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A Cast Iron Legacy

Front cover of Man of Iron
Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain 
Julian Glover
Bloomsbury
448pp  £25

Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was a prolific transport architect, who split Britain in half when he surveyed, designed and helped manage the building of the Caledonian Canal (1803-22). This impressive achievement connected Scotland’s east and west coasts, providing much-needed employment, and created a route that avoided the dangerous seas around the north. He was also hired by the Swedish government to design and construct a similar, much longer, sister waterway, the Göta Canal (1810-32), which linked the west coast of Sweden with the Baltic. 

Julian Glover applies his skills as a journalist to write a very readable biography charting the history of Telford’s work. He begins with the dramatic opening in 1826 of the pioneering Menai suspension bridge joining Anglesey with mainland Wales and provides insights into Telford’s restless, ambitious and industrious character.

Importantly, we get references to the ironmasters and other skilled workers crucial to his success. At his peak, Telford was responsible for many of the canals, docks, roads and bridges being built in Britain. These included the magnificent Pontcysyllte aqueduct, which bridges the River Dee some 126ft below and spans 1,000 feet. The bridge opened in 1805 and was then the highest in the world. Glover concludes: ‘One might even argue that it is one of the first great structures of the modernist school of architecture, a machine for movement, made out of the newest materials.’ 

Telford was the son of a shepherd and had no formal knowledge of natural philosophy. The esteem contemporaries held him in can be seen by the fact he is buried in Westminster Abbey next to that other transport genius, Robert Stephenson (1803-59). The memory of the latter, however, is much stronger, since the historical appetite for the development of the railways is greater than that for roads and canals. It was Telford, however, who left the greatest legacy in terms of training subsequent engineers and promoting civil engineering. Indeed, in 1820 he became the first president of the newly established Institution of Civil Engineers.

A key message of Glover’s is that innovation is a product of individual enterprise, spearheaded by people like Telford, combined with strong state support. Glover appears to use his history to argue that, in the aftermath of the recent fiscal meltdown, there has been a resurgent call to invest in Britain’s infrastructure: ‘Things that Telford believed in have come alive again. If that sounds like a morality tale, then it is meant to be.’ Glover concludes that, if Telford were alive today, he would be in charge of High Speed Two (HS2), the expansion of London’s airports and the introduction of motorway tolls. And he would make them happen.

William J. Ashworth is Reader in History at the University of Liverpool and author of The Industrial Revolution: The State, Trade, and Global Trade (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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