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The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter IV. Becomes Surveyor for the County of Salop


Mr. Pulteney, member for Shrewsbury, was the owner of extensive estates in that neighbourhood by virtue of his marriage with the niece of the last Earl of Bath. Having resolved to fit up the Castle there as a residence, he bethought him of the young Eskdale mason, who had, some years before, advised him as to the repairs of the Johnstone mansion at Wester Hall. Telford was soon found, and engaged to go down to Shrewsbury to superintend the necessary alterations. Their execution occupied his attention for some time, and during their progress he was so fortunate as to obtain the appointment of Surveyor of Public Works for the county of Salop, most probably through the influence of his patron. Indeed, Telford was known to be so great a favourite with Mr. Pulteney that at Shrewsbury he usually went by the name of "Young Pulteney."

Much of his attention was from this time occupied with the surveys and repairs of roads, bridges, and gaols, and the supervision of all public buildings under the control of the magistrates of the county. He was also frequently called upon by the corporation of the borough of Shrewsbury to furnish plans for the improvement of the streets and buildings of that fine old town; and many alterations were carried out under his direction during the period of his residence there.

While the Castle repairs were in course of execution, Telford was called upon by the justices to superintend the erection of a new gaol, the plans for which had already been prepared and settled. The benevolent Howard, who devoted himself with such zeal to gaol improvement, on hearing of the intentions of the magistrates, made a visit to Shrewsbury for the purpose of examining the plans; and the circumstance is thus adverted to by Telford in one of his letters to his Eskdale correspondent:--"About ten days ago I had a visit from the celebrated John Howard, Esq. I say I, for he was on his tour of gaols and infirmaries; and those of Shrewsbury being both under my direction, this was, of course, the cause of my being thus distinguished. I accompanied him through the infirmary and the gaol. I showed him the plans of the proposed new buildings, and had much conversation with him on both subjects. In consequence of his suggestions as to the former, I have revised and amended the plans, so as to carry out a thorough reformation; and my alterations having been approved by a general board, they have been referred to a committee to carry out. Mr. Howard also took objection to the plan of the proposed gaol, and requested me to inform the magistrates that, in his opinion, the interior courts were too small, and not sufficiently ventilated; and the magistrates, having approved his suggestions, ordered the plans to be amended accordingly. You may easily conceive how I enjoyed the conversation of this truly good man, and how much I would strive to possess his good opinion. I regard him as the guardian angel of the miserable. He travels into all parts of Europe with the sole object of doing good, merely for its own sake, and not for the sake of men's praise. To give an instance of his delicacy, and his desire to avoid public notice, I may mention that, being a Presbyterian, he attended the meeting-house of that denomination in Shrewsbury on Sunday morning, on which occasion I accompanied him; but in the afternoon he expressed a wish to attend another place of worship, his presence in the town having excited considerable curiosity, though his wish was to avoid public recognition. Nay, more, he assures me that he hates travelling, and was born to be a domestic man. He never sees his country-house but he says within himself, 'Oh! might I but rest here, and never more travel three miles from home; then should I be happy indeed!' But he has become so committed, and so pledged himself to his own conscience to carry out his great work, that he says he is doubtful whether he will ever be able to attain the desire of his heart--life at home. He never dines out, and scarcely takes time to dine at all: he says he is growing old, and has no time to lose. His manner is simplicity itself. Indeed, I have never yet met so noble a being. He is going abroad again shortly on one of his long tours of mercy."*[1] The journey to which Telford here refers was Howard's last. In the following year he left England to return no more; and the great and good man died at Cherson, on the shores of the Black Sea, less than two years after his interview with the young engineer at Shrewsbury.

