“Perfecting … that most important communication”: the London-Holyhead highway

1 March is St David’s Day, the patron saint of Wales. To mark this day we will look at a great technological feat of the early nineteenth century – the building of the London to Holyhead highway. A testament to Thomas Telford’s engineering and road building skills, the highway was considered the most sophisticated and advanced roadway of the period.

Nant Ffrancon

Highway at Nant Ffrancon

The Congleton family archive (MS 64) contains correspondence of Sir Henry Parnell, later first Baron Congleton, and Thomas Telford relating to construction of the highway. Parnell, Member of Parliament for Queen’s County in Ireland, as chair of London and Holyhead Road Committee set up under the Holyhead Road Act of 1815, oversaw the project.

The sea passage from Holyhead to Dublin had developed as the primary route to Ireland since the journey from Liverpool to Ireland was long and dangerous in rough weather. This route gained significance after the Act of Union when large numbers of politicians and civil servants had to make the journey regularly. Having landed in Holyhead, the journey by road Holyhead to London took 41 hours on poor quality roads, described as “miserable tracks” in places. Road-weary Irish politicians continually raised the problem in Parliament. Finally, under the Holyhead Roads Act of 1815, together with subsequent acts, loans were provided to improve the route. Thomas Telford was invited to survey the route and to supervise construction.

Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford

Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was born in Scotland and began his working career as an apprentice stonemason at the age of 14 years. By 1787 he was surveyor of public works for Shropshire and established a reputation as an engineer. In 1790 he was given the task of building a bridge over the River Severn at Montford, the first of around 40 bridges he built in the county. This led to his appointment in 1793 to manage the design and construction of the Ellesmere Canal, which included the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. After the completion of the Ellesmere Canal, Telford moved back to Scotland where he was involved in a massive project to improve the communications across Highland Scotland, including the building of Caledonian Canal, as well work on the construction of roads, bridges and harbours. It was this expertise that Telford brought to the London-Holyhead project. The project which began in 1815 was to take 11 years and involved the construction of various bridges, most notably the Menai Suspension Bridge and the suspension bridge at Conway, as well as the highway itself.

Parts of the road that were considered most dangerous were tackled first, with Telford applying methods that he had already put into practice in Scotland. In 1817 he noted in a letter to Sir Henry Parnell that although “much still remains to be done in order to ensure the perfecting and maintaining that most important communication” he was confident that Parnell would find “satisfactory progress on your return”. [MS 64/22/1/1 Telford to Sir Henry Parnell, 8 November 1817]

To resolve the danger for travellers crossing the Menai Straits using ferries, often battling the dangerous currents and high winds, Telford designed the Menai Suspension Bridge. Completed in January 1826, the Menai Bridge, was the biggest suspension bridge in the world at the time, with sixteen huge chains suspending nearly 600 feet of deck.

In a letter from April 1825, Telford describes the operation putting the first chain across the Straits:

“The first chain has been put across as quietly and as easily as I can wind my watch. From the time the first pin was put in on the Caernarvon shore to when the last pin was put in the top of the pyramid on the Anglesea shore, took just one hour and fifty minutes. The whole operation from moving the platform with the chain from the Caernarvon shore to final fixing in its situation 2h 10 m….”

[MS 64/22/1/4 Letter from Telford to Parnell, 26 April 1825]

Menai Suspension Bridge

Menai Suspension Bridge

A report of the official opening of the bridge in 1826, noted: “The horses trotted over it in their regular pace; and although a heavy gale of wind was blowing at the time, there was no perceptible difference in the motion of the coach, whether on the suspended road-way or on the masonry arches. About nine o’clock Sir Henry Parnell and Mr Telford crossed over the bridge in the travelling coach of the latter; and during the whole day visitors from all parts of Carnarvonshire and Anglesey passed over in their carriages, besides numerous foot passengers. In the evening the workmen who had been employed at the bridge were regaled with a substantial dinner and abundance of cwrw da [good beer]…”

The Menai Bridge is one, and certainly a notable example, of nearly 80 percent of ancillary structures constructed by Telford as part of the highway project that still survive today. Telford’s original embankment terraces still enable the modern A5 road to cling to the hillsides. And modern road surface is built on top rather than replacing Telford’s original foundation and surface.

So on this St David’s Day we celebrate the contribution of a great civil engineer and the enduring legacy he has made to the transport infrastructure of North Wales.

Signature of Thomas Telford

MS 64/22/1/1 Signature of Thomas Telford

 

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