Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Decorative Arts, Event, Exhibition, History, Museum, World War One, World War Two

Coalport China Museum, Shropshire

Formerly the place [Coalport] consisted of a very rugged uncultivated bank, which scarcely produced even grass, but owing to the judicious regulations and encouragement of Mr [William] Reynolds, joined to the benefit arising from the canal and river, houses to the number of thirty have been built there and more are still wanted to accommodate the people employed at a large china manufactory, a considerable earthenware manufactory [Bradley’s Coalport Pottery], another for making ropes, one for bag-making and one for chains….

(Thomas Telford, November, 1800, Coalport China Museum)

John Rose's former manufactory, now owned by the YHA.
©Come Step Back in Time. John Rose’s former manufactory, now owned by the YHA.

Early History Of Coalport And Caughley China

Located on the banks of the Shropshire Canal, Coalport China Museum is one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums. Housed in the former Coalport China Works since 1976, the Museum contains important national collections of Coalport and Caughley china. Earlier this year I was fortunate to be shown around the Museum by Curatorial Officer and Senior Demonstrator Kate Cadman. Kate has worked at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust since 1982.

©Come Step Back in Time. Coalport China Museum now housed in buildings on the former site of John Rose's manufactory.
©Come Step Back in Time. Coalport China Museum now housed in buildings on the former site of Thomas Rose’s manufactory.

The Shropshire Canal was completed in 1793 and became integral to the development of the region’s china industry:

The key to the location of the china works was the canal/river interchange, promoted by the ironmaster William Reynolds. He was responsible for building the Hay Inclined Plane [built between 1788 and 1792], linking the canal with the riverside and also for encouraging different industries to locate here to make best use of the land. This explains the development of Coalport in the 1790s, on a site which had previously been little more than a grassy bank.

(Ironbridge Gorge by Catherine Clark, 1993, p.59, published by B. T. Batsford Ltd)

©Come Step Back in Time. View of the Shropshire Canal.
©Come Step Back in Time. View of the Shropshire Canal.

The canal enabled coal to be transported directly from coalfield to factory where it was used to fire the pottery kilns. China wares could also easily be shipped down the River Severn to their intended markets.

The Coalport Works were founded by John Rose (1772-1841), a local farmer’s son, in 1796 and began trading as John Rose and Edward Blakeway & Co. By 1800, Coalport was Britain’s largest china manufactory. China continued to be manufactured at Coalport until the Works closed in 1926 and the company moved to The Potteries, Stoke-on-Trent.

©Come Step Back in Time. Examples of Caughley porcelain, the 'pleasure boat' design. c.1780-90. Caughley porcelain is identified by its distinctive blue and white colour scheme and designs inspired by the Far East.
©Come Step Back in Time. Examples of Caughley porcelain, the ‘pleasure boat’ design. c.1780-90. Caughley porcelain is identified by its distinctive blue and white colour scheme with designs inspired by the Far East.

Caughley china had been produced at a nearby factory (just south of the River Severn near Broseley) since the 1750s. John was once apprenticed to Thomas Turner (1749-1809), one of Caughley’s founders.

©Come Step Back in Time. Dinner plate from the Royal Exchange set of plates created by Coalport  for use by Queen Victoria at the opening of the Royal Exchange in 1844. On the reverse of these plates it reads 'Made expressly for J & T Staples (Purveyors of Turtle to Her Majesty). J & T Staples provided turtle-soup to Queen Victorian, a great delicacy.
©Come Step Back in Time. Dinner plate from the Royal Exchange set of plates created by Coalport for use by Queen Victoria at the opening of the Royal Exchange in 1844. On the reverse of the plates it reads ‘Made expressly for J & T Staples (Purveyors of Turtle to Her Majesty)’. J & T Staples provided turtle-soup, a great delicacy, to Queen Victorian.

In 1799, John expanded his pottery empire by acquiring the Caughley factory as well. However, he soon faced competition from his younger brother Thomas. In 1800, Thomas established a rival porcelain manufactory on the opposite side of the river having entered into a partnership with Quaker ironmaster William Reynolds (1758-1803) and William Horton (trading as Reynolds, Horton & Rose).

©Come Step Back in Time. Plate from Coalport's Rose du Barry range, hand-painted Viennese scene. c.1861-1875.
©Come Step Back in Time. Plate from Coalport’s Rose du Barry range featuring a hand-painted Viennese scene. c.1861-1875.

Following William’s death in 1803, his cousin Robert Anstice went into partnership with Horton & Rose. In 1814, John brought-out his brother’s manufactory and during the same year production at Caughley ceased.  The Coalport China Museum is housed in buildings on the site of Thomas Rose’s former factory and the YHA. now occupy John Rose’s former manufactory on the opposite side of the Canal.

©Come Step Back in Time.
©Come Step Back in Time.

China Production Process

I remember there were half a dozen women kept on just for cleaning the bones and it was laughable to see these women …they carried these bones in these little ‘whiskitts’ and there was one peculiar old woman who waddled when she walked. It was peculiar to see her balancing this ‘whiskitt’ on top of her head, she’d wobble but the ‘whiskitt’ didn’t …Down in this bone hall, where these women used to wash the bones, ooh it were a terrible smell but I suppose we got used to it…They used to say old Bruff (The Manager) had these bones burnt when the wind was in a certain direction, so you can guess which way the wind was blowing when he had these bones burnt, he lived towards the south of the works like.

(Mr A. Lewis, oral history testimony reprinted on a display panel in Coalport China Museum’s Social History Gallery ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

According to the 1841 Census, 285 people were employed at Coalport including a 60-year-old bone washer called Ann Jones. By the 1850s, the number of people employed had risen to 500.

Coalport’s bone china is made from approximately 50% animal bone, 25% Cornish stone and 25% Cornish clay. Upon arrival, direct from the butchers, bones were washed and burned (calcined) then ground-up and combined with the other ingredients.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
©Come Step Back in Time.

