William Edwards
born  1719, Ty Canol farm, Groeswen, Caerphilly, Wales, UK
baptised  8th February 1719, St Ilan church, Eglwysilan, Caerphilly, Wales, UK
died  7th August 1789, Bryn Tail farm, Groeswen, Caerphilly, Wales, UK
buried  St Ilan church, Eglwysilan, Caerphilly, Wales, UK
era  Georgian
A biographical summary
William Edwards rose from humble beginnings to become a bridge builder of note and a non-conformist minister. He grew up on a farm in Wales, without formal education. Imbued with the confidence to make his mark, he taught himself stonemasonry, learned to read and write English in his 20s and mastered bridge construction. He has been called "a builder for both worlds" for his engineering excellence and pastoral stewardship.
Described as "an obstinate, stubborn, and self-willed boy", Edwards augmented his farm work by repairing dry stone walls — a skill gleaned from watching local masons and exploring the ruins of Caerphilly Castle. His first engineering projects were buildings, and in 1740, aged 21, he constructed an iron forge west of Cardiff Castle, powered by a leat (millstream) from the River Taff.
During the years 1746-56, Edwards built his best-known structure, a bridge over the River Taff at Pontypridd, now known as William Edwards Bridge (or Old Pontypridd Bridge). He explored the practicalities of bridge building by trying different configurations — three bridges failed and the arch that remains in use today was his fourth attempt. For many years (see side box), it had the longest single span of any bridge in Britain.
The eventual success of his record-breaking bridge led to contracts for at least 10 other smaller bridges in Wales. For three of them, such as Dolauhirion Bridge near Llandovery, he reduced dead load on the haunches and abutments by making cylindrical holes through the spandrels, as he had at Pontypridd.
His understanding of bridge design, forged by hands-on experience, soon meant local authorities turned to him for advice. He passed on his expertise to three of his four sons — David, Edward and Thomas — who also built bridges, David being the most prolific.
By the mid 18th century, Swansea was famous for smelting copper, using the plentiful south Wales coal for the process. Edwards worked on the construction of Forest Copper & Lead Works on the west bank of the River Tawe. He began associating with local industrialist John Morris (1745-1819) and prepared the town plan for the industrial village Morris instigated to house copper workers — Morriston, now part of Swansea.
A concurrent strand to Edwards' life was his involvement in religious activities. By the 1740s, the established church's influence in Wales was being challenged as the ideas of Baptist, Methodist and independent preachers gained popularity. Possibly as early as 1745, but certainly by 1752, he became a non-conformist minister and was pastor at Groeswen (White Cross) chapel, a vocation he fulfilled until his death.
1719 Born (date unknown, baptised 8th February), one of at least six children of farmer Edward Dafydd (David) Edwards (c.1685-1726) and Catherine John (1690-1773)
1726 Father drowns (January) while fording the River Taff, mother moves from Ty Canol to a smaller farm at Bryn Tail with the surviving children
1740 Moves to Cardiff to construct a forge, lodges with blind baker Walter Rosser who teaches him English
c1741 Marries Elizabeth Parry (1716-89), has at least five children: David (b.1748), Edward (b.1749, d.1778-82), Thomas (1750-1800), William (1751-91) who died from wounds received at the Siege of Gibraltar (1779-83) and Mary (b.1753)
1742 Groeswen Methodist chapel built, apparently under Edwards' supervision
c1745-52 Preaches as an independent, possibly inspired by hearing Welsh evangelist Edmund Jones (1702-93) 'the old prophet', is ordained as a minister, has six of his hymns published (1747)
1746 Commissioned to build Pontypridd Bridge (now William Edwards Bridge or Old Pontypridd Bridge), completed 1756 (fourth attempt)
c1747-52 Involved in the building of Forest Copper & Lead Works (opened 1752, largely demolished c.1840), probably also nearby Beaufort Bridge (demolished 1868)
1752 Becomes non-conformist minister of newly independent Groeswen chapel
1760s Involved in various projects in Morriston, including devising new village layout (c.1768) based on a rectilinear street grid
1782 Constructs Libanus Chapel for Morriston workers, initially no services allowed on Sundays
1789 Wife dies 4th January, Edwards dies 7th August after a long illness, bequeaths his six-volume Biblical commentary to Groeswen chapel
Selected works
Water-powered iron forge, Cardiff, Wales, UK .... c.1740
Groeswen Chapel, Caerphilly, Wales, UK .... 1742
Pontypridd Bridge three failed attempts, River Taff, Pontypridd, Wales, UK .... 1746-1755
River Usk Bridge, Usk, Wales, UK .... 1746-1752
Pontypridd Bridge (now William Edwards Bridge), River Taff, Pontypridd, Wales, UK .... 1755-1756
Copper industry workshops, Morriston, Swansea, Wales, UK .... c.1768, dem. 1842
Aberavon Bridge, River Avon, Port Talbot, Wales, UK .... c.1740
Morriston village plan, Swansea, Wales, UK .... c.1768
