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Last edited 17 Sep 2020
Matthew Davidson stonemason and civil engineer
This article is part of ICE's Engineer biographies series.
DAVIDSON, Matthew (1755-1819), stonemason and civil engineer, was born on 14 January 1755 at Langholm, Dumfriesshire, where he grew up with Thomas Telford (q.v.). When Telford was appointed Surveyor of Public Works for Shropshire he asked his old friend to act as resident engineer for the construction of his first bridge in the county, Montford Bridge (1790-1792). Work on other Shropshire bridges followed.
Davidson worked for Telford for the remainder of his life, acting as resident engineer for the erection of the masonry on Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, before moving to Scotland in June 1804 to act as superintendent of work on the Clacknaharry Division of the Caledonian Canal.
Telford regarded him as the senior superintendent on the canal, appointing him as his deputy when he was absent in Sweden in 1808. Davidson had fallen in love with Wales, as well as the Welsh girl he married, and when he was sent to the Scottish Highlands he made no secret of his low opinion of the country and its inhabitants. He persuaded many who worked for him to follow him north from Wales.
His greatest achievement, not as spectacular as the Welsh aqueducts but more difficult to build, was the sea lock on the Beauly Firth at Clacknaharry. Its entrance had to be 400 yd. from the shoreline, founded on more than 50 ft. of soft mud, and when it was successfully completed in 1812 it was the largest lock in the world at 170 ft. by 40 ft.
Davidson had an important role in selecting the masonry contractors for the Caledonian Canal, viz. John Simpson, John Wilson and James Cargill (qq.v.), and possibly the earthworks contractors, Thomas Davies and William Hughes (q.v.), based on experience on Shropshire bridges and the Ellesmere Canal. He also advised on suitable workmen for the Gotha Canal.
There is eloquent testimony to Davidson's character. He had no love for his fellow- countrymen from the Highlands and was described by Southey as 'a strange cynical humorist'. He was well-read, and in 1809 sent a box of books of value £17 12s to his eldest son, Thomas (1794-1839), studying to be a doctor in Oswestry. He had married Janet Irvine on 29 December 1780 and, aside from Thomas and six children who died in infancy, had two more sons. John (1797-1843), also to become a surgeon, spent some time in London with Telford, as did James (q.v.) who succeeded his father as superintendent on the canal. Davidson died at Clacknaharry on 8 February 1819.
Written by MIKE CHRIMES
This text is an extract from A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, published by ICE in 2002. Beginning with what little is known of the lives of engineers such as John Trew who practised in the Tudor period, the background, training and achievements of engineers over the following 250 years are described by specialist authors, many of whom have spent a lifetime researching the history of civil engineering.
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