- Project plans
- Project activities
- Legislation and standards
- Industry context
Last edited 12 Feb 2020
Civil Engineering during the Industrial Revolution in Britain
The ‘industrial revolution’ was a period in Britain from the mid 18th century to the 19th century where many new inventions led to changes in the general infrastructure of the country. This improved social and economic conditions in the United Kingdom before spreading worldwide. Mechanical engineering is often cited as being the core professional practice during this period but there were also many useful contributions to civil engineering.
Coalbrookdale in 1709 is widely regarded as the birthplace of this revolution. There was an abundance of coal and industry in areas in Shropshire, but there was no bridge across the River Severn to carry goods and people. In 1776, King George III granted permission for a toll bridge to be built over the river, which was designed by local architect Thomas Pritchard.
This arch bridge was built by Abraham Darby III, following the death of Pritchard and was the first bridge in the world to be built out of cast iron. Cast iron was previously shunned as being a material far too expensive to be used on large structures, but the blast furnace in Coalbrookdale lowered the cost of its production.
Cast iron is a brittle material so it has surface cracks. In order to stop these cracks from propagating, the arch is held in compression. Compression in a structure is when all of the force is directed downwards. Arch bridges are semi-circular structures that transfer loads onto abutments.
The British road system was very poorly maintained and unsuitable for transporting goods. However, during the 1750’s turnpike trusts were established, local companies that were set up to maintain roads. They set up many toll roads, which were not financed by the government at the time. These were privately built roads which drivers paid to access.
Major turnpikes came from London in order to allow the royal mail to distribute throughout the rest of England. Eventually the government took responsibility for the development of roads throughout the UK but the engineers who made significant improvements to roads were John Metcalf, Thomas Telford and John McAdam.
John Metcalf begaroad building in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. In 1765, when the government passed an act to build toll roads in the Knaresborough area, he won a contract to build a 3 mile section between Minskip and Ferrensby, part of a new road from Harrogate to Boroughbridge. He went on to build roads throughout the counties of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Chesire and Lancashire. Metcalf believed that roads should have good foundations and a convex shaped surface to allow rainwater to drain quickly into ditches at the side of the road. This design is evident in many roads today.
Thomas Telford built over 1,000 miles of road during his career. He placed small stones on top of rock foundations and covered the surface with a mixture of broken stones and gravel. He raised the pavement level for good drainage, and where a structure could not be raised, drained the surrounding area instead. This method became known as ‘Telford pitching’.
In 1820, John McAdam invented a process called ‘macadamisation’ for building roads. This is widely regarded as the greatest advancement in road construction since the Roman times. Macadamisation involved using aggregate layers of angular stone bound with gravel on a soil (rather than rock) foundation.
Central to his theory was that the stones could not exceed 6 ounces in weight (smaller than wheels that ran over them). He achieved this by breaking stones down with hammers. The layers of stone were compressed by traffic and so were self-sustaining.
McAdam’s system of road building quickly spread across the world, most notably the ‘National Road’ in America completed in the 1830’s. The ‘McAdam road’ was the standard type of road construction throughout the 19th century until the development of automobiles. Large rubber tyres tore small stones out of their bedding, so this lead to the development of the ‘tar McAdam road’, which was patented by civil engineer Edgar Purnell Hooley in 1901. This was a more durable road surface with a mixture of asphalt or concrete.
Canals were needed during the industrial revolution to transport large amounts of bulk materials throughout the country. Roads could not take the weight of some products, and the appropriate vehicles for mass transportation were not available. Canals provided a solution for moving heavy goods over long distances, as well as a reliable means of transporting fragile goods such as pottery.
The Duke of Bridgewater was responsible for many of the early canals in England. He owned coal mines in Lancashire and needed a way to transport coal to the markets in Manchester. He gave an engineer named James Brindley the task of designing and building the ‘Bridgewater canal’, which he completed in 1761. The canal had numerous tunnels enabling it to travel directly to the coal mines and proved to be great investment by the Duke. Many more canals followed, making the UK the first country to have a nationwide canal network, expanding to over 4,000 miles in length.
The emergence of railways from around the 1820’s marked the beginning of the end for canals as trains could carry more goods , more people and travelled much faster. The first steam locomotive to carry passengers opened in 1825, designed by engineer George Stephenson, the line ran between Stockton to Darlington.
Stephenson also developed the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), a significant improvement on the first steam locomotive. 'The rocket’, was much more efficient, producing more steam and with horizontal pistons directly driving the wheels. The L&MR opened in 1830.
Railways spread rapidly throughout the UK with the increased demand for coal and steel, and for distribution of things such as newspapers and post. The railways were built by ‘navvies’ who would dig foundations, lay stones and fix the track. Most of the work was done by hand, using a pick axe.
During the industrial revolution, the River Thames was an open sewer. There were no flush toilets, and waste was simply discharged in cesspits, much of which overflowed into rainwater drains. In addition, there was considerable waste from slaughterhouses and factories.
There was a cholera epidemic in London in the 1840’s as sanitation was so poor. The summer of 1858 was known as ‘the Great Stink’ in London as there was a strong smell of untreated waste throughout the city and affecting those at work in the House of Commons. Bazalgette, the chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, proposed channelling waste through street sewers, into main intercepting sewers. These would transport waste towards the tidal part of the Thames so that it would be swept out to the sea. Bazalgette constructing a network of wide sewer tunnels driven by major pumping stations, most notably the station at Abbey Mills.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
Featured articles and news
Full of passion and acerbic wit. 1 min book review.
Reminding us what is possible.
Five signs you are at risk.
Biotechnology as it applies to the built environment.
Stopping sound coming through windows.
Government response to the Building a Safer Future consultation.
Energy savings quickly payback any small additional capital investment.
Overbuild and air-space developments.
Airports National Policy Statement and its impact on infrastructure.
Organisations will collaborate on infrastructure initiatives.
Technology informs procurement and planning practices.