The powdered ingredients were then mixed with water to create liquid clay (known as ‘slip’). The next stage is ‘slip casting’, slip is poured into a plaster-of-paris mould which becomes coated with a thin layer of clay and excess slip is poured away. When the clay dries it shrinks and the form is removed from the mould. This method is used to produce hollow china ware shapes. The first firing of these fragile shapes was sometimes called ‘biscuit’ firing and took place in the bottle oven at a temperature of 1250◦C:

These biscuit wares were coated with a special oil and the coloured glaze dusted on as a powder. At this stage the china was fired at a low temperature to fix the ground colour, before being dipped in clear glaze and fired again at about 1100◦C. Hand-painted decoration could now be added using overglaze enamels: different colours often required different temperatures so several low temperature firings were necessary for the finest work. The transfer designs produced in large quantities in the nineteenth century used tissue paper as the medium for the colours, printed from a copper plate, and then positioned on the biscuit ware which absorbed the pigment. The spent tissue paper was washed off, the clear glaze was applied over the print and then the second firing.

Gilding – The last touch was gilding. The intricate designs were painted by hand and fired once more to fix the gold. The gilding emerged from the kiln cloudy and full and required burnishing with fine sand and agate tools (very hard and smooth) to bring up the bright finish. This task was mainly carried out by women.

(Ceramics of The Ironbridge Gorge Guidebook, p. 34, ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

©Come Step Back in Time. Display showing tools and processes involved in traditional underglaze printing.
©Come Step Back in Time. Display showing tools and processes involved in traditional underglaze printing.

Bone-china clay could not be stored for long periods as it went off.  Another, rather pungent, aroma would be encountered if you lingered near to the pattern printing shop. The smell of oil and turpentine was particularly unpleasant, so too was the ‘spirit of tar’ used to clean the copper-plates of the printing press. Other deadly health hazards included a high risk of pneumoconiosis (lung disease) and lead poisoning from china glaze. In 1898, the Home Office tried to introduce legislation to reduce the amount of lead used in glazes. Unfortunately, early attempts to legislate were unsuccessful and the law did not come into force until 1950.

©Come Step Back in Time. The Jigger and Jolley on display in the educational workshop area of Coalport China Museum.
©Come Step Back in Time. The ‘jigger’ and ‘jolley’ on display in the demonstration workshop area of Coalport China Museum.

Other popular techniques used at Coalport to create simple round clay shapes involved the use of a ‘jigger’ and ‘jolley’, which were advanced versions of the traditional potter’s wheel.  The jigger made flat ware (plates and saucers) and the jolley made hollow ware (cups and bowls). The spinning axle on the jigger and jolley machine was operated by a large flywheel turned by a small boy. This technique is much quicker than throwing and at Coalport its use resulted in about 1,000 items being produced each day.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Coalbrookdale ware vase, 1830-1840. This style of porcelain was produced at Coalport from the 1820s until the 1840s. The flowers were made by women employees at the Works. The techniques involved in making the flowers are still demonstrated at the Museum. Handmade porcelain were produced at Meissen in Germany during the early eighteenth century. The flowers are either put onto wire stems or applied directly to the surface of vases. In the 1750s, the Vincennes factory employed 46 girls making porcelain flowers which were mounted onto wire stems with metal leaves. Madame de Pompadour even had a porcelain flower garden made for wintertime.
©Come Step Back In Time. Coalbrookdale ware vase, 1830-1840. This style of porcelain was produced at Coalport from the 1820s until the 1840s. The flowers were made by the women employees at Coalport. The techniques involved in making the flowers are still demonstrated at the Museum today. Handmade porcelain was produced at Meissen in Germany during the early eighteenth century. The flowers are either put onto wire stems or applied directly to the surface of vases. In the 1750s, the Vincennes factory employed 46 girls making porcelain flowers which were mounted onto wire stems with metal leaves. Madame de Pompadour even had a porcelain flower garden made for wintertime.
©Come Step Back In Time. Coalbrookdale ware pot-pourri vase 1830-1935.
©Come Step Back In Time. Coalbrookdale ware pot-pourri vase 1830-1935.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Coalbrookdale ware basket, 1845.
©Come Step Back In Time. Coalbrookdale ware basket, 1845.

Coalbrookdale School of Art

In 1853, the Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institute was set-up, followed in 1856 by Coalbrookdale School of Art. Many of the School’s students were successful in gaining employment within the region’s china and tile-making industries. The Coalport factory employed artists from the School to paint individual pieces or create original designs.

The Coalbrookdale Company also provided free accommodation for students as well as paying for a new school building. The latter being designed by Coalbrookdale’s ironworks manager at the time, Charles Crookes. The building was constructed in the Tudor Gothic style and made from bricks produced in the company’s own brickworks.

Classes were presided over by a qualified art teacher who taught 60 students for 2 hour drawing classes, 3 evenings and 1 morning/afternoon a week. Drawing from life was a popular component in Victorian art education. Evening classes cost 3 shillings and 4 shillings a quarter and were subsidised by the employers.  In addition to art classes, technical subjects taught included: machine construction drawing; applied mechanics; practical mathematics and magnetism. Between 1870 and 1909 students at the school were awarded 13 Art Teacher’s Certificates; 5 national scholarships; 28 medals from South Kensington and City & Guilds of London examinations.

During the First World War the School continued to run classes for women teachers, pupil teachers and under 18’s. In 1924, The Salop County Council purchased the School and the Coalbrookdale Evening Institute was established. During the Second World War, the School became a centre for evacuees from Liverpool. The School re-opened in 1945 and continued until the late 1960s when it closed it doors to students. The School became a library for a while and in April 1977 the Council leased the building to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Portrait of John Randall on display at Coalport China Museum.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Portrait of John Randall on display at Coalport China Museum.

