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Episode taken from The Hotspur issue: 1174 May 9th 1959






THOMAS TELFORD was a Scot’ stone mason whose name was soon to become famous throughout Britain. Laughing Tom as Telford was known, on account of his cheerful disposition, was to leave his mason’s mark chiseled on bridges, canals and docks throughout the country. Telford was determined to learn all he could about engineering. While at work he noted all that went on around him, and he studied far into the night. Mr Pulteney, a prominent Member of Parliament, took an interest in Laughing Tom and gave him the job of rebuilding Shrewsbury Castle. With him Telford took his foreman, red-haired, re-bearded Iron Jack Simpson, a noted prizefighter. Lord Conway, a sporting Shropshire nobleman, fixed up a fight for Iron Jack with a veteran boxer, the Bristol Butcher. Prizefighting at that time, towards the end of the eighteenth century, was a pretty tough business. The contestants fought with bare knuckles, and a round went on until one man was knocked down. He was given a minute to recover and, if he failed, his opponent won. Moreover, prizefighting was against the law, and a fight was liable to be interrupted by soldiers at any time. Laughing Tom, Mr Pulteney and Lord Conway were watching the fight between Iron Jack and the Bristol Butcher from Lord Conway’s coach. The contest had already lasted for forty-six rounds, and both boxers were looking the worse for wear. Rain was falling in torrents. The ground was a churned-up bog. Three thousand fight followers stood up to their ankles in mud as the boxers clinched, slipped, slithered and swung at one another in a miniature lake that was supposed to be the ring. “Call it a day, My Lord,” urged Laughing Tom. The Scot’s red face normally good-humoured, was creased in an anxious frown. “Sorry, Telford,” said Lord Conway. “I have a thousand guineas on the Bristol Butcher there, and I lose it if the fight is declared drawn. Sorry, but the fight goes on.” “But the fight need not be abandoned, Lord Conway,” put in Mr Pulteney. “What do you suggest, Pulteney?” asked Conway, with a frown, as the Bristol Butcher crashed on his back and the forty-sixth round ended. “Declare an adjournment,” urged Pulteney. “Take the fighters back to my estate at Shrewsbury and let them finish the fight in my big barn.” “No. That favours Iron Jack,” said Conway. “He’s younger than Butcher, and he’ll recover quicker and be fresher when the fight restarts. I say the fight continues.” Flashes of lightning lit up the clearing as Iron Jack Simpson and the Bristol Butcher came to the mark once more. They had now been fighting for two hours. The Butcher was in bad shape. Iron Jack’s bare knuckles had ripper his face in several places. Huge, ugly bruises showed on his ribs, livid under the coating of mud that he had acquired from being felled so often. Iron Jack was in little better shape. The Butcher’s huge fists had landed many times, and the fighting foreman had a sharp pain in his side that seemed to suggest cracked ribs. Simpson was beginning to feel that he lacked the strength to put the Bristol man down for longer than the required minute. The Butcher grunted as Iron Jack’s fists beat a tattoo on his leathery skin. But by this time the knuckles of both boxers, though they had been pickled for days in brine, were so swollen that the punches lacked force. The Butcher gripped Iron Jack and tried to throw him, but slipped on the wet ground and almost fell himself. Throwing was quite permissible by the rules of that time. As the Butcher stumbled, Iron Jack smashed him behind the ear, and the Bristol fighter collapsed in the mud. His seconds immediately rushed out and pulled him to his corner. One made a knee for him, and the other tried to revive him. Iron Jack slithered to his corner to wait for the call to start the forty-eighth round. A peal of thunder rumbled directly overhead. Seconds later a flash of lightning lit up the clearing. As the flash seared the eyes of the crowd, there was a sulphurous stench and a tremendous ripping, tearing noise. A huge oak on the far side of the clearing swayed and began to topple towards the ring. There was a frenzied scramble. Iron Jack shot across the churned-up ring and grabbed his unconscious opponent, who had been abandoned by his seconds. The great oak continued to topple with menacing slowness. Telford watched in agony as the falling tree blotted out his foreman and friend, Iron Jack. Then he leapt from the coach and struggled to the scene of the accident. Around him men pelted in all directions, frantic to get clear before another tree came down. The fight and the fighters were forgotten. “Here I am, Master Telford,” came a hoarse shout. Dimly, Laughing