Books in brief—Man of Iron: Thomas Telford by Julian Glover

Glover rescues from neglect the man behind the image
February 15, 2017
Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover (Bloomsbury, £25)

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It was a life led in ceaseless motion. In Julian Glover’s superb new biography, Thomas Telford is seemingly always on endless coach journeys, striding across a Scottish hillside, rushing to attend a meeting, drafting plans or scribbling letters by lamplight in some rough roadside inn. Well into his seventies, he remained on the road, dashing between dozens of projects. The results of this whirlwind energy are astonishing: the bridges, aqueducts, docks and thousands of miles of road provided the infrastructure that connected Britain in its moment of industrial takeoff.

A record of Telford’s engineering achievements could fill an entire book. Glover’s biography, however, provides a surprisingly intimate portrait of a complex, self-educated man and a depiction of a Britain humming with innovation. Big, burly, somewhat scruffy, Telford was an affable and entertaining fellow who inspired confidence in seemingly implausible schemes. There were other talented engineers, but, for Glover, Telford rose far above them because he could “paint on a broad canvas the great scope of a project and its national purpose... He had that gift that politicians still seek today: of vision, the ability to make a series of actions lead up to a greater whole.”

For all his charm and likability, Telford was a lonely, inscrutable figure. Always in a mad flurry of activity, he had no significant man or woman in his life, and until he was quite old, no permanent home. Glover has a wonderful way of describing the engineering marvels; but what delights is his skills as a biographer, rescuing from neglect the man behind the image. “His was not a normal life,” writes Glover. “A shifting spirit ran through him, like a restless iron shadow.”