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the Sharpness Canal

 

Thomas Telford's Contribution


        Celebrations took place during 2007 to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the great civil engineer Thomas Telford. With this in mind, this page highlights the vital role Telford played in the final stages of the construction of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal.

Initial Involvement
     Thomas Telford first visited the canal construction works in 1817 in his capacity as Consultant Engineer to the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners. The Commissionersí remit was to promote public works which would employ soldiers returning from the war with France that had ended in 1815. Following Telford's visit, they agreed to support the project, and construction work started again after a break of 19 years since the initial phase in the 1790s.

Progress at a Price
     Although good progress was made, including a junction with the Stroudwater Canal in 1820, the work of contractors and the supervision of resident engineers fell short of what was required for such a huge project. Telford was called in to advise on one crisis after another until the available money was all spent with much work still to do at Sharpness.

New Approach
     After a period of impasse, the Loan Commissioners took full financial control of the project, and they accepted Telford's advice as to how construction work should be managed in the future. Rather than seeking competitive tenders, he recommended giving a detailed specification to one experienced contractor, getting him to provide a detailed estimate and then letting him work under the supervision of a reliable resident engineer. On Telford's advice, Thomas Fletcher was recruited as resident engineer, and after lengthy negotiations, a contract for completing the canal was awarded to Hugh McIntosh in April 1823.

Contract Arrangements
     The contract set up by Telford and Fletcher at last provided a sound basis for the engineering supervision and financial monitoring of the huge project. The amount of work done each month was certified by Fletcher, counter-signed by Telford and paid for by the Loan Commissioners. Fletcher wrote regular reports to Telford and sometimes sought his guidance. When it was realised that certain items of additional work were needed to make the canal more useable, Telford was involved in drawing up a second contract for McIntosh in March 1824. When there was concern that sand was accumulating between the entrance piers at Sharpness, Telford gave instructions for reducing the protrusion of the north-east pier and modifying the shape of the other pier to encourage the currents to clear the sand.

Final Stage
        Telford was again involved in January 1825 when he backed the need for further money to pay for additional mud clearing, accommodation for operating staff and two warehouses at the north end of the basin at Gloucester. His recommendation again ensured that the Loan Commissioners provided the necessary finance. As work on the project continued, Telford sent further reports to the Loan Commissioners, including one giving his approval of its completion in April 1827, and then he authorised the final accounts for McIntosh's contracts.

Conclusion
        Although Telford only visited the canal from time to time, it is clear that he had a significant influence on certain design details and construction methods during the latter stages of constructing the canal, but probably of more significance was his role in obtaining the services of a reliable resident engineer and a competent contractor and providing them with sound contractual arrangements.

Sources
     Telford correspondence at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum and G&B Canal Co minute books at the National Archives.

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