Tom made out the figure of Simpson pinned under the tree. “Are you all right?” he shouted anxiously. “They don’t call me Iron Jack for nothing,” laughed the foreman. “I’m caught by a branch, that’s all. Lend me a hand to get the Butcher clear.” The Scot pulled away some of the smaller branches, then levered the Bristol Butcher clear of the tree. The two fighters had been saved from the weight of the trunk by the heavy outer branches of the oak, and by the soft mud. However, this very fact was now imperiling Iron Jack’s life, for the tree was gradually sinking deeper in the mud, and threatened to crush Simpson to the ground. Then Telford found Lord Conway’s coachman at his elbow. The man had a crowbar and an axe with him. There was no time for delay. The oak was settling. Occasional cracks and snaps came from under the weight of the trunk. Telford swung the axe. The coachman found he could get no grip in the muddy earth with his crowbar, so he grabbed Simpson’s leg and began tugging wildly. The axe work by Telford freed Simpson from the entangling branches. “He’s coming out!” yelled the coachman as he felt Iron Jack move. “That’s only my leg coming off,” joked the foreman calmly, as Telford’s axe bit into the branch that held him to the ground. There was a splintering crack. The coachman sprawled in the mud as Iron Jack shot out like a cork from a flask, wriggled clear, and sprang to his feet. Then the oak heeled over and ground into the mud over the spot where the foreman had been trapped. Iron Jack had been rescued with seconds to spare. Back at Lord Conway’s coach, Telford looked down at the Bristol Butcher who was just beginning to stir. “All that fun, and he missed it,” chuckled Laughing Tom. “Some people can sleep through anything!” “I suppose I owe you a thousand guineas, Pulteney,” said Lord Conway ruefully. “Technically, the fight was abandoned before a decision was reached, actually—” He grinned and pointed at the Butcher, who was holding his head, groaning, and trying to sit up. “Maybe we can arrange a second meeting, My Lord,” said Pulteney. “No doubt these two would like to fight this matter to a more definite finish at some later date.” “I’ll consider it, Pulteney,” said Conway curtly. “Now we must try to get out of this confounded wood before the tracks become completely impassable. Why doesn’t someone build some decent roads in this country?” Through the coach had four horses, it soon began to look as though the boxers and their backers would be bogged down. The cart track was two feet deep in mud, and the horses steamed as they strained to shift the coach. Suddenly there was a lurch and the coach tilted at an acute angle. There was a shout from the coachman. “We’re in the ditch, My Lord!” he bellowed. “Everybody out,” ordered Lord Conway. The travelers stared in dismay at the coach, lying at an angle, up to its axles in muddy water. “Leave this to the engineers,” chuckled Telford. Now that Iron Jack was alright, the Scot was back to his usual smiling self. Soon Telford and his foreman had got hold of the small trees that had been felled and left to be collected for pit props. They rammed the trees under the coach and started to lever. Telford ordered the coachman to pile brushwood under the coach, while the others yanked on the makeshift levers. Reluctantly, with a sucking squelch, the coach came upright on to the track, and the heaving horses pulled it to firmer ground. Once more the coach got under way. “Your friend is an engineer, Pulteney?” asked Lord Conway after the coach had reached the comparative safety of the so-called main road to Shrewsbury. “A stone mason. my lord,” answered Telford boldly, “who has ambitions to be an engineer.” I have jobs for him in Shrewsbury,” explained Pulteney. “Telford has come to restore the castle and to build a jail in the town.” “Well, Master Telford,” said Lord Conway, speaking directly to the Scots engineer for almost the first time, “maybe I have a job for you, too. You saved me from an uncomfortable walk of several miles just now.” Two days later, as Telford and Iron Jack bent over the plans for Shrewsbury’s new prison, a liveried messenger came in with a packet for the Scottish mason. “Lord Conway’s seal,” observed Laughing Tom. “This looks interesting.” He opened the packet. Inside was an imposing document. Laughing Tom chuckled, then called to Iron Jack. “Listen to this,” he laughed. “I am hereby appointed to be Surveyor of Public Works for the County of Shropshire. And Lord Conway demands that I do something about the roads!” “You’re an engineer now, Master Telford,” said Simpson. Laughing Tom nodded, a faraway look in his eyes. “I’ll do something about the roads, all right,” he said. “Telford’s roads will be the best in the world!”

