The Scot in England Chapter VII - The Real Builders of England
England has produced great
builders, particularly in the field of austere and ornamental architecture,
but it is an indisputable fact that the men who planned and built the great
commercial arteries of the country, thus enabling it to achieve the
miraculous industrial expansion that followed the introduction of steam
power, were Scotsmen. But for the practical genius of the men from the
north, the traffic of England would not have been released from the chains
that shackled it, and the miracle of the industrial revolution, then being
brought about—again largely by Scots—would have been retarded indefinitely.
Scottish builders of
outstanding skill had invaded London at the opening of the eighteenth
century, and a glance at some of their achievements indicates how much the
English metropolis owes to early Scottish architecture. James Gibb, born in
Aberdeen in 1674, designed the beautiful church of St. Martin's. Sir William
Chambers, another architect from the north, reared Somerset House. The Adam
brothers, Robert and John, were the designers of Lansdowne House in Berkeley
Square, Portland Place, and the Adelphi Buildings in the Strand.
In the middle of the century
Robert Mylne, a penniless and friendless young Edinburgh architect, walked
down to London to seek an outlet for his genius there. He left monuments to
his skill in Rochester Cathedral, Greenwich Hospital, King's Weston, and
other edifices of rare beauty. The greatest enterprise connected with his
name, however, was Blackfriars Bridge. He planned it, and superintended its
construction, and it reflected his genius at the high-water mark. It also
demonstrated that Scotsmen had mastered the difficult art of constructing
bridges of strength and beauty. [Scots are still masters of the art. The
Tower Bridge of London was built by Sir William Arrol, who was born in
Paisley in 1839, and who began life as a blacksmith. Sir George Washington
Browne, a Scot, was the architect of St. Paul's Bridge.]
Blackfriars was considered to
be a perfect specimen of the bridge-builder's art. It certainly was a
perfect specimen of accuracy in cost estimation, for although its
construction occupied four years—from 1761 to 1765—Mylne had made his
calculations so meticulously, and carried out the work so accurately, that
the figure specified in his estimates—£153,000—turned out to be the exact
amount spent on the great project. Even so, Mylne was unable to collect the
money, for London's first bridges were not paying propositions. [A London
guide-book of 1834 (Leigh's) had this to say about Waterloo Bridge: "During
the summer months it is much frequented as a promenade, but there is not at
present sufficient traffic to afford the prospect of much profit to the
Mylne built Addington Lodge,
near Croydon, which became the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury,
and in recognition of his skill as a church architect was appointed surveyor
of St. Paul's Cathedral. It was he who suggested the world-famous
inscription that links that august edifice with the name of its inspired
architect, Sir Christopher Wren: "Si monumentum Quaeris, circumspice".
Scotsmen, in fact, had a hand
in building most of the historic buildings which are now such an interesting
feature of London, but while the aesthetic and spiritual values of these
venerable piles are very great, it can scarcely be argued that they were
vitally important to the England of that day. The era of practical building
was opening up—the era in which the whole country was opened up and
vitalized by roads, bridges, and canals—and it was in this astounding period
of England's development that Scotsmen were the trail-blazers.
So many jolly pictures of
life in the days of the stage-coach have been painted by novelists and
Christmas-card artists that we are prone to look back across the years with
a tinge of regret. We see, through a deceiving haze of romance, the old
stagecoaches rattling up the Great North Road, to the sound of bugles. There
is frost in the air and berries on the holly, and ye landlord of the "Pig
and Whistle" is standing at the door of his tavern, his broad, honest face
beaming on the happy travellers who are about to partake of his far-famed
hospitality. The air is full of laughter and the clanking of tankards. "Ho,
It won't do! Such scenes were
seldom witnessed on the Great North Road, or on any other stage-coach route.