Dolauhirion Bridge, River Towy, Llandovery, Wales, UK .... 1773
Glasbury Bridge, River Wye, Glasbury-on-Wye, Wales, UK .... c.1777, destroyed by flood 1795
Wychtree Bridge, River Tawe, Morriston, Swansea, Wales, UK .... 1778, dem. 1959
Libanus Chapel, Morriston, Swansea, Wales, UK .... 1782
All items by William Edwards
Everything built ... 1719 - 1789
Alec Skempton ed., Edwards, William (1719-1789), A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: 1500-1830, Thomas Telford Publishing Limited, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, pp.211212
Edward Ivor Williams, Edwards, William (1719-1789), Welsh Biography Online available at yba.llgc.org.uk
Alsager Vian, Edwards, William (1719-1789), rev. Ralph Harrington, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn May 2009
Further reading
Mrs G. Linnaeus Banks, The Making of William Edwards or the Story of the Bridge of Beauty, 2nd edn, Andrew Melrose, London, 1894, republished by Northern Grove Publishing Project, Manchester, 2012
David Barnes, The Companion Guide to Wales, Companion Guides, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, Woodbridge, 2005
Stephen Hughes, Copperopolis: Landscapes of the Early Industrial Period in Swansea, Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Wales, 2008
Benjamin Heath Malkin, The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography of South Wales, from Materials collected during two Excursions in the Year 1803, 2nd edn, Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, London, 1807
Victoria Owens, A Builder for Both Worlds, in Western Courier, the newsletter of the Western Branch of the Newcomen Society, Issue 15, October 2014
portrait  William Edwards courtesy Stephen K. Jones

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William Edwards
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Fact file : Early wide-span masonry bridges
the earliest
Possibly the earliest wide-span single-arch masonry bridge was Puente del Diablo (1289, Martorell, Spain), built on Roman foundations. It spanned 37.3m and stood until 1939. The present bridge is a 1965 reconstruction.
the widest
A succession of medieval bridges had spans in the 40-50m range. Two held the title of the world's widest: Pont du Diable (1321-41) in Céret, France, at 45.5m and Ponte di Castel Vecchio (c.1354-6) in Verona, Italy, at 48.7m. But Ponte di Trezzo sull'Adda (c.1370-7) in Lombardy, Italy, with a span of 76.5m was the widest ever built. It was destroyed in a 1416 siege.
in Britain
William Edwards Bridge (1755-6) spans 42.7m. For six years (1822-8) it was the world's largest extant masonry span, and held the record as Britain's widest for 72 years until 1828. It also had the largest UK span constructed in any material from 1782 to 1796. Thomas Telford's Over Bridge (1826-8), near Gloucester, was next at 45.7m. It too still stands.
Groeswen Chapel
Groeswen Chapel was the first Calvinistic Methodist meeting place in Wales. Now Grade II listed, it was built in 1742 apparently under William Edwards' supervision, and he was a minister here for most of his working life. In 1766, the chapel was extended, with further enlargements in 1830, 1866 and 1874. In 1906, a bronze plaque was erected inside. It reads, "A builder for both worlds ... Adeiladydd I'r Ddeufydd".
Photo: © John Lord and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Church of St Ilan
Church of St Ilan, Eglwysilan, where William Edwards and his wife Elizabeth are buried. Their tomb, outside the southwest corner of the church, is Grade II* listed.
Photo: © John Lord and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
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Pontypridd Old Bridge by Varitek
William Edwards Bridge (Old Pontypridd Bridge), completed in 1756. This bridge is the best-known work by Edwards and it represents a milestone in the history of masonry arch construction. Its stone arch was the longest built in Britain at the time, and remained so for over 70 years. Its distinctive design is still studied today. The later Victoria Bridge (Thomas Jenkins, 1857) can be seen behind it.
Photo: by Varitek (own work) [], via Wikimedia Commons
Dolauhirion Bridge
Dolauhirion Bridge over the River Towy, north of Llandovery in south Wales. Designed by William Edwards and constructed by his son Thomas.
Photo: © Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales | © Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru
Usk Bridge, Usk
The Grade II listed five-span Usk Bridge at Usk on the River Usk, as we see it today. A William Edwards-designed bridge was completed in 1752 and is likely the core of it — the faces of the original masonry were concealed when the bridge was later widened by about a metre.
Photo: © Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Libanus Chapel, Morriston
The Libanus Chapel, Morriston, pictured in 2009. The chapel was built by William Edwards in 1782, though little remains of his work. The building was variously enlarged and extended in 1796, 1831 and 1857.
Photo: © John Lord and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence