Thomas Telford Anniversary

– in the House of Commons at 10:31 pm on 3 July 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Roy.]

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 10:33, 3 July 2007

I am pleased to have secured the opportunity to mark in the House the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Telford. I see this Adjournment debate as a contribution to the celebration of the life and legacy of an outstanding man, not just of his time but as one whose work has shaped his profession to this day, and many of whose engineering feats are still in use centuries later.

There is absolutely no doubt that Scotland would not be the place it is today without Thomas Telford. His work literally opened up the highlands with more than 900 miles of new roads, hundreds of bridges and ferry landing piers, and dozens of churches. Indeed, the work enabled the transportation of goods and people across the whole of Scotland, facilitating many aspects of the industrial revolution.

Today, we take it for granted that motorways, bridges and canals exist. We do not stop to consider that planning these transport networks and many aspects of the methodology of construction were visualised hundreds of years before. Telford's Glasgow-to-Carlisle road, of which many parts remain, runs through my constituency and was the equivalent of the modern M74 motorway, which is only now being completed between Gretna and Carlisle.

Although this debate is taking place hundreds of miles from Telford's birthplace at Glendinning at Westerkirk in the Dumfriesshire part of my constituency, it is taking place only a few hundred yards from his final resting place in Westminster Abbey—a mark of the esteem in which he is held and an honour bestowed on only one other civil engineer: Robert Stephenson, who pioneered the railways. Telford stamped his presence on civil engineering and is more than worth the set of stamps that the Royal Mail is producing this year. His legacy to his profession was in the standards he set for a reliable system of estimates, contracts, specifications and tenders, which are as relevant today as they were in the 1800s.

In our time, when social mobility is the subject of much debate, Thomas Telford's achievement was that he rose from being the son of a shepherd on a remote Dumfriesshire hillside to being the most lauded and esteemed civil engineer in the empire. His poet friend Robert Southey termed him the "Colossus of Roads". That is just one reason why I would like to see the Government in Westminster and the Scottish Government in Edinburgh do more to promote recognition of the achievements of Telford and people of his ilk, who did so much to shape the modern world in the final centuries of the last millennium.

Ahead of the debate, I had the opportunity to speak to Scotland's new Culture Minister, Linda Fabiani MSP, and was encouraged by her acceptance that Scotland could do better in promoting the life and legacy of such people as Telford, who leave a permanent footprint on our way of life and remain a lasting influence over Scotland, the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. I want to make the same plea to the Minister on a United Kingdom basis because, with his works in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, Telford was truly a great Briton.

To understand the motivations of such a man, we need to accept and appreciate where he came from. Telford was born on 9 August 1757. His father was a herdsman on the sheep farm of Glendinning at Westerkirk. It was and remains a remote and isolated area. It is farmed today by Lorraine Luesher, who works hard to keep the tradition of hill farming alive in Eskdale and who has produced a booklet on the Telford legacy. His father died weeks after his birth and so his mother Janet brought up Thomas. The close-knit local community supported the boy, who was known as "laughing Tam" for his good nature. As a youngster, he attended Westerkirk school and much of his early life was spent working as a shepherd on neighbouring farms, and with his widowed mother.

After leaving school, Telford looked for work that offered decent prospects. His family were able to get him placed as an apprentice mason. His first master treated him very cruelly and Telford ran away, but his cousin Thomas Jackson found him work with Andrew Thomson, a Langholm mason. The Duke of Buccleuch was improving his estate at that time and Telford was kept busy, becoming a journeyman mason earning 18d a day. As he himself said,

"I ever congratulate myself upon the circumstances which compelled me to begin by working with my own hands, and thus to acquire early experience of the habits and feelings of workmen".

During this time, Telford met Miss Pasley, whose books he was able to borrow. He became a voracious reader. He described his studies in the following way:

"I read, and read, and glowred; then read and read again."