In the first place, the roads were outrageous quagmires, and the only rattle
they produced was the rattle of the rickety coach and the rattle of the
teeth of its unfortunate occupants. Mine host was very seldom a genial and
rubicund fellow; more often he was a surly, half-washed lout with a cast in
his eye. Here and there the traveller may have halted at a tavern which
purveyed good food and plenty of it, in a cosy oak-beamed room that smelled
pleasantly of cool beer and clean sawdust, but at the majority of
halting-places the food was abominable, and after washing it down with
inferior ale the weary travellers were shown to dark, airtight rooms which
smelt of damp straw. In short, Ye Olde English Tavern, seven times out
often, was a place where guests were regarded as undesirable transients—and
that idea still lingers in the land!
The only good roads that had
been built in England were the work of the Roman Army engineers, and these
highways were few and far between. When the legions left England, no more
roads worthy of the name were built, and the Englishman who ventured beyond
the boundaries of his own parish had to labour over unspeakable paths, with
one eye open for mudholes deep enough to bury him, and the other scanning
the surrounding woods for mountebanks who were quite ready to slit a throat
for a handful of silver. If he patronized a stage-coach, he paid an
excessive fare for a ride of excessive discomfort. As late as 1763, the
stage-coach that plied between Edinburgh and London took two weeks— and
sometimes a day or two longer if the weather happened to be bad—to do one
leg of the journey. The journey from London to York occupied a week. That
from Dover to London took three days. As for the comfort of these tedious
rides, a contemporary poet describes his experiences in these words:
Scarce dawns the morning ere
the cumbrous load
Rolls roughly rumbling o'er the rugged road;
One old wife coughs and wheezes in my ears,
Loud scolds the other, and the soldier swears:
Sour unconcocted breath escaped "mine host",
The sick'ning child returns his milk and toast!
Poor men travelled on foot.
Doctor Samuel Johnson, who hated horseback riding as much as he hated the
Scots, rode a nag from Birmingham to Derby with his bride on their honeymoon
jaunt. Smollett, who left pungent records of his travels between Scotland
and London, tells us that he saw neither coach, cart, nor wagon on the main
road in 1739. James Watt walked from Glasgow to London to apprentice himself
to a maker of mathematical instruments—and we will keep track of this
studious young chap. Wealthy people had their own family coaches, but they
frequently took along a platoon of hefty fellows whose job it was to dig the
vehicle out of bottomless mudholes and ditches. The case of the Marquis of
Downshire is familiar. He tried to take his coach through Galloway in 1760,
but although he had a party of labourers with him to take care of the
engineering aspects of the journey, he got so hopelessly mired near Creetown
that he and his family had to spend the night in their coach.
With such execrable roads,
England was only civilized in spots. It was, in fact, an aggregation of
backward communities which had very little communication with one another.
The good old yeoman of Sussex had only a vague idea, if any at all, of the
whereabouts of Yorkshire, and the sturdy villager of Yorkshire cared nowt
about Soosex. Each isolated district had its own thick dialect and its own
thickheaded brand of ignorance. It was scarcely safe for a stranger to enter
these insular communities. Far from being received with open-handed
hospitality, he was more likely to be assaulted. News filtered into these
appalling county hinterlands slowly. Macaulay tells us that Queen
Elizabeth's death was not heard of in Devon until the courtiers of King
James had cast off their mourning for the old virago—and in those days
people mourned with a vengeance. The few people of consequence who travelled
about the country were regarded as explorers who were running great risks.
It goes without saying that
in a country so ill served by transportation routes, commerce was in an
exceedingly primitive condition. Goods simply could not be transported from
one part of the country to another, except at great expense and at the risk
of being stolen by mountebanks, with which all the roads were infested. The
country, in fact, was at a standstill, socially and commercially; but a
miraculous transformation was about to take place, and this transformation
was brought about by three Scots, all born within five years of one another,
and all of humble origin. The work of these three men touched every corner
of England, influenced every phase of English life, and sent the pent-up
energy of the country pulsing vigorously through new channels of commercial
enterprise. Their names were Thomas Telford, John Rennie, and John Loudon
Thomas Telford was born in a
remote corner of the valley of the Esk, in Dumfriesshire, on 9th August,
1757. His father was a shepherd. Few men have started life with a greater
handicap than the future engineer, for his father died when he was a year
old, and the widow was left practically penniless. It was a sore battle that
she faced, living, as she was, in a poor and isolated community, but she
fought gallantly, drawing from deep reserves of faith and courage. It meant
working out for farmers and neighbours, but there is an old and very
beautiful Scottish saying— not so well understood to-day, alas!—that in
little communities, where poverty dwells, the people are a' John Tamson's
bairns! Happily, it was so in that remote valley of the Esk, and kindly
neighbours helped the widow along as best they could. She managed to keep a
roof over her head, and her boy Tom went through the cleansing purgatory of
honest poverty that was the lot of so many people in Scotland at that time.
