Magazine article The Spectator

'Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain', by Julian Glover - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain', by Julian Glover - Review

Article excerpt

During David Cameron's years as prime minister, an unobtrusive figure could be seen slipping out of the back entrance to Downing Street. At the end of each day, Julian Glover, then Cameron's chief speechwriter, made his way across St James's Park to the Institution of Civil Engineers, a Palladian palace off Parliament Square. There, burrowing around in the archives, he wrote the biography of the institution's first president: Thomas Telford, one of Britain's forgotten great men.

In his 77 years, Telford built a huge chunk of the infrastructure of Georgian and early Victorian Britain: 17 canals, 37 docks and harbours and 93 bridges and aqueducts. His friend the poet Robert Southey called him 'Pontifex Maximus'. Telford carved the Caledonian Canal across Scotland, another canal through Sweden, and built more than 1,200 miles of roads.

Practically everything he built is still in use and yet he is forgotten -- thanks to the railway. He died at the wrong time, in 1834, just as the railways were spreading across the country. At a stroke, all those canals became largely redundant.

Telford's three greatest monuments suddenly lost their purpose. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, carrying canal boats over the River Dee, became an elegant curiosity. The Caledonian Canal never carried enough freight, and has only been recently revived by tourism. The Menai Bridge of 1826 lost its traffic to the 1850 Britannia Bridge for trains, built by the king of the railways, Robert Stephenson.

It would have been better if Telford hadn't lived to witness the railway age. He would have been spared the agony of desperately defending dying canals against newfangled trains. In 1830, he pinned his hopes on streamlined canal boats pulled from Paddington basin at 13 mph. In 1833, he was backing steam-driven cars which could only manage seven mph over 50-mile stretches. A year later he was dead, a figure from an outdated age.

Glover is alive to the tragedy of the inventive engineer eclipsed by modern technology, but remains an unashamed admirer of Telford's brilliance and application during his time at the top. After leaving Cameron's speechwriting team, Glover became special adviser in the Department for Transport. As he watched the sluggish process of the HS2 project, he longed for a modern Telford to jump-start the thing. Telford's road to Holyhead took six months. …

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