At the age of 23, Telford considered himself to be the master of his art and went to Edinburgh. Although he lived much of his adult life away from his place of birth, he always thought fondly of it, writing in his autobiography:

"I still recollect with pride and pleasure my native parish of Westerkirk."

In Edinburgh, he studied drawing and its application to architecture. In 1782, Telford travelled south to find work in London, writing that he

"judged it advisable (like many of my countrymen) to proceed southward, where industry might find more employment, and be better rewarded."

He was lucky to obtain work at Somerset House, an enormous construction project at the time. He served as Shropshire's first surveyor of public works in 1787, and so began a career that included the building of roads, bridges, churches, harbours and canals, many of which are still in use today.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Conservative, Croydon Central

I am glad to hear my hon. Friend say that London was an expensive city even in those days. Does not Telford's contribution to London, particularly through St. Katherine's dock, show the many advantages of the Union? Perhaps this occasion can also be a celebration of the way in which people from across the United Kingdom have contributed to the success of Great Britain over the years.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, Telford was truly a great Briton; his works extended to Wales, to London and Portsmouth in England, and to the highlands of Scotland. Indeed, one of his great works was to ensure a mail route from London to Ireland. He was referred to as "pontifex maximus" for his considerable proficiency in building bridges, and in 1820 he was appointed the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He held the post until his death in 1834. He built his reputation on craftsmanship, as is demonstrated by the variety of projects that he undertook. Those projects include the Menai Strait and Conway bridges, the renovation of Shrewsbury castle, the Caledonian canal, St. Katherine's dock, which has been mentioned, and the stunning Pontcysyllte aqueduct over the River Dee.

The suspension bridge over the Menai Strait to Anglesey is a world-famous structure that still carries heavy traffic today, and it was a remarkable achievement at the time. The Caledonian canal is 60 miles long and stretches from Inverness to Fort William, and it is recognised as one of the great waterways of the world. The canal was instrumental in the development of the highland economy, and it facilitated trade between east and west, as well as with Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian countries. Telford's work can be seen outside the United Kingdom in the Gota canal in Sweden—a project that he surveyed in 1808 and instructed a team of engineers to carry out, via correspondence. It was completed in 1832. Telford was consulted by Governments, including those of Russia and Austria, for help in planning new roads and bridges. He also held sway in the House, not least because of his reputation for delivering road and bridge-building schemes on time and to budget—a lesson that many politicians could learn. It is clear from the minutes of Select Committees at the time that Thomas Telford's professional opinion was given significant weight when it came to the allocation of public funding.

As a largely self-taught man, Telford was passionate about education and supporting training, and he was a strong advocate of apprenticeships. That is reflected in the extensive education programme promoted today by the Institution of Civil Engineers. The institution is looking to highlight Telford's contribution to engineering over the past 250 years, but it also seeks to inspire a new generation of engineers for the next 250 years. Special activities for students this year include a series of new engineering teaching resources, and debating scenarios for citizenship lessons, involving political and ethical civil engineering issues. Apparently, the scenarios include the case for and against road pricing. In Scotland, both in Eskdale and as part of the "highland promise" project, a touring scale model suspension bridge with a span of 30 ft is assembled by groups of pupils, who get a real sense of construction and of the engineering principles behind the bridge.

It is appropriate to recognise the other work that the institution is doing to mark the 250th anniversary. There is an informative website, an exhibition at the Guildhall art gallery between 19 July and 2 September, and a wreath-laying ceremony at Westminster abbey. Yesterday, a Telford conference took place in Edinburgh, addressed by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.

Shropshire has already paid its greatest tribute to its first county surveyor from the 1780s by naming a town and several schools after him. Local communities there are holding many events over the summer to mark the anniversary, and I applaud particularly the work of the Telford and Wrekin council and was pleased to sign the early-day motion lodged by David Wright.