He attended the parish
school, earned such a reputation as a happy lad that he was known in the
valley as "Laughing Tam", and when his meagre schooling was finished was
apprenticed to a brutal and ignorant stonemason in Lochmaben. The bullying
of this Lochmaben taskmaster was too much even for "Laughing Tam", and he
ran away, apprenticing himself to a more humane master in the nearby town of
Langholm. He became a skilled stonecutter, and surely one of the most
beautiful achievements of his youth was a headstone he hewed and lettered
for his father's grave in the quiet little kirkyard of Westerkirk. It bore
this simple but poignant inscription—the tribute of a son to a father whose
life, ending at thirty-three, seemed to epitomize the tragic mystery of
In Memory of
WHO AFTER LIVING 33 YEARS
AN UNBLAMEABLE SHEPHERD
DIED AT GLENDINNING
The valley of the Esk was too
narrow for the young stonemason. He moved to Edinburgh, spent two years
there at his trade, then set out for London on horseback, with a few pounds
in his pocket and the simple tools of his trade on his back.
There was work for him in
London, and he found time to study architecture, chemistry, and literature.
At this time, in fact, and for many years afterwards, he tried his hand at
poetry, but his rhymes were not so well put together as his stonework, nor
so long-lived. His poems, which were written in praise of his native valley,
are not very interesting as literature, but they reflect the manly spirit of
Telford, the simplicity of his character, and the tenderness with which he
always looked back upon the scenes and associations of his youth. Indeed,
this aspect of his character was so pronounced that it invested this man of
iron and stone with an aura of humanism that makes him truly great. In the
days of his success in England, he never forgot the simple friends of his
youth, and displayed a tender and thoughtful devotion to the aged and worn
woman, back in the valley of the Esk, who had striven so hard to start him
on the road of life. He planned great projects, but surely nothing finer was
ever drafted by his skilful hands than the letters which he printed for his
mother, so that her failing eyes could decipher his cheering messages.
Thomas Telford had not gone
to London because stone-cutters commanded higher wages there. He was
ambitious, and genius stirred in him. He studied, saved his money, and
eventually stepped out of the wage-earning class when he took a contract to
build a house for the commissioner at Portsmouth dockyard. It was the first
step in his long career of achievements as a builder in England. We hear of
him next as surveyor of public works for the county of Salop, and while he
was in that office he built his first bridge, across the Severn at Montford.
It was completed in 1792.
Telford had found himself.
The bridge across the Severn was a solid and artistic structure. It was the
chief argument, moreover, in favour of granting him the contract to build a
canal to connect the Mersey, the Dee, and the Severn. Here was a task for a
man of bold initiative and vision. It included a huge aqueduct, but Telford
carried the project through with masterly skill, completing it in 1803. His
genius had been established. He built an iron bridge—the second of its kind
ever seen in England—over the Severn at Buildwas, and on its completion went
to Scotland to build harbours at Aberdeen, Dundee, Peterhead, Banff,
Fraserburgh, Wick, and other points on the Scottish coast. Again he
triumphed, and, returning to England, proceeded to build tunnels and canals.
He built the Harecastle Tunnel, the Birmingham Canal, and the Birmingham and
Liverpool Canal—all great projects that wrought vast changes in England.
Then he turned his attention to road-making. He rebuilt the road between
Carlisle and Glasgow—a difficult stretch of sixty-nine miles that had been
declared positively dangerous to traffic by a parliamentary committee—then
went back to England and built the famous Holyhead road through the
mountains of Wales, virtually opening up a new country.
