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Thomas Telford – Freemason, Noted road, bridge and Canal Builder

Thomas TelfordNoted road, bridge and canal builder. After establishing himself as an engineer of road and canal projects in Shropshire, he designed numerous infrastructure projects in his native Scotland.

In A History of Craft Freemasonry in Shropshire, by Harold Templeton, there was just one paragraph, and no mention of him in the History of Salopian Lodge No. 262 by George Franklin. In Alexander Graham’s 1892 history of Shropshire Freemasonry he is only recorded in the list of members.

Thomas Telford was born at Glendinning, near Dumfries in Scotland on 9 August 1757, in a shepherd’s cottage beside the Megget Water. His father John was a shepherd, but died aged 33 only two months after Thomas was born. It was to his mother, Janet that the responsibility fell to bring up Thomas on her own.

As she was living in a tied cottage, six months after the death of her husband, Janet was forced to move with her infant son to a small cottage at the Crooks, situated in the Megget Valley, a mile below Glendinning. They occupied only one of the cottage’s two rooms, another family living in the other half.

Life must have been extremely hard. Her brother and neighbours helped out financially, which allowed Thomas to attend the local parish school at Westerkirk. At a very early age, Thomas was required to work on neighbouring farms, herding cattle and sheep, living for weeks on end with shepherds in their lonely shelters on the hills, which shaped his character and built up his self-confidence.

On leaving school, Thomas took up an apprenticeship to be a stonemason at Lochmaben, but his new master ill-treated him, so after a few months he was back living with his mother at the Crooks. Janet’s nephew Thomas Jackson came to the rescue and persuaded a Master Mason he knew in Langholm, Andrew Thomson, to take the boy as an apprentice. Telford gained great experience both as apprentice and a fellow of the Craft under Thomson’s guidance and tuition.

The young Duke of Buccleuch succeeded to the family estates in the area and put in hand an extensive programme of improvements. Tracks were paved, bridges constructed to ford rivers and stone construction farm houses began to replace the older ones, which were made from thatch and mud. This was a time when even the town houses had mud walls and again this made work for the team of Thomson and Telford to reconstruct in stone.

Galton_Bridge_Smethwick_DrawingIn Langholm, it was Andrew Thomson, with his fellow craft assistant, who built the bridge over the river Esk to connect the new town with the old. Telford’s Mason mark can be found on the bridge on the blocks in the western abutment. At this time he became a firm friend with a fellow Mason, Matthew Davidson, who was to play an important part in his life.

Telford left his native Dumfriesshire at 23 and made his way to Edinburgh, where his talents had greater scope with the building of the noble Georgian streets and squares around Princes Street in the new town. Eighteen months later he travelled to London to find both fame and fortune.

Armed with letters of introduction from friends back in Langholm, he was introduced to two of the greatest architects of the day – Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers.

Telford was set to work on the new Somerset House, squaring and levelling the great blocks of the rusticated Portland stone. It was during this time that he qualified as a Master Mason – in the operative sense.

Through his contacts he became acquainted with William Pulteney, who through marriage had succeeded to great estates in Somerset, Shropshire and Northamptonshire.

They became firm friends and many commissions resulted from this friendship, such as alterations at the vicarage of Sudborough in Northamptonshire, followed by building at Portsmouth dockyard.

By 1786 Pultney had become MP for Shrewsbury, so Telford found himself ordered to the town to superintend a thorough renovation of the castle, where living quarters were found for him. Within six months, and probably due to the influence of the local MP, he was appointed the Surveyor of Public Works for the County of Shropshire. Soon after his appointment he was to supervise the construction of the county gaol and the alterations to the old Salop Infirmary.

The prison is still in use at the Dana, and the front entrance particularly has been little altered from Telford’s original design. The bust of John Howard, the prison reformer, who was instrumental in getting Telford the commission, is in prominent position directly above the main entrance. Telford also designed and supervised the building of the Laura Tower at Shrewsbury Castle and the excavation of the Roman City of Uricronium near Wroxeter was another of his undertakings.

It was around this time that he was consulted by the churchwardens of St. Chad’s Church about the repairs to the church roof. After an inspection of the premises he told them that it was pointless thinking of repairing the roof until emergency measures were taken to secure the walls due to poor foundations.

He was scoffed at and dismissed out of hand, the churchwardens making pointed remarks about professional men making jobs for themselves and saying that the cracks he had pointed out had been there for hundreds of years.

