Thomas Telford was responsible for the early 19th century improvements to the main line canal at Birmingham. Having surveyed the original Brindley contour canal across the Birmingham Plateau he declared it “little better than a crooked ditch” and set about carving a straight line across the route. The result was the largest earthwork in the world at the time – a little over 70 feet deep and a mile long – now known as the Galton Valley. It was crossed by the magnificent Galton Bridge, at the time the longest single span bridge in the world. Among his other improvements to the canal system were the Engine Arm feeder canal that crosses the new line and carries water supplies to the old main line across the dramatic, cast-iron Engine Arm aqueduct, a scheduled ancient monument.
Telford is also known for his audacious improvements to the old Roman road of Watling Street (the A5) that led from London to Wales. His engineering feats include the masterpiece of the Menai Bridge, a suspension bridge that carries the road across the Menai Strait and onto Anglesey to open up the western port of Holyhead. The Menai Bridge was built between 1818 and 1826 at a height of 153 feet, a length of 1388 feet and a main span of 580 feet.
Another of his A5 works is the magnificent Waterloo Bridge over the River Conwy at Betwys-y-Coed inscribed: “This arch was constructed in the same year the Battle of Waterloo was fought. 1815”
Engineer Eugenius Birch is most famous for his seaside pier constructions. During his life he was responsible for no fewer than 14 of them including some of the best known such as Brighton West and Blackpool North. Born in Gloucester Terrace, Shoreditch, Eugenius was the son of a corn dealer, John Birch and his wife Susanne. His older brother, John Brannis Birch, worked closely with Eugenius on his engineering projects.
Birch’s early education took place in Brighton but he developed his taste for engineering while watching the cutting of the Regent’s Canal near his home in London. While he was a young boy he submitted an idea to the Greenwich Railway Company that, at the time, was novel and innovative. He suggested a method to put wheels under a railway carriage, rather than at the sides.
At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a works in Limehouse, London. Within three years he was achieving success with medals for his drawings of working engines and machinery.As well as piers Birch was responsible for other, more conventional, structures such as bridges and he was involved in building the Calcutta to Delhi railway in India where he learned some of the oriental design that he later incorporated into his seaside structures. His first pier was built at Margate in 1853 but altogether he was responsible for 14 around England and Wales: Aberystwyth, Blackpool North, Bournemouth, Brighton West, Deal, Eastbourne, Hastings, Hornsea, Lytham, Margate, New Brighton, Plymouth, Scarborough and Weston-Super-Mare Birnbeck.
Most were constructed in cast iron because he believed that wrought iron piers would be a hazard if they were hit by boats. He argued that wrought iron would bend and buckle, and would take a great deal of repairing. Cast iron, however, would shatter, reducing the damage area and hence cutting repair costs. Neglect and old age have put paid to most of Birch’s piers, however, and little now remains of his original work.