Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Country House, Decorative Arts, History, Museum

Ironbridge – The Birthplace of Industry

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Iron Works at Coalbrookdale by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1740-1812) from an engraving by William Pickett.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Iron Works at Coalbrookdale by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1740-1812) from an engraving by William Pickett. De Loutherbourg was a theatrical designer who worked for playwrights such as R.B. Sheridan (1751-1816) and David Garrick (1717-1779). His painting, Coalbrookdale by Night (1801), depicting the raging Bedlam Furnaces in Madeley Dale, Shropshire, a little further downstream from Ironbridge, recreates the iconic scene of fire and brimstone that we now  associate with the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. De Loutherbourg’s paintings of industrial Shropshire influenced the creative team behind the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

Ironbridge and The London 2012 Olympics

One of the most memorable moments from the Opening Ceremony of London 2012 Olympics was the Industrial Revolution sequence directed by Danny Boyle. Boyle drew inspiration from Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers  by documentary film-maker and a founder of the Mass Observation Archive Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950). Boyle declared that: ‘Pandaemonium was biggest inspiration for the Olympics Opening Ceremony…the book is the equivalent of Pepys giving you a guided tour of the birth of electricity and mechanical age – it’s brilliant, exciting and essential.’

A new edition of Pandaemonium was published in 2012 to satisfy a renewed public interest in the Industrial Revolution. The following extracts are from the Foreword to this edition which is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Coincidentally, Boyce also wrote the Opening Ceremony for London 2012, naming the first section “Pandemonium” in honour of Jennings’s influential publication:

As Danny Boyle put it, we are children of the machine age, locked inside this terrifying beast, increasingly innocent of how it makes things for us. (p. viii)

The leaves soak-up the energy. The trees fall and turn to coal. Coal is solid sunlight, the stored memory of millions of uninhabited summers. Then one day, in Coalbrookdale, someone opens a hole in the ground and all that stored energy comes pouring out and is consumed in furnaces, engines, motors. Somehow all these thoughts are communicated to Thomas Heatherwick who creates his beautiful Olympic Cauldron, in which 204 tongues of fire rise out of the ground and join together to make one flame. It’s an image that moved billions of people across the world. (p. ix-x)

I was moved by Boyce and Boyle’s brilliant recreation of man-v-industry. The creative duo brought the Coalbrookdale landscape back to life once more, populating it with furnaces, engines and motors, transporting audiences back to the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

Ironbridge Gorge – UNESCO World Heritage Site

Coalbrookdale is a village in the Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire, a region designated in 1986 as one of the first World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom in recognition of Ironbridge’s role as the Birthplace of Industry. In 2012, Ironbridge Gorge was voted the most highly recommended UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK according to the TripAdvisor® traveller community, taking second place in the world behind the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa, China and ahead of the Egyptian Pyramids and India’s Taj Mahal. Earlier this year I spent a number of fascinating days in this beautiful part of Shropshire exploring the buildings, monuments and collections across the Ironbridge site. It is not difficult to see why Ironbridge is truly worthy of its status as a national heritage treasure.

The Ironbridge site includes thirty-six scheduled monuments and listed buildings cared for by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust and spread over a six square kilometre site. The Trust also operates ten museums which collectively tell the story of the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. These museums are: Blists Hill Victorian Town; Enginuity; Coalport China Museum; Jackfield Tile Museum; Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron; Museum of The Gorge; Darby Houses; Tar Tunnel; The Ironbridge and Tollhouse and Broseley Pipeworks.

Ironbridge became an independent charity in 1967 (Ref No. 503717 – R) and is 100% independently funded, it receives no government financial support. Ironbridge is regarded as one of the world’s foremost independent museums. There are currently two hundred paid staff and four hundred volunteers who work on-site. Ironbridge leads the way for volunteer development in the museum sector. Over half a million visitors come to Ironbridge every year including seventy thousand school children. It is not difficult to see why Ironbridge is truly worthy of its status as a national heritage treasure.