John Randall ‘Shropshire’s Grand Old Man’

John Randall (1810-1910) was Coalport’s most famous painter. He was also a local historian, writer and collector of fossils and minerals.  His uncle, Thomas Martin Randall, owned a china decorating workshop in Madeley and aged 18 John became his apprentice.  John then spent two years working at the Royal Rockingham porcelain factory in Yorkshire. In 1835, he returned to his home county of Shropshire (he was born in Broseley) and found employment working for John Rose at the Coalport China Works, a job that he remained in for 46 years. During his illustrious career at Coalport his worked was exhibited widely including: the 1851 Exhibition; the 1871 International Exhibition and the 1876 Art Treasures Exhibition.

©Come Step Back in Time. Thought to be the paintbox used by John Randall whilst employed at Coalport.
©Come Step Back in Time. Thought to be the paintbox used by John Randall whilst employed at Coalport.

John had a talent for painting birds, particularly exotic ones. His artistic style was akin to that practiced at Sèvres Porcelain whose factory John visited in 1867. Unfortunately, due to his failing eyesight, John had to retire from Coalport in 1881. Never one to be idle, he became Postmaster at Madeley at the ripe old age of 70. He outlived both his wives, Ann Harvey (with whom he had 5 children) and Louisa Brassington (with whom he had 2 children). He died on November 16th, 1910 and is buried next to Ann and Louisa in Madeley Churchyard. His son, by his first wife, Thomas Julius George, was an accomplished painter in his own right and also worked at Coalport.

©Come Step Back in Time. Example of John Randall's talent for painting birds.
©Come Step Back in Time. Example of John Randall’s talent for painting birds.

China Painters Of Note Who Worked At Coalport

  • Fred Howard – worked at Coalport c.1900-1920 and specialised in painting fruit;

    ©Come Step Back in Time. Coalport plate with fruit painted by Frederick Chivers and Fred Howard.
    ©Come Step Back in Time. Coalport plate with fruit painted by Frederick Chivers and Fred Howard.
  • Frederick Herbert Chivers – worked at Coalport 1906-1926 (except during the First World War). When Coalport moved premises in 1926, Frederick went on to work at Worcester Royal Porcelain;

    ©Come Step Back in Time. Cobalt blue three-handled vase with fruit painting by Frederick Chivers c.1909-1914.
    ©Come Step Back in Time. Cobalt blue three-handled vase with fruit painting by Frederick Chivers c.1909-1914.
  • Thomas Keeling – worked at Coalport in the early 1900s, famous for painting fluffy cats and historic figure studies;

    ©Come Step Back in Time. Rose du Barry pink ware by Coalport. Fluffy cat painted by Thomas Keeling c.1910.
    ©Come Step Back in Time. Rose du Barry pink ware by Coalport. Fluffy cat painted by Thomas Keeling c.1910.
  • Percy Simpson – worked at Coalport from 1901 for the rest of his life, specialised in painting fish and landscapes. He became an Artistic Director at the factory;
  • Fred Howitt – worked at Coalport in the early 1900s, a Sèvres flower and bird painter;
  • Arthur Bowdler – worked at Coalport for 40 years, specialised in painting flowers, birds and simulated precious stones;
  • J.H. Plant – famous for painting castles and the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee vase in 1897.

    ©Come Step Back in Time. To the right and left of image examples of Coalport's Parian Porcelain. Two icepails c.1850.  Parian is a type of unglazed porcelain with a dense texture and a pure white finish, similar to Greek Parian marble. Coalport stop using this technique in the 1860s.
    ©Come Step Back in Time. To the right and left of image examples of Coalport’s Parian porcelain, a pair of icepails c.1850. Parian is a type of unglazed porcelain with a dense texture and a pure white finish, similar to Greek Parian marble. Coalport stop using this technique in the 1860s.
©Come Step Back In Time.  Example of Coalport's jewelled-ware range. This footed vase dates from c.1897-1900. Jewelled ware was produced at Coalport from the end of the nineteenth century. To create this effect, raised droplets of enamel colour were applied to the gilded surface. Other painting effects in this range included inlaid panels of semi-precious stones, such as agates or topaz.
©Come Step Back In Time. Example of Coalport’s jewelled-ware range. This footed vase dates from c.1897-1900. Jewelled ware was produced at Coalport from the end of the nineteenth century. To create this effect, raised droplets of enamel colour were applied to the gilded surface. Other painting effects in this range included inlaid panels of semi-precious stones, such as agates or topaz.

Educational Activities At Coalport China Museum

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Educational facilities in the Children's Gallery at Coalport China Museum.
©Come Step Back In Time. Educational facilities in the Children’s Gallery at Coalport China Museum.

Today, visitors to Coalport’s Museum complex are treated to many live pottery demonstrations including china flower making and pot throwing as well as hands-on activities such as clay modelling and china painting.

©Come Step Back in Time. Examples of Coalport's handmade porcelain flowers. Demonstrators show members of the public how to make these intricate and delicate flowers for firing.
©Come Step Back in Time. Examples of Coalport’s handmade porcelain flowers. Demonstrators show members of the public how to make these intricate and delicate flowers for firing. The Museum also runs sessions where members of the public can have a go at making these tricky porcelain florae.
©come Step Back In Time.
©come Step Back In Time.

A vibrant, year-round, programme of educational activities for all the family ensures that Coalport’s famous pottery techniques are kept alive in 2013 and for future generations to enjoy.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Workshop facilities at Coalport China Museum.
©Come Step Back in Time. Workshop facilities at Coalport China Museum.

