Telford's roads

Year:1801

Duration:33 years

Cost:Unknown

Country: England, Wales & Scotland, UK

What did this project achieve?

Build roads from solid materials and speed up travel times across the UK

In 18th and early 19th century Britain transport was mostly on foot, horseback or by stagecoach. Many roads were rough, sometimes little more than tracks, and progress could be very slow, especially in bad weather.

In 1801 after a career mostly designing and building bridges and canals engineer Thomas Telford was commissioned by the government to improve road travel in his native Scotland.

This massive project lasted 20 years and included 920 miles (1,480km) of new roads, as well as 1,000 new bridges, improvements to canals and 32 new churches.

Telford was also responsible for rebuilding sections of the London to Holyhead road. Much of his road is now part of the A5. Beyond Shrewsbury the work often meant building a highway from scratch.

Other projects included work on the north Wales coast road between Chester and Bangor and a road to cross the Isle of Arran. Nicknamed the ‘string road’ it allowed traffic to get from east to west without using the lengthy coastal route.

Telford’s work on improving the road from Glasgow to Carlisle (now the A74) has been described as a ‘model for future engineers’.

He continued to design and build until his death in 1834 – a total of 33 years improving road communication around the UK.

Difference the roads have made

Before Telford and other road engineers started to build, travel around the country could be very slow and muddy.

In the mid-17th century it was said to take 4 days to get from London to Birmingham. 100 years later the journey took about 2 days. But it was Telford’s road linking Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton that made travel on this route something close to a modern journey.

The time saved travelling on Telford’s roads and those built by others was proportionately greater than the saving that later came from the first steam railways – or even future savings if high speed rail link HS2 is built.

His work sped up communication and helped underpin the industrialisation of Britain.

How the work was done

Road builders in the late 18th used stone, gravel and sand for construction. It was common to dump rough gravel onto mud without putting in proper drains.

Telford’s innovations included a system of raising a road’s foundation at its centre so water could drain away.

He also improved the method of using broken stones to build roads – analysing thickness of stones, traffic movement and the gradient of slopes to come up with a more scientific approach.

Telford’s method was to use large and then smaller interlocking stones. These were graded and drained with a coating of smooth pebbles on top.

Telford’s ideas were widely adopted and used for roads everywhere.

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Good roads are… the greatest of all improvements.

Adam Smith

in The Wealth of Nations, a favourite book of Telford’s

Fascinating facts

Telford was nicknamed ‘the Colossus of Roads’ by his friend and later Poet Laureate Robert Southey. The name was a pun on the giant statue said to stand at the entrance to Rhodes harbour in ancient times.

Telford’s London to Birmingham road appears in George Eliot’s novel ‘Felix Holt.’ The stagecoach Tally-ho was famous for galloping the journey from London to Birmingham in half a day.

Telford was buried in Westminster Abbey. There’s also a statue of him in the Abbey.

People who made it happen

  • Thomas Telford, founder and first president of ICE

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