Metcalfe & Telford VIII.
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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.


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 £200,000, and the whole line was reopened 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.


Ed.—Designed by Baltzar Bogislaus von Platen (1766-1829), an obsessive, competent naval officer, and fervent patriot, the Göta Canal became his life’s work.

At the time Britain was renowned for its new canals, and the basis of von Platen’s scheme included the surveying principles of the British canal builders, notably Brindley, who believed that rivers did not make good navigational routes and that locks should be grouped together. But it needed more than this and Telford, the foremost civil engineer of the day, was approached. In August 1808 he arrived in Sweden with two assistants, having travelled on an English man-of-war, the northern seas being inhabited by Danish and French privateers.  Within 20 days the line was marked out and lock positions fixed, as a contemporary remarked “with incomparable diligence, perseverance and drive”.

In 1809 a beautiful hand-coloured set of maps of the proposed canal was prepared bearing the copied signature of “Thos. Telford. September 1808”. These and a translation of Telford’s report were presented to the Riksdag in 1810 and the Canal Company was formed.  Shares were over-subscribed by 100%.  In spite of reminders, Telford never submitted full estimated costs, but eventually he gave a rough guide of £400,000—in the event the Canal cost five times as much.  The estimate of 10 years to build stretched to 22, the Canal being completed in 1832, three years after von Platen’s death.

Like the Caledonian Canal, the Göta did not prove to be a financial success due to the development of railways and the decline of its strategic/military value. Today (also in common with the Caledonian Canal) it is used primarily for leisure purposes.

Telford's professional fee of five guineas a day was considered high. He and von Platen exchanged much correspondence concerning the Canal; von Platen’s letters are more outspoken and longer than Telford’s which are terse—he never wasted a word—factual and impersonal, although always courteous.


'Brindley and the Early Engineers,' p.322.


'Life of Telford,' pp. 82, 83.


Ed.―also called 'The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.'


Ed.—The Grand Trunk was a part of a larger scheme of James Brindley's to link the four main rivers of England (Trent, Mersey, Severn and Thames) in a project known as the "Grand Cross".  The canal, which is a 93.5 miles (150 km) long, passes through the East Midlands, West Midlands and the North West of England. Opened in 1777, it was the most ambitious part of Brindley's scheme, its importance being recognised in its name of the "Grand Trunk Canal"; however, it has since assumed the less ostentatious sobriquet of 'The Trent and Mersey Canal".


Ed.—the Birmingham Canal, built between 1768 and 1772 under the supervision of James Brindley, was the first of a network of canals connecting Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the eastern part of the Black Country, which from 1794 became known collectively as the "Birmingham Canal Navigations".


'Life of Robert Owen,' by himself.


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

p.311 Ed.—After side ditches were dug, large rocks were picked and raked, then were broken "so as not to exceed 6 ounces in weight or to pass a two-inch ring."  Compacting work for each of the three layers was quickened using a cast-iron roller, instead of allowing for compacting under traffic.


A diary is preserved of a journey to Dublin from Grosvenor Square, London, 12th 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 £75. 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, £1 10s.; expenses of the yacht hired to carry the party across the channel, £28 7s. 9d.; duty on the coach, £7 13s. 4d.; boats on shore, £1 1s.; total, £114 3s. 4d."—Roberts's 'Social History of the Southern Counties,' p.504.


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


 "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.


Ed.—Telford's 'Waterloo Bridge', so named to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo (1815), spans the Afon Conwy at Betws-y-Coed, Clwyd, North Wales.  Originally constructed of cast iron (its single span of 32m consisted of five cast-iron arched girders at 1.5m centres supporting cast-iron deck plates), the bridge has since been strengthened to take the heavy traffic loading on the A5 London to Holyhead road.


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 had 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.'


Evidence of William Waterhouse before the Select Committee, 10th March, 1819.


In an article in the 'Edinburgh Review,' No. cxli., 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 arch-stones 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.


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."


Ed.—St. Katharine Docks are situated on the north side of the river Thames just east (downstream) of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.  They lie in the area now known as "Docklands" and have become a popular yacht marina, housing and leisure complex.


'Telford's Life,' p. 261.


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.


Ed.—later in the century Telford's 'Glasgow Bridge' fell victim to the same problems of its predecessor; it had become too narrow to cope safely with the heavy flow of traffic, a problem exacerbated by the deepening of the river by dredging and the removal of the weir above Albert Bridge in 1880. The bridge needed to be replaced. After many schemes had been considered a new bridge was built in 1899 which, by popular demand, was designed as a replica of the Telford bridge. The new bridge, 20ft wider and founded on steel caissons up to 100ft deep, was designed by engineers Blyth & Westland re-using much of the stonework from Telford's bridge.


"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."


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 agriculture.


We have been indebted to Mr. Robert Rawlinson, C.E., in whose possession the MS. now is, for the privilege of inspecting it, and making the above abstract, which we have the less hesitation in giving as it has not before appeared in print.


Mr. Rickman was the Secretary to the Highland Roads Commission.


Referring to the famous battle of Bannockburn, Southey writes—"This is the only great battle that ever was lost by the English.  At Hastings there was no disgrace.  Here it was an army of lions commanded by a stag."


See View of Banff, p.267.