The Museum has some pretty impressive workshop facilities too. The theme for this summer’s series of workshops is ‘Sea Worlds’. Beginning on Monday 22nd July until Friday 30th August (Monday to Friday, 11-1 & 2-4pm) the whole family can take part in drop-in sessions ranging from personalizing a ceramic mug and making a clay rock pool to modelling your own sea creature. All sounds like terrific fun, for more information on this summer’s educational activities at Coalport, including charges, CLICK HERE.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Queen Victoria Jubilee Vase by Coalport. Made to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, only 50 were made. The painted scenes represent achievements during Victoria's reign.  Painting is by artist J.H. Plant. On the back of the vase he painted scenes of national life in 1837.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Queen Victoria Jubilee Vase by Coalport. Made to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, only 50 were made. The painted scenes represent achievements during Victoria’s reign. Painting is by artist J.H. Plant. On the back of the vase he painted scenes of national life in 1837.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Group portrait on the last day of the Coalport China Works, 1926 (IGMT 1980.1724)
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Group portrait taken on the last day of the Coalport China Works, 1926 (IGMT 1980.1724)
Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Country House, Fashion History, Historical Hair and Make-up, History, Museum

The Costume Project – Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Archery costumes, 1880s, made by The Costume Project team at Ironbridge for Education Workshops at the Fashion Museum, Bath.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Archery costumes, 1880s, made by The Costume Project team at Ironbridge for Education Workshops at the Fashion Museum, Bath.

I love recreating period costumes, particularly corsets and 1950s dresses, but know my limitations. It is always a privilege and a pleasure to meet others who dedicate themselves to this highly skilled area of sewing.  Tucked away behind the scenes at Enginuity, one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums, is The Costume Project. The project is overseen by Curatorial Officer for Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge and Jackfield Museums, Gillian Crumpton and Senior Costume Interpreter, Alison Phillips.

I recently spent a delightful afternoon being shown around the sewing workroom, soon realising that my needlework skills fell somewhat short of the high standards set by Alison and her team. Gillian tells me: ‘Alison ran the wardrobe department at Blists Hill [Victorian Town, Shropshire] for over ten years after having studied theatre costume and interpretation at Wimbledon School of Art. We have a historic costume collection as part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum. It all began when our Mantua Gown of 1740s, now too fragile to go on display, was missing a corset and fancy petticoat and Alison was asked to make copies of these.’

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Reproduction 2 of the Mantua Gown 1740s, made by The Costume Project at Ironbridge.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Reproduction 2 of the Mantua Gown 1740s, made by The Costume Project at Ironbridge.

The Costume Project at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust has been producing bespoke costume for museums since 2004 and specialises in recreating eighteenth and nineteenth century garments. Gillian explains: ‘There has been informal costume interpretation at Blists Hill Victorian Town since 1973, this developed in the few years following this when twelve sets of costumes were made for staff. At Blists Hill we use both first and third person interpretation and have demonstrators and actors who all have various roles.’

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Costume (1900) made to be worn by members of the public at the Photographer's Studio at Blists Hill Victorian Farm. Made by The Costume Project at Ironbridge.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Costume (1900) made to be worn by members of the public at the Photographer’s Studio at Blists Hill Victorian Town. Made by The Costume Project at Ironbridge.

Accuracy is very important, so too is the wearability and usability of costumes worn by the staff at Blists Hill. Before beginning the process of recreating a new costume, extensive research is undertaken which includes referencing historic costume collections, photographs and paintings – many of these sources are to be found within Ironbridge’s own Research Library and also their wider collection. With a commission from an external museum or heritage organisation, the process is much the same but the client is asked to provide the team with any images from their own collection and, if available, an original costume. Other sources referred to in the research stages include: sketches; cartoons; drawings; inventories; receipts; diaries; adverts and any available museum objects that might provide a point of reference.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Costume (1900) made to be worn by members of the public at the Photographer's Studio at Blists Hill Victorian Farm. Made by The Costume Project at Ironbridge.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Costume (1900) made to be worn by members of the public at the Photographer’s Studio at Blists Hill Victorian Town. Made by The Costume Project at Ironbridge.

Ironbridge is an independent museum and as such has to be income generating, to ensure its future survival. The Costume Project provides an income stream for the museum as well as supporting their wider educational aims. A gap in the costume interpretation market was soon identified by the team and other museums gradually began approaching Ironbridge to employ their knowledge and skills. Gillian explains: ‘We were given funding from DCF (Designated Challenge Fund) in 2004 to set-up The Costume Project working initially with two partner museums – Fashion Museum, Bath and The Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Our aims and mission, since 2004, have been to produce bespoke costumes for museums and to make costumes accessible and engaging to the public. All our work is based on original patterns.’

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.1840s Quaker Lady try on costume at the Darby Houses
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Made by The Costume Project team, an 1840s Quaker Lady try-on costume for the Darby Houses, Ironbridge.

There are three levels of interpretation offered by The Costume Project team:

  1. Reproduction – costume for display, not behind glass, a faithful copy of an original historic textile or a copy from a painting:
  2. Reconstruction – costume for part of a handling collection and can be worn. It is a copy which retains the look and function of the original costume but is graded to modern sizes and often uses more robust materials and fabrics. Gillian points-out: ‘They [costumes] often have ties down the back to allow easy access; we always advocate ties rather than Velcro which doesn’t last.’;
  3. Re-invention – costume for handling and wearing but using historic costume as the inspiration to create a modern interpretation that explores key functions of the original designs.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. A Reproduction (1) Corset from the 1890s made by The Costume Project team. Notice the beautiful stitch detail on the corset.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. A Reproduction (1) Corset from the 1890s made by The Costume Project team. Notice the beautiful stitch detail on the corset.

It isn’t just the outer garments that need to be recreated, under garments are just as important too. Gillian is keen to point-out: ‘Getting the basics right are essential in costume interpretation. You can make a beautiful dress from striped silk based on a 1740 painting but unless you have the right underpinnings, a corset, petticoats and a bumroll or panniers it will look limp, flat, lifeless and will be wrong. Underpinnings are the foundations of fashion and help create the fashionable shape. The silhouette of fashion changed using different structures underneath to create the shape. Our specialism focuses on Georgian and Victorian fashion. The structures involve: panniers, pocket panniers, bumrolls, stays, petticoats, crinolines, bustles and corsets.’