ST CHAD’S                                                                                                                             

SHREWSBURY CASTLE did not overtax Telford’s building genius, and he soon began to get work on the jail. It was while he was laying foundations for this that he was asked to meet a deputation from St Chad’s, one of the Shrewsbury churches. “Master Telford,” said the spokesman, “we have come to you because we hear you are the finest builder in the country. We want you to come and see what can be done to make St Chad’s church safe for its congregation. “I’ll be there on Saturday, gentlemen,” said Laughing Tom. On Saturday afternoon Telford and Iron Jack went along to St Chad’s to see what was wrong with the building. “It’s a marvel the thing still stands, gentlemen,” chuckled Telford after one careful look. “Come outside into the churchyard, if you please, while I make an inspection. I have no mind to be brained by the steeple if it falls into the nave.” “Come, come, Telford,” said the spokesman of the deputation, though he, too, left the church hurriedly. “The building is not in such a state of collapse, surely? You exaggerate.” Laughing Tom said nothing. His expert eye traced cracks running right up the side of the building. He noted a fault at the base of the steeple. “We’ll have to look more closely,” he said to Iron Jack. “Are you prepared to take the risk?” “If you are,” replied Simpson promptly. The two men went back into the church and stared upwards in the gloom. “See,” said Telford. “There’s the crack we saw outside. It runs from that pillar to the base of the steeple. Yes, and the steeple has a fault in it, as well. Don’t breathe too heavily, Jack, or the whole thing will fall down.” “Can I be of any help, sir?” came a voice at Telford’s side. Laughing Tom turned and found the verger standing by. “Yes,” said Telford promptly. “Ring the bell.” The verger went to a small room at the base of the steeple and tugged the thick rope that snaked upwards in the darkness to the bell at the top. The great bell clanged loudly. Then a shower of lime dust fell thickly and settled on Laughing Tom’s broad shoulders. “That’s enough!” declared the Scot. He led the way outside and faced the St Chad’s committee. “Gentlemen,” he said, “unless you take immediate steps, your building will fall down.” “This is not a matter for jest, Telford,” said the spokesman heavily. “What do you suggest?” “Heavy timbering at once,” said Telford promptly. “We must hold the fabric of the building up. Shoring inside the building, and the replacing of two pillars on the south side, both of which are in a state of total decay. Much renewal of stonework, filling in of cracks and above all—” “This is rubbish, Telford!” interrupted one of the committee angrily. “These cracks have been there for years! You are deliberately trying to scare us in order to get work for yourself out of it. We shall employ the local builder to make minor repairs!” The Surveyor of Public Works for Shropshire grinned in his easy way. The idea of his scrounging for work struck him as funny, when he had buildings, roads, and bridges all waiting for him to tackle. “As you please,” he answered placidly. “However, there is one thing you must do, gentlemen.” He prepared to move off. “What is that?” demanded one of the deputation. “Stop your clock!” said Telford as he walked away. “Your church is in such condition that even the striking of the clock will bring it down!” “I never heard such stuff!” bawled one of the committee angrily. “I knew we should never have asked that man for his opinion! He was only trying to secure employment! Stop the clock, indeed! Why, it was a present from the King himself a hundred years ago!” Muttering, the deputation moved away. In the steeple the clock struck three with a sonorous boom and a great deal of whirring. In the bell room more lime dust floated down. Telford stood looking at the church with a calculating eye. “That church has one more hour to live,” he said. Telford and Simpson sat by the Severn bank. At ten to four Laughing Tom rose to his feet. Iron Jack, still sitting gazing at the Severn, dreamed of his next fight. “Come on, Jack,” said Laughing Tom. “We must make sure that the verger is safe.” “Eh?” said the uncomprehending foreman. He scrambled to his feet nonetheless and raced after Telford, who was making towards St Chad’s with a purposeful stride. “Ah, theirs is the verger,” said Telford as they came in sight of the cottage close to the church. “He’s in his garden. He’s safe enough there.” Simpson was amazed. He had no idea what Telford was talking about. The two of them sat down on the wall that ran along the side of the verger’s garden. “You’ve right maddened them, Master Telford,” said the verger, recognising Laughing Tom. “They’re in a rage!” There was a whirring from the steeple, then the clock began to strike. It was four o’clock. “Hush!” commanded Telford as Iron Jack started to speak. The Scot stood, hands on hips. The other two watchers stared as the clock boomed four times. Nothing happened. Then vibrations, almost like ripples on the sea, ran down the side of the spire. There was a faint rumble, and the great vertical crack that ran from the base of the church began to widen at the top, where it joined the steeple base. A crash came from inside St Chad’s. “That’s one of the rotten pillars,” said Telford calmly. “And there goes the other,” he added as a crackling rumble came again from the church. A window crumpled, and inside a cloud of dust could be seen rising slowly. Then, as Iron Jack and the verger gaped in awe, the spire of St Chad’s slowly tilted. Two more cracks opened as if an earthquake were taking place. The spire heeled over. There was a thunderous roar, and the spire vanished through the roof of the church. One of the walls crumbled and went to join the pile of stone that had once been St Chad’s. Only a hugh pile of rubble, over which dust drifted and settled, remained to show where St Chad’s had been. The time was two minutes past four. A deadly quiet fell on the churchyard. Laughing Tom looked at the pile of rubble, his mouth twitching. He tried hard to suppress his mirth, but it was too much for him, peal after peal of laughter burst from Telford’s lips, while the tears coursed down his rosy cheeks.


