TRAVEL IN WALES (continued)

of this section

Thomas Telford in North Wales
The Menai Suspension Bridge
Neath in the 1800s

Thomas Telford in North Wales

Many roads had been built by turnpike trusts in north Wales during the second half of the 18th C.; and Telford's work in the area, which occupied the second and third decades of the 19th C., was the culmination or 'crowning glory', of this road making activity in north Wales. But there was a significant difference between Telford's work and earlier road making in the area. Not only was Telford's work technically superior to anything that had been done before, but also the impetus for Telford's programme was essentially national and central, whereas previously road making had been regarded as purely a matter of local concern.

Toll Booth near LlandafThe Welsh Turnpike trusts did not generate sufficient revenue to repair the roads, which ran for the most part over rugged and mountainous terrain.

Heavy capital expenditure was needed to improve these roads. A turnpike trust was a statutory authority, which borrowed money from investors for making or improving a road; and the money was borrowed on the security of the tolls levied on travellers using the road.

It was to remedy this situation that central government was induced to intervene with financial aid in 1815. In response to pressure by members of Parliament, in particular some Irish M.P.s, parliament appointed eight select committees between 1815 and 1822, to investigate the state of communications between London and Dublin via Holyhead. The name of Sir Henry Parnell was linked with the efforts of these committees to raise parliamentary funds for the process of improving these roads. A sum of £20,000 was granted in 1815 towards repairing the roads between London and Holyhead. By 1830 over £73,000 had been granted for building roads between London and Dublin, by way of Holyhead and Howth.

Telford had surveyed the Holyhead roads for the government some four years previously, with a view to possible improvement, but nothing had come of this. Now, the necessary capital was available. The new Commission for roads wanted Telford to undertake the work but the great engineer was busy with public works in Scotland in the summer of 1815. The Commissioners wanted Telford to send an assistant to north Wales to undertake preliminary surveys and to collect information about the availability of labour and road making materials, so that operations could be commenced as soon as Telford himself arrived in north Wales. But Telford refused to put the first general arrangements concerning the Holyhead road improvements into the hands of an assistant. 'Having for 25 years past been engaged in conducting Canal Works adjacent to and in north Wales,' Telford wrote to Alexander Milne, the secretary to the Commissioners, referring to his work on the Ellesmere and Shrewsbury Canals, 'I am more fully aware of all that regards Workmen, Materials, and Labour than any person I could send from a distance... I am anxious to have the road properly improved and get suitable persons for the sundry works, that I dare not delegate this part of the business. If it was once arranged the Commissioners will not have cause to complain of want of vigour'.

Telford's work in Scotland was finished by the end of August 1815 and in September he was at work in north Wales. By the end of the month he had completed his survey of 28 miles of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the road, from Cernioge, a coaching inn situated about 7 miles from Betys-y-coed in the direction of Shrewsbury, to Llandygai near Bangor. Telford reported that the roads had been poorly planned and badly constructed. In places, the 'working part', or that part on which carriages travelled was as narrow as nine feet in breadth, and for the whole distance from Cernioge to Llandygai the 'working part' was no more than twelve feet wide.

Telford's chief complaint about the road surface was that it did not rest on a firm foundation, so that in wet weather the gravel of the road surface tended to sink into the soil beneath, causing unevenness and rutting (except where the ground beneath was naturally hard). One of Telford's major principles of highway construction was that all roads should have a solid foundation of hand set stones. 'Where a road has no solid and dry foundation,' Telford wrote in his 'General Rules for Repairing Roads' 'it must be constructed anew. It must be well drained, and put into proper form. Upon the 18 centre feet of it, stones must be put, forming a layer 7 inches deep. Soft stones will answer, or cinders, particularly where sand is prevalent. These bottoming stones must be carefully set by hand, with the broadest end down in the form of a close neat pavement; the cavities should be filled with stone chips, to make all level and firm, and no stone should be more than five inches broad on its face.

This proportion of a solid and level foundation is the most essential point to be secured in order to have a perfect road...over this bottoming of stones and cinders, six inches of stones, of a proper quality, broken of a size that will, in their largest dimensions, pass through a ring of two and a half inches in diameter, must be laid. The six feet of road on either side of the 18 feet centre (making 30 feet) when formed of a proper shape may be covered with six inches of good clean gravel or small stone chips.

