9 August 2007 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas
Telford and the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) is one
of many institutions in Scotland and beyond celebrating his
life and achievements. He was memorably described as 'the
colossus of roads' but his talents extended beyond road and
bridge building to the construction of canals, railways, harbours,
piers, docks and many other public buildings and he was also
a man of letters; befriending poets, contributing to the Edinburgh
Encyclopedia and publishing his own poetry and travel journal.
The extent of his impact on Scotland and the wider world can be
quickly demonstrated by searching the online catalogue to the holdings
of the NAS, using the search term 'Thomas Telford'.
His last will and testament shows how wide his interests were and
how many individuals and organisations in engineering, public affairs
and literature were associated with him.
Thomas Telford was born in Jamestown, in the parish of Westerkirk,
in Eskdale, Dumfries-shire on 9 August 1757. He left school at the
age of 14 to become an apprentice stonemason. He was for a time
a journeyman mason, working, among other projects, on the Langholm
Bridge. He moved to Edinburgh in 1780, at the age of 23, and two
years later moved to London to work on Somerset House. In 1787 he
was appointed surveyor of public works in Shropshire and the engineer
of the Ellesmere Canal. He returned to Scotland in 1790 to survey
harbours and piers on behalf of the British Fisheries Society. His
most famous achievements include the construction of the Caledonian
Canal, the building of almost 1000 miles of road and 120 bridges
in the Highlands, the Gotha Canal (linking the Baltic with the North
Sea), the Menai Bridge, and improvements to the Glasgow to Carlisle
Road. Many of Scotland's archives hold records relating to
Telford, especially survey reports and improvement plans for harbours,
roads, churches, and other buildings and public works.
The last will and testament survives in the registers of Edinburgh
Sheriff Court (National Archives of Scotland reference: SC70/1/53
pp.1-6). The inventory in the testament reveals the extent of Telford's
personal wealth at the time of his death in 1834, including over
£2537 in his bank account (with the Bank of Scotland), stocks
and shares, and details of his property in Canterbury (not bad for
the posthumous son of a shepherd who was, reputedly, brought up
in poverty). The list of beneficiaries in his last will and testament
confirms much of what is known about his social circle and personal
interests. Several of the next generation of engineers benefited
from his wealth as they had done from his experience: his beneficiaries
included the civil engineers James Jardine (1776-1858), William
Cubitt (1785-1861), the architect William Playfair (1789-1857),
Joseph Mitchell (1803-83) - the engineer and proponent of the Highland
Railway, and the Institution of Civil Engineers (which received
Telford's reputation as a man of letters may have preceded
his fame as an engineer: he had published poetry between 1779 and
1784, and an account of a tour of Scotland with the poet Robert
Southey (1774-1843). His will left bequests to Southey (who would
later write Telford's biography), the poet Thomas Campbell
(1777-1844) and to the publishers of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia
(to which he had been a contributor).
His public spiritedness and espousal of worthy causes, evident
in his life, was also manifest in bequests to the ministers of the
parishes of Westerkirk and Langholm (who each received £1000
to provide books for their respective parish libraries); Sir Henry
Parnell (1776-1842), the Whig MP and advocate of Catholic emancipation;
and the statisticians and demographers, James Cleland (1770-1840),
and John Rickman (1771-1840), who devised the methodology of the
first census in 1801.
You can see digital images and a transcript of the entire will
and testament on the ScotlandsPeople website at http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.
To search the NAS catalogue for Telford material go to our Catalogues
and Indexes page.