Man of Iron

Thomas Telford and the building of Britain

Reviewer: Robert Davies

IN THE preface of his book Man of Iron, author Julian Glover, who was chief speechwriter to David Cameron, suggests that ‘in the years after his death Telford slipped from our consciousness’.
Compared to that other great engineer, Brunel, Telford was, arguably, our first great civil engineer who made an enormous contribution to the development of this country. He was 77 years when he died and for 60 years or so of his life he was involved in architecture, bridge building, road making, inland navigation, drainage, and the construction of docks and improvement of harbours.
All this was done with great energy and he created the rules and roles of the modern civil engineer. The author relates that when it was proposed that the new town in Shropshire be called Telford, local people protested as they did not connect with him. Maybe because they lacked an appreciation of his achievements. This tends to support the author’s contention that he had ‘slipped from our consciousness’.
In this book the author attempts to redress the balance and re-establish Telford’s standing and major contribution to shaping the country. During the time that he was deeply involved in the building of the Caledonian Canal, he received a formal decree from the King of Sweden requesting him to work on what became the Gota Canal.
His reputation had spread beyond our shores and he did make his first trip overseas to survey a route for the canal. He subsequently arranged for a team of engineers to go to Sweden to assist with the building of the canal.
The author does not make the mistake of getting to deeply into the detail of Telford’s projects but concentrates more on the man behind them and the politics inevitably involved in bringing them to fruition. Telford began life as a stonemason, and then became an architect and subsequently an engineer. Almost everything that he built remains in use today – the A5 trunk roads, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct for example.
The author has a very engaging style of writing and that makes it somewhat difficult to put down once you have started to read it. Telford’s own autobiography was not a great success; this book, I think, will and should do a great deal better. Does it redress the balance? Almost certainly so.
This book extends to 403 pages, including notes, bibliography and acknowledgements. The hardback edition, is priced at £20 – very good value – and the ebook costs £17.99

Man of Iron is published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN HB: 978-1-4088-3746-7, EPUB: 978-1-4088-3747-4