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The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter III. Arrives in London


A common working man, whose sole property consisted in his mallet and chisels, his leathern apron and his industry, might not seem to amount to much in "the great world of London." But, as Telford afterwards used to say, very much depends on whether the man has got a head with brains in it of the right sort upon his shoulders. In London, the weak man is simply a unit added to the vast floating crowd, and may be driven hither and thither, if he do not sink altogether; while the strong man will strike out, keep his head above water, and make a course for himself, as Telford did. There is indeed a wonderful impartiality about London. There the capable person usually finds his place. When work of importance is required, nobody cares to ask where the man who can do it best comes from, or what he has been, but what he is, and what he can do. Nor did it ever stand in Telford's way that his father had been a poor shepherd in Eskdale, and that he himself had begun his London career by working for weekly wages with a mallet and chisel.

After duly delivering up the horse, Telford proceeded to present a letter with which he had been charged by his friend Miss Pasley on leaving Langholm. It was addressed to her brother, Mr. John Pasley, an eminent London merchant, brother also of Sir Thomas Pasley, and uncle of the Malcolms. Miss Pasley requested his influence on behalf of the young mason from Eskdale, the bearer of the letter. Mr. Pasley received his countryman kindly, and furnished him with letters of introduction to Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House, then in course of erection. It was the finest architectural work in progress in the metropolis, and Telford, desirous of improving himself by experience of the best kind, wished to be employed upon it. He did not, indeed, need any influence to obtain work there, for good hewers were in demand; but our mason thought it well to make sure, and accordingly provided himself beforehand with the letter of introduction to the architect. He was employed immediately, and set to work among the hewers, receiving the usual wages for his labour.

Mr. Pasley also furnished him with a letter to Mr. Robert Adam,*[1] another distinguished architect of the time; and Telford seems to have been much gratified by the civility which he receives from him. Sir William Chambers he found haughty and reserved, probably being too much occupied to bestow attention on the Somerset House hewer, while he found Adam to be affable and communicative. "Although I derived no direct advantage from either," Telford says, "yet so powerful is manner, that the latter left the most favourable impression; while the interviews with both convinced me that my safest plan was to endeavour to advance, if by slower steps, yet by independent conduct."

There was a good deal of fine hewer's work about Somerset House, and from the first Telford aimed at taking the highest place as an artist and tradesman in that line.*[2] Diligence, carefulness, and observation will always carry a man onward and upward; and before long we find that Telford had succeeded in advancing himself to the rank of a first-class mason. Judging from his letters written about this time to his friends in Eskdale, he seems to have been very cheerful and happy; and his greatest pleasure was in calling up recollections of his native valley. He was full of kind remembrances for everybody. "How is Andrew, and Sandy, and Aleck, and Davie?" he would say; and "remember me to all the folk of the nook." He seems to have made a round of the persons from Eskdale in or about London before he wrote, as his letters were full of messages from them to their friends at home; for in those days postage was dear, and as much as possible was necessarily packed within the compass of a working man's letter. In one, written after more than a year's absence, he said he envied the visit which a young surgeon of his acquaintance was about to pay to the valley; "for the meeting of long absent friends," he added, "is a pleasure to be equalled by few other enjoyments here below."

He had now been more than a year in London, during which he had acquired much practical information both in the useful and ornamental branches of architecture. Was he to go on as a working mason? or what was to be his next move? He had been quietly making his observations upon his companions, and had come to the conclusion that they very much wanted spirit, and, more than all, forethought. He found very clever workmen about him with no idea whatever beyond their week's wages. For these they would make every effort: they would work hard, exert themselves to keep their earnings up to the highest point, and very readily "strike" to secure an advance; but as for making a provision for the next week, or the next year, he thought them exceedingly thoughtless. On the Monday mornings they began "clean;" and on Saturdays their week's earnings were spent. Thus they lived from one week to another-- their limited notion of "the week" seeming to bound their existence.

Telford, on the other hand, looked upon the week as only one of the storeys of a building; and upon the succession of weeks, running on through years, he thought that the complete life structure should be built up. He thus describes one of the best of his fellow-workmen at that time--the only individual he had formed an intimacy with: "He has been six years at Somerset House, and is esteemed the finest workman in London, and consequently in England. He works equally in stone and marble. He has excelled the professed carvers in cutting Corinthian capitals and other ornaments about this edifice, many of which will stand as a monument to his honour. He understands drawing thoroughly, and the master he works under looks on him as the principal support of his business. This man, whose name is Mr. Hatton, may be half a dozen years older than myself at most. He is honesty and good nature itself, and is adored by both his master and fellow-workmen. Notwithstanding his extraordinary skill and abilities, he has been working all this time as a common journeyman, contented with a few shillings a week more than the rest; but I believe your uneasy friend has kindled a spark in his breast that he never felt before." *[3]

In fact, Telford had formed the intention of inducing this admirable fellow to join him in commencing business as builders on their own account. "There is nothing done in stone or marble," he says, "that we cannot do in the completest manner." Mr. Robert Adam, to whom the scheme was mentioned, promised his support, and said he would do all in his power to recommend them. But the great difficulty was money, which neither of them possessed; and Telford, with grief, admitting that this was an "insuperable bar," went no further with the scheme.

About this time Telford was consulted by Mr. Pulteney*[4] respecting the alterations making in the mansion at Wester Hall, and was often with him on this business. We find him also writing down to Langholm for the prices of roofing, masonry, and timber-work, with a view to preparing estimates for a friend who was building a house in that neighbourhood. Although determined to reach the highest excellence as a manual worker, it is clear that he was already aspiring to be something more. Indeed, his steadiness, perseverance, and general ability, pointed him out as one well worthy of promotion.

