CCI24042020 0094 - Thomas Telford in detail

This isn’t some anatomical write-up on the composition of Thomas Telford’s body! Rather its a relatively unknown painting that commemorates his life’s work. There’s barely anything on the internet about this painting thus I deemed it an appropriate move to write a post about that work. How this came about is I didn’t know about that painting either – its only very recently I learnt of it There was a free book giveaway and one I picked up among a whole batch of fascinating historical tomes was about Thomas Telford, and published by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1957. I have got other works on Telford’s life and his achievements in my own library, but this was a new addition and one I was in fact pleased to have.

As most will know, Telford was a brilliant engineer and specialised in all forms of civil engineering, ranging from canals to roads, shipping, even warehouses, castles, churches, houses, prisons and a village complete with roads, public squares! One other surprising achievement is he was a pioneering archaeologist! Many of Telford’s structures still stand to this day and the most notable are commemorated in this particular painting. The painting I’m referring to is not the one depicted above showing the famous Menai bridge, but rather its this shown below….

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The Thomas Telford Bicentenary Painting by Leonard Rosoman, 1957.

One might notice that I do not mention railways in relation to Thomas Telford, and this is because he did not have any railway projects to his name unlike the other famed engineers of his day. The reason is he didn’t exactly have enthusiasm for this new form of transport. He in fact preferred to build roads/canals rather than railways and its because canals or roads were a means which individual businesses could use to their advantage. Railways would of course require businesses to employ the services of a monopoly (this being the railway company itself.) Telford did have an involvement in a small number of railway construction projects when the call came for it. He supported George Stephenson during the building of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and it was Telford who encouraged the company to dispense with the notion of inclined planes and fixed cable haulage – instead recommending a route that would be level and enable individual locomotives to be used. One can see the sense Telford was getting at here and there were in fact clashes with Stephenson on how the line should be built!

Of Telford’s preferences, it is said that ‘Telford saw railways as an adjunct to a canal system, for use where the land was unfavourable for canal construction, or where water supplies were inadequate.’ He saw railways as rigid (eg timetables, inflexible loading/unloading points, fixed passenger boarding locations and so on) and rail was something which only the railway company itself could exploit. (Thomas Telford Engineer, p118, pub Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust 1980.) Telford felt the canals and the roads could do the majority of the work of transporting goods and people rather than the railways. He gave evidence to a parliamentary select committee during 1831, advocating that steam carriages were practicable, safe, and should not be penalised with expensive tolls.

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Telford joins Sir Charles Dance’s steam carriage (max speed 7 mph) on the attempt to travel to Birmingham in November 1833. The journey ended at Stoney Stratford after just 57 miles.

The strongly pro roads view that Telford held (as well as the stupendous road building projects he undertook) earned him the nickname of the Colossus of Roads. Very surprisingly in the 1980 book just referred to (I have a copy in my collection) there’s a full chapter where the authors details Telford’s attempts to promote the roads by way of procuring better research and development into steam carriages. Its a bit like the the motor and oil companies who tried to get everything focused on their side of things and the railways closed down! Its interesting how things repeat in history!

Anyway in Telford’s day much work was done to try and elevate the status of steam operated road vehicles and Telford in fact had a venture simply known as the Steam Company (Thomas Telford Engineer, p118, pub Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust 1980.) This would build and promote steam driven road vehicles to be used between London and Birmingham (and ultimately even Holyhead). One can thus see Telford was acting somewhat like a modern magnate in both promoting his own road (the present A5) and the vehicles to be used on it. Alas the problem was not one steam driven road vehicle could attain more than about fifty miles in a single day. These shortcomings no doubt gave the proposed London and Birmingham Railway a huge boost. By 1838 people and goods were being transported between the two cities, not by road but by rail, and at speeds much faster than the motley 7 miles per hour possible on the roads! Clearly the rail vs roads is a debate that will go on and on even now and there will always be people who advocate one system over the other. We’re however getting off topic however because this post really is about a painting that commemorates Telford’s major achievements.