Thomas Telford was now a
famous man. He had built great harbours and canals, hundreds of miles of
trunk roads, and hundreds of road bridges, and was recognized as one of the
greatest engineers of his time—perhaps the greatest that the country had
ever seen. He was doing more than any other man to civilize England and
accelerate its commercial life. When the Engineers' Institute—now the
Institution of Civil Engineers—was formed in 1820, he became its first
president, a tribute to his preeminent reputation in the world of
The building of the Holyhead
road led to his most spectacular achievement, for he was called into
consultation concerning a means of bridging the troublesome Menai Straits
which separate Carnarvon and Anglesey. The tide-swept channel had been a
menace to Anglo-Irish traffic for generations. Telford studied the Straits,
and submitted his plans for bridging them in 1818. He proposed to throw a
suspension across the water, keeping the roadway at least 100 feet above the
high-water mark—so as not to impede the progress of ships—and to accomplish
this he put forward the startling proposal of a suspension span of 550 feet.
Sixteen chains were to be used, each chain consisting of thirty-six bars of
half-inch squared iron, weighing 121 tons. The suspending power of these
monstrous shackles was calculated at 2016 tons. He proposed to anchor them
in masonry built over stone arches situated between the supporting pier and
the shore. The whole conception was bold, ingenious, and colossal, and when
the plans of it were perused by the authorities many heads were wagged
sceptically. However, the Scottish engineer had never failed, and the
contract went through.
Telford took his immense
project in hand in 1820, and from the first watched its progress with
anxious and unremitting care. The arches rose, massive pillars of masonry
that seemed to symbolize, and indeed did symbolize, the character of the
Scottish stonemason who planned them. The masonry would not fail. Telford
had cut too many slabs of Dumfriesshire granite with his own skilful hands
to have any doubts about that. The giant chains came from the furnaces, and
each one was tested and retested by Telford before it was passed for use. If
the great suspension did not hold, it would not be the fault of the
materials that went into its building.
Steadily the work went
forward. The titanic and critical operation of raising the chains into
position was carried through successfully by the use of a huge raft 450 feet
long and 60 feet wide. A central portion of each chain was built on this
floating platform, then floated to the side of the bridge and raised into
position with capstans. Everything went according to schedule, and on 9th
July, 1825, the great bridge over the Menai Straits was opened for traffic.
Engineering history had been made in England by the stonemason from the
valley of the Esk.
Telford's greatest work was
done. The great suspension across the Menai Straits stood out as a symbol of
his genius. His fame spread around the world. Nothing seemed to be too big
for him. His projects had assumed titanic dimensions. Foreign governments
sought his services. He was asked by the King of Sweden to engineer the Gota
Canal. He drew up plans for a canal at the Panama. Meanwhile, in England, he
engineered the St. Katherine Dock scheme for the Port of London, and was
drafting a plan for a water supply for London when death overtook him. He
passed away on 9th September, 1834, but in the last ten years of his life he
had seen a new England developing—an England of rapid transport and
accelerating commerce. No man had done more than he to release the forces
that brought about the stupendous industrial development that was to follow
The Industrial Revolution was
looming up in England. James Watt had served his apprenticeship with the
maker of mathematical instruments in London, had gone back to Glasgow, and
was manufacturing his steam engines. We shall see, presently, how he got
along, but in the meantime let us see what one of his apprentices did for
England. John Rennie, born on an East Lothian farm on 7th June, 1761, had
started on his great career.
Like his contemporary, Thomas
Telford, John Rennie displayed a genius for constructing bridges, canals,
and docks. He built his first bridge over the Water of Leith, and followed
that modest achievement with the Kelso Bridge, which spans the Tweed, and
the Musselburgh Bridge, which spans the Esk. That the young engineer was
gifted with the originality that goes hand in hand with true genius was
shown by the Kelso and Musselburgh bridges. They had level roadways, an
entirely new feature in bridge construction. He also demonstrated, in these
two spans, that he was a builder of safe bridges, for unlike his English
contemporary Smeaton, [Smeaton failed as a bridge-builder because his
foundations were shaky. The bridge he built across the Tyne at Hexham in
1777 collapsed in a storm five years after it was opened to traffic.] he
rested his foundations on bed-rock.