The Mission of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust is: ‘To excel in researching, preserving and interpreting, for the widest audience, the Monuments, Collections and Social History of the early industry in the Ironbridge Gorge: to enrich the visitors’ experience with live demonstrations, hands-on activities and innovative educational programmes.’ (Strategic Plan 2010-14, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Limited, p.3)

Their Vision is: ‘To make the Industrial Age and Ironbridge’s role in it, as well understood in terms of world significance as the Egyptian and Roman epochs. To constantly expand the number of people who are able to share in the timeless significance of Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. To ensure that every visitor to Ironbridge takes away something of value – material, intellectual or spiritual.’ (Strategic Plan 2010-14, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Limited, p.3)

Ironbridge has also had a thirty-one year partnership with the University of Birmingham and the Ironbridge Institute is one of the leading providers of postgraduate heritage qualifications in the UK.

©The Valley Hotel. The Valley Hotel, Ironbridge, Shropshire.
©The Valley Hotel. The Valley Hotel, Ironbridge, Shropshire.

The countryside surrounding the Gorge at Ironbridge is stunning, Shropshire is a beautiful county. When I visited in late Winter the weather was terrible but the views were still stunning. We stayed at The Valley Hotel ,which is very close to Ironbridge, an excellent place to stay. The staff are extremely friendly, as well as well as being knowledgeable about the area. They take great pride in the region’s history as I was to discover upon my arrival. I had asked whether there was a booklet available about the history of the Hotel to aid me in my research? Imagine my surprise when I checked-in and was given a seventy-two page, fully illustrated mini-thesis about the building’s history that had been painstakingly prepared by the current owners. I will reveal no more at this stage about the Hotel’s history, suffice to say that it warrants its own feature article, which will follow shortly.

Early History of The Gorge

The Severn Gorge in Shropshire was created after the last ice age, 15,000 years ago, when a huge lake overflowed east of the Welsh mountains and carved a deep chasm through layers of coal, iron-ore, clay and limestone. This spectacular gorge, rich in raw materials, with its river leading to the Bristol Channel, had all the resources necessary to become an important industrial area.

Coal and limestone were exploited from the Middle Ages and iron was made here from the time of Henry VIII. In 1709, a Quaker ironmaster, Abraham Darby I, led the way to cheap and plentiful iron production using coke as fuel, instead of charcoal. Coalbrookdale – the name by which the whole area was then known – became one of the most important industrialised areas in the world during the eighteenth century. Indeed, it was said that the Severn was the second busiest river in Europe.

(The Iron Bridge and Town, 2010, p. 2, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

Dr Matt Thompson, Senior Curator at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, told me: ‘Ironbridge’s landscape is complex and dynamic. The Gorge is a great ‘rock sandwich’ made-up of layers of limestone, coal and iron-ore and has been mined extensively since 1604. Former mining activity has created a ‘Swiss cheese’ effect in the geology.  There are many underground tunnels. In Shropshire you can find ten of the twelve or thirteen major geological periods represented. The Shropshire Clee Hills are one of only a few hills that appear on the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c.1285).’

Ironbridge and The Industrial Revolution

Until the latter part of the eighteenth century, the most important industry in the Gorge was coal-mining – the first step on the road to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the region. Other coal-using industries utlising the area’s rich natural resources were: lead smelting; tar boiling; pottery making and brass manufacturing. The Tar Tunnel at Ironbridge is open to the public and well-worth a visit. In 1787, miners digging in the area struck a spring of natural bitumen (treacle-like black liquid) which has seeped out of the walls and formed into puddles for over two hundred years. It was money from coal that funded the first ironworks in the area. Although now a haven of tranquillity, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the area resembled Dante’s Inferno, a scene which artist Philip James De Loutherbourg (1740-1812) captured so brilliantly in his iconic painting Coalbrookdale by Night (1801).

