History explorer: The power of British iron

Nige Tassell and Richard Hayman explore Ironbridge Gorge, the crucible of one of the most important developments of the industrial revolution

Ironbridge over the river Severn in Telford, England. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On an unhurried, sunny spring afternoon, the Shropshire village of Ironbridge resembles a rural idyll barely touched by the industrial world. The river Severn slips gently by, its banks full and verdant, while daytrippers divide their time between its ice-cream parlours and its excellent secondhand bookshop. Across the road, a gaggle of French schoolchildren hold up their phones to take pictures of the structure that gave both the village and the gorge its name.

Built in 1779, the bridge whose gentle parabola elegantly spans the river is a clue to the gorge’s industrial past. This was the world’s first cast-iron bridge, one forged just a mile or so away at the large ironworks at Coalbrookdale. The bridge isn’t the only clue to a less idyllic past. Industrial archaeology is present everywhere you turn, whether it’s the remains of blast furnaces beside the river bank or workers’ cottages dotting the landscape. For those not spotting the clues, the gorge boasts no fewer than 10 excellent museums, all run by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Each museum fills in the blanks until there are no blanks left to fill.

Had the daytrippers been here 200 years ago, they would have been confronted with rather a different outlook. For starters, the river would have been bustling with activity; the Severn was the main outlet for the gorge’s products, whether iron, pottery or tiles. Indeed, during the industrial revolution, it was the second busiest river in Europe. Had the daytrippers then ventured a mile or two north, they would have encountered a scene somewhat noisier and dirtier than today.

Infernal regions

In 1787, the visiting Italian aristocrat Carlo Castone della Torre di Renzionico Comasco described what he saw in vivid terms: “The approach to Coalbrookdale appeared to be a veritable descent to the infernal regions.

A dense column of smoke rose from the earth; volumes of steam were ejected from fire engines; a blacker cloud issued from a tower in which was a forge, and smoke arose from a mountain of burning coals which burst out into turbid flames.”

Thankfully, Coalbrookdale in 2017 is a rather more peaceful proposition. The site is now the home of the freshly revamped Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. Right from its first exhibit, this fascinating museum explains why the region attracted ironworkers from the late medieval period onwards.

It was all to do with that river. The Severn originally flowed northwards, from Welshpool to the Dee Estuary. However, the Ice Age forced a change in direction and, in flowing south, it carved the gorge, cutting through the soft limestone.

In doing so, it revealed what lay beneath, strata of limestone, clay, coal and iron ore. All of this would become far easier to extract than in different locations. Mining didn’t have to go downwards to reach each particular raw material; it could be extracted by simply going sideways. The conditions for the iron industry were more than conducive. As the 18th-century ironmaster George Perry later remarked, it was “as if Nature had intended this place for an Iron Foundery [sic]”.

The land surrounding the gorge had belonged to the priory of nearby Much Wenlock until it was bought by the Brooke family following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. A blast furnace was built on the site in 1658, but it wasn’t until a certain Abraham Darby arrived in the early 18th century and leased its use that Shropshire would become renowned the world over for its iron production. This man was the reason for the gorge’s indelible industrial footprint.

Choosing coke

“When Abraham Darby came to Coalbrookdale in 1708,” explains author and industrial historian Richard Hayman, “the furnace wasn’t actually in use. He had selected Coalbrookdale because the ore mined there had a lot of phosphorous in it. This meant it wasn’t very good for making wrought iron but was very good for making cast iron. But when he went there, he didn’t have ambitions to revolutionise the iron industry.”

But revolutionise it he did. The established method for smelting iron was to use charcoal, but this wasn’t in infinite supply. “There was a lot of woodland around,” says Hayman, “but it had been leased to other people, so the furnace struggled to find enough charcoal to fuel it.” Darby, instead, chose to use coke (essentially baked coal) to smelt the iron. Although not the first to try this method, he refined the process and was the one to make it commercially viable.

“Although they’d experimented with smelting with coke at Coalbrookdale before, there hadn’t really been any sustained production of it to establish it as an alternative to charcoal. Darby spent three or four years trying to find the best-quality coal to convert into coke. Eventually – and unexpectedly – they found that poor-grade coal, which wouldn’t sell too well because it was in small lumps, was the best for converting into coke for the blast furnace.”

