Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer
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Thomas Telford, Road Engineer (1757-1834) :
Telford was born near Moffat, in the Parish of Westerkirk on the banks of the Esk a few miles above Langholm, son of a herdsman at Glendinning Farm. After school, he became a mason and then a surveyor, before entering his life's work as what is now termed a civil engineer. His long and distinguished career took the achievements of men such as his contemporary John Loudon MacAdam and Blind Jock (Jack Metcalfe) of Knaresborough (1717-1810) to an impressive conclusion, only surpassed in the late 1800s by such men as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Telford's most famous works are far from Moffat. The Suspension Bridge across the Menai Straits to Anglesey is a world famous structure that still carries heavy traffic. It is one part of the remarkable London to Holyhead road for the mail coaches to Ireland, which managed to bridge the Conwy River at Conway Castle, then ran on a road blasted out of Penmaenmawr sea-cliffs to the Suspension Bridge near Bangor. Telford contributed to the harbour works at Holyhead, although these are massively expanded on what he knew.
He also engineered a number of canals and individual bridges; the River Dean at Edinburgh and the Clyde at Broomielaw were first bridged by him.
Dumfries and Galloway's 1750s Military Road from Dumfries to Portpatrick was in its way as interesting a task as the Holyhead route. It was superseded in the 1790s by a road more suitable for wheeled traffic on a line surveyed by Telford. Telford designed the Tongland bridge, still in use and crossing the deep and dangerous gorge of the River Dee near Kirkcudbright. He also designed the harbour works at Port Logan on the Mull of Galloway, - the only natural harbour on the west side of the Mull. Unfortunately for Telford, his Port Logan venture was too far away from Portpatrick and Stranraer to succeed. He also engineered the Caledonian Canal between Fort William and Inverness. He was called to Sweden by King Gustav and was knighted by him for designing and engineering the Gotha Canal from Lake Malaren (Stockholm) to the lakes of Vaner and Vettir in central Sweden.
Telford's contemporary, John Loudun McAdam, had evolved the broken stone surface that bears his name, but Telford did not wholly agree with McAdam's methods. Telford laid his roads with a base of large stones of cobblestone size, overlaid with 7 inches (180 mm) of broken stone, and a final 3 inches (77 mm) of finer stone. Telford used this on his road from Carlisle to Glasgow, now superseded by the A74 and M74/M8, as well as the London to Holyhead road. McAdam, preferred up to 10 inches of graded broken stone on bare soil. It is hard to say which would have given the more labour to the men who carried out the work, although Telford's was probably the more expensive solution and may have needed more maintenance. As against that, modern roadbeds of concrete owe more to Telford than McAdam, although their surfacing is of broken stone mixed in a suspension of asphalt, referred to as being tarmac (tarmacadam). Telford wanted a rigid base laid in a trench, whilst McAdam saw gravel laid on the surface as being both more load-bearing and resilient. Those held up in motorway contraflows by relaying of damaged surfaces, may well wonder whether McAdam had a point, although the rapid acceleration of car and lorry driving wheels in the early 1900s tore McAdam's unconsolidated gravel surfaces apart.
Because of the respect in which he was held, Thomas Telford was given burial in Westminster Abbey. He is the only son of Moffat other than Air Chief Marshal Lord Hugh Dowding, to have achieved that eminence.
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Moffat Town Website started 9th June 1999.
Last updated 12th December 1999.