The Romans—Roads in the Middle Ages—The Great Work of Telford—His Giant Suspension Bridge—Wood Paving and Asphalt.

YOU may perhaps think that the making of a road is not an invention, and therefore should not be described in a book about inventions. There, however, I should differ from you, for good roads are the very essence and beginning of any civilization, and no country can become great or prosperous without such ways of communication.

Besides, a man like Telford, to whom we owe the modern road, was a true inventor, and many patents have been taken out for road-making materials and methods, especially for pavements.

The Romans were, of course, the great road makers of old, and England’s first roads were made by the Romans. These were: Watling Street, which ran from Kent to Chester and York, branching thence to Carlisle and Newcastle; the Fosse Way, from Bath to Lincoln; and Ickneild Street, which led from Norwich to Dunstable. Roman roads were narrow—from eight to fifteen feet in width— and ran straight up hill and down dale; they were bottomed with stone cemented with lime, and paved solidly with flat stones. Their cost must have been enormous, and they were so wonderfully made that the remains of some are still visible after nearly two thousand years.

After the Romans left England their roads decayed or became buried, and in the Middle Ages England was practically roadless. Little was done until 1346, when Edward III levied a tax for repairing roads and streets in and around London. Yet nothing came of this, and it was not until 1555 that an Act of the English Parliament ordered each parish to elect two surveyors to keep the roads in order. How much or little good this did is proved by a treatise published in 1610, the author of

A tollgate

which had a plan for building roads with wooden frames filled with stones, cinders, or gravel. He says, "There are very little or no waies, to the dayly, continuall, and great grief and heart-breaking of man and beast, and sometimes to the great and imminent danger of their lives, and often spoile and loss of goods."

About 1620 it was suggested that each parish should set up tollbars to which the out-of-works should carry stones or gravel. These should be loaded into baskets, and each vehicle, on reaching a tollgate, should pay a penny for a forty-pound basket of stones and empty it into the next hole in the road. Defoe, the famous author of "Robinson Crusoe", had the idea of employing all prisoners on the roads, with overseers to make them work.

Yet well into the eighteenth century the roads remained in the most disgraceful state. In 1736 the roads around London were so bad that in wet weather a carriage could not be driven from St. James’ Palace to Kensington in less than two hours. Even the king’s own carriage was more than once stuck in the mud. Such roads as existed were made of gravel, which in some places was piled up

State coach
A state coach, eighteenth century

eight feet above the surrounding fields. They had no bottom; they were mud in winter, dust in summer, and whenever the floods came the whole roadway was washed away and disappeared. Even in London and other great towns the streets were deep in filth, and open drains, smelling most horribly, ran down the side or sometimes in the center of the roadway.

In 1788 the first mail coach reached Glasgow, but the road was so bad and the bridges in so dangerous a state that the service had to be given up until repairs could be made. These repairs could not have been very successful, for in newspapers of 1814 there is an account of an accident when a coach and four horses fell through a bridge. The driver and one passenger were killed and "several other persons dreadfully maimed." Would you believe it? The bridge was left in this condition for months, the overseers stating they had no money to repair it. It was not until the year 1816 that Parliament passed an Act to spend £50,000 on this road, and the work was placed in the hands of the celebrated Telford.

Thomas Telford, like so many of the great men of his time, had risen from the ranks. He was a stonemason, the son of an Eskdale shepherd, and had educated himself. In 1782 he came to London and helped to build Somerset House; two years later he was working on Portsmouth Dockyard. He never wasted his time or chances, and by the time he was thirty was Surveyor of Public Works for Shropshire. He was then put in charge of the construction of the Caledonian Canal, which was cut through Scotland and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic, and after much other canal work was asked by the Government to take charge of Scottish roads.

He built more than a thousand miles of roads in Scotland and some twelve hundred bridges, besides harbor works and public buildings of all sorts. He was jokingly called "the Colossus of Roads", and no man better deserved the title.

Telford was the first man since Roman times to realize that a road, in order to last, must have a good foundation and proper drainage. He planned his roads so that there should be no slope rising at a steeper angle than one foot in thirty. He made the foundation of his road of two layers of stone, the bottom course being seven inches deep. The stones of good size were all set by hand, with the broad ends downward, and no stone was more than three inches across at the top. The spaces between were filled with smaller stones, packed by hand so as to make a level surface. The top course was of stones none too large to pass through a two-and-a-half-inch ring, and these were so arranged that the middle or crown of the road was four inches above the sides. A binding of gravel, an inch in thickness, covered all, and a drain ran beneath the road to the outside ditches at every hundred yards. The result was a roadway which for horse traffic has never been improved upon, and it is only since motor vehicles came into use that a new system of road-making has become necessary.