With these three bridges in
Scotland to his credit, Rennie went back to England and built a bridge at
Boston, in Lincolnshire. Then London called him, and with the beginning of
his work in the metropolis the history of the most famous bridges in the
world began to be written, and another tremendous impetus was given to the
development of England.
The Thames at that time was
spanned by the Old London Bridge, the Westminster Bridge, and the
Blackfriars Bridge. With the growth of transportation in the provinces, the
City began to expand rapidly, and it became more and more evident that
something would have to be done to relieve the congestion between the north
and south banks of the river. It was agreed, among those directly interested
in the problem, that a bridge at Lambeth, entering the north bank at the
Strand, would bring relief, and in 1809 a company was formed to put the
John Rennie submitted plans,
and they were accepted. His mastery of the art of maintaining a level
roadway led him to design a bridge of nine arches, with a roadway not much
above the level of the Strand. The great work began. The bridge grew. On
18th June, 1817, the new Waterloo Bridge was officially opened, and London
discovered that the highest part of its spacious roadway was only two feet
above the level of the Strand. The bridge was a marvellous combination of
strength and beauty, and its builder was offered a knighthood by a grateful
country. He declined the honour. The bridge, he thought, would be a more
lasting and appropriate monument to his skill. It was.
The competent workmanship of
these Scottish engineers who were keeping pace with James Watt was equalled
by their originality and boldness.
Rennie was at his best when
confronted by a ticklish problem. He demonstrated this in the building of
the celebrated Southwark Bridge. At the outset he was faced with the
necessity of maintaining, as far as possible, the width of the waterway, the
Thames being narrow at the point selected for the bridge. Aweel! The canny
Scot designed a cast-iron bridge of three arches, so that only two piers
were required in the river. The arches were enormous. The central one
alone—240 feet long—was actually four feet longer than the longest bridge
that had been built in England up to that year. The side-arches were each
210 feet long. Again the Scot put his project through. The Southwark Bridge
was reared without a hitch, and when it was opened to traffic London saw one
of the most magnificent examples of the bridge-builder's art to be found
anywhere on the face of the earth.
With his reputation so firmly
established, Rennie was the man the authorities turned to in connection with
the problem of the Old London Bridge, which no longer fitted into the dense
traffic streams of London. Rennie advised the erection of a new bridge
altogether, and he was commissioned to build it. In the spring of 1821 he
began to work on his plans, but he never finished them, for illness and
death intervened. The last great bridge that he planned, however, was
completed by his son, Sir John Rennie, and it stands to-day as a striking
landmark of London, and perhaps the finest example of a masonry arch in the
Between them, Thomas Telford
and John Rennie modernized and co-ordinated the whole transportation system
of England, and their work was so varied, and covered such a wide field,
that the list of their major achievements might be headed, "The Building of
England". Here it is:
Thomas Telford's Major
The Ellesmere Canal, 112
miles long, linking Ellesmere, Whitchurch, Chester, Shrewsbury, and Oswestry.
The Caledonian Canal.
The Gloucester and Berkeley Canal.
The Grand Trunk Canal.
The Birmingham Canal.
The Macclesfield, Birmingham, and Liverpool Junction Canal.
Built 920 miles of roadways.
Built 1117 bridges.
Built harbours at Aberdeen, Dundee, Peterhead, Banff, Wick, and Fraserburgh.
Built St. Katherine's Docks, London.
Built Menai and Conway Suspension Bridges.
Drained 48,000 acres of Eastern Fen District.
John Rennie's Major
Built Waterloo Bridge,
Built Southwark Bridge, London.
Built New London Bridge, London.
Constructed the Great Western Canal.
Constructed the Kennet and Avon Canal, with 79 locks.
Constructed the Portsmouth Canal.
|Constructed the Worcester Canal.
Constructed the East India Docks, London.
Constructed the Hull, Liverpool, and West India Docks of London.
Built the Naval Arsenal at Pembroke.
Built the Great Plymouth Breakwater.