Not that Darby alone can be seen as the great innovator or visionary. “It wasn’t a question of him conceiving of the idea to transform the industry,” cautions Hayman. “It was a necessity. And he relied on the expertise of his workmen to achieve it. When he came to Shropshire from Bristol, Darby didn’t know how to run a blast furnace. It was the workmen who were the experts. Darby was funding it. He was the one experimenting by bringing in coal from various sources.”

Darby began the mass production of pots and cauldrons, but died just nine years after arriving in Coalbrookdale. His son – Abraham Darby II – took on the business when he was of age and was the one to really drive it forward, to give it national attention. Until then, the other iron-producing areas – such as the Weald of Kent and Sussex, and the Forest of Dean – sold their products locally. The younger Darby began to cast cylinders and other parts for steam engines, the real driver of the industrial revolution, and opened two further ironworks nearby. As Hayman notes: “Between 1750 and 1790, Shropshire had become both the leading iron producer in Britain and the leading place of innovation.” It wasn’t long-lasting, though. By the end of the century, it had been eclipsed by south Wales, where iron ore could simply be dug up in fields rather than being mined underground.

By the time that the iron bridge was erected in 1779, Abraham Darby III was now running the company. “My take on him is that he always knew about the achievements of his father and grandfather and so had a lot to look up to,” says Hayman. “His ambition to build this marvellous bridge was part of that, of reaching the level of his forebears.

“He was very keen to promote the idea that he was building a new kind of bridge, but I imagine the impact of it went way beyond what he envisaged for it. Iron bridges would have been built with or without Darby, but he certainly produced a superb advert for them. The reason it became famous was that a lot of people came to visit it. And the more people that visited it, the more it appeared in guidebooks as an interesting destination.”

Size and scale

With its numerous museums, Ironbridge Gorge is now more interesting to the visitor than ever. You can still explore the original blast furnace, which is just across a pleasant grass area from the iron museum. Housed in a triangular, weather-proof glass building, its size and scale is extremely impressive.

The gorge is also home to museums representing its other industries at the time (the Coalport China Museum and the Jackfield Tile Museum), the Darby Houses (which the family’s successive generations called home), the hands-on technology centre Enginuity, and Blists Hill Victorian Town.

The latter, featuring a working foundry, is a tremendous re-creation of everyday life back in the age of heavy industry and steam, when folk didn’t have the luxury of mooching around secondhand bookshops and frequenting ice-cream parlours. Another time, another place.

Richard Hayman is an archaeologist and author of several books, including The Iron Industry (Bloomsbury Shire, 2016). Words: Nige Tassell.


The iron industry: five more places to explore

1

Clearwell Caves (Clearwell, Forest of Dean)

Where iron was mined for millennia

Iron ore has been mined at Clearwell Caves for thousands of years and you can glimpse that history at what is now a working museum. Nine large caverns are open to visitors and there are also several displays on the history and geology of the area.

Visit clearwellcaves.com

2

Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum (Skinningrove, North Yorkshire)

Where the life of a miner is revealed

In the 19th century the Tees Valley was home to 83 iron mines, the first of which was established at Skinningrove in 1848. Visitors experience what life was like for miners as they extracted iron ore that would be used across the world, including in the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Visit ironstonemuseum.co.uk

3

Blaenavon Ironworks (Blaenavon, near Pontypool)

Where south Wales ruled the world

The Blaenavon Ironworks began production in 1789 and rose to be one of the main centres of iron production in the world. The remains of its blast furnaces reveal a long-past world, further explained by reconstructed buildings.

See visitblaenavon.co.uk

4

Duddon Iron Furnace (Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria)

Where you can explore a furnace

Built in 1736, Broughton-in-Furness is home to the best-preserved charcoal blast furnace in the north of England. While Coalbrookdale in Shropshire led the way in coke-fired smelting, the ready supply of wood in Cumbria meant that the county had many charcoal-fuelled furnaces.

See visitcumbria.com

5

Bonawe Ironworks (Argyll, Scotland)

Where cannonballs began life

Founded in 1753, Bonawe Ironworks tapped the potential of Argyll’s woodlands to produce iron for everything from cannonballs for the Napoleonic Wars to monuments of Admiral Nelson. Today, visitors can see inside the blast furnace and the huge charcoal sheds, all in a stunning setting at the head of Loch Etive.

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See visitscotland.com