The Upper Works, site of the Old Furnace, Coalbrookdale (Ironbridge site). In 1753, the Upper Works consisted of an office, blacksmith's shop, bridge house, three boring mills, a furnace, a loam house, air furnace, moulding house and tenement.©Come Step Back in Time
©Come Step Back in Time. The Upper Works, site of the Old Furnace, Coalbrookdale (Ironbridge site). In 1753, the Upper Works consisted of an office, blacksmith’s shop, bridge house, three boring mills, a furnace, a loam house, air furnace, moulding house and tenement. The railway viaduct was constructed 1862-64.
The Upper Works, site of the Old Furnace, Coalbrookdale. Marks from the water wheel can still be seen in the stonework. The water wheel was last used in the 1920s to drive grinding wheels. These were used to clean-up or fettle castings and ensure a precision fit for the increasingly complex machinery that was being made here.©Come Step Back in Time
©Come Step Back in Time. The Upper Works, site of the Old Furnace, Coalbrookdale. Marks from the water wheel can still be seen in the stonework. The water wheel was last used in the 1920s to drive grinding wheels. These were used to clean-up or fettle castings and ensure a precision fit for the increasingly complex machinery that was being made here. By 1778, Coalbrookdale had cast more than one hundred steam cylinders.
Diagram of the old Furnace, Coalbrookdale. The Furnace went out of use in 1818 and the foundry buildings around it remained in use and even expanded to enclose the remains of the furnace.©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Diagram of the old Furnace, Coalbrookdale. The Furnace went out of use in 1818 but the foundry buildings around it remained in use and even expanded to enclose the remains of the furnace.
The Tapping Arch, Upper Works, Coalbrookdale. The dates on the cast iron beam refer to Abraham Darby III's enlargement of the furnace in 1777, probably to increase capacity for the construction of the world's first Iron Bridge in the Gorge.©Come Step Back in Time
©Come Step Back in Time. The Tapping Arch, Upper Works, Coalbrookdale. The dates on the cast iron beam refer to Abraham Darby III’s enlargement of the furnace in 1777, probably to increase capacity for the construction of the world’s first Iron Bridge in the Gorge.

Between 1755 and 1780 the iron industry was booming in the region and five new groups of furnaces were set up:

The three surviving groups of iron furnaces mark these different phases in the local iron industry – the earliest, the Darby Furnace at Coalbrookdale represents the change from charcoal to coke as a smelting fuel and was also where the iron for the Iron Bridge was produced seventy years later. Bedlam Furnaces (begun 1756-7) were the first of the great new Industrial Revolution furnaces, experimenting with new forms of power, while the Blists Hill Furnaces, begun in c.1832 and closed in 1912, signal the move away from water as a source of power, and eventually the end of smelting in the Gorge.

(Ironbridge Gorge by Catherine Clark, 1993, p.36, published by B. T. Batsford Ltd)

Remains of Madeley Wood Company Blast Furnaces, Blists Hill, Ironbridge. Base of the first furnace, 1832; base of second and south engine house, 1840; base of third, 1844; north engine house c. 1873. The furnaces were blown out in 1912. ©Come Step Back in Time
©Come Step Back in Time. Remains of Madeley Wood Company Blast Furnaces, Blists Hill, Ironbridge. Base of the first furnace, 1832; base of second and south engine house, 1840; base of third, 1844; north engine house c. 1873. The furnaces were blown out in 1912.
Madeley Wood Company Blast Furnaces, Blists Hill.©Come Step Back in Time
©Come Step Back in Time. Madeley Wood Company Blast Furnaces, Blists Hill.