[Another able Scottish
engineer of this period was John Walker, LL.D., F.R.S., F.R.S.E., who was
born at Falkirk in 1781. He was engineer to Trinity House, and built the
harbours of refuge at Dover, Jersey, Alderney, and the Tyne.]
These two men, in so far as
their road-building activities were concerned, may be said to have paved the
way for another Scot who completed the triumvirate and who, in his own way,
conferred an immense boon on England and the world in general. This was John
Loudon Macadam, whose name was to become a synonym for improved highways all
over the civilized world. Macadam was born at Ayr in the year 1756, but his
father was a native of Kirkcudbrightshire, that corner of south-west
Scotland which is so frequently mentioned in connection with Scotsmen who
became famous in England.
When a lad of fifteen, John
Loudon Macadam emigrated to New York. He did well there, for he returned to
his native country and purchased the Ayrshire estate of Sauchrie. He
blossomed out as a laird, took a keen interest in the public affairs of his
county, and appeared to be in the good graces of those high in authority. In
1798 he was appointed agent for victualling the Navy in the western ports of
Great Britain, and this position obliged him to move to Falmouth. We hear of
him next at Bristol, where, in 1815, he was appointed surveyor-general of
Bristol's system of roads. It was a fortunate appointment for England, for
the Scottish surveyor-general had ideas of his own about road-making, and
began to experiment with his process of macadamizing. The results were
entirely satisfactory, and the new method of road-surfacing was adopted all
over the United Kingdom. The comfort of the smooth waterproof surface was
the talk of the country. It crowned the foundation work of Telford, and made
travelling a pleasure.
Having demonstrated the
suitability of his now famous process of road-making, the indefatigable
Macadam proceeded to advocate the new method for city streets. He went up to
London in 1823, and explained his plan of smoothing London's atrocious
streets to a committee of the House of Commons. His arguments, backed by his
record in the provinces, proved so convincing that macadamized streets were
tried out—with complete success, of course, in London, Edinburgh, and
Macadam was appointed
Surveyor-General of Roads four years later, and in that important position
he travelled over 30,000 miles of roads—a feat that would have been utterly
impossible in the days before Telford, Rennie, and the man who surfaced
Like the two other Scots who
had done so much to open up and civilize England, Macadam did not reap a
rich monetary reward for his vast enterprise. The enormous project of
macadamizing London's streets, in these modern days of contractors and
subcontractors and other go-betweens, would have meant a vast fortune for
the directing genius, and another addition to the ranks of the nouveaux
riches. Macadam was not out to make a fortune out of his invaluable process,
or his connection with the Government of the day. He contented himself with
superintending the building of the new roads that bore his name, and got no
real reward for his labours. The Government, in fact, was so ashamed of its
penurious treatment of the inventor that it voted him the paltry sum of ten
thousand pounds for his services, and offered him a knighthood. Macadam
declined the title, with thanks. The day of the title-seeking profiteer had
not yet arrived. Before he died at Moffat on 26th November, 1836, James
Loudon Macadam saw his smooth roads spreading all over Great Britain.
These three Scots did more to
open up and civilize England during the latter part of the eighteenth
century and the beginning of the nineteenth than all the builders who had
gone before them, and their work was so well and truly done that it is
heedlessly enjoyed by the men and women of to-day. It would be difficult to
travel through any county in England or Scotland without crossing bridges
built by Telford or Rennie, or smooth roadways built by them and surfaced by
Macadam. In these days of title-seeking profiteers, men who accomplish only
a fraction of what those three men did would be apeing gentlemen to the
manner born in huge mansions, with family crests emblazoned on their
motor-cars and linen. It is a wonderful thing to be able to add that
Telford, Rennie, and Macadam all declined knighthoods, and that all of them
were comparatively poor when they died. Here is something of which
Scotland—and England—may well be proud.
The traditions of Scottish
thoroughness in engineering, so well established by these pioneer builders
of England, have been sustained by Scotsmen ever since. It would be
difficult to find an engineering project in England to-day that has not been
influenced by Scottish civil engineers.
There seems to be something
in the Scot's character that makes him a sound builder, and the permanency
of his work has contributed to the strength and beauty of England.
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