A new biography of one of Britain’s greatest engineers, whose work is still with us today.
If ever a man could give hope to those of humble origins it is Thomas Telford. Born into a lowly shepherding family, in a ramshackle farmhouse in the hills of Dumfriesshire, Telford never knew his father, and at school succeeded in learning little more than the basics of the ‘three R’s’. Yet, despite this modest beginning, he went on to become one of Britain’s greatest engineers. So, what’s his story?
In ‘Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain’, the first comprehensive modern biography of Telford, journalist Julian Glover draws on historical anecdotes, letters, records, reports and contemporary accounts to provide a strikingly clear portrait of the man who helped shape Britain. A simple, smiling boy from the south of Scotland, known affectionately as ‘Laughing Tam’, who despite his fame and success, never forgot his roots.
Born in 1757, a time when the industrial revolution was beginning to sweep through Britain, Telford left school at the age of 14 and was apprenticed to a stonemason. The piecemeal work of building new roads and farmhouses on a local estate inspired Telford’s initial interest in structural engineering. He began studying at night, determined to learn all there was to know about construction.
This passion formed a career that spanned almost eight decades. It helped create the basic building blocks of Britain, constructing roads, bridges and aqueducts, facilitating trade and renovating the country for a time of industrial transformation.
Among his most remarkable work was the design of the Menai Bridge in north Wales, one of the first structures based on the suspension principle. It spanned 180m – the longest such bridge of the era. He was one of the first British engineers to trial such a procedure. At the time, his creations were considered some of the most remarkable in Europe, but perhaps what is most notable is that almost all of his work remains standing – and in use – to this day.
While his influence on the backbone of Britain is obvious, the person behind the engineer is less known, and for some, this may be the most interesting aspect of this book. Telford was a complex man, as his interests and talents were not limited to engineering. While contributing to the industrialisation of Britain, he was also fascinated by the natural landscape, and was actually a keen poet. In his musings, he wrote of the ‘artificial joy’ of towns, preferring the quiet solitude of the country. It may seem somewhat oxymoronic, but even as he built the structures that supported urban life, he did so with a passion to enhance the countryside, not replace it.
The influence of Telford across Britain is well recognised and celebrated. The Institution of Civil Engineers, of which Telford was the first president, continues to celebrate the legacy of his work long after his death. ‘Man of Iron’ keeps with this culture of recognition and celebration by revealing the history of Telford for all to understand and enjoy. It is a beautifully written biography, reading almost as a work of classic literature, rather than a piece of non-fiction.
Glover spares no words in greatly detailing every aspect of Telford’s life, from his poverty-stricken yet somewhat idyllic childhood in the green woods of the Scottish countryside to his vibrant life travelling and working across the British Isles. It is just as easy to envisage a grubby-faced but smiling young Telford stumbling over bracken-rich fields of Eskdale as it is to recall the wondrous unveiling of his remarkable works of civil engineering.
This review was first published online for E&T magazine.