The Darby Family and The Coalbrookdale Company

The Coalbrookdale Company was formed in 1709 by Abraham Darby I (1678-1717), an iron-master who had moved to the region from Bristol in the previous year. His original intention was to lease an ironworks with a view to setting-up a brass foundry – he had been experimenting with making brass pots since 1707 which led to his patent for casting iron bellied pots in dry sand. He leased the Furnace at Coalbrookdale in 1709 from landowner Basil Brooke of Madeley and his wife Elizabeth, beginning blasting in January of the same year. Initially, Darby melted iron using coke as fuel rather than charcoal. The locally mined coal included varieties that were low in sulphur which were more suited to this new process. In his first few years at Coalbrookdale, Darby also experimented with a mixture of coke, charcoal and peat as alternative fuels for his Furnace. Finally, in 1715, he settled on one type of local coal which was the most successful in producing coke to smelt into iron-ore.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. An extract from Abraham Darby I's original 1707 patent for casting iron bellied pots.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. An extract from Abraham Darby I’s original 1707 patent for casting iron bellied pots in dry sand.

The Darby family were Quakers but did not force their religious beliefs on the workers at Coalbrookdale. The Darbys were known to be good employers as well as savvy business people and their workers rarely went on strike. Education, for both boys and girls, was also important to Quakers – a forward thinking approach for the time:

..adhering strictly to the ideals of self-discipline, frugality and simple faith, attitudes which extended into the conduct of their business. As members of the Society of Friends, Quakers formed a close-knit group, distinct in their way of dress and habits, and tending to socialize as a group. Many of the visitors who came to Coalbrookdale were Quaker associates, and the large houses at Coalbrookdale became a focus for this society.

The houses were built close to the works, but looked out over a more pleasant view of trees, pleasure gardens and a pool with a small decorative iron bridge.  For most of their history the houses were occupied for relatively short periods by family members or by works managers; often, as in the case of Abraham Darby III, while they built or altered finer houses elsewhere in rural settings.

Carpenters Row is an example of company housing: built c.1783, it is a terrace of eight cottages, each with a downstairs parlour with a range, a tiny pantry and a bedroom above….Carpenters Row would have provided a relatively good class of accommodation.

(Ironbridge Gorge by Catherine Clark, 1993, pp.40-41, published by B. T. Batsford Ltd)

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Coalbrookdale Company employees at the Upper Works c. 1901.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Coalbrookdale Company employees at the Upper Works c. 1901.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Dale House, the Darby family country seat which overlooked the ironworks. Construction of the house was begun by Darby I in 1715. Dale House is part of the Ironbridge site and is open to the public.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Dale House, the Darby family country seat which overlooked the ironworks. Construction of the house was begun by Darby I in 1715. Dale House is part of the Ironbridge site and open to the public.

Darby I’s son, Abraham Darby II (1711-1763), took over the running of The Coalbrookdale Company from his father in 1728. His contribution to the Company’s history is significant. He invented a method of making pig iron using coke which could then be converted into wrought iron: ‘The molten iron from a blast furnace could be poured direct into sand moulds to produce cast iron goods or cast ingots called “pig iron”. The pig iron was then either melted and cast in a foundry or purified to produce wrought iron that could be shaped by hammering and rolling in a forge.’ (Extract from text panel at the site of the Old Furnaces, Upper Works, Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust).

Darby II built houses for the workers, three schools and a Friends Meeting House in the Dale. Abraham Darby III (1750-1789) began working at the Company in 1768 alongside his brother Samuel. The two brothers were now running Britain’s largest ironworks and it was Darby III who project-managed the construction of the world-famous Iron Bridge (1779). Darby III won a Gold Medal from the Society of Arts for his casting work on the Bridge.