He walked out of the meeting and his parting shot was if they were going to continue their deliberations much longer it would be safer to do so outside just in case the church fell down around them.

Thomas Telford Standedge Plaque
Thomas Telford’s report during the construction of the Standedge Tunnel covered every expenditure to the last bucket; it was followed to the letter and the canal finally opened in 1811.

His words were prophetic, because just three days later in the early morning as the clock began to strike four, the entire tower collapsed with a tremendous roar and crashed through the roof of the nave, completely demolishing the northern arcade. This did Telford’s credibility in the town no harm at all! Although not involved in the restoration of St. Chad’s, he did later go on to design and build a church elsewhere in the county – St. Mary’s in the High Town of Bridgnorth.

On 15 July, 1788 at the Fox Inn, Kiln Lane (now Princess Street) in Shrewsbury, just 12 days after the Lodge had been formed, Thomas Telford became the third joining member of Salopian Lodge, then number 525 on the roll of the Premier Grand Lodge of England. Meetings came thick and fast in the early days of Salopian Lodge, even throughout the summer. The second meeting was the following day, on 4 July, when there was a triple initiation. Telford was present at this ceremony and he is recorded in the minute book as a visitor.

At the third meeting, on 15 July 1788, with Bro. Neale as Master, the business in the minute book stated: Mr. James Trehearne was proposed to be made a Mason, and it being unanimously agreed to, he was initiated. Bro. Telford and Bro. John Gellion were proposed, and being balloted for and approved, were admitted members of the Lodge.

In the treasurer’s cash receipt book of the same date it is recorded: Thomas Telford, Surveyor, Salop – Admitted – ten shillings and sixpence.

Telford was a very enthusiastic member of the Lodge in those early days, only missing four of the 37 meetings which took place in the following 12 months. He was a signatory to the Lodge bylaws, which were adopted on 20 August, 1788 and was present when the Lodge was consecrated on 10 September by the Deputy Provincial Grand Master, Major Charles Sherriff.

Before the year was out he had been appointed a steward for the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, to be held on 27 December. In June 1789 Telford acted twice as Junior Warden and on 7 July acted as Senior Warden, the highest position he was to hold in the Lodge.

Telford attended, together with 23 other members of Salopian Lodge, one of the first Provincial meetings ever held in Shropshire, at Whitchurch, on 24 June, 1789 to celebrate the Festival of St. John the Baptist. In those days, Provincial Grand Lodges usually took place at the oldest Lodge in the Province.

After the Lodge was opened, representatives of other Lodges were admitted. The Provincial Grand Master or his Deputy was then received and opened a Provincial Grand Lodge, transacted any business of general interest, closed Provincial Grand Lodge and the private Lodge reverted to its own affairs before closing. A reminder of this procedure still holds good today, as each Provincial meeting is held under the banner of a private Lodge.

When Telford attended this first Provincial meeting there were only three Lodges in the county, the oldest being Holy Lodge of St. John No. 1, meeting at the White Lion in Whitchurch, Salopian Lodge at the Fox Inn, Shrewsbury and Egerton Lodge at the Coach and Horses, also in Whitchurch.

As both the PGM and his deputy were members of Lodge No. 1, this was the reason for Telford and his fellow brethren of Salopian Lodge travelling north.

On 17 July, 1789 Telford was present when William Hazeldine, the ironmaster from Shrewsbury, was initiated into Salopian Lodge. Hazeldine was to work very closely with Telford for the next 20 years. At the Feast of St. John the Evangelist in 1789, Telford was ‘instituted’ as Lodge treasurer, an office he held for 12 months. It was a privilege to look through those meticulous entries in Telford’s own hand in the treasurer’s Account Register for the period.Tomas Telford Plaque Portsmouth Naval Dockyard

in all, Telford attended Salopian Lodge 66 times and his last recorded attendance is on 4 December, 1792. His work commitments were probably the reason for him not continuing in the Lodge, as those that knew him at the time describe him in the modern idiom as a workaholic. This is also the reason given why he never married. There is no record in any of the books in possession of Salopian Lodge when Telford either resigned or ceased to be a member. At the rear of the second minute book, dated 1798 to 1827, there is a list of members, giving the dates of initiation, passing, raising, joining and resignation. The entry in the resignation column for Telford is blank. However, it is extremely unlikely that he was still a member of the Lodge at this time.