Telford’s achievements as illustrated on the the ICE’s Bicentenary Painting of 1957

Rosoman’s painting measures 11ft 6ins by 24 feet thus it is considerably large. Despite the black and white depictions of it, in reality its actually a colourful painting of which an example is seen at Art UK and from which I’ve provided the cleaned up image shown above. The full work can be seen at Nottingham university. The commission was made for the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1957 to commemorate the two hundred years that had passed since the institute was set up, and an anniversary which also marked two centuries since Telford had been the ICE’s first ever president.

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The Telford Bicentenary Painting being worked on by Leonard Rosman and an assistant. July 1957. The numbers on this picture correspond to the various subjects detailed below in this post. Source: University of Nottingham (Note: The file has been deleted however a screencap of the uncleaned page from the deleted document is shown below. As one can see the image and indeed the report covering this special painting was featured in the Sunday Times.)

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The painting was just one of 135 different exhibits, all variously paintings, pictures, drawings, photographs and scale models covering Telford’s achievements. In terms of the overall context on the painting, its the canals engineered by Telford which are depicted the most. These are the Caledonian and Llangollen (originally known as the Ellesmere and later the Shropshire Union) canals, both of which shows Telford’s answer in building navigable canals through considerably difficult and mountainous terrain. His work on these led to his being called to help build the Göta Canal in Sweden – another waterway that would need to pass through difficult terrain on its route between Stockholm and Gothenburg. With the Caledonian Canal Telford utilised the Great Glen, a natural declivity that stretches right across the Highlands in north west of Scotland as well as the several lochs that lined the route. With the Llangollen Canal Telford built huge aqueducts in order to keep the waterway on a level course through the eastern highlands of Clwyd. That at Chirk is stupendous, but it is often overshadowed by its neighbour at Pontcysyllte, the world’s highest navigable canal aqueduct. We’ll come back to the aqueducts later.

1) The Menai Bridge

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The Menai bridge on the Rosoman wall at the University of Nottingham. One can see clearly the excellent detail provided in the painting itself. Source: Twitter

The largest and foremost subject in the black and white version of the painting is number one and its the Menai suspension bridge in North Wales. This was the world’s first ever modern era suspension bridge to be built and it opened in January 1826. It was of course an important jigsaw in connecting up the separate sections of Telford’s new road between London and Holyhead for it created a crossing over the Menai straits between the Welsh mainland and the Isle of Anglesey. The bridge’s span is 579 feet and that was unparalleled at the time. In fact it was a major problem for Telford because no-one had ever managed to build a bridge with such a huge span. The height of the structure at 100 feet featuring tall stone piers was no problem however for Telford because he had achieved a far greater elevation at the Pontcysyllte aqueduct some twenty years earlier.

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One of Telford’s earlier designs for the Menai crossing, submitted May 1818. Source: Twitter

The Menai bridge wasn’t Telford’s only suspension bridge. He in fact designed and built another at Conwy, some sixteen miles (26km) further along the coast of North Wales. Conwy’s was opened in July 1826 just a few months after the Menai. Although it is a somewhat smaller bridge it still has a stupendous span and along with the Menai, these two structures are seen as the earliest examples of the modern style of suspension bridge.

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Contemporary drawing of Telford’s suspension bridge showing its excellent design and full grandeur to good effect. The view looks towards the Welsh mainland with Elidir Fawr (at left with the rear of Y Garn and Glyder Fawr visible to its right) and Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon at right, visible underneath the bridge. Contemporary 19th century panoramas from Anglesey always show Snowdon somewhat smaller than the Glyderau or Carneddau ranges due to its being further away and Elidir Fawr has indeed been mistaken for Wales’ highest mountain.) Source: Twitter

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View of the bridge showing it to good detail. The huge chain links can be easily seen. The iron work was cast at Plas Kynaston. Source: Twitter

One intriguing aspect of the bridge is it had allegedly been influenced by the work of a female engineer. If true it would have been unusual. The designer was Sarah Guppy who drew up a patent for the design of suspension bridges published in 1811, entitled ‘A New Mode of Constructing & Erecting Bridges and Railroads without Arches.’ It has been claimed Thomas Telford used her work at Menai, although there is opinion this never happened but was instead the result of a letter published in 1832 intended to boost her reputation. The full story can be read at Womens Engineers History.