SHREWSBURY JAIL was growing swiftly under the expert guidance of the Scot’s engineer. “The one thing that worries me is the use of convict labour,” said Telford to Iron Jack one night as they sat at supper in their lodgings. While the jail was being built, Telford was forced to use as labourers all the convicts who were destined to fill the jail. These men were kept in a filthy little overcrowded jail at the other end of the town. “I sometimes fear that some of them may break away and cause a riot in the town,” said Telford. “I should be held responsible. There’s a huge, surly brute who is causing trouble.” “I’ve seen him,” agreed Iron Jack. “The one with the great black beard. He seems familiar, too, somehow. I’ll watch that he causes no trouble for you, Master Telford.” For another week the jail went smoothly on towards completion. The famous John Howard, who spent his life visiting prisons and trying to have improvements made in them, came to see Telford, and made suggestions about Shrewsbury jail which the Scot was glad to accept. And the convicts were quiet enough, except for the huge bruiser with the black beard. “It was a lord who put me here!” he snarled at Telford one day. “I’ll have my hands on his throat yet!” Laughing Tom paid no attention, for he caught sight of two men picking their way through the prison yard. As they came closer he recognised them as Mr Pulteney and Lord Conway. “Ah, Telford!” said Conway in friendly fashion. “I saw your work at the castle. Capital! And your jail?” “Nearly done, My Lord,” said Telford. “Then I’ll make you roads that will be a joy to travel on.” “Good—” Lord Conway was beginning when a tremendous roar interrupted him. The black-bearded man had smashed his chains with a hugh lump of stone and a mason’s chisel. Now he was standing on an unfinished wall, howling at the others. “Break your chains and come with me!” he yelled. “If you don’t want to spend your Christmas in jail, break your chains!” “I know that man’s voice,” said Conway sharply as answering shouts came from many of the desperate men at work on the prison. The black-bearded man turned, saw Conway and, screaming with hate, he came charging down. Lord Conway coolly raised his cane in an attempt to defend himself. Then Iron Jack arrived. He bulleted himself into the black-bearded man and sent him crashing to the ground. But the convict got up in a flash and dived at Simpson his fists flailing. “Come on, Butcher!” bellowed the other convicts. They stopped trying to break their chains as two of Lord Conway’s gamekeepers ran in with levelled guns, and they formed a circle round the fighting pair. “It’s the Bristol Butcher!” said Telford in amazement. “Ah, yes,” said Conway coolly. “He stole one of my horses. I’ll have the man transported to Australia for this.” “You were very lucky just now, My Lord,” said Pulteney. “If he’d got his hands on your throat you would have seen your last prizefight.” “Break them apart!” ordered Lord Conway. His two keepers went forward, prodded the Butcher with their guns, and drove him back. “Now, Pulteney,” said Conway, “we can have our return fight. A thousand guineas, I think it was?” “That’s so, My Lord,” said the Shrewsbury M.P. “If Iron Jack agrees.” “I agree,” growled the foreman, watching the Bristol Butcher carefully. “Now, listen, Butcher,” said Conway coldly. “If you fight Iron Jack and win I’ll withdraw my charge against you and pay you one hundred pounds. If you lose, you’ll be transported for life to Australia. I’ll see to that. Now, will you fight?” “I’ll fight, all right,” snarled the Butcher. “Usual rules,” rapped Conway. “Can we have seconds? My keepers will act for Simpson, if you care.” “By your leave, My Lord,” said Telford, “I will act as second for Iron Jack. Your keepers can keep an eye on the convicts.” A scratch was made on the hard earth that was soon to be the prison courtyard. There was no ring. The fight began. At once the Butcher sprang to the attack. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Soon Iron Jack was hard pressed, but the first round lasted fifteen minutes before a heavy right smashed on Simpson’s temple and knocked him to the ground. Before anyone could stop him the Bristol Butcher kicked Iron Jack savagely in the very spot where his ribs had been damaged in the previous fight. Iron Jack rolled away from further assault, and got slowly to his feet. His eyes blazed as he walked over to Telford. Lord Conway called time at the end of a minute, and the Butcher swaggered to the line with a leer on his face. Iron Jack came up slowly, then threw a right which landed on the Butcher’s throat. Coughing and choking, drawing breaths with long, tearing gasps, the Bristol tough staggered round the circle of convicts. Iron Jack went after him with both hands. Suddenly a convict stuck out a leg as the foreman went past. Iron Jack crashed heavily to the ground, striking his head on a piece of stone in his fall. Laughing Tom bounded out and half-carried his friend to his corner, Iron Jack was quite unconscious. But Iron Jack came round with ten seconds to spare. He got to the mark, but was immediately felled. A gamekeeper’s gun kept the Butcher from any more kicking. Four times Iron Jack got to the mark, and was immediately flattened. But, as Telford dragged him back for the fourth time, the foreman opened one eye and winked. Laughing Tom realised that Iron Jack was merely using the minute’s rest each time to shake off the effects of the fall and the blow on the head. The Scot grinned broadly. When the seventh round was called the Bristol Butcher came out for the kill, while Iron Jack staggered to the line. Then the foreman danced out of reach of the flailing punch thrown at him and, as the Butcher swayed off balance, Iron Jack pivoted and hit him with tremendous force under the ear. The Bristol Butcher dropped like a stone. The fight was over. There was no further trouble at Shrewsbury jail. Telford got the job finished in record time, and started on his roadmaking work as County Surveyor.


Laughing Tom builds roads in


Yarn – with the help of the



Episode, taken from The Hotspur issue: 1175 May 16th 1959.