How he achieved his next step we are not informed; but we find him, in July, 1784, engaged in superintending the erection of a house, after a design by Mr. Samuel Wyatt, intended for the residence of the Commissioner (now occupied by the Port Admiral) at Portsmouth Dockyard, together with a new chapel, and several buildings connected with the Yard. Telford took care to keep his eyes open to all the other works going forward in the neighbourhood, and he states that he had frequent opportunities of observing the various operations necessary in the foundation and construction of graving-docks, wharf-walls, and such like, which were among the principal occupations of his after-life.

The letters written by him from Portsmouth to his Eskdale correspondents about this time were cheerful and hopeful, like those he had sent from London. His principal grievance was that he received so few from home, but he supposed that opportunities for forwarding them by hand had not occurred, postage being so dear as scarcely then to be thought of. To tempt them to correspondence he sent copies of the poems which he still continued to compose in the leisure of his evenings: one of these was a 'Poem on Portsdown Hill.' As for himself, he was doing very well. The buildings were advancing satisfactorily; but, "above all," said he, "my proceedings are entirely approved by the Commissioners and officers here-- so much so that they would sooner go by my advice than my master's, which is a dangerous point, being difficult to keep their good graces as well as his. However, I will contrive to manage it"*[5]

The following is his own account of the manner in which he was usually occupied during the winter months while at Portsmouth Dock:-- "I rise in the morning at 7 (February 1st), and will get up earlier as the days lengthen until it come to 5 o'clock. I immediately set to work to make out accounts, write on matters of business, or draw, until breakfast, which is at 9. Then I go into the Yard about 10, see that all are at their posts, and am ready to advise about any matters that may require attention. This, and going round the several works, occupies until about dinner-time, which is at 2; and after that I again go round and attend to what may be wanted. I draw till 5; then tea; and after that I write, draw, or read until half after 9; then comes supper and bed. This my ordinary round, unless when I dine or spend an evening with a friend; but I do not make many friends, being very particular, nay, nice to a degree. My business requires a great deal of writing and drawing, and this work I always take care to keep under by reserving my time for it, and being in advance of my work rather than behind it. Then, as knowledge is my most ardent pursuit, a thousand things occur which call for investigation which would pass unnoticed by those who are content to trudge only in the beaten path. I am not contented unless I can give a reason for every particular method or practice which is pursued. Hence I am now very deep in chemistry. The mode of making mortar in the best way led me to inquire into the nature of lime. Having, in pursuit of this inquiry, looked into some books on chemistry, I perceived the field was boundless; but that to assign satisfactory reasons for many mechanical processes required a general knowledge of that science. I have therefore borrowed a MS. copy of Dr. Black's Lectures. I have bought his 'Experiments on Magnesia and Quicklime,' and also Fourcroy's Lectures, translated from the French by one Mr. Elliot, of Edinburgh. And I am determined to study the subject with unwearied attention until I attain some accurate knowledge of chemistry, which is of no less use in the practice of the arts than it is in that of medicine." He adds, that he continues to receive the cordial approval of the Commissioners for the manner in which he performs his duties, and says, "I take care to be so far master of the business committed to me as that none shall be able to eclipse me in that respect."*[6] At the same time he states he is taking great delight in Freemasonry, and is about to have a lodge-room at the George Inn fitted up after his plans and under his direction. Nor does he forget to add that he has his hair powdered every day, and puts on a clean shirt three times a week.

The Eskdale mason was evidently getting on, as he deserved to do. But he was not puffed up. To his Langholm friend he averred that "he would rather have it said of him that he possessed one grain of good nature or good sense than shine the finest puppet in Christendom." "Let my mother know that I am well," he wrote to Andrew Little, "and that I will print her a letter soon."*[7] For it was a practice of this good son, down to the period of his mother's death, no matter how much burdened he was with business, to set apart occasional times for the careful penning of a letter in printed characters, that she might the more easily be able to decipher it with her old and dimmed eyes by her cottage fireside at The Crooks. As a man's real disposition usually displays itself most strikingly in small matters--like light, which gleams the most brightly when seen through narrow chinks--it will probably be admitted that this trait, trifling though it may appear, was truly characteristic of the simple and affectionate nature of the hero of our story.

The buildings at Portsmouth were finished by the end of 1786, when Telford's duties there being at an end, and having no engagement beyond the termination of the contract, he prepared to leave, and began to look about him for other employment.

Footnotes for Chapter III.

*[1] Robert and John Adam were architects of considerable repute in their day. Among their London erections were the Adelphi Buildings, in the Strand; Lansdowne House, in Berkeley Square; Caen Wood House, near Hampstead (Lord Mansfield's); Portland Place, Regent's Park; and numerous West End streets and mansions. The screen of the Admiralty and the ornaments of Draper's Hall were also designed by them.

*[2] Long after Telford had become famous, he was passing over Waterloo Bridge one day with a friend, when, pointing to some finely-cut stones in the corner nearest the bridge, he said: "You see those stones there; forty years since I hewed and laid them, when working on that building as a common mason."

*[3]Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated London, July, 1783.

*[4] Mr., afterwards Sir William, Pulteney, was the second son of Sir James Johnstone, of Wester Hall, and assumed the name of Pulteney, on his marriage to Miss Pulteney, niece of the Earl of Bath and of General Pulteney, by whom he succeeded to a large fortune. He afterwards succeeded to the baronetcy of his elder brother James, who died without issue in 1797. Sir William Pulteney represented Cromarty, and afterwards Shrewsbury, where he usually resided, in seven successive Parliaments. He was a great patron of Telford's, as we shall afterwards find.

*[5] Letter to Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Portsmouth, July 23rd, 1784.

*[6] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Portsmouth Dockyard, Feb. 1, 1786.

*[7] Ibid


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