The major difference between Telford's method and that of his contemporary Macadam , was that the latter would have nothing to do with the laying of a hand set foundation. Macadam's practice was to form and camber the ground, drain it, and then spread layers of broken stones to a depth of ten inches above the prepared ground. This simplified method enabled Macadam to build roads at half the cost of Telford's. But Telford never abandoned the practice of constructing his roads in the Roman tradition, with the emphasis on solid foundation, building them it seems, to last 'not for an age, but for all time!'

Having completed his survey of the road in Snowdonia, Telford selected four particularly bad sections for improvement. The contracts were undertaken by John Straphen, a Shrewsbury builder, and Thomas Stanton, who had worked under Telford on the construction of the Ellesmere Canal. Messrs Straphen and Stanton and the other contractors employed by Telford in north Wales between 1815 and 1830 were, with two exceptions, first class road builders, and Telford was well pleased with their work. But with those whose work did not reach the required standard, Telford had little patience. The first of these, Thomas Roberts of Bryn Selwrn, Merioneth, was deprived of his contract; and the other, John Jones of Bangor, was obliged to remake his section of the road, near Llandygai, time and time again. It was clear that as far as Telford was concerned 'the good old days' when it had been assumed that anyone could make a road, had gone. Road making had become a respectable profession. Telford's application of scientific principles to highway construction was virtually a new departure, for no one had done this on any extensive scale since the Roman occupation of Britain. The attitude that road making was not sufficiently serious work to warrant the attention of a civil engineer persisted until Telford came on the scene.

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The Menai Suspension Bridge
Menai Suspension Bridge
Telford's Masterpiece -

Thomas Telford owed nothing to rank or wealth: he was born in 1757, the son of an Eskdale shepherd. His genius as a builder of canals, roads and bridges, carried him to the top of his profession, and in 1820 he became President of the newly formed Institute of Civil Engineers in London. His was the brain behind dozens of roads, embankments, bridges, canals, aqueducts and harbours throughout Britain; but he had relatively little to do with railway construction for he belonged essentially to the pre-railway age. On his death in 1834, he was buried with the most famous of the land in Westminster Abbey.

It was the geographical proximity of north Wales to Ireland, which brought Telford to north Wales in 1815. His task from 1815 to 1830 was the reconstruction of the road from Shrewsbury through Snowdonia to Holyhead, the nearest British port to Dublin. The improvement was undertaken by the British Government to placate the Irish M.P.s who had long complained about the state of roads generally between London and Holyhead. The Holyhead Road, which came to be called the Great Irish Road, was to Dublin what the Great North Road was to Edinburgh. While the reconstruction of the Shrewsbury-Holyhead Road was in progress, Telford also undertook the improvement of the north Wales coast road from Chester to Bangor.

Telford's Great Irish Road led from Holyhead island, over the Stanley Sands embankment which he built in 1822-23 across Anglesey to Gwalchmai and Llanfair Pwyllgwyngyll, to his great suspension bridge over the Menai Straits which he built between 1819 and 1826 to supersede the Bangor ferry. In Anglesey Telford abandoned the existing road to Holyhead altogether, and built an entirely new highway across the island.

The stonework of the Menai Suspension Bridge is original masonry, but Telford's suspension chains and carriageway were replaced when Sir Alexander Gibb renovated the bridge in 1938-40. Few would disagree with the view that the Menai Bridge still has the power to impress very greatly. The size of the bridge, quite apart from its architectural merit made a great impression on Telford's contemporaries. The invention of the process known as 'puddling' by Henry Cort in the 1780s made possible the large scale production of wrought iron by means of coal fuel. Cast iron is hard and brittle, while wrought iron is malleable and has a higher tensile strength,

