This was his first encounter – thanks to his parents’ admirable academic curiosity – with the Scottish stonemason-turned-architect-turned civil engineer Thomas Telford. He built an enormous chunk of the infrastructure of Georgian and early Victorian Britain, yet while remaining revered by engineers and industrial archaeologists, he has been relegated into what Glover calls “a sort of historical twilight”.
“I must have been about nine years old. I remember standing on the bridge where Telford once stood when he went to Ironbridge. He didn’t work on it but he came to see it and met with the ironmasters. It was so exciting. Telford was, of course, quite famous in Shropshire – Telford new town is named after him – but his achievements have often been forgotten,” says Glover when we meet in London. He divides his time between homes there and in Derbyshire, which he shares with his husband, newspaper columnist and former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris. The couple became civil partners in 2006.
Glover’s passion for Telford, a poor shepherd boy from the Borders, a self-made man and an audacious visionary, meant that decades later, the 44-year-old, London-born journalist and political columnist, was to be seen at the end of every working day slipping out of the back gates of Number 10 Downing Street, where he was employed as David Cameron’s chief speechwriter.
A history graduate of University College, Oxford, Glover would hurry across St James’s Park to burrow into the archives of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Apparently, the then Prime Minister “did not frown too much” over his speechwriter’s penchant for a neglected great man. The result of Glover’s labours – he was later made a special adviser on transport policy – is a fine, timely biography, Man Of Iron: Thomas Telford And The Building Of Britain.
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Man Of Iron reveals that, in his 77 years, the iron-willed Telford worked on 184 ambitious projects, among them 93 large bridges and aqueducts, 17 canals and 37 docks and harbours. He cut one great waterway, the Caledonian Canal, from sea to sea across the top of Scotland and another on the same scale to the centre of Sweden. He constructed more than 1,200 miles of major roads and 1,076 bridges to open up the Highlands of Scotland and worked on a dozen more road schemes in England and Wales, including the expressway to Ireland across the magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge, “the best road built anywhere before the coming of the motor car”.
He was the architect of three churches in Shropshire and 32 in Scotland, as well as of houses, a prison and a courthouse. He worked on water works, improved river navigation and devised drainage schemes. Towards the end of his life he surveyed early railway routes, and died in 1834 just as railways were spreading across the country. Overnight his canals were redundant. He was yesterday’s man.
Born in Westerkirk, Dumfries, in 1757, his shepherd father died when he was a baby. He was apprenticed to a stonemason at the age of 12. Close by where Glover and I meet is Somerset House, on which Telford was a stonemason. “He was the first engineer to be buried in Westminster Abbey. He shaped the lives of the Victorian civil engineers who followed him and led the institution which still guides the profession. Almost everything he built is still in use,” writes Glover, who trekked in Telford’s footsteps across the length and breadth of the country, sailing aqueducts, tracking down obscure Scottish bridges and leading an uncomplaining Parris along many a mysterious towpath.
“I’d have liked to travel much more because I regard this book as a travel book as well as a biography of a genuinely great men,” admits Glover, adding that Telford became something of an obsession with him. An intensely private man, Telford never married or had children – there is no hint of a sex life – but he was an amateur poet who sent his verses to Robert Burns, his contemporary. He was also a friend and travelling companion of the poet laureate, Robert Southey, who came up with his soubriquet “Colossus of Roads”.
Yet Telford got lost in history’s shadows. “I think one of the reasons is he did so much. He was always on the move,” says Glover. “Yes, he was upwardly mobile. A man in a hurry to get things done. He did everything and it is very hard to write a book about a person who did everything because it’s not building to some sort of climax – one great scheme, a big bridge, say. For instance, with Brunel it was the Great Western Railway, then the ships later in his life but with Telford it was bits of everything. He dashed around so much. Indeed, he was a Scotsman on the make! And very open about it.
“He wasn’t an inventor, but he was brilliant at seeing all the possibilities in a project, then finding the right people. He was liked; he was charming and hugely energetic. He cared about his workers because he had been one himself. One of the joys of writing about him and his work is the fact that pretty much everything he built was beautiful. People cared about the beauty of structures then in a way they don’t now. Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about one of his iron bridges.
“There is of course something distinctly Scottish about Telford. Because, despite the fact that he came from poverty, the quality of the education he received in the Eskdale valley was extraordinary even if it was only to an early age. Mathematics and reading, for instance, were taught to very high standards. He took books onto the hill to read when he was a shepherd. Scotland shaped him all his life. He never became a Londoner or bought a stately home or took up fox-hunting. He was a Borders boy and proud of it. I think that’s the key to him. Had he come from somewhere else he would have been different, even if he had come from the further north of Scotland.”
Describing the roads and canals he was building between England and Scotland and Wales and Ireland, Telford once said, “This is my mode of subjugating kingdoms.” Which leads Glover to suggest cheekily that a man who joined up the kingdom in all the ways that Telford did would not begin to fathom the campaign for Scottish independence. “Do I think he would have voted Yes? No, I don’t,” says Glover.
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Glover finds the end of Telford’s life sad. “It’s that thing when new technology comes along – the railways – and he wasn’t totally involved. I think he had intellectual objections to the railways. He didn’t believe in monopoly. He was a great Enlightenment-shaped man.” Yet he remains relevant today.
“Things that Telford believed in have come alive again,” Glover writes. It is not too large a step from the way Telford worked to the High Speed Two (HS2) project, on which Glover assisted as a political advisor, or the debate about how to expand London’s airports or whether to charge for roads. “Telford would have understood the dilemmas, insisted on innovation and elegant design and known how to work the parliamentary system.”
Indeed, Glover notes, watching MPs unroll maps and parliamentary counsel spell out the antique language of legislation, he sometimes wished for Telford “still to be at the other side of the table to understand it all and lift our ambition when it sagged”.
Man of Iron: Thomas Telford And The Building of Britain, by Julian Glover (Bloomsbury, £25).
Julian Glover will be at the Glasgow book festival Aye Write!, on March 10. The Herald and Sunday Herald are the event’s media partners www.ayewrite.com