TOWARDS the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Telford was slowly beginning to be recognised as an engineer of great ability. Telford was a Scotsman who had come to London as a stonemason. Soon he was to leave his mason’s mark on great engineering works in every part of Britain. Telford was a cheerful, happy man known to his friends as Laughing Tom. When he was appointed County Surveyor for Shropshire, one of Telford’s first jobs was to do something about the roads in that part of England. The state of the roads in Britain at that time was terrible. In fact they were no more than tracks, bad enough in summer and very often impassable in winter. Telford was sitting one day in the hut which served him as an office on the site of a new road. With him was his foreman, red-haired, red-bearded Iron Jack Simpson, a noted prizefighter. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. “Letter for Master Telford,” shouted the Shrewsbury postal carrier from outside Telford’s office. “Master Telford’s busy. I’ll take it to him,” growled Iron Jack, who was so broad and tall that he had to stoop and twist sideways to come out of the narrow door. “Not so fast,” snapped the carrier. “There’s four shillings to pay on this. It’s from London.” “Take it away, then,” shouted Simpson. “No letter can be worth four shillings.” The carrier scratched his head. At that time postage was still paid by the person who received the letter, and the cost was based on the distance the letter had come. But if a person refused the letter, there was no payment. “All right, Jack, I want that letter,” said laughing Tom, coming to the door. “Four shillings is robbery,” said Iron Jack, taking the packet from the carrier and handing over the money reluctantly. At that time, four shillings was nearly two days’ wages for a workman, or ‘navvy,’ as labourers were beginning to be called. “The time will come when the roads of Britain will be so good and the postal services so well organised,” said Telford, slitting open the packet, “that a letter will go from Land’s End to John o’ Groats for a penny. Iron Jack laughed at what he thought was another of Telford’s jokes, but the engineer was quite serious. Then a twinkle came into his eye. “There was a farmer who lived near us in Eskdale,” he said with a grin. “His son went to London, and every week the son sent his father a blank sheet of paper.” “Why?” asked Iron Jack. “Well,” said Laughing Tom, “when the farmer saw the carrier with the letter he knew his son was well. So he refused the letter and saved his money. It was a trick they had worked out before the son left home. In any case the old man could not read.” Telford opened the packet and stared intently at the paper in his hand. “Look at this, Jack,” he said after a few minutes. He handed the paper to the foreman. “What is it?” asked Iron Jack, studying the paper. “It’s a cross-section of a Roman road man,” exploded Telford. “There have been no decent roads built in Britain for fifteen hundred years. These miserable, rutted tracks are all we have. The last decent roads were built by the Romans.” Iron Jack stared as Telford waved the paper excitedly. The Scot seemed to light up with enthusiasm. “Do you realise that parts of a road made over fifteen hundred years ago by Roman soldiers are still being used?” Telford shouted. “They call it Watling Street. Fifteen hundred years!” “There wasn’t the heavy traffic then,” objected the foreman. “No, but heavy traffic can’t go by road now,” replied Telford. “It has to go by canal, where there are canals. Once I’ve studied how to make roads like the Romans, people will be able to send heavy loads on the roads. Yes, and they’ll go quicker, too.” “That would be something,” admitted Iron Jack. “I hear that the journey from London to Edinburgh takes ten days.” “It used to,” agreed Telford. “They can do it in three of four days now. But only the rich can travel by these fast coaches.” “Let’s have another look at this plan of yours,” said Iron Jack. “See how strong the Roman roads were,” said Telford. “First, there’s a base of big stones, flints, then two layers of rammed chalk and gravel. Then there are stone slabs on top, and ditches lined with slate down each side. It’s a real engineering job, not like the roads round here.” “Well, there’s one road round here that’ll be as good,” grinned Iron Jack, “and it’s time that the engineer and the foreman went out to see how it’s coming on.” Telford chuckled and went for his horse. Soon the two men approached the village of Wroxeter. Laughing Tom’s sharp eyes darted everywhere, noting the navvies busy on the foundations of his new road. At his order, they were breaking up stones into sharply angled pieces. “You see,” he explained to Simpson, “the round stones that are used for roads today don’t grip. Water gets in between them. Carriage wheels make ruts. I intend to get my road to pack together and become solid, as the Romans did.” Suddenly the Scot reined in and jumped from his horse. He rushed to the side of the half-made road, where two navvies were smashing stones. “Where did those stones come from?” he shouted. “They’re dressing stones, properly finished. Look, you can see the tool marks. Where did you get them?” “From the farmer yonder, Master Telford,” said one of the workmen. Laughing Tom grabbed his reins again. “Come on,” he said to Iron Jack. “We must see this farmer at once.” Soon they were dismounting at the farmhouse, but the farmer’s son said that his father was in the fields working. Telford and Simpson set off in the direction the boy indicated. “Good day, farmer,” called the engineer as they came up to the farmer, who was guiding two horses drawing a heavy plough. “What be you wanting, then?” asked the farmer abruptly. “If it’s more stones, you’ll get ‘em surely. Drat ‘em for plough wasters and harrow-spoilers. The ground is full o’ them.” “This is where the stones come from is it?” said Telford eagerly. “That it be,” said the farmer. “Hopeless for ploughing, and when the crops come up, they be