From the Menai Suspension Bridge, the road continued to Bangor, and then went to Landygai, up the Ogwen valley, through were Bethesda now stands, past Ogwen Bank through Nant Ffrancon, then passing Llyn Ogwen, on to Capel Curig. From Capel Curig the road continued past the Swallow Falls, to Betwys-y-coed; then on through Pentrfoelas, Cerrigydrudion, Corwen, Llangollen, Chirk, Gobowen, Oswestry, Queen's Head, West Felton, and Nescliff to Shrewsbury. From Shrewsbury the road went through Wellington, Shifnal, Wolverhampton, Bilston and Wednesbury to Birmingham; then it continued through Stonebridge, Coventry, Dunchurch, Daventry, Towcester, Old Stratford, Stony Stratford, Hockcliffe, Dunstable, St. Albans, and it finally entered London through Highgate. Telford's road was the route used by the Royal Mail coaches conveying the correspondence of London and the South to Dublin in the pre-railway age. The Irish Mail from the growing industrial centres in the North was conveyed to Holyhead along the road that Telford had improved leading through Chester to Llandygai village near Bangor where the coast road joined the main London-Shrewsbury-Holyhead road. The improvement of the coast road involved the construction of the Conwy Suspension Bridge and its embankment, to supersede the Conwy ferry. This route took the Irish mail from the north of England from April 1820 until the end of August 1826. Ironically it was diverted from this route after only two months after the completion of Conwy Bridge due to the introduction of Post Office steam packets from Liverpool, which were faster and more powerful than those from Holyhead.

As Telford was reconstructing the road, he became convinced that the responsibility for maintaining the new parts should be taken out of the hands of the local turnpike trusts. Under their Act of 1815, the Holyhead Roads Commissioners were bound to 'hand over' all reconstructed parts of the road to the local trusts for maintenance. This was obviously unsatisfactory for it was the ineffectiveness of the trust that had necessitated the establishment of the Improvement Commission in the first place. Telford wanted to see the creation of a new, single turnpike authority to maintain the new road, but he did not like the idea of having to negotiate with six existing turnpike trusts between Shrewsbury and Bangor, to persuade them to surrender control of their sections of the Holyhead Road. Sir Henry Parnell came to Telford's rescue, and successfully undertook the task. In 1819, a new trust was created to maintain the whole of the Holyhead Road from Shrewsbury to Bangor; and in 1823 when the new road across Anglesey was completed, the authority of the trust was extended to Holyhead.

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Neath in the 1800s

There is no doubt that the affluence generated by the increase in trade both at home and abroad brought benefit to shopkeepers and tradesmen in the towns. As evidence of this a Directory published in Neath in the 1830s shows a very representative spectrum of available craftsmen and services.

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Neath in 1830

From Pigot's S.Wales Directory

Nobility, Gentry & Clergy   Esq 17 Rev 4 Earl 1 Naval Officer 2 Barrister 1 Mrs 2
Free Schools 2 Stone Masons 14
Boarding School 1 Straw Hat Makers 2
School Masters 4 Surgeons 3
School Mistresses 1 Tailors 5
Attorneys 7 Tallow Chandlers 3
Auctioneers 2 Tanners 2
Bakers & Flour Dealers 3 Taverns, Inns & 37
Bankers 1 Public houses
Blacksmiths 7 Timber Merchnt 3
Booksellers & Stationers 2 Tin Works 3
Boot & shoe makers 5 Watch & Clk Mkr 4
Builders 3 Wheel Wright 2
Butchers 8 Weaver woollen 7
Cabinet Makers 6 Misc
Carpenters & Joiners 7 Block & pump mkr 1
Chemists & Druggists 2 Eating hse kpr 1
Chemist- Manufrg 1 Tin plate wkr 1
Coal Merchants 3 Copper smelter 3
Coal, stone-coal Merchnt 4 Lime burners 2
Coopers 2 Spinners & carders 3
Curriers 2 Grocers & Tea Dlrs 23
Fire & Office Agents 3
Fire brick makers 1
Maltsters 3
Iron & Brass Founders
(inc Steam Engine Mkrs)
Spirit Dealers 3 Custom Hse
Merchant 1 Principal Coast Offcr
Milliners & Dress makers 7 Harbour Master
House & Sign painters 2 Colltr Harbour Dues
Plasterers & Tilers 4
Plumbers & Glaziers 3
Printers-letter press 2
Saddlers 3
Skinners 3
Slop sellers (?) 2

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