they are to the North Sea; Duff House--
a square, odd, and not unhandsome pile, built by Adams (one of the
Adelphi brothers), some forty years ago; a good bridge of seven
arches by Smeaton; the open sea, not as we had hitherto seen it,
grey under a leaden sky, but bright and blue in the sunshine; Banff
on the left of the bay; the River Doveran almost lost amid banks of
shingle, where it enters the sea; a white and tolerably high shore
extending eastwards; a kirk, with a high spire which serves as a
sea-mark; and, on the point, about a mile to the east, the town of
Macduff. At Banff, we at once went to the pier, about half finished,
on which 15,000L. will be expended, to the great benefit of this
clean, cheerful, and active little town. The pier was a busy
scene; hand-carts going to and fro over the railroads, cranes at
work charging and discharging, plenty of workmen, and fine masses
of red granite from the Peterhead quarries. The quay was almost
covered with barrels of herrings, which women were busily employed
in salting and packing."

The next visit was paid to the harbour works at Cullen, which were
sufficiently advanced to afford improved shelter for the fishing
vessels of the little port:--

"When I stood upon the pier at low water," says Southey, "seeing
the tremendous rocks with which the whole shore is bristled, and
the open sea to which the place is exposed, it was with a proud
feeling that I saw the first talents in the world employed by the
British Government in works of such unostentatious, but great,
immediate, palpable, and permanent utility. Already their excellent
effects are felt. The fishing vessels were just coming in, having
caught about 300 barrels of herrings during the night....

"However the Forfeited Estates Fund may have been misapplied in
past times, the remainder could not be better invested than in
these great improvements. Wherever a pier is needed, if the people
or the proprietors of the place will raise one-half the necessary
funds, Government supplies the other half. On these terms,
20,000L. are expending at Peterhead, and 14,000L. at Frazerburgh;
and the works which we visited at Bervie and Banff, and many other
such along this coast, would never have been undertaken without
such aid; public liberality thus inducing private persons to tax
themselves heavily, and expend with a good will much larger sums
than could have been drawn from them by taxation."

From Cullen, the travellers proceeded in gigs to Fochabers, thence
by Craigellachie Bridge, which Southey greatly admired, along
Speyside, to Ballindalloch and Inverallen, where Telford's new road
was in course of construction across the moors towards Forres.
The country for the greater part of the way was a wild waste, nothing
but mountains and heather to be seen; yet the road was as perfectly
made and maintained as if it had lain through a very Goschen.
The next stages were to Nairn and Inverness, from whence then
proceeded to view the important works constructed at the crossing
of the River Beauly:--

"At Lovat Bridge," says Southey, "we turned aside and went four
miles up the river, along the Strathglass road--one of the new
works, and one of the most remarkable, because of the difficulty of
constructing it, and also because of the fine scenery which it

"Lovat Bridge, by which we returned, is a plain, handsome structure
of five arches, two of 40 feet span, two of 50, and the centre one
of 60. The curve is as little as possible. I learnt in Spain to
admire straight bridges; But Mr. Telford thinks there always ought
to be some curve to enable the rain water to run off, and because
he would have the outline look like the segment of a large circle,
resting on the abutments. A double line over the arches gives a
finish to the bridge, and perhaps looks as well, or almost as well,
as balustrades, for not a sixpence has been allowed for ornament on
these works. The sides are protected by water-wings, which are
embankments of stone, to prevent the floods from extending on
either side, and attacking the flanks of the bridge."

Nine miles further north, they arrived at Dingwall, near which a
bridge similar to that at Beauly, though wider, had been constructed
over the Conan. From thence they proceeded to Invergordon, to
Ballintraed (where another pier for fishing boats was in progress),
to Tain, and thence to Bonar Bridge, over the Sheir, twenty-four
miles above the entrance to the Dornoch Frith, where an iron
bridge, after the same model as that of Craigellachie, had been
erected. This bridge is of great importance, connecting as it does
the whole of the road traffic of the northern counties with the
south. Southey speaks of it as

"A work of such paramount utility that it is not possible to look
at it without delight. A remarkable anecdote," he continues,
"was told me concerning it. An inhabitant of Sutherland, whose
father was drowned at the Mickle Ferry (some miles below the bridge)
in 1809, could never bear to set foot in a ferry-boat after the
catastrophe, and was consequently cut off from communication with
the south until this bridge was built. He then set out on a journey.
'As I went along the road by the side of the water,' said he,
'I could see no bridge. At last I came in sight of something
like a spider's web in the air. If this be it, thought I, it will
never do! But, presently, I came upon it; and oh! it is the finest
thing that ever was made by God or man!'"

Sixteen miles north-east of Bonar Bridge, Southey crossed Fleet
Mound, another ingenious work of his friend Telford, but of an
altogether different character. It was thrown across the River
Fleet, at the point at which it ran into the estuary or little
land-locked bay outside, known as Loch Fleet. At this point there
had formerly been a ford; but as the tide ran far inland, it could
only be crossed at low water, and travellers had often to wait for
hours before they could proceed on their journey. The embouchure
being too wide for a bridge, Telford formed an embankment across
it, 990 yards in length, providing four flood-gates, each 12 feet
wide, at its north end, for the egress of the inland waters.
These gates opened outwards, and they were so hung as to shut with
the rising of the tide. The holding back of the sea from the land
inside the mound by this means, had the effect of reclaiming a
considerable extent of fertile carse land, which, at the time of
Southey's visit,--though the work had only been completed the year
before,--was already under profitable cultivation. The principal
use of the mound, however, was in giving support to the fine broad
road which ran along its summit, and thus completed the
communication with the country to the north. Southey speaks in
terms of high admiration of "the simplicity, the beauty, and
utility of this great work."

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