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Reinvention Corset at the National Museums Scotland
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Example of The Costume Project’s signature ‘rucksack corset’. This one was made for the National Museums of Scotland.

One invention that the team are quite rightly proud of is the rucksack corset. This type of corset was first produced for the Fashion Museum, Bath as part of their handling collection but based upon originals in their own collection. The brief behind the invention was to create a corset that could be easily put on and taken off without any help in a designated area of the museum where unsupervised costume wearing activities took place. This corset uses rucksack fabric and rucksack clips, making it durable and lightweight. The fabric and clips are virtually indestructible but were familiar and easy to use meaning that people won’t panic or get stuck in a corset. The Fashion Museum corset was modelled on one from the Victorian era.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. A 1720s Frock Coat try-on costume made by The Costume Project for Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. A 1720s Frock Coat try-on costume made by The Costume Project for Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum.

The Costume Project has many high-profile clients including: The Fashion Museum in Bath, Powys Castle, Ulster Museums, National Museums of Scotland, Clun Museum, Bishops Castle, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum and Historic Royal Palaces (Kew Palace).

  • To find out more about The Costume Project, CLICK HERE;
  • To find out more about Ironbridge Gorge Museums, CLICK HERE;
  • To find out more about events and activities coming-up at the Ironbridge Gorge Museums, CLICK HERE;
  • To organise a visit to Ironbridge and the beautiful Shropshire countryside, CLICK HERE.
    ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Example of one of the staff costumes made by The Costume Project for Kew Palace.
    ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Example of one of the staff costumes made by The Costume Project for Kew Palace (Historic Royal Palaces).
Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Decorative Arts, Event, Exhibition, Fashion History, History, History of Medicine, Literature, Mrs Beeton, Museum, TV Programme, Vintage

Hidden Killers of The Victorian Home

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Pharmacy at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Pharmacy at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.

BBC4’s hour-long documentary Hidden Killers of The Victorian Home  has been one of my recent television highlights. Dr Suzannah Lipscomb reveals some of the hidden horrors lurking in a typical, middle-class, Victorian home.  Joining Dr Lipscomb in her quest to uncover these invisible dangers were a whole host of experts including:  Judith Flanders; Dr Suzy Lishman; Prof. Andrew Meharg; Colin King; Matt Furber; Sarah Nicol; Dr Matthew Avison; Nathan Goss and Max Wagner.

The Victorian era was a time of rapid change. The Industrial Revolution enabled many to prosper, leading to greater social mobility for some and the emergence of the new middle-classes. Dr Lipscomb states that as a result of Industrialisation, by the end of the Victorian era, 25% of the population were categorised as middle-class. The middle-classes, with their disposable income, were looking to splash their cash. Gadgets for domestic use as well as decorative items for the home were a particular favourite and the Victorian consumer was spoilt for choice. However, in this unregulated, pre-trading standards era, the margin for human catastrophe was huge.

Arsenic and lead were two particular toxins that caused many, often unexplained, deaths. In a time before health and safety dominated our everyday lives, danger, sometimes death, was never far away and could be found in the most unlikely of domestic items. Vivid green pigments in wallpaper contained traces of arsenic, children’s toys were coated with lead paint and feeding bottles for babies were breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases making them one of the leading contributors towards infant mortality in Victorian Britain.

©Come Step Back in Time. Tiny waists, a fashionable Victorian look. Exhibit from the Fashion Museum, Bath.
©Come Step Back in Time. Tiny waists, a fashionable Victorian look. Exhibit from the Fashion Museum, Bath.

The fashionable silhouettes of the hour-glass shape or ‘wasp’ waist meant that corsets were very tightly laced and vital organs became misshapen. In the BBC4 documentary there featured a liver specimen from a lady whose tight-lacing habits had put so much pressure on her rib-cage that indentations appeared on the organ itself.

©Come Step Back in Time. Exhibit from the Fashion Museum, Bath.
©Come Step Back in Time. Exhibit from the Fashion Museum, Bath.

Whilst researching this article, I found the following which appeared in a newspaper from 1895. The piece discusses both trends and dangers of tight-lacing as well as the gradual move towards dress reform – The Rational Dress Society was established in London in 1881. Although, I do get the impression from reading this article that dress reform is viewed by the author with some degree of suspicion: ‘..The dress reformers who are determined to abolish all waists, no matter how sylph-like or how divine..’ The aesthetic for a tiny waist seems to appeal to the author :

Fads in CorsetsLonger in the waist, but not to be laced so tightly. The dress reformers who are determined to abolish all waists, no matter how sylph-like or how divine, will wax indignant when they learn that the latest news of the corset market is the appearance of the longest waisted corset yet offered to women. Heretofore “five clasps and a half” has been considered “extra long”. This gave what the corset experts call a three-inch waist. Women whose anatomy demanded something even longer-waisted than that have had corsets made to order. But now in a few days there will appear a six-clasp corset, and the waist measure thereof will be about four inches – not four inches around, but four inches on the length of the corset bones. This measure of the waist is a term with which most women are not familiar. It means that in bending the corset top and bottom together there is a springy motion which commences a certain distance above the lower edge of the corset. That is the lowest edge of the waist. The point near the top of the corset where the springy action practically ends is the top of the waist. Short-waisted persons may only measure two inches. Four inches indicates that the wearer must either be as slim as a rail or else intend to crowd and crush her vitals into a space that would be almost fatal to a constant wearer after a few years. There is a tendency, however, which all manufacturers and dealers in corsets notice; to wear corsets looser than ever… They [dressmakers] say the ambition of a young woman is to show an hour-glass figure. When she wears tight sleeves and narrow shoulders she laces to secure the hour-glass effect. With the immense sleeves giving such breadth of shoulders it would be perfectly ridiculous to lace into a wasp waist. So the dressmakers claim that the big sleeves are saving many women from death by corsets badly worn. The fact that corsets are worn less tightly laced is partly responsibly for this new six-clasp, four-inch waist style.

(The Western Mail, Saturday 11th May, 1895)

Following marriage, increasing numbers of middle-class women found themselves in charge of running a household for the very first time. A great many of these women had little or no prior knowledge of what this new responsibility entailed. It was to this demographic that domestic goddess, Mrs Isabella Beeton (1836-1865), targeted her famous tome, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Apart from multiple chapters containing recipe suggestions, the book also includes advice on hiring and firing staff, first aid, household legal matters as well as a chapter on the ‘Management of Childhood’.

Particularly relevant to this article is Mrs Beeton’s advice on what to do should a poisoning occur in your home.  (please do not follow this advice in modern-day cases. For suspected incidents of poisoning, you should seek professional medical help IMMEDIATELY. Extract featured is purely for historical interest.):

When an alkali is the poison, give drinks of weak vinegar or lemonade. When an acid, chalk and water, whiting plaster from the walls, or white of egg; if a narcotic, give strong coffee, and do everything to keep the patient awake, walking him about, opening the windows wide, applying cold water to his face, and so on. (p.1874)

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Pharmacy at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The Pharmacy at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.

Until The Pharmacy Act of 1868, the sale, dispensing and compounding of poisons was, to a large extent, unrestricted. Arsenic was used as rat poison, sheep dip and on fly papers and thought to be an effective treatment for malaria, asthma, skin problems, rheumatism and even morning sickness. (Victorian Pharmacy: Rediscovering Forgotten Remedies and Recipes by Eastoe, J. and Goodman, R., 2010, p.121, Pavilion Books). In the early decades of the Victorian era, people were largely ignorant of the harmful effects of ingesting, touching or being close to products containing arsenic. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning (fever, chills and sweating) resembled those associated with cholera, which was one of the nineteenth century’s biggest killers, hence mis-diagnosis and incorrect treatment for arsenic poisoning being commonplace.

Mrs Beeton also gives advice on bottle-feeding, which she refers to in her publication as ‘rearing by hand’. Using feeding bottles during the Victorian era was a very popular alternative to breast-feeding. Some of the bottles were earthenware, made in Staffordshire, others were glass.  They were very difficult to clean and although bottles were supplied with long-handled brushes to help with the task, these receptacles became silent killers due to the fact that fatal germ deposits gradually built-up over time. This led to bottles earning the nickname, ‘killer bottles’. (please do not follow this advice at home for cleaning your baby bottles, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Extract is featured purely for historical interest). Mrs Beeton recommends:

There are two methods that may be employed in this artificial system of feeding – the one is to give the child its meals from a spoon, the other is to allow it to suck from a bottle. Of these the latter is preferable. It is most essential to the success of this method of feeding that the bottle or bottles be kept scrupulously clean, as dirty bottles frequently give rise to “thrush”. The best form of bottle to use is the boat-shaped one, with a rubber nipple fixed to the end or neck. No bottles with rubber tubes should be used, since milk sticks to the inside of the tube, and cannot be removed. This milk when decomposed will set-up diarrhoea. The bottle and teat must be scalded after each meal in hot water and soda, the teat turned inside out, and both rinsed in cold water. They then should be allowed to stand in cold water in which a little boracic acid has been dissolved. (p.1914)

I came across in the course of research so many interesting newspaper articles reporting incidents of domestic tragedy from this period. Sometimes death was averted and other times not. Quite a few of the articles specifically relate to the consumption of food that unwittingly contains toxic substances.  Since I am currently writing a publication on the history of blancmange, I have chosen here two extracts that relate to the potential hazards of consuming this seemingly innocuous desert:

A Providential Escape – A few days ago one young family of the Hon. A. Ellis, residing at Bognor, were, together with the governess and two maids, nearly poisoned, owing to their having eaten some blancmange, a part of which was coloured a bright light green; very fortunately this green part had an unpleasant taste, which prevented their eating more of it. The medical man who analyzed the remaining quantity found it to contain a verdigris powder. Whilst he had it in a liquid state he dipped into it a knife, which became instantly covered with this green copperas, and he asserts that there was a sufficient portion of this poisonous powder in the quantity analyzed to kill six persons. As it is, the two maids and governess and one of the children are still suffering from its dangerous effects. It appears this powder for colouring the green part had been purchased from a pastrycook in london but it is to be observed that such an article ought never to be sold for such purposes, and this has been inserted as a caution to the public.

(The Blackburn Standard, 18th February, 1846)

Poisoning at a public dinner – great excitement has existed at Northampton, in consequence of the sudden illness of 20 out of about 60 persons who attended a public dinner at the New Hall, which followed the ordination of the Rev. G. Nicholson, B.A., as the minister of the Ring-street dissenting chapel, in the room of the Rev. T. Milner. The viands were of the usual substantial kind, and before the cloth was removed some of the gentlemen were seized with sickness and vomiting, while others were taken ill at a later period of the entertainment. One of them, Mr Cornfield, an accountant in the town, expired at five o’clock on Thursday morning. The dinner was provided by a Mr Franklin, at whose house the whole of the cooking utensils were seized by order of the magistrates. At the inquest held on the body of the deceased, the medical witnesses stated that they had detected copper in the green colouring stuff which coated the blancmange used at the dinner. A verdict of “Manslaughter” was accordingly returned against Mr Franklin, by whom the dinner was provided, and against Randall, the cook.

(The Examiner, 17th June, 1848)

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Come Step Back in Time. Doctor's House and Surgery. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Come Step Back in Time. Doctor’s House and Surgery. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Come Step Back in Time. Interior of the Doctor's House and Surgery, no. 2 Furnace Bank. Rebuilt brick-by-brick, a majority of one Duke of Sutherland's cottage built on Wellington Road (no.15), Donnington, Telford. 1862. Opened on site 22nd October, 1986.
©Come Step Back in Time. Interior of the Doctor’s House and Surgery, no. 2 Furnace Bank. Rebuilt brick-by-brick, a majority of one Duke of Sutherland’s cottage built on Wellington Road (no.15), Donnington, Telford. 1862. Opened on site 22nd October, 1986.

On my recent trip to the excellent Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire, I wandered in and out of the many shops and cosy cottages with their glowing ranges and welcoming costumed inhabitants. I tried to imagine what life must have really been like for those living in an industrial town during Victorian times. It is all too easy to foster a rose-tinted view of Victorian life.

©Come Step Back in Time. Inside the Doctor's House and Surgery, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Come Step Back in Time. Inside the Doctor’s House and Surgery, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Come Step Back in Time. Inside the Doctor's House and Surgery, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Come Step Back in Time. Inside the Doctor’s House and Surgery, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.

Documentaries such as Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home are a stark reminder, to anyone interested in the social history of the period, to look for the truth behind the social myth.

©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.

Blists Hill is not actually a real town, it has been developed over a number of years by The Ironbridge Gorge Trust and covers an area of fifty-two acres. Its purpose is to immerse visitors in the atmosphere of a small industrial town at a pivotal time in British history – the period between 1890 and 1910, late Victorian early Edwardian.

©Come Step Back in Time. Inside McClures General Draper and Outfitters, no. 3 Canal Street, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire. An original building from Stafford Place, Oakengates, Telford (exterior and shop front only). c.1880. Opened on site on 4th Apri, 2009.
©Come Step Back in Time. Inside McClures General Draper and Outfitters, no. 3 Canal Street, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire. An original building from Stafford Place, Oakengates, Telford (exterior and shop front only). c.1880. Opened on site on 4th April, 2009.
©Come Step Back in Time. Grocery and Provisions Shop (A.F. Blakemore & Son), no. 7 High Street. An exact replica of Owen's Grocer's shop and warehouse, Market Street, Oakengates, Telford, Shropshire. c.1890. Many of the items on display in the shop are from Chester's Salopian Stores, Westbury, Shropshire. The shop opened on site on 14th July 2000.
©Come Step Back in Time. Grocery and Provisions Shop (A.F. Blakemore & Son), no. 7 High Street. An exact replica of Owen’s Grocer’s shop and warehouse, Market Street, Oakengates, Telford, Shropshire. c.1890. Many of the items on display in the shop are from Chester’s Salopian Stores, Westbury, Shropshire. The shop opened on site on 14th July 2000.

In 2013, Blists Hill celebrates its 40th anniversary. Many of the buildings on the site are original and are from other parts of the region but have been saved and reconstructed to create the Victorian Town you see today. What is remarkable about the site is the fact that in the 1960s when historic buildings were being swept away to make room for modern constructions, the forward thinking Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust stepped in and managed to rescue some of them, ensuring that our heritage is now preserved for future generations to enjoy and study. After this initial period of rescue and reconstruction, the focus of Blists Hill shifted toward turning the site into a Victorian Town:

…the focus of Blists Hill shifted as people and not processes became the new priority. Efforts turned to recreating a coherent environment in which visitors could experience what it was like to live and work when Britain was the Workshop of the World at the very end of the 19th century. Blists Hill Open Air Museum became Blists Hill Victorian Town.

But Blists Hill has never been just a museum of buildings and old things. When the decision was made in the 1980s to put museum staff into Victorian costume, carefully replicated from original patterns, a new standard of interpretation was born. The site came to life. Since then, professional actors have added another dimension to street life, and special themed events have helped emphasise the significance of customs and traditions in the lives of ordinary working class Victorians.

(Blists Hill Victorian Town Souvenir Guidebook, 2011, p.51 & 53, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

If you were a fan of the BBC’s Victorian Pharmacy (2010) then you may will recognise Blists Hill’s Bates & Hunt’s Pharmacy and Chemist’s shop as being the location used for the series. I could have spent hours in Bates & Hunt’s Pharmacy examining all the pills, potions and lotions that have been superbly re-displayed.

©Come Step Back in Time. Interior of the Pharmacy at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
©Come Step Back in Time. Interior of the Pharmacy at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.

The Pharmacy is based on an original building which was located at the corner shop, Constitution Hill, Wellington, Telford in Shropshire. The date of the store is c.1890 and the contents come from West Cliffe Pharmacy (latterly Pars & Co.), Poole Hill, Bournemouth. The Pharmacy has been at Blists Hill since 9th July, 1984.

  • For more information about and to plan a visit to Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire, CLICK HERE;
  • For more information about events at Blists Hill and the other Ironbridge museums, CLICK HERE.

    ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.
    ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire.

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.
Posted in Activity, Decorative Arts, Event, Exhibition, Film, Literature, Museum, Review

Mr Watt, Grumpy Man of Metal Exhibition by Jon Mills at Enginuity, Ironbridge, Shropshire

 

©Jon Mills. Mr Watt, Grumpy Man of Metal, Exhibition by artist Jon Mills at Enginuity, Ironbridge, Shropshire.
©Jon Mills. Mr Watt, Grumpy Man of Metal, Exhibition by artist Jon Mills at Enginuity, Ironbridge, Shropshire.

Mr Watt, Grumpy Man of Metal, is an exhibition by blacksmith artist Jon Mills, currently running until 31st August 2013 at Enginuity Design & Technology Centre, one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums in Shropshire. The exhibition features fun and whimsical sculptures showing the many adventures of Mr Watt, Grumpy Man of Metal, the central character in a series of illustrated books that appeal to both young and old alike. Jon has written a short article on his blog about the exhibition which includes some nice images of the metalworks in situ.

©Jon Mills
©Jon Mills

 

©Jon Mills
©Jon Mills

Mr Watt lives in a curious metal world and makes many unusual metal objects, such as a crab’s bicycle, a flying machine and a new kind of trumpet. Other sculptures on display include the runaway train from the book On the Wrong Track; the parson and his church from Under Wear and Tear; the witch from A Brush with Evil and the astro-barrow from Space… the Final Front Door. The artist has created a short video (2011) showing Mr Watt being made at his Brighton-based workshop. Filming and soundtrack by Arthur Mills.

©Jon Mills
©Jon Mills

Gillian Crumpton, Curatorial Officer at the Museum commented: “Jon’s work is technically outstanding and visually fascinating. We are sure that visitors will love looking at the many sculptures and following Mr Watt’s adventures.” To view sample pages form the book of Mr Watt’s adventures, CLICK HERE. I found this exhibition to be a complete delight when I visited it last month. The quality of craftmanship in Jon’s work is exquisite and a closer inspection is highly recommended. The metal vignettes do have an air of quirkiness about them and reminded me of some of the creations by film-maker Tim Burton.

©Jon Mills
©Jon Mills
©Jon Mills
©Jon Mills

Mr Watt, Grumpy Man of Metal’s creator, Jon Mills, was born in Birmingham in 1959 into a family of metalworkers and studied 3-Dimensional Design BA (Hons) at Wolverhampton before helping to found Brighton’s Red Herring Studios in 1983. In the mid 1980s he honed his skills at brazing, forging, laser-cutting and welding and exhibited work at One Off, Ron Arad’s London workshop and gallery.

In 1988, Jon created a music machine for a Terry Jones/Monty Python film, Erik the Viking (1989). You can view the original music machine sketch on the artist’s blog, CLICK HERE as well as the finished item, CLICK HERE.

In recent years, Jon has been involved in major architectural commissions, inventing exciting structures that engage with their surroundings whether in cities or in the countryside. His output is extraordinarily diverse and charmingly subversive. He makes dangerous toys and automata, dysfunctional furniture and an amazing range of sculpture with themes that are witty, whimsical, and sometimes darkly Gothic. Jon’s vast body of work has been shown extensively in Great Britain as well as in the USA, Europe and Japan.

Mills is very much a hands-on maker, preferring to produce one-off designs. Occasionally clients have ordered repeats on a similar theme, but Mills has tended to resist mass or batch production, opting instead for a more spontaneous approach – the evolving of ideas through the making process, be it cupboard or bridge. He has undertaken numerous residencies in schools, normally in conjunction with a specific commission, often incorporating elements of the children’s work into the finished piece.

(Quote taken from Artist’s own website, CLICK HERE)

Enginuity  is the perfect setting for Jon’s work to be exhibited. It is a fabulous and fun environment that brings together history and technology. Different zones – Energy, Green and Design – encourage visitors to interact with exhibits which enhances their understanding of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics behind objects, past and present. This ‘hands-on’ approach works extremely well and creates a vibrant, educational space that has a cross-generational appeal.

Create ‘Sticky Critters’ at Enginuity – Easter Holidays, 29th March-14th April 2013

In my view, the educational facilities at Enginuity are quite some of the best I have seen offered by any Museum. They include a vast warehouse style area with plenty of space for you and your family to get creative. When I visited last month, the workshop area was full of objects, old and new, to help inspire your artistic endeavours.

During the Easter school holidays this year, Enginuity are hosting a great fun family event. Use your imagination to design and create fun ‘sticky critters’ from craft materials inspired by the suction capabilities of an octopus, then discover how long they can cling to an upright glass surface. Paper, card, plastic and other materials will be used to make the designs based on frogs, geckos and octopus or any other creature of your own invention. The drop-in Nature’s Engineers family workshops will be held from Friday 29th March until Sunday 14th April, between 10.30am and 3.45pm.  Activities will vary from day-to-day and some additional costs will apply.

Museums at Night (Thursday 16 – Saturday 18 May 2013) – Julian Wild’s sculptures

Recently, The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Shropshire beat-off stiff competition in the national Connect10 Competition, to secure international artist Julian Wild to work with the Ironbridge Gorge Museums during the Museums at Night event in May. The Connect10 Competition is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Museums at Night (Thursday 16 – Saturday 18 May 2013) is a national initiative by Culture 24 that encourages museums to remain open after hours for one night a year, allowing as many people as possible to visit their local museums. Across the country the public have been voting to send ten different artists to ten varied museums to work on a variety of inspirational projects.

Anna Brennand, Deputy Chief Executive Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust commented; “We are really grateful to everyone that voted for us in this competition, it is wonderful to know that in their busy lives our supporters found the time to vote for us. We are thrilled to be welcoming an artist of Julian Wild’s calibre to Enginuity in May and hope that everyone will come along to help him make an amazing sculpture from glow-in-the-dark pipes during the Museum at Night event”. The Museum will publish full details of the event in the coming weeks on www.ironbridge.org.uk.

Julian Wild’s sculptures are often based on the history of a site and resemble three-dimensional doodles. His vision for the sculpture at Enginuity is that members of the local community will help him create a giant work of art, inspired by structures in the Gorge, from pipes.

Ironbridge – 2012 Most Highly Recommended UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK According to  TripAdvisor®

On Come Step Back in Time, over the coming weeks, I am delighted to be able to share with you a series of fascinating feature articles that I have written about The Ironbridge World Heritage Site, its museums and world-class collections. Ironbridge Gorge has been voted the 2012 most highly recommended UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK according to the TripAdvisor® traveller community. It also takes 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. It was not hard to see why Ironbridge had received this accolade. When I visited last month I found it to be truly worthy of its status as a national heritage treasure.

  • Enginuity is open 10am to 5pm and is one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums;
  • A great value Annual Passport Ticket  allowing entry into all ten museums, valid for twelve months and unlimited return visits, costs £23.25 per adult, £18.75 for the 60 plus, £15.25 for students and children and £64 for a family of two adults and all their children aged up to 18 years in full-time education (terms and conditions apply); under 5s free;
  • Individual museum entry tickets are also available;
  • Activities and workshops vary day-to-day and some carry an extra charge in addition to the museum admission fee.

    ©Jon Mills
    ©Jon Mills