Telford writes to his Langholm friend at the same time that he is working very hard, and studying to improve himself in branches of knowledge in which he feels himself deficient. He is practising very temperate habits: for half a year past he has taken to drinking water only, avoiding all sweets, and eating no "nick-nacks." He has "sowens and milk,' (oatmeal flummery) every night for his supper. His friend having asked his opinion of politics, he says he really knows nothing about them; he had been so completely engrossed by his own business that he has not had time to read even a newspaper. But, though an ignoramus in politics, he has been studying lime, which is more to his purpose. If his friend can give him any information about that, he will promise to read a newspaper now and then in the ensuing session of Parliament, for the purpose of forming some opinion of politics: he adds, however, "not if it interfere with my business--mind that!', His friend told him that he proposed translating a system of chemistry. "Now you know," wrote Telford, "that I am chemistry mad; and if I were near you, I would make you promise to communicate any information on the subject that you thought would be of service to your friend, especially about calcareous matters and the mode of forming the best composition for building with, as well above as below water. But not to be confined to that alone, for you must know I have a book for the pocket,*[2] which I always carry with me, into which I have extracted the essence of Fourcroy's Lectures, Black on Quicklime, Scheele's Essays, Watson's Essays, and various points from the letters of my respected friend Dr. Irving.*[3] So much for chemistry. But I have also crammed into it facts relating to mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and all manner of stuff, to which I keep continually adding, and it will be a charity to me if you will kindly contribute your mite."*[4] He says it has been, and will continue to be, his aim to endeavour to unite those "two frequently jarring pursuits, literature and business;" and he does not see why a man should be less efficient in the latter capacity because he has well informed, stored, and humanized his mind by the cultivation of letters. There was both good sense and sound practical wisdom in this view of Telford.

While the gaol was in course of erection, after the improved plans suggested by Howard, a variety of important matters occupied the county surveyor's attention. During the summer of 1788 he says he is very much occupied, having about ten different jobs on hand: roads, bridges, streets, drainage-works, gaol, and infirmary. Yet he had time to write verses, copies of which he forwarded to his Eskdale correspondent, inviting his criticism. Several of these were elegiac lines, somewhat exaggerated in their praises of the deceased, though doubtless sincere. One poem was in memory of George Johnstone, Esq., a member of the Wester Hall family, and another on the death of William Telford, an Eskdale farmer's son, an intimate friend and schoolfellow of our engineer.*[5] These, however, were but the votive offerings of private friendship, persons more immediately about him knowing nothing of his stolen pleasures in versemaking. He continued to be shy of strangers, and was very "nice," as he calls it, as to those whom he admitted to his bosom.

Two circumstances of considerable interest occurred in the course of the same year (1788), which are worthy of passing notice. The one was the fall of the church of St. Chad's, at Shrewsbury; the other was the discovery of the ruins of the Roman city of Uriconium, in the immediate neighbourhood. The church of St. Chad's was about four centuries old, and stood greatly in need of repairs. The roof let in the rain upon the congregation, and the parish vestry met to settle the plans for mending it; but they could not agree about the mode of procedure. In this emergency Telford was sent for, and requested to advise what was best to he done. After a rapid glance at the interior, which was in an exceedingly dangerous state, he said to the churchwardens, "Gentlemen, we'll consult together on the outside, if you please." He found that not only the roof but the walls of the church were in a most decayed state. It appeared that, in consequence of graves having been dug in the loose soil close to the shallow foundation of the north-west pillar of the tower, it had sunk so as to endanger the whole structure. "I discovered," says he, "that there were large fractures in the walls, on tracing which I found that the old building was in a most shattered and decrepit condition, though until then it had been scarcely noticed. Upon this I declined giving any recommendation as to the repairs of the roof unless they would come to the resolution to secure the more essential parts, as the fabric appeared to me to be in a very alarming condition. I sent in a written report to the same effect." *[6]

The parish vestry again met, and the report was read; but the meeting exclaimed against so extensive a proposal, imputing mere motives of self-interest to the surveyor. "Popular clamour," says Telford, "overcame my report. 'These fractures,' exclaimed the vestrymen, 'have been there from time immemorial;' and there were some otherwise sensible persons, who remarked that professional men always wanted to carve out employment for themselves, and that the whole of the necessary repairs could be done at a comparatively small expense."*[7] The vestry then called in another person, a mason of the town, and directed him to cut away the injured part of a particular pillar, in order to underbuild it. On the second evening after the commencement of the operations, the sexton was alarmed by a fail of lime-dust and mortar when he attempted to toll the great bell, on which he immediately desisted and left the church. Early next morning (on the 9th of July), while the workmen were waiting at the church door for the key, the bell struck four, and the vibration at once brought down the tower, which overwhelmed the nave, demolishing all the pillars along the north side, and shattering the rest. "The very parts I had pointed out," says Telford, "were those which gave way, and down tumbled the tower, forming a very remarkable ruin, which astonished and surprised the vestry, and roused them from their infatuation, though they have not yet recovered from the shock."*[8]