There is also no indication in any of the records of Salopian Lodge as to when or where Telford was initiated, or of which Lodge he was a member at the time of joining. In a letter to Andrew Little of Langholm, dated 1 February, 1786 Telford writes:

I am taking a great delight in Freemasonry, and am about to have a Lodge room at the George Inn fitted up to my own plans, and under my direction.

No doubt this was the reason for Templeton commenting in his history that Telford was probably initiated in Portsmouth around 1785 when he was working on buildings in the dockyards.

From my research of Phoenix Lodge No. 257, the oldest extant Lodge in the city, Telford was initiated on 17 December, 1784 in Lodge of Antiquity (then) No. 18, meeting at the Three Tuns in Portsmouth. This Lodge was erased in 1838. On 20 May, 1786 he became a founder member of Phoenix Lodge meeting in the Lodge room he had constructed at the George Inn.

Telford is remembered for his innovative design of bridges, roads and canals. Between 1790 and 1795 he constructed no less than 40 road bridges in Shropshire alone. This period saw him move away from the architectural career he had planned for himself to the new profession of civil engineering.

His appointment as engineer and architect to the Ellesmere Canal Company, formed to connect the rivers Mersey and Dee with the Severn at Shrewsbury, and his solution to the two major obstacles in its construction – the valleys of the rivers Dee and Ceriog. These solutions were the great aqueducts at Pont Cysyllte and Chirk.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805, it was the tallest navigable canal boat crossing in the world
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805, it was the tallest navigable canal boat crossing in the world

Not yet 40, Telford had secured for himself a national reputation as the head of his profession as a civil engineer. He had gathered around him a small select company: Matthew Davidson, his friend and fellow Master Mason and William Hazledine, the iron master, a fellow member of Salopian Lodge.

Following the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Culloden in 1745 nothing had been done by the central government in London to assist the Scottish people to move into the Industrial Revolution. Telford was instructed by the Treasury to proceed with a survey and report on the subject of Highland communication. His plans were bold.

In Scotland over one thousand bridges were built, one thousand miles of road constructed and a water passageway of some 113 miles through the heart of the country was opened up to shipping.

The King of Sweden requested his assistance in constructing a waterway – the Gotha Canal – linking the North Sea and the Baltic. Telford’s method of road building varied according to the type of land the road was passing through and this is seen clearly in the largest single project that he undertook, the London to Holyhead road.

For the design and construction of the Menai Bridge, Telford adopted a technique never used on this scale before in Britain – a suspension bridge. The dual carriageway road would be suspended by 16 great chains and supported by two main stone piers on either side of the straits. This would provide a single suspended span of 579 feet towering 153 feet above the water – the longest in the world.

An economic slump after the Napoleonic wars led the government to offer cheap loans to encourage public works. Telford became the engineering advisor to the Exchequer Loans Commission in 1817. This entailed touring the country surveying and inspecting the proposed sites and plans for those projects seeking a loan. It meant that for a time he saw nearly every civil engineering project in the country.

In 1820, Telford was asked to survey the Birmingham canals to suggest ways of improving them. He was not only shocked by the appalling state of the waterways, but does not seem to have approved of Birmingham itself:
…Famous for Buttons, Buckles and Locks and Ignorance and Barbarism. Its prosperity increases upon the corruption of Taste and Morals.

Craigellachie Bridge
Craigellachie Bridge is a cast iron arch bridge across the River Spey at Craigellachie, near to the village of Aberlour in Moray, Scotland.

The modifications to the Birmingham canals took longer than expected, and by the time they were completed in 1827, Telford was involved in the construction of the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal (it starts to the west of Wolverhampton despite its name). This was to be his final major work, now called the Shropshire Union.

Telford continued to take an interest in all his projects right up to his death on 2 September, 1834 in his London home at the Old Palace Yard. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on application by the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which he was both President and Founder. His life is best summed up in his work which is an everlasting memorial to him, but if words are needed these can be taken from the obituary notice which appeared in the Shrewsbury Chronicle of 5 September, 1834:

His gradual rise from the stonemasons’ and builders’ yard to the top of his profession in his own country, or we believe we may say, in the world, is to be ascribed not more to his genius, his consummate ability and persevering industry, than to his plain honest, straightforward dealing and the integrity and candour which marked his character through life.


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