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Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford

First President of the Institution of Civil Engineers


Bridges, Construction, Design, Geotechnical, Rail, Structural, Water


United Kingdom
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The first ICE President

Consultant engineer for canal projects in Sweden, Russia and North America, as well as the UK

Engineering the historic London to Holyhead road

Why you might have heard of Thomas Telford

What civil infrastructure wasn’t Thomas Telford involved in would be a quicker question to answer than listing everything he did engineer.

From canals to bridges, roads to harbours, Thomas Telford – the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers – worked or advised on hundreds of important civil engineering projects in his lifetime.

His expertise was so renowned that people from all over the world – including the Swedish and Russian governments – consulted him for their major civil engineering projects.

Famous for canals, roads and bridges

In the UK, Telford’s most famous canal works include the 60-mile Caledonian Canal (1804-1822) and Ellesmere Canal.

In the Highlands of Scotland, Telford was responsible or about 1,200 miles of new or improved roads.

His main achievements in road-making were the London to Holyhead and Bangor to Chester roads. The road in North Wales has been designated a ‘Historic Route’.

Bridges also played a large part in Telford’s career, with the Menai wrought iron suspension bridge over the Menai Straits in Wales being one of his most famous designs.

With an unprecedented span of nearly 580ft, it was considered the most outstanding bridge development of the early 19th century.

On completion of the Holyhead Road, it was described as "a model of the most perfect road making that has ever been attempted in any country"


Telford went to London in February 1782, where he met architects Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers, and worked as a stonemason on the building of Somerset House.

In 1783, he first started working for William Pulteney, the first Earl of Bath and MP for Shrewsbury, restoring Sudborough Rectory in Northamptonshire.

Pulteney was a strong influence on Telford’s career, and helped establish him as an engineer.

Telford worked on a number of infrastructure projects in Shropshire after being invited there by Pulteney to restore Shrewsbury Castle in 1786.

He worked on local church restorations, private houses, improved streets and drainage.

After he restored the castle in a Gothic style, Telford lived in and practised as an architect from the castle.

When Pulteney became director of British Fisheries Society in 1790, Telford advised on the improvement of numerous harbours in northern Scotland. The largest was Pulteneytown at Wick.

Spreading the word about Roman cement

He also helped spread the use of Roman cement in facing, pointing and brick-jointing mortars to stop water penetration.

The aluminous hydraulic cement, patented by James Parker, set to a “very considerable extent” in about 20 minutes.

Telford’s civil engineering career started to take off from 1793 when he was appointed as general agent, surveyor, engineer, architect and overlooker to the Ellesmere Canal.

The standout structure on the canal is the Pontcysyllte cast iron aqueduct over the Dee.

Reducing maintenance costs of roads

In terms of road construction, Telford’s roads were well-drained and had a hand-pitched stone foundation under a layer of conventional road metal.

Although they were more expensive to build, their higher quality meant that maintenance costs were lower.

Bridges and more

Telford planned, built or advised on several thousand masonry bridges throughout his lifetime.

His first major bridge was over the Severn at Montford from 1790 to 1792, using convict labour.

Other infrastructure Telford worked on included drainage of the Fens in eastern England, the improvement of more than 100 harbours, docks or piers, and water supply schemes such as a piped supply to Liverpool from springs at Bootle.

A painting of the Menai Bridge. Image credit: ICE Library
A painting of the Menai Bridge. Image credit: ICE Library

Thomas Telford loved poetry, and his earliest known publications were poems. He wrote at least 12 in his lifetime.

His usual signature in correspondence and reports was Thos.Telford, with a flamboyant underlining of his surname.

Henry Palmer, who started ICE, approached Telford to be the institution’s first president because he was able to provide the leadership, contacts and prestige the young founders needed to attract members from all over the world.

Telford had considerable influence with the government and was the driving force behind getting the ICE's Royal Charter in 1828.

In his will, Telford left ICE his largest donation of over £3,000, his books, drawings and papers.

The money enabled ICE to find a permanent home in London.

He was described by contemporaries as benevolent, with a cheerful temper.

Telford was invited by the King of Sweden to be the consulting engineer for the Trollhatte Canal’s eastwards extension to the Baltic at Soderkoping.

He was also consulted by the Russian government, and North American canal schemes.

For his achievements in civil engineering, Telford has been dubbed the ‘Colossus of Roads’ and ‘Pontifex Maximus’.


Telford went to Westerkirk parish school and became an apprentice to a stonemason at Lochmaben when he left school in 1772.

He’s believed to have run away from the apprenticeship after being treated badly, and went to work for Andrew Thomson at Langholm, working on simple buildings in the area.

In 1780, Telford went to Edinburgh, where he learned to draw and studied the local architecture, and his own work shows influence of the Gothic style of Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel in the city.

Personal life

Thomas Telford was born on a sheep farm in Westerkirk, Dumfriesshire in Scotland on 9 August 1757 to shepherd John Telford and his wife Janet (nee Jackson).

He was raised mainly by his mother, after his dad died four months after his birth.

He was the second Thomas Telford in the family, but his elder brother of the same name died in infancy.

He never married.

Telford lived mainly in London in rooms at the Salopian coffee house, Charing Cross, until he moved to 24 Abingdon Street in 1821, where he lived until he died.

A liver problem, referred to as a “bilious derangement”, caused his death on 2 September 1834. His remains can be found in Westminster Abbey.