Back in Eskdale, in the muckle toon of Langholm and the parish of Westerkirk, the Langholm and Westerkirk Thomas Telford anniversary group, under the able stewardship of Margaret Sanderson and supported by the Langholm Initiative, are to be commended for having raised funding of more than £30,000 to organise a number of events, including holding a church service, creating a Langholm and Westerkirk Thomas Telford trail, which includes a cairn and plaque to be unveiled on 9 August at Glendinning, Westerkirk, a brochure, new interpretation boards, an audio guide created by Langholm Academy pupils, and a new web page.

A Telford family history day will be held and a piece of music to mark the anniversary has been commissioned and is being composed by Jamie Telford—no relation—which will be performed for the first time at a concert to be held on 8 September in the Buccleuch centre in Langholm by the Langholm pipe, flute and brass bands. I am sure the Minister will join me in applauding the considerable volunteer effort being put into the project to commemorate the anniversary at Telford's birthplace.

To conclude, in his will Telford left moneys for the establishment of libraries in both Westerkirk and Langholm, and both are still there today. It will be an honour for me to hand over a copy of Hansard from this debate to be kept in the Telford room of Langholm town hall as a record of this debate, as just one of the many events marking the 250th anniversary of a truly remarkable man.

Photo of David Wright David Wright PPS (Rt Hon Jane Kennedy, Financial Secretary), HM Treasury 10:46, 3 July 2007

I congratulate David Mundell on an outstanding speech celebrating Thomas Telford. He has done the House, and me, a service by securing the Adjournment debate this evening. It would be remiss of me, being the Member of Parliament whose constituency is named after Thomas Telford, if I did not make a few remarks tonight.

I have always said that I have lived in the town of Telford all my life. That is not quite true. I was born 40 years ago, and Telford new town was not designated until 29 September 1968, but I can say that I have lived in parts of what is now Telford for all my life. We as a community in the town celebrate this year the birth of Thomas Telford, the man who gave his name to our town. Before that, the area was called Dawley new town and it was expanded significantly in the late 1960s when there was a need for additional housing for people moving out of the west midlands conurbation. The town was built on the east Shropshire coalfield. It is a combination of older communities like Dawley, Madeley, Wellington and Oakengates, which had an engineering and mining history. Telford would have been proud that an area with that mining and industrial heritage and history was named after him.

There is sometimes confusion in Telford because people think that Thomas Telford designed the Iron Bridge, which of course is not true. The number of people who have said to me that Thomas Telford designed the Iron Bridge is incredible. The Iron Bridge was designed by Abraham Darby III, but it would have been difficult to call the town Darby when there already was a town called Derby, so it was a wise decision to call the town Telford when it was expanded in 1968. We are proud to share the connection with the hon. Gentleman's constituency. As I am holidaying in Scotland over the summer, I hope that I may be able to pay a visit to his constituency and his community to visit the site where Thomas Telford was born. I am looking forward to that very much.

I want to pay tribute also to Telford and Wrekin council for the programme of events that it has put together, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, over this year. There are some superb events involving schools and focusing on education. We can be proud of the connection that we are making with education. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Institution of Civil Engineers, which seems to be doing a great job. Its website contains a whole section on Thomas Telford, showing a timeline and focusing on his achievements. They are significant, and we would not have the nation that we have today without Telford. He was a great Briton. The point made earlier by the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the union is very much solidified by the work that Telford did during his lifetime, and the way in which that has lasted and provided a service to the public through the generations in terms of his engineering skills.

Telford and Wrekin council had a garden celebrating Telford at the Chelsea flower show, which was fantastic. I am not a great gardener, but my wife is, and we paid a visit to the garden, which I am pleased to report won a silver medal. The council hopes to do a further garden at Chelsea next year, because that will be the 40th anniversary of the designation of Telford new town in September 1968. Therefore, I should like the Government to think about whether they can roll the celebration of Telford's 250th anniversary through to a celebration of 40 years of what perhaps records him most in this country, and that is the town of Telford.