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Plaque at the Menai Bridge by the Institution of Civil Engineers commemorating both the bridge and the completion of the London to Holyhead road. Source: Wikipedia

Work began on the bridge two hundred and two years ago (1819) when the first foundations were laid. The bridge originally had a wooden deck however that was replaced by a steel one in 1893. Other strengthening work has taken place since with the suspension chains being renewed too. The bridge had a weight restriction for a long time, at one time this was four and half tons, but surprisingly the weight limit is now said to be 40 tons following recent work. This was necessary as the bridge is part of a major commercial route to Holyhead and Ireland. Because of the bridge’s somewhat narrow archways however, extra large loads are required to use the nearby Britannia bridge.

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The bridge being repainted, 1930s. Source: Twitter

Even though the bridge was repainted and cleaned up in the 1930s it seems likely this work had revealed other tasks needed to be done to keep the bridge in good condition as well as ensure it was more suited to the ever increasing loads demanded by the traffic of the time. The weight restriction up till this time was just four and half tons, which excluded many larger lorries from even making the crossing. The work to upgrade the structure includes the chains which were replaced in 1938. The original ones were of wrought iron, the new ones were made of steel, and with that task completed the bridge’s rather severe weight restriction was lifted. On 31 Dec 1940 the bridge’s tolls were abolished.

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Tolls for the repainted bridge, 1935. Source: Twitter

There has been a drive to promote the Menai bridge as a UNESCO World Heritage site. So far its still just a possibility. other local structures including Caernarfon and Beaumaris castles are already World Heritage sites, as are the other structures at Chirk and Pontcysyllte, thus it seems only right the Menai bridge should be a UNESCO site too. Its a most fantastic structure and there’s a website dedicated to the bridge.

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Nice view of the Menai bridge from the rocks below showing good detail of the structure. Source: Twitter

The Menai bridge is of course a part of one of Telford’s biggest achievements, which was the construction of the Holyhead Road (largely the present A5 road) which stretched from Marble Arch to Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. The Holyhead Road is acknowledged as the first of the really modern roads to be built and Telford’s design set the standard for countless other roads. The road itself is clearly missing from the painting and there’s no sign of the unique toll houses that were sited at intervals along its route (and which a number still exist today.).

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Examples of Telford’s Toll House on the A5 Holyhead Road. Both styles can still be seen to this day. Source: Shropshire Star

The route of the London to Holyhead Road still exists largely as Telford had it built. Many tollhouses were built along the road and a number still exist – these are fine examples of a specific classical style kind of dwelling house that Telford built. In fact much of Telford’s original road through North Wales still exists with the more modern A5 merely using the older road as a substantial foundation.

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Telford Toll House at Montford Bridge on the original road. The A5 is now diverted around the village. Source: Google Streets

2) Mystery Bridge

This second entry is an enigma, in fact its the only one of the entire lot on Rosoman’s painting that’s left me puzzled. Its depicted as a twin span rather pointed arch bridge. Although it might be artistic licence as I don’t seem to find that Telford ever actually constructed a bridge like this It does, however, in a way, look a little like Pont Fawr (or Llanwrst bridge) nevertheless that one is by Indigo Jones and has three arches. The identity of this Telford bridge remains a mystery even though it is marked as number three on the University of Nottingham picture. In some ways it looks a little like Telford’s Helmsdale bridge in the far north of Scotland, however the way its depicted is sort of wrong. Perhaps a reader or two of mine can help out?

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The lower one (below the mystery bridge) depicted as number three on the Rosoman’s picture is Over bridge which spans the Severn near Gloucester, a very usual structure as far as Telford’s designs go.

3) Over Bridge

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Over bridge, with its excellent ‘corne de vache’ design. This is the way the chamfered edges form another elliptical design within the elliptical arch of the bridge. Source: Twitter

The structure was opened in 1830 and even though its a mere twenty years or so newer than Dunkeld bridge (shown below) Telford seems to have leapt light years into the future. Over bridge is a highly modernised form that exploits curvature to give the best pleasing effect. The single stone arch must be without a doubt one of the best in this country. If we compare another wow bridge built at roughly the same time, this being the Maidenhead railway bridge of 1838, Telford has in fact gone miles better than Isambard Brunel. Maidenhead bridge has spans of 128 feet (39m) and it was much vaunted as having the shallowest arch of any bridge in the world at the time. There’s no arguing with that of course, however what Telford has done at Over is to give a sort of similar effect with the clever use of chamfered stone work. Not only that Over bridge achieves a 150 foot span too, bigger than Maidenhead, and when one compares this to Brunel’s famous bridge, again Telford has leapt light years into the future. Telford’s work shows that roads can too be beautiful, even more than railways in fact.

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Slightly different perspective, showing the elliptical arch style to greater advantage. Also note the classical style of archway that forms part of the bridge’s foundations. Source: English Heritage

4) Dunkeld Bridge

Number four is Dunkeld bridge. This is a most excellent structure, one that’s very finely designed with high quality stonemason work much in evidence. It opened in 1809 and the techniques between this and that at Over couldn’t be more different. That at Dunkeld is however a beautiful bridge too and no doubt like a lot of other of his work, Telford wanted to show these structures were not just mere contrivances but served a purpose too whilst also having a great sense of beauty about them

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Dunkeld bridge shown to good detail here. The castellated piers can be easily seen and also the very fine quality of the stone work. Source: Twitter

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View of Dunkeld bridge with fishermen on the River Tay. The view shows the bridge’s elegance very well. Source: Birnam Arts

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Dunkeld bridge (at right) with Buildwas bridge (now demolished) at left.

4a) Mystery bridge – identified as Buildwas

The entry with no number between numbers four and five initially proved to be a mystery for me – but its without a doubt Buildwas bridge, built by Telford in 1796. Sadly its no longer extant, having been replaced in 1905. I’m not sure why it has been included in the painting seeing all the other structures still exist. Its probably why it wasn’t numbered. The bridge’s demolition in 1905 occurred because the rather brittle cast iron structure was becoming potentially unsafe after its foundations shifted due to erosion.

Telford clearly wanted to honour the earlier bridges built across the Severn (such as those at Ironbridge and Coalport) by using cast iron for his own structures. Buildwas in fact sorts of resembles these earlier bridges, however Telford’s other later Severn are huge single span cast iron structures such as those at Holt Fleet, Mythe and Tewksbury – and these are a complete departure compared to his Buildwas structure.

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Old photograph of Telford’s Buildwas bridge. Source: Shropshire Archives

5) Aberdeen Harbour

Number five at the top of the painting is Aberdeen Harbour.

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Aberdeen harbour, which Telford was employed to remodel on a considerable scale during 1810-1813 and providing for better navigation to and from the sea. New wharves were also built and a direct link was made to the former Aberdeenshire Canal (closed 1854.)

Aberdeen harbour has changed enormously thus there’s very little evidence of the work undertaken by both Telford and Smeaton. The Scottish oil industry brought about rapid change for this important sea port thus it is now one of the most modernised in the country. Nevertheless the three main channels designed by Telford to form the harbour area still exist although largely altered as show in the picture below.

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Although Aberdeen’s harbour is very different these days there’s still some other similarity between Telford’s work and how it looks today. The north pier (and the smaller southern breakwater in the centre of the picture) are largely Telford’s, adding to the substantial earlier work undertaken by John Smeaton. Source: Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce

There’s a good zoomable map at the National Library of Scotland. This is a later map that Telford produced, since it already shows some of the work that had been undertaken under his supervision.

(Updated 5th April 2021)

Continued in Part Two.

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