History is made in the most unlikely places. Shropshire, for example. The Shropshire Tourism website describes it as “the nicest of England’s quiet counties”, which sounds a bit lukewarm if you ask me. The website goes on to add that it’s “ideal for a short break away from the stresses of modern life, or indeed perfect for a day’s escape into the countryside”. All of which makes it very difficult to believe that Ironbridge Gorge, which lies on the River Severn close to the heart of rural Shropshire, is widely described as “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”.
It’s a big claim, particularly as England led the rest of the world into the Industrial Revolution. According to this reading of history, Ironbridge Gorge was the birthplace not just of a local or national revolution, but of a global transformation which made possible our comfortable, technology-driven 21st century existence. How come? I hear you asking.
The deep gorge carved out by glacial outflow at the end of the last Ice Age exposed readily accessible deposits of raw materials – including iron, coal, limestone and fireclay – that helped kick-start the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.
The key development was in 1709 when the Quaker Abraham Darby I launched his innovative technique for smelting local iron ore, using coke made from coal mined at the Shropshire village of Coalbrookdale. Through its use of coke rather than charcoal, Darby’s discovery made the mass production of cast iron economically viable.
Darby’s revolutionary technique resulted in the availability of large quantities of relatively cheap iron, which in turn led to this area of Shropshire becoming – by the standards of the time – highly industrialised. The River Severn was a key trading route along which products could be transported, but it was also an obstacle to the cross-country movement of people and goods
Calls grew ever louder for a bridge across the Severn and, inspired by the local iron industry, a proposal was made for the world’s first iron bridge. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard drew up the designs, which were approved by Act of Parliament. Construction began in 1777 but Pritchard died within weeks, and subsequently most of the project was overseen by Abraham Darby III, the grandson of iron smelting pioneer Abraham Darby I.
The bridge was completed in 1781, and remains today an iconic piece of industrial design. Inevitably given its ground-breaking design the project had its problems, and it set an unwelcome trend that HS2 seems likely to emulate by coming in way over budget.
In total the 378 tons of iron used in the bridge’s construction cost £6,000, against an initial