As someone who has taken holidays on the Isle of Anglesey since (literally) before I was born, I’ve long had a soft-spot for the legendary engineer Thomas Telford. Whether we headed to Anglesey along the coast, or took the longer, more spectacular route through Snowdonia, we were travelling on Telford’s roads. Either way, the much-anticipated, are-we-nearly-there-yet? highlight of the journey was always Telford’s magnificent suspension bridge across the Menai Straits.
Julian Glover’s excellent biography of the ‘Colossus of Roads’ is careful to put Telford’s achievements in perspective. Yes, he was a talented workaholic who oversaw the design and creation of a huge number of edifices, but most of the day-to-day management of ‘his’ construction projects was carried out by talented engineers appointed by Telford. Telford could not have achieved what he did, had he been directly responsible for the detailed management of every project. If anything, to use modern parlance, Telford was a gifted Programme Manager who monitored and steered the work of others.
The sheer number of Telford’s architectural and engineering projects, many of them running in parallel, presents the biographer with a challenge. To keep the biography strictly chronological is to risk confusing the reader by continuously flitting back and forth between projects. Glover sensibly keeps things simple by concentrating on individual projects, even when this means flitting back and forth chronologically. He does this by dedicating individual chapters to Telford’s major projects and programmes, such as his road-surveying and construction work in Scotland and Wales, his extensive British canal work (including the construction of the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and of the Caledonian Canal), and his trips to Sweden to advise on the construction of the Göta Canal.
Telford’s only shortcoming seems to have been, in later life, perhaps, not to give enough credit to the other engineers who collaborated with him on his major projects. Be that as it may, the Thomas Telford who emerges from this biography is an amiable, hard-working achiever whose legacy, through no fault of his own, was soon to be eclipsed by the advent of the railways.