scorched from the stones underneath.” There was a low rumble and a sucking sound as he spoke, then a part of the field seemed to cave in. The plough lurched and the horses shied. A hole about eight feet across and four feet deep had appeared in the surface of the field. “Look!” shouted Telford. “I was right. These are no ordinary stones. They were put there by the Romans.” Iron Jack and the farmer stared at the hole. All they could see was something that looked like a wall and, at the bottom of the hole, some large flat stones. “What is it?” asked Simpson after a minute. “It’s Watling Street!” exclaimed Telford. “It’s a bit of the very Roman road I was telling you about. No need for a plan or a diagram now. We can see for ourselves on the very site. Farmer, no more ploughing here, if you please.” “That’s all very well, master,” objected the man. “But I have my living to make.” “I’ll see you don’t lose by it,” said Telford, his eyes shining. “Go and get a squad of men, Iron Jack. We’ll do some digging here.” Work on the new road was suspended and, under Telford’s eye, the hole in the field was enlarged. People came from the village of Wroxeter, and Telford learned that for many years the villagers had been using the area as a quarry. Walls, houses, barns, byres, all had been made with the Roman stones. Two days later a professor came from Oxford to inspect the site. By now, under Telford’s direction, part of a Roman village had been excavated. “This must be the place called ‘Uriconium’ or ‘Viriconium’ by the Romans,” the professor decided. “The road you have found is Watling Street all right. Some of these ruins add greatly to our knowledge of the Roman way of life.” Telford greatly pleased pointed to one part of the excavations. “There’s an excellent specimen of a Roman bath over there,” he said, “and as fine a piece of mosaic floor as I’ve seen in any book. But it’s the central heating system that interests me.” “Central heating?” asked Iron Jack. “The Romans must have found this a cold island,” said Telford with a smile. “They had a fire in the basement of their village. Hot air went from it through the whole house, under floors and up hollow walls. In that way, the whole house was warmed.” “Then the Romans have something to teach even an expert builder like yourself, Master Telford,” said the professor. “I’ve studied their bridges, their houses, and their roads,” said the great engineer. “I’ve learned many things from them. My roads in Shropshire will be modeled on the old Roman roads.” Soon Telford’s men were back, hard at work on the road to Wroxeter. But others came to continue the excavation. Thanks to the sharp eyes and keen brain of the Scots engineer, one of the most famous towns in Britain yielded its secrets to the experts.




YOU are for Birmingham, then, Master Telford?” asked Iron Jack several days later when he came on Telford getting ready for a journey on horseback. “No, Jack we are for Birmingham,” chuckled the engineer. “Our roads are being held up for lack of workmen. We’ll have to go into the town and seek some out.” “Good,” said the foreman. “I hear that a friend of mine is in Birmingham just now. His name is John Cribb, and his young son is already becoming known as a fine prizefighter.” The two men set out, moving at first along one of Telford’s half-finished roads, then through country lanes and badly rutted tracks, till at last they saw the smoke of the rapidly growing town of Birmingham. “Reminds me of London,” said Telford with a grimace. “I don’t like towns, I fear Country life is much healthier.” “Life isn’t very healthy here, anyway,” said Iron Jack, reining in. He dismounted beside a man sprawled at the side of the road. The man was badly cut about the head and unconscious. Telford and Simpson between them picked him up and took him to a nearby stream. They bathed his head, and after a while the man opened his eyes. He tried to get up, then groaned and fell back. “What happened, friend?” asked Telford. “Some started a riot,” said the man hoarsely. “The Friends of Paris, they called themselves. Then someone threw a stone and it hit me, I think. I don’t know any more.” “But we are not in Birmingham yet,” said Telford. “How do you come to be lying in a lane, two miles from the town?” “The meeting was in a field over yonder,” said the man, pointing. “We went to listen to the speeches. Then the militia came to interfere and the riot started.” Telford understood. In France a great revolution was in full swing. Every day, many people were executed by the guillotine. France was also at war with Austria and Prussia, and there was some talk of Britain joining in. Many people in Britain sympathized with the revolutionaries in France. They met in halls and in fields to listen to speeches and to demand reform in Britain. Often meetings ended in riots and bloodshed. People were arrested and shipped in thousands to the penal settlements in Australia. “Come along, Master Telford,” urged Iron Jack. “We will find many men in Birmingham today.” “And a fight, eh, Iron Jack?” chuckled the engineer. “Well, if our friend here is recovered, we may press on.” Soon, evidence of the riot met their eyes as they got deeper into the town. Broken windows, smashed signs, distant shouts and bangs, all told of trouble ahead. Then Telford and his foreman passed a knot of people who were trying to put out a fire in one of the new tenements that were being thrown up as the town’s size increased. “These look likely lads,” said Telford suddenly, noticing a group of men standing at a street corner. He reined in his horse beside the group. “I’m Telford, Surveyor for Shropshire,” he announced. “I want men for road-making. The pay is good—two and six a day—there is free dinner at noon, and sleeping accommodation will be found. Now, who’s for the country and road-making?” The men looked at him in hostile fashion, but said nothing. Then one, a great ruffian with heavy black eyebrows, snarled something that Telford didn’t catch. “One minute!” bawled Iron Jack Simpson, sliding from his saddle and going over to the black-browed man. “We ask civil questions, offer good wages, and we expect polite replies. I’ll have you ask Master Telford’s pardon.” “We want no work on roads,” gritted the ruffian, who was as big and as broad as Iron Jack. “When the government is pulled down, we will all be lords. Be off or we’ll pull you down, too.” Iron Jack’s great fists clenched. But Telford saw the group of men beginning to close on his red-haired foreman. “Come on, Iron Jack,” he called. “There will be others more willing to work than these idle loafers.” But at the mention of the foreman’s name, the black-browed tough motioned to his companions. Telford’s horse was seized, and Iron Jack was surrounded. “So you’re Iron Jack?” sneered the tough. “Well, my bucko, do you know who I am? I’m the Brum Cannon, that’s who I am.” The Brum Cannon was a well-known Birmingham prizefighter. Brum is the nickname for Birmingham. “Take your men and riot somewhere else, Cannon,” growled Iron Jack. “We have work to do.” “Not before you show me the gunpowder you have in those fists, Iron Jack,” snarled the Brum Cannon. “Off with your coat and show us your worth, if you please.” At that second there came the thud of running feet on the cobbles. Then around the corner charged a dozen men. “There they are,” roared the man at the front of this dozen. “They started the riot in order to loot shops while the riot was on. Grab them!” The Brum Cannon snarled savagely, then spun round and led his men at the newcomers. Inside seconds a tremendous fight was taking place. A huge knot of bodies whirled and thudded together in the narrow Birmingham street. Telford backed his horse away from the melee. But Iron Jack was in his element. He swung his mighty fists and did terrible damage to the riot raisers. Slowly, however, the Brum Cannon and his men began to gain the upper hand. Gradually they got together and began to drive the others down the street. Then two more people arrived. One was an elderly man with only one eye. His face was seemed and scarred. The other was a young lad of about sixteen, but broad and strong for his age. “Don’t give way, lads,” shouted the elderly man. He plunged into the fight and the retreat stopped. Two minutes later Iron Jack found himself fighting alongside the boy. He noted with surprise the speedy footwork of the youngster and his deadly left. The boy was a boxer, and he seemed to fear no foe, however big and powerful. But Iron Jack had no time to admire the boy’s skill. He was set on by two of the Brum Cannon’s gang, and for a time he was hard-pressed against the gable end of a tenement. After a terrific struggle he succeeded in overpowering both his opponents. The fight was almost over. Only the Brum Cannon remained on his feet, and Iron Jack closed with him. “Hold it, Iron Jack,” came a loud shout. “Leave that one to me.” It was the one-eyed man. “John Cribb, by thunder,” bellowed Iron Jack, shaking the old prizefighter’s hand. “I hoped to see you, and I might have known it would be in a fight, but the Cannon’s mine.” The Brum Cannon crouched by a wall, warily studying his enemies. Round him lay his men unable to help. “A bargain with you, Master Telford,” he called to the engineer. Laughing Tom, who had dismounted, came forward, stepping over unconscious toughs. “You want men for your roads,” said the Brum Cannon. “I have a proposition. Let me fight this man of yours, Iron Jack. If I win, I go free from here. If I lose, I and all my men will come to work for you.” “Agreed,” said Iron Jack at a nod from Telford. “John Cribb will be one of my seconds.” “And I’ll be the other, Iron Jack,” said the young lad coming forward. “I’m his son, Tom Cribb.” Several years later Tom Cribb was to become the most famous prizefighter in England. But that day, in a back street in Birmingham, he learned a lot from watching the fighting methods of Telford’s foreman, Iron Jack. Two of the toughs who had recovered consciousness acted as seconds for the Brum Cannon and gradually a great crowd collected at windows and in the street to see the most unusual fight ever to take place in Birmingham, for a prize of a dozen navvies. The first knock-down occurred right away. As the Brum Cannon rushed at Iron Jack, the foreman turned aside and thumped the Birmingham man full on the nose. The Cannon crashed on his back. In those days a round ended when a fighter floored his opponent, who was given one minute to recover. If he failed, he lost the fight. At the end of the minute the Brum Cannon was on his feet and launched a fierce attack on Simpson. So terrific was the hail of punches that for a time Iron Jack could only defend. But after five minutes of this whirlwind stuff the Brum Cannon began to blow and look distressed. Then Iron Jack measured him carefully and began to swing heavy punches in his stomach. The Brum Cannon’s distress grew with every blow. In desperation, he rushed at Iron Jack and tried to throw him with a crude wrestling grip. But the foreman applied some leverage in his turn, and the Brum Cannon went down again. Wrestling throws were within the rules. The Brum Cannon came up for the third round a much warier man, but Iron Jack now dictated the fight. He battered the Birmingham bully round the tiny circle formed by the spectators, and cheers rose at every blow. Soon the Cannon was a wreck, held on his feet only by willpower. Half an hour after the fight had started, Iron Jack crashed a mighty fist against the Brum Cannon’s stubbly chin. One minute later the Birmingham bully was still unconscious when Telford called the fighters to the mark. “It seems as if you have a dozen navvies for your road, Master Telford,” grinned old John Cribb. “And if you will come along with me, I’ll find you another dozen good Brum men to watch that these lads don’t cause you any trouble. Birmingham is well rid of the Cannon. After that beating he’ll never hold up his head again.” So Telford went back to Shrewsbury next day with two dozen workmen for his new road. Iron Jack, bruised but happy, rode at his side.




FOUR miles west of Shrewsbury, Telford surveyed the banks of the River Severn. Iron Jack was by his side. “We’ve built houses and castles and jails and roads, Jack,” chuckled the Scot. “Now we’re on to bridges.” “Are you going to get any more ideas from the Romans, then?” inquired the foreman. “Not exactly,” said Telford. “I have plans of my own for bridging this time. This Laughing Tom’s first bridge, and my mark goes on the stones, I want to be proud of it.” “The river is quite deep and fast-flowing,” said Iron Jack slowly. “How do you propose to set about the job?” “I’ll build coffer-dams,” explained Telford. “What?” demanded Simpson. He had never heard of them. “Coffer-dams are watertight barriers,” explained Telford. “We’ll sink a sort of box of heavy timber into the bed of the river, pump the inside dry, and work in the space to sink our foundations. Here is my design.” Iron Jack looked with interest at the three-arched bridge on the sketch. Then he moved on to superintend the construction of the timber coffer-dams. Several weeks later the banks of the Severn swarmed with men. The Brum Cannon and his gang were among those who helped to drive the heavy timbers into the river bed and fit the watertight sections. Soon, hand-pumps were going, and the water level inside the dams dropped rapidly. Then the bed of the river was exposed. “What if there’s a sudden flood?” asked Iron Jack as Telford inspected the work. “The coffer-dams will hold,” said the engineer confidently. “They’re quite safe.” But the Brum Cannon, close by, grinned slyly to himself. That night, after he had gathered his gang around him in the wooden hut where they were living, he outlined his plan. “Telford is becoming famous,” he snarled. “But if something went badly wrong with one of his jobs, if men were killed, then Telford’s name would be hated. Maybe I can arrange that and get my own back on Iron Jack at the same time. He explained what he meant to do, and his tough friends grinned appreciatively. It was an idea after their own hearts. They turned into their bunks and slept soundly. Next day the work proceeded as before. The coffer-dams were found to be watertight, and great stones were run down the river on a little railway that Telford had constructed. Later in the afternoon, when two cranes had been rigged on the river banks, Telford and Iron Jack went inside the coffer-dams to check how the timber was holding, and to examine the bed of the river. “We’ll blast some of the rock away to make a solid foundation for the piers of the bridge,” explained Telford. “I have arranged for twenty barrels of gunpowder to be brought up for the purpose.” Iron Jack nodded, then looked towards the bank. On a high crag beside the river, a man was standing, waving a red flag. “Come on, Master Telford,” said the foreman with sudden urgency. “Get to the bank at once. Run!” Impressed by his tone, Laughing Tom broke into a run over the rocky river bed. Together they squelched and slithered up the bank, and got to the head of the dam. “What’s the trouble?” Telford panted. “See that man?” said Iron Jack, pointing to the fellow on the crag. “He’s my look-out. He watches the Brum Cannon’s gang all the time. I don’t trust that big black ruffian.” “What’s the red flag for?” asked Telford. “That means that the Brum Cannon has disappeared,” explained Iron Jack. “If he’s not around, he’s up to some mischief, and I’m willing to bet that it concerns the coffer-dams. That’s why I got you out of the river bed, Master Telford. Telford’s keen eye swept the site. He could see nothing amiss. His eye wandered on over the Rover Severn, as it swirled round the coffer-dams. Suddenly he shouted and pointed. A barrel was bobbing downstream. Behind it, a faint wisp of smoke curled lazily. The barrel floated towards the timber barrier in the river. There was a mighty splash and Iron Jack hit the Severn. Telford gasped as he saw his friend and foreman forging towards the middle of the stream, fighting the swirling current that eddied round the coffer-dams. “Come back!” yelled the Scot, but Iron Jack reached it. He wrapped long arms round it and dragged it under. Several seconds later he surfaced. The barrel was still there, but the wisp of smoke had gone. Slowly, Iron jack paddled to the bank, using the barrel as a lifebelt. “Gunpowder!” gasped Telford, helping Iron Jack from the water and rolling the barrel over. “Yes, it’s one of your twenty barrels,” said Iron Jack. “The Brum Cannon must have planned to blow a hole in the coffer-dam and drown us. We got out in time, thanks to my look-out.” “But you didn’t have to risk your life,” said Telford. “If the barrel had exploded before you got there and doused the fuse—” “it didn’t,” said Iron Jack shortly. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of all that work being blown up.” Later that night some of John Cribb’s men brought in the Brum Cannon, and the appreciative navvies saw the Birmingham bully’s last fight. Iron Jack tore him into strips, before the militia took him away on the first stage of his one-way journey to the penal settlements of Tasmania. Without their leader, the other toughs settled down. And soon Laughing Tom’s bridge, a beautiful three-arched stone one, took his road over the Severn. And on many of the stones was chiseled the mark of Laughing Tom!

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007