In his inaugural address to the members on taking the chair, the President pointed out that the principles of the Institution rested on the practical efforts and unceasing perseverance of the members themselves.  "In foreign countries," he said, "similar establishments are instituted by government, and their members and proceedings are under their control; but here, a different course being adopted, it becomes incumbent on each individual member to feel that the very existence and prosperity of the Institution depend, in no small degree, on his personal conduct and exertions; and my merely mentioning the circumstance will, I am convinced, be sufficient to command the best efforts of the present and future members."


We are informed by Joseph Mitchell, Esq., C.E., of the origin of this practice.  Mr. Mitchell was a pupil of Mr. Telford's, living with him in his house at 24, Abingdon Street.  It was the engineer's custom to have a dinner party every Tuesday, after which his engineering friends were invited to accompany him to the Institution, the meetings of which were then held on Tuesday evenings in a house in Buckingham Street, Strand.  The meetings did not usually consist of more than from twenty to thirty persons.  Mr. Mitchell took notes of the conversations which followed the reading of the papers.  Mr. Telford afterwards found his pupil extending the notes, on which he asked permission to read them, and was so much pleased that he took them to the next meeting and read them to the members.  Mr. Mitchell was then formally appointed reporter of conversations to the Institute; and the custom having been continued, a large mass of valuable practical information has thus been placed on record.


Supplement to Weale's 'Bridges,' Count Széchenyi's Report, p.18.


Letter to Mrs. Little, Langholm, 28th August, 1833.


A statue of him, by Bailey, has since been placed in the east aisle of the north transept, known as the Islip Chapel.  It is considered a fine work, but its effect is quite lost in consequence of the crowded state of the aisle, which has very much the look of a sculptor's workshop.  The subscription raised for the purpose of erecting the statue was £1000, of which £200 was paid to the Dean for permission to place it within the Abbey.


Letter to Miss Malcolm, Burnfoot, Langholm, dated 7th October, 1830.


Sir David Brewster observes on this point: "It is difficult to analyse that peculiar faculty of mind which directs a successful engineer who is not guided by the deductions of the exact sciences; but it must consist mainly in the power of observing the effects of natural causes acting in a variety of circumstances; and in the judicious application of this knowledge to cases when the same causes come into operation.  But while this sagacity is a prominent feature in the designs of Mr. Telford, it appears no less distinctly in the choice of the men by whom they were to be practically executed.  His quick perception of character, his honesty of purpose, and his contempt for all other acquirements,—save that practical knowledge and experience which was best fitted to accomplish, in the best manner, the object he had in view,—have enabled him to leave behind him works of inestimable value, and monuments of professional celebrity which have not been surpassed either in Britain or in Europe."—'Edinburgh Review,' vol. lxx. p.46.


It seems singular that with Telford's great natural powers of pleasing, his warm social temperament, and his capability of forming ardent attachments for friends, many of them women, he should never have formed an attachment of the heart.  Even in his youthful and poetical days, the subject of love, so frequently the theme of boyish song, is never alluded to; while his school friendships are often recalled to mind, and, indeed, made the special subject of his verse.  It seems odd to find him, when at Shrewsbury—a handsome fellow, with a good position, and many beautiful women about him—addressing his friend, the blind schoolmaster at Langholm, as his "Stella!"


Mr. Mitchell says: "He lived at the rate of about £1200 a year.  He kept a carriage, but no horses, and used his carriage principally for making his journeys through the country on business.  I once accompanied him to Bath and Cornwall, when he made me keep an accurate journal of all I saw.  He used to lecture us on being independent, even in little matters, and not ask servants to do for us what we might easily do for ourselves.  He carried in his pocket a small book containing needles, thread, and buttons, and on an emergency was always ready to put in a stitch.  A curious habit he had of mending his stockings, which I suppose he acquired when a working mason.  He would not permit his housekeeper to touch them, but after his work at night, about nine or half-past, he would go upstairs, and take down a lot, and sit mending them with great apparent delight in his own room till bed-time.  I have frequently gone in to him with some message, and found him occupied with this work."


"The British Fisheries Society," adds Mr. Rickman, "did not suffer themselves to be entirely outdone in liberality, and shortly before his death they pressed upon Mr. Telford a very handsome gift of plate, which, being inscribed with expressions of their thankfulness and gratitude towards him, he could not possibly refuse to accept."—'Life of Telford,' p.283.


Weale's 'Theory, Practice, and Architecture of Bridges,' vol. i.: 'Essay on Foundations of Bridges,' by T. Hughes, C.E., p.33.


Letter to Mr. William Little, Langholm, 24th January, 1815.


Telford thought so little about money, that he did not even know the amount he died possessed of.  It turned out that instead of £16,600 it was about £30,000; so that his legatees had their bequests nearly doubled.  For many years he had abstained from drawing the dividends on the shares which he held in the canals and other public companies in which he was concerned.  At the money panic of 1825, it was found that he had a considerable sum lying in the hands of his London bankers at little or no interest, and it was only on the urgent recommendation of his friend, Sir P. Malcolm, that he invested it in government securities, then very low.


'Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey,' vol. iv., p. 391.  We may here mention that the last article which Southey wrote for the 'Quarterly' was his review of the 'Life of Telford.'



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