Abraham Darby IV (1804-1878). He began work at Coalbrookdale in the late 1820s with his brother Alfred Darby I. Darby IV began to move away from Quakerism. The last Darby 1925 Alfred Darby II retired as Chairman of the Company which marked the end of the Darby connection with the works after more than seven generations.
Abraham Darby IV (1804-1878). He began work at Coalbrookdale in the late 1820s with his brother Alfred Darby I. Darby IV began to move away from Quakerism. The last Darby,  Alfred Darby II, retired as Chairman of the Company in 1925, marking the end of the Darby connection to Coalbrookdale after more than seven generations.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Coalbrookdale Co Statues at the Kensington Olympia Exhibition, 1889. The Victorians couldn't get enough of cast iron products. They were everywhere.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Coalbrookdale Company  statues exhibit at the Kensington Olympia Exhibition, 1889. The Victorians couldn’t get enough of cast iron products. They were everywhere.
©Come Step Back in Time. The Boy and Swan Fountain cast by the Coalbrookdale Company in 1851 for the Great Exhibition. The remains of the Old Furnaces at Upper Works can just be seen in the background.
©Come Step Back in Time. The Boy and Swan Fountain cast by the Coalbrookdale Company in 1851 for the Great Exhibition. The remains of the Old Furnaces at Upper Works can just be seen in the background.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. The Museum contains a vast display of domestic and decorative ironworks.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. The Museum contains a vast display of domestic and decorative ironworks.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. A close-up of the Deerhound Table on display at the Museum of Iron, one of the Ironbridge Gorge museums in Coalbrookdale.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. A close-up of the Deerhound Table on display at the Museum of Iron, one of the Ironbridge Gorge museums in Coalbrookdale.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

The Iron Bridge

One of the most enduring images of the Gorge is The Iron Bridge designed by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (c.1723-1777), an industrialist who owned iron furnaces in Shropshire, Denbighshire and Staffordshire. He was, by all accounts, a bit of scamp who was often the subject of scandal, particularly in relation to his private life. Unfortunately, Pritchard died two years before the Bridge was completed.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Iron Bridge by William Williams (1780). The painting was commissioned by Darby for ten guineas (£10.50). The painting was thought to be lost for over one hundred and fifty years until it appeared in 1992 when the Museum purchased it. It now hangs in the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Iron Bridge by William Williams (1780). The painting was commissioned by Darby for ten guineas (£10.50). The painting was thought to be lost for over one hundred and fifty years until it appeared in 1992 when the Museum purchased it. It now hangs in the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.
©Come Step Back in Time.
©Come Step Back in Time.

Why was the Bridge built?:

No doubt the building of the Bridge was partly a public relations exercise, advertising the versatility of cast-iron and the skills of Abraham Darby III and his Coalbrookdale company. The site chosen is also the most dramatic point of the Gorge…The Bridge was promoted by the eighteenth-century equivalent of a media campaign.  The paintings Darby commissioned to advertise it show nothing of the pollution of the Gorge, famous for having more furnaces and forges within 2 miles of riverbank than anywhere else in the world!

Thomas Jefferson, later third President of the USA, is known to have brought Iron Bridge engravings through a friend in London, whilst Minister to France in 1786.

(The Iron Bridge and Town, 2010, p. 4, IGMT)

The Bridge was a serious drain on Darby’s finances and he remained in debt for the rest of his life, with many of his company’s assets mortgaged to other Quaker friends.

The Completed Bridge opened for business, charging its first tolls on New Year’s Day 1781. The rates of toll are those which were first set out in the Act of Parliament authorising the Bridge…One guinea (£1.05) brought an annual pass for pedestrians.

(The Iron Bridge and Town, 2010, p. 13, IGMT)

The Bridge is made from three hundred and eighty-four tonnes of iron which took one furnace over three months to produce. Ironwork began to go up over the Gorge in May 1779, the first iron rib being raised on 1/2nd July. The Bridge spans 30.63 metres and cost approximately £6,000. The Bridge was closed to vehicles in 1934 but still remains open to foot passengers. The Iron Bridge is one of the great symbols of the Industrial Revolution.

  • For more information about planning a visit to Ironbridge, CLICK HERE;
  • For more information about forthcoming events and exhibitions at Ironbridge, CLICK HERE.

    ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. View of the Iron Bridge over the River Severn.
    ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. View of the Iron Bridge over the River Severn.
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