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Thomas Telford - mason extraordinary

Monday, 01 October 2007

Researching Thomas Telford, who had been such a well-known member of a Lodge in Shropshire, I was surprised that virtually nothing had been written about his Masonic activities. 

In A History of Craft Freemasonry in Shropshire, by Harold Templeton, there was just one paragraph, and no mention of him in the History of Salopian Lodge No. 262 by George Franklin. In Alexander Graham’s 1892 history of Shropshire Freemasonry he is only recorded in the list of members. 

Thomas Telford was born at Glendinning, near Dumfries in Scotland on 9 August 1757, in a shepherd’s cottage beside the Megget Water. His father John was a shepherd, but died aged 33 only two months after Thomas was born. It was to his mother, Janet that the responsibility fell to bring up Thomas on her own. 

As she was living in a tied cottage, six months after the death of her husband, Janet was forced to move with her infant son to a small cottage at the Crooks, situated in the Megget Valley, a mile below Glendinning. They occupied only one of the cottage’s two rooms, another family living in the other half. 

Life must have been extremely hard. Her brother and neighbours helped out financially, which allowed Thomas to attend the local parish school at Westerkirk. At a very early age, Thomas was required to work on neighbouring farms, herding cattle and sheep, living for weeks on end with shepherds in their lonely shelters on the hills, which shaped his character and built up his self-confidence. 

On leaving school, Thomas took up an apprenticeship to be a stonemason at Lochmaben, but his new master ill-treated him, so after a few months he was back living with his mother at the Crooks. Janet’s nephew Thomas Jackson came to the rescue and persuaded a Master Mason he knew in Langholm, Andrew Thomson, to take the boy as an apprentice. Telford gained great experience both as apprentice and a fellow of the Craft under Thomson’s guidance and tuition. 

The young Duke of Buccleuch succeeded to the family estates in the area and put in hand an extensive programme of improvements. Tracks were paved, bridges constructed to ford rivers and stone construction farm houses began to replace the older ones, which were made from thatch and mud. This was a time when even the town houses had mud walls and again this made work for the team of Thomson and Telford to reconstruct in stone. 

In Langholm, it was Andrew Thomson, with his fellow craft assistant, who built the bridge over the river Esk to connect the new town with the old. Telford’s Mason mark can be found on the bridge on the blocks in the western abutment. At this time he became a firm friend with a fellow Mason, Matthew Davidson, who was to play an important part in his life. 

Telford left his native Dumfriesshire at 23 and made his way to Edinburgh, where his talents had greater scope with the building of the noble Georgian streets and squares around Princes Street in the new town. Eighteen months later he travelled to London to find both fame and fortune.

Armed with letters of introduction from friends back in Langholm, he was introduced to two of the greatest architects of the day – Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers. 

Telford was set to work on the new Somerset House, squaring and levelling the great blocks of the rusticated Portland stone. It was during this time that he qualified as a Master Mason – in the operative sense. 

Through his contacts he became acquainted with William Pulteney, who through marriage had succeeded to great estates in Somerset, Shropshire and Northamptonshire. 

They became firm friends and many commissions resulted from this friendship, such as alterations at the vicarage of Sudborough in Northamptonshire, followed by building at Portsmouth dockyard. 

By 1786 Pultney had become MP for Shrewsbury, so Telford found himself ordered to the town to superintend a thorough renovation of the castle, where living quarters were found for him. Within six months, and probably due to the influence of the local MP, he was appointed the Surveyor of Public Works for the County of Shropshire. Soon after his appointment he was to supervise the construction of the county gaol and the alterations to the old Salop Infirmary. 

The prison is still in use at the Dana, and the front entrance particularly has been little altered from Telford’s original design. The bust of John Howard, the prison reformer, who was instrumental in getting Telford the commission, is in prominent position directly above the main entrance. Telford also designed and supervised the building of the Laura Tower at Shrewsbury Castle and the excavation of the Roman City of Uricronium near Wroxeter was another of his undertakings. 

It was around this time that he was consulted by the churchwardens of St. Chad’s Church about the repairs to the church roof. After an inspection of the premises he told them that it was pointless thinking of repairing the roof until emergency measures were taken to secure the walls due to poor foundations. 

He was scoffed at and dismissed out of hand, the churchwardens making pointed remarks about professional men making jobs for themselves and saying that the cracks he had pointed out had been there for hundreds of years. 

He walked out of the meeting and his parting shot was if they were going to continue their deliberations much longer it would be safer to do so outside just in case the church fell down around them. 

His words were prophetic, because just three days later in the early morning as the clock began to strike four, the entire tower collapsed with a tremendous roar and crashed through the roof of the nave, completely demolishing the northern arcade. This did Telford’s credibility in the town no harm at all! Although not involved in the restoration of St. Chad’s, he did later go on to design and build a church elsewhere in the county – St. Mary’s in the High Town of Bridgnorth. 

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