After his work for Scotland, Telford went to Wales,

Menai Strait
The Menai Strait, with Telford's Bridge in the distance.

and did wonders for the roads in that mountainous country. He was the boldest of engineers, and would blast away a whole mountain side to save a mile or two in distance. After this came the greatest of Telford’s life works, the building of the huge suspension bridge across the Menai Strait.

This was begun in the year 1820, and it took four years to erect the huge piers, three on the Welsh and four on the Anglesea side. Telford had nothing to guide him in setting up the monstrous iron chains which were to carry the bridge, and all the tests and calculations had to be made by himself. The bars forming the main chains were three and a quarter inches square, and were tested to bear a strain of nearly ninety tons before breaking. The weight of each chain between the piers from which it was to be suspended was twenty-three and a half tons, and Telford calculated that a strain of about forty tons would be needed to raise it to its place. Bets were freely made that he would never succeed in raising these chains, but Telford went quietly on with his preparations, and on April 26, 1825, all was ready.

Just before high tide an enormous raft, no less than four hundred and fifty feet in length, with the chain stretched upon it, moved out from the shore, and, swinging round, was moored against the two main piers. One end of the great chain was then fastened to another chain which hung down the face of the pier on the Welsh side, and the other attached to ropes which ran through gigantic blocks over the opposite pier, and so to capstans on the Anglesea side. No fewer than one hundred and fifty stout workmen manned the bars of the capstans. A band struck up, and, keeping time to the music, the men began to step round at a lively pace.

It was just like getting up a huge anchor. The ropes came coiling in, the chain began to lift, and when after a little while it rose quietly off the raft the huge crowd that had come to watch broke into a roar of cheering. Telford’s arrangements were so perfect that there was no hitch, and within about an hour and a half the whole chain was stretched in its proper position high above the water and made fast. Telford had kept perfectly calm throughout; but when it was all over, and his friends ran to congratulate him, they found him on his knees murmuring a prayer of gratitude that he had succeeded in the great work. He afterward told one of them that he had been so desperately afraid lest some of his calculations were wrong that for many nights he had hardly slept. Fifteen more chains had to be raised, but all was done without trouble; and in January 1826 the great bridge was opened for traffic, and the London and Holyhead mail-coach horses trotted gaily across.

Telford was now seventy years of age, but instead of retiring he began to construct the great St. Catherine’s Dock in London, which has a huge tide lock with three pairs of gates. Next, he built the splendid stone bridge over the Severn at Gloucester, with its great arch one hundred and fifty feet in width. He built Dean Bridge at Edinburgh, and his last great work was the wonderful bridge across the Clyde at Broomielaw. I am not quite correct in saying that he built it, for he died before it was finished, but it was completed in exact accordance with his designs.

Many stories are told of the great Telford. During his frequent visits to London he stayed at the Ship Hotel at Charing Cross, where rooms were kept always ready for him. After many years he decided to take a house of his own, and one day mentioned to the landlord that he had done so and would be moving into it in a week or two. "What, leave my house!" gasped the landlord. "Why, sir, I have just paid seven hundred and fifty pounds for you."

Telford stared in amazement, while the landlord explained that he, Mr. Telford, had been looked upon as a fixture in the hotel, and so valuable that each incoming landlord had paid for him as part of the good will of the house.

Foreign Governments often consulted Telford. The road from Warsaw to a place called Briese was built from his plans, and so was the fine suspension bridge between Buda and Pest. It is only during the present century that the Panama Canal has been cut, and this project was backed by the national resources of the United States. The French engineer De Lesseps had tried and failed to make the canal, and most people are under the impression that he was the first to have the idea of so gigantic a piece of engineering. But the truth is that Mr. Telford saw the possibilities of connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific more than a century ago, and actually made plans for the work. Thomas Telford was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1834, and next to his remains lie those of Robert Stephenson; who had always wished that

Bridge at Sydney
New bridge at Sydney

his body should be laid next to that of the man he so greatly admired.

Wood pavement, which is now so largely used in the streets of towns, was the invention of a Mr. Finlayson, who lived at the same time as Telford. He used it first in 1825, but, perhaps because he did not have a good foundation beneath it, the new paving was not popular. Even asphalt paving is a much older invention than is usually supposed, for ninety years ago a patent was taken out for paving streets with asphalt. Ninety-three parts of asphalt were mixed with seven parts of bitumen or pitch, and were melted together and spread on a concrete foundation.

So long ago as 1838 an asphalt pavement one hundred and fifty feet long and ten wide was laid down at Whitehall in London. It is rather amusing, in looking up records of that time, to find that the principal objection made to using asphalt as pavement was "the difficulty in raising and re-laying it, a process so constantly required to reach the innumerable gas and water pipes beneath." Now, more than eighty years later, asphalt has come to stay, but the street breakers are still at work tearing it up in order to get at the pipes which, to-day, are even more numerous than they were in the early nineteenth century.

Chapter 12
Chapter 10
Table of Contents
Return to Main Page

© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman