Julian Humphrys heads to Ironbridge, Shropshire to explore one of the hubs of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Julian Humphrys discusses the history of the Iron Bridge on the audio guide that accompanies this piece.
Exclusive audio guide
Download the Audio guide (Right-click and select 'Save as')
It’s hard to imagine it now, but this green and pleasant wooded gorge and the two smaller river valleys leading into it once formed one of the most important industrial sites in the world. Coal had been mined and limestone quarried in the area since medieval times, and iron had been produced since the reign of Henry VIII. But it was the 18th century that saw Coalbrookdale, as the area was then known, take its place at the cutting edge of what is often called the Industrial Revolution.
In 1709 Abraham Darby, a Quaker brass-founder who had moved to Coalbrookdale from Bristol, finally succeeded in smelting iron with coke. Coke, which was produced by baking coal at high temperatures, was much cheaper and more plentiful than charcoal, which had been used in the process until then. Darby’s discovery would enable the iron needed by the engineers of the Industrial Revolution to be produced in vastly increased quantities.
Darby’s intentions had been rather modest – he wanted to make cheap iron pots – but successive generations of his family were more ambitious. Within decades the Coalbrookdale ironworks was producing a wide range of industrial items including iron wheels, rails, steam cylinders and, of course, bridges. Competition in the Victorian period led the Coalbrookdale Company to specialise and it gained new fame for the production of decorative cast ironwork, especially statues and gates. The entrance gates to the 1851 Great Exhibition were made in Coalbrookdale.
The late 18th and 19th centuries saw many other companies and industries flourish at Ironbridge: Broseley clay tobacco pipes, Maws and Craven Dunnill tiles and, maybe most famous of all, Coalport china. Some production still takes place here but it’s on a tiny scale compared to the past. Yet reminders of the area’s industrial heyday are everywhere with substantial remains of mines, foundries, furnaces, factories and warehouses to be seen and several museums to visit. These tell the story of the area’s industrial heritage and range from the extensive open-air Blists Hill Victorian Town to the dark, brick-lined Tar Tunnel.
Ironbridge Gorge is unique and in 1986 its historical importance was recognised by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ironbridge Tourist Information Centre, The Toll House, Ironbridge, Telford, Shropshire TF8 7AW
tel: 01952 884391