I again thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate and I look forward to my words joining his in his local library.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism) 10:51, 3 July 2007

As this is my first occasion at the Dispatch Box since my appointment as Minister with responsibility for culture, I should like to take this opportunity to say how delighted I am to take on such a stimulating and varied brief, covering a huge range of activities in which this country is a world leader.

I pay tribute to two of my predecessors whose portfolios mine now covers. One is my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy, with whom I look forward to working in his new capacity, and the other is my right hon. Friend Mr. Woodward, whom I am sure the House will want to congratulate on his new appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and wish him well.

I congratulate David Mundell on a comprehensive, clear and fulsome tribute to Thomas Telford. Scotland has an unparalleled record in producing civil engineers of the finest calibre, and Thomas Telford was clearly one of the most eminent of them all, which is signified, as the hon. Gentleman said, by his burial in Westminster abbey.

It is right that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and those communities in Scotland and in England whose heritage has been enhanced by the work of Thomas Telford, should seek to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his birth in an appropriate manner. I also acknowledge and have seen the events and activities being co-ordinated across the country by the Institution of Civil Engineers. In my previous ministerial role as Minister with responsibility for industry, I had much interaction with that institution. It is an excellent organisation that does an enormous amount of work in promoting engineering, and particularly in training, as the hon. Gentleman said.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend David Wright on his contribution to tonight's Adjournment debate. I have had the privilege of visiting Telford on a number of occasions and seeing the excellent work that has been carried out in a range of ministerial portfolios, and how well the new town has settled down to become established. It excels in many areas, so I am happy to take away and consider my hon. Friend's proposition, although he will recognise that I have very little direct authority. We work through non-departmental public bodies in most of the work that we do.

The 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Telford is a crucial event and all the events surrounding it are managed by those for whom the life of Thomas Telford had particular resonance. It is a little difficult for the Government to intervene directly, much as the hon. Gentleman would like me to, in activities surrounding the celebration of the life of one individual. The proper role for the Government is to support and invest in our heritage for the benefit of the public and for future generations. Our industrial heritage reflects the story of Britain and the world over the past 200 years. It is a source of education, inspiration and enjoyment to families and communities across the country, and to tourists from across the world.

This year alone, the Government will invest more than £500 million in the museums and heritage sector. It is right that expert bodies such as English Heritage and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council make the most effective use of taxpayers' money. As the number of deserving causes will always exceed the funds available, they are best placed to determine the priority projects for support. I am delighted that among the museums funded by the MLA's "Renaissance in the Regions" programme, Ironbridge Gorge museum is hosting an exhibition exploring the achievements of Thomas Telford.

Exchequer funding is, of course, complemented by money from the national lottery, and I commend the work of the Heritage Lottery Fund in awarding almost £4 billion to projects that have helped to open up our heritage for everyone to enjoy. That work is further enhanced by the tremendous contribution of a broad range of private, charitable and corporate donors, whose support deserves public recognition.

Last week, we saw just how vital public and private partnerships are to preservation of the nation's heritage. I was delighted that a unique coalition of partners came together to secure Dumfries house and its contents for the nation, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is fully aware of that. Together, they have been able to raise £45 million to ensure that the house and its contents will be open to the public for the first time. All those involved deserve recognition, and I was delighted that in addition to the substantial donations from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales's Charitable Foundation, the Monument Trust and the Art Fund, £12 million of public money was invested through the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Scottish Executive. Although Dumfries house lies just outside the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I am sure that he will join me in thanking all those involved in this remarkable demonstration of the value that we place on our heritage in Britain.

We are exceptionally fortunate in this country in having had eminent citizens in all walks of life and all fields of human endeavour. If we sought to mark every anniversary, we would undoubtedly be accused of being overly prescriptive. For example, 1757 also saw the birth of William Blake, who is also commemorated in Westminster abbey. So while we have no specific plans to mark the anniversary of Telford's birth, nor indeed that of William Blake, I wish all those marking the occasion every success in their activities, and I join the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the life and works of Thomas Telford.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at t wo minutes to Eleven o'clock.