The other circumstance to which we have above referred was the discovery of the Roman city of Uriconium, near Wroxeter, about five miles from Shrewsbury, in the year 1788. The situation of the place is extremely beautiful, the river Severn flowing along its western margin, and forming a barrier against what were once the hostile districts of West Britain. For many centuries the dead city had slept under the irregular mounds of earth which covered it, like those of Mossul and Nineveh. Farmers raised heavy crops of turnips and grain from the surface and they scarcely ever ploughed or harrowed the ground without turning up Roman coins or pieces of pottery. They also observed that in certain places the corn was more apt to be scorched in dry weather than in others--a sure sign to them that there were ruins underneath; and their practice, when they wished to find stones for building, was to set a mark upon the scorched places when the corn was on the ground, and after harvest to dig down, sure of finding the store of stones which they wanted for walls, cottages, or farm-houses. In fact, the place came to be regarded in the light of a quarry, rich in ready-worked materials for building purposes. A quantity of stone being wanted for the purpose of erecting a blacksmith's shop, on digging down upon one of the marked places, the labourers came upon some ancient works of a more perfect appearance than usual. Curiosity was excited --antiquarians made their way to the spot--and lo! they pronounced the ruins to be neither more nor less than a Roman bath, in a remarkably perfect state of preservation. Mr. Telford was requested to apply to Mr. Pulteney, the lord of the manor, to prevent the destruction of these interesting remains, and also to permit the excavations to proceed, with a view to the buildings being completely explored. This was readily granted, and Mr. Pulteney authorised Telford himself to conduct the necessary excavations at his expense. This he promptly proceeded to do, and the result was, that an extensive hypocaust apartment was brought to light, with baths, sudatorium, dressing-room, and a number of tile pillars --all forming parts of a Roman floor--sufficiently perfect to show the manner in which the building had been constructed and used.*[9] Among Telford's less agreeable duties about the same time was that of keeping the felons at work. He had to devise the ways and means of employing them without risk of their escaping, which gave him much trouble and anxiety. "Really," he said, "my felons are a very troublesome family. I have had a great deal of plague from them, and I have not yet got things quite in the train that I could wish. I have had a dress made for them of white and brown cloth, in such a way that they are pye-bald. They have each a light chain about one leg. Their allowance in food is a penny loaf and a halfpenny worth of cheese for breakfast; a penny loaf, a quart of soup, and half a pound of meat for dinner; and a penny loaf and a halfpenny worth of cheese for supper; so that they have meat and clothes at all events. I employ them in removing earth, serving masons or bricklayers, or in any common labouring work on which they can be employed; during which time, of course, I have them strictly watched."

Much more pleasant was his first sight of Mrs. Jordan at the Shrewsbury theatre, where he seems to have been worked up to a pitch of rapturous enjoyment. She played for six nights there at the race time, during which there were various other' entertainments. On the second day there was what was called an Infirmary Meeting, or an assemblage of the principal county gentlemen in the infirmary, at which, as county surveyor, Telford was present. They proceeded thence to church to hear a sermon preached for the occasion; after which there was a dinner, followed by a concert. He attended all. The sermon was preached in the new pulpit, which had just been finished after his design, in the Gothic style; and he confidentially informed his Langholm correspondent that he believed the pulpit secured greater admiration than the sermon, With the concert he was completely disappointed, and he then became convinced that he had no ear for music. Other people seemed very much pleased; but for the life of him he could make nothing of it. The only difference that he recognised between one tune and another was that there was a difference in the noise. "It was all very fine," he said, "I have no doubt; but I would not give a song of Jock Stewart *[10] for the whole of them. The melody of sound is thrown away upon me. One look, one word of Mrs. Jordan, has more effect upon me than all the fiddlers in England. Yet I sat down and tried to be as attentive as any mortal could be. I endeavoured, if possible, to get up an interest in what was going on; but it was all of no use. I felt no emotion whatever, excepting only a strong inclination to go to sleep. It must be a defect; but it is a fact, and I cannot help it. I suppose my ignorance of the subject, and the want of musical experience in my youth, may be the cause of it."*[11] Telford's mother was still living in her old cottage at The Crooks. Since he had parted from her, he had written many printed letters to keep her informed of his progress; and he never wrote to any of his friends in the dale without including some message or other to his mother. Like a good and dutiful son, he had taken care out of his means to provide for her comfort in her declining years. "She has been a good mother to me," he said, "and I will try and be a good son to her." In a letter written from Shrewsbury about this time, enclosing a ten pound note, seven pounds of which were to be given to his mother, he said, "I have from time to time written William Jackson [his cousin] and told him to furnish her with whatever she wants to make her comfortable; but there may be many little things she may wish to have, and yet not like to ask him for. You will therefore agree with me that it is right she should have a little cash to dispose of in her own way.... I am not rich yet; but it will ease my mind to set my mother above the fear of want. That has always been my first object; and next to that, to be the somebody which you have always encouraged me to believe I might aspire to become. Perhaps after all there may be something in it!" *[12] He now seems to have occupied much of his leisure hours in miscellaneous reading. Among the numerous books which he read, he expressed the highest admiration for Sheridan's 'Life of Swift.' But his Langholm friend, who was a great politician, having invited his attention to politics, Telford's reading gradually extended in that direction. Indeed the exciting events of the French Revolution then tended to make all men more or less politicians. The capture of the Bastille by the people of Paris in 1789 passed like an electric thrill through Europe. Then followed the Declaration of Rights; after which, in the course of six months, all the institutions which had before existed in France were swept away, and the reign of justice was fairly inaugurated upon earth!

In the spring of 1791 the first part of Paine's 'Rights of Man' appeared, and Telford, like many others, read it, and was at once carried away by it. Only a short time before, he had admitted with truth that he knew nothing of politics; but no sooner had he read Paine than he felt completely enlightened. He now suddenly discovered how much reason he and everybody else in England had for being miserable. While residing at Portsmouth, he had quoted to his Langholm friend the lines from Cowper's 'Task,' then just published, beginning "Slaves cannot breathe in England;" but lo! Mr. Paine had filled his imagination with the idea that England was nothing but a nation of bondmen and aristocrats. To his natural mind, the kingdom had appeared to be one in which a man had pretty fair play, could think and speak, and do the thing he would,-- tolerably happy, tolerably prosperous, and enjoying many blessings. He himself had felt free to labour, to prosper, and to rise from manual to head work. No one had hindered him; his personal liberty had never been interfered with; and he had freely employed his earnings as he thought proper. But now the whole thing appeared a delusion. Those rosy-cheeked old country gentlemen who came riding into Shrewsbury to quarter sessions, and were so fond of their young Scotch surveyor occupying themselves in building bridges, maintaining infirmaries, making roads, and regulating gaols-- those county magistrates and members of parliament, aristocrats all, were the very men who, according to Paine, were carrying the country headlong to ruin!

If Telford could not offer an opinion on politics before, because he "knew nothing about them," he had now no such difficulty. Had his advice been asked about the foundations of a bridge, or the security of an arch, he would have read and studied much before giving it; he would have carefully inquired into the chemical qualities of different kinds of lime--into the mechanical principles of weight and resistance, and such like; but he had no such hesitation in giving an opinion about the foundations of a constitution of more than a thousand years' growth. Here, like other young politicians, with Paine's book before him, he felt competent to pronounce a decisive judgment at once. "I am convinced," said he, writing to his Langholm friend, "that the situation of Great Britain is such, that nothing short of some signal revolution can prevent her from sinking into bankruptcy, slavery, and insignificancy." He held that the national expenditure was so enormous,*[13] arising from the corrupt administration of the country, that it was impossible the "bloated mass" could hold together any longer; and as he could not expect that "a hundred Pulteneys," such as his employer, could be found to restore it to health, the conclusion he arrived at was that ruin was "inevitable."*[14] Notwithstanding the theoretical ruin of England which pressed so heavy on his mind at this time, we find Telford strongly recommending his correspondent to send any good wrights he could find in his neighbourhood to Bath, where they would be enabled to earn twenty shillings or a guinea a week at piece-work-- the wages paid at Langholm for similar work being only about half those amounts.

In the same letter in which these observations occur, Telford alluded to the disgraceful riots at Birmingham, in the course of which Dr. Priestley's house and library were destroyed. As the outrages were the work of the mob, Telford could not charge the aristocracy with them; but with equal injustice he laid the blame at the door of "the clergy," who had still less to do with them, winding up with the prayer, "May the Lord mend their hearts and lessen their incomes!"

Fortunately for Telford, his intercourse with the townspeople of Shrewsbury was so small that his views on these subjects were never known; and we very shortly find him employed by the clergy themselves in building for them a new church in the town of Bridgenorth. His patron and employer, Mr. Pulteney, however, knew of his extreme views, and the knowledge came to him quite accidentally. He found that Telford had made use of his frank to send through the post a copy of Paine's 'Rights of Man' to his Langholm correspondent,*[15] where the pamphlet excited as much fury in the minds of some of the people of that town as it had done in that of Telford himself. The "Langholm patriots "broke out into drinking revolutionary toasts at the Cross, and so disturbed the peace of the little town that some of them were confined for six weeks in the county gaol.

Mr. Pulteney was very indignant at the liberty Telford had taken with his frank, and a rupture between them seemed likely to ensue; but the former was forgiving, and the matter went no further. It is only right to add, that as Telford grew older and wiser, he became more careful in jumping at conclusions on political topics. The events which shortly occurred in France tended in a great measure to heal his mental distresses as to the future of England. When the "liberty" won by the Parisians ran into riot, and the "Friends of Man" occupied themselves in taking off the heads of those who differed from them, he became wonderfully reconciled to the enjoyment of the substantial freedom which, after all, was secured to him by the English Constitution. At the same time, he was so much occupied in carrying out his important works, that he found but little time to devote either to political speculation or to versemaking.

While living at Shrewsbury, he had his poem of 'Eskdale' reprinted for private circulation. We have also seen several MS. verses by him, written about the same period, which do not appear ever to have been printed. One of these--the best--is entitled 'Verses to the Memory of James Thomson, author of "Liberty, a poem;"' another is a translation from Buchanan, 'On the Spheres;' and a third, written in April, 1792, is entitled 'To Robin Burns, being a postscript to some verses addressed to him on the establishment of an Agricultural Chair in Edinburgh.' It would unnecessarily occupy our space to print these effusions; and, to tell the truth, they exhibit few if any indications of poetic power. No amount of perseverance will make a poet of a man in whom the divine gift is not born. The true line of Telford's genius lay in building and engineering, in which direction we now propose to follow him.


Shrewsbury Castle

Footnotes for Chapter IV.

*[1] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury Castle, 21st Feb., 1788.

*[2] This practice of noting down information, the result of reading and observation, was continued by Mr. Telford until the close of his life; his last pocket memorandum book, containing a large amount of valuable information on mechanical subjects--a sort of engineer's vade mecum--being printed in the appendix to the 4to. 'Life of Telford' published by his executors in 1838, pp. 663-90.

*[3] A medical man, a native of Eskdale, of great promise, who died comparatively young.

*[4] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm.

*[5] It would occupy unnecessary space to cite these poems. The following, from the verses in memory of William Telford, relates to schoolboy days, After alluding to the lofty Fell Hills, which formed part of the sheep farm of his deceased friend's father, the poet goes on to say:

"There 'mongst those rocks I'll form a rural seat,
And plant some ivy with its moss compleat;
I'll benches form of fragments from the stone,
Which, nicely pois'd, was by our hands o'erthrown,--
A simple frolic, but now dear to me,
Because, my Telford, 'twas performed with thee.
There, in the centre, sacred to his name,
I'll place an altar, where the lambent flame
Shall yearly rise, and every youth shall join
The willing voice, and sing the enraptured line.
But we, my friend, will often steal away
To this lone seat, and quiet pass the day;
Here oft recall the pleasing scenes we knew
In early youth, when every scene was new,
When rural happiness our moments blest,
And joys untainted rose in every breast."

*[6] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 16th July, 1788.

*[7] Ibid.

*[8] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 16th July, 1788.

*[9] The discovery formed the subject of a paper read before the Society of Antiquaries in London on the 7th of May, 1789, published in the 'Archaeologia,' together with a drawing of the remains supplied by Mr. Telford.

*[10] An Eskdale crony. His son, Colonel Josias Stewart, rose to eminence in the East India Company's service, having been for many years Resident at Gwalior and Indore.

*[11] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 3rd Sept. 1788.

*[12] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated Shrewsbury, 8th October, 1789.

*[13] It was then under seventeen millions sterling, or about a fourth of what it is now.

*[14] Letter to Mr. Andrew Little, Langholm, dated 28th July, 1791.

*[15] The writer of a memoir of Telford, in the 'Encyclopedia Britannica,' says:--"Andrew Little kept a private and very small school at Langholm. Telford did not neglect to send him a copy of Paine's 'Rights of Man;' and as he was totally blind, he employed one of his scholars to read it in the evenings. Mr. Little had received an academical education before he lost his sight; and, aided by a memory of uncommon powers, he taught the classics, and particularly Greek, with much higher reputation than any other schoolmaster within a pretty extensive circuit. Two of his pupils read all the Iliad, and all or the greater part of Sophocles. After hearing a long sentence of Greek or Latin distinctly recited, he could generally construe and translate it with little or no hesitation. He was always much gratified by Telford's visits, which were not infrequent, to his native district."


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