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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 proprietors."]

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, there, hostler!"

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 Macadam.

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 unfolded genius:

In Memory of
JOHN TELFORD
WHO AFTER LIVING 33 YEARS
AN UNBLAMEABLE SHEPHERD
DIED AT GLENDINNING
November 1757

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 construction.

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 his death.

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 project through.

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 entire world.

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 Achievements:

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.
Harecastle Tunnel.
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 Achievements:

Built Waterloo Bridge, London.
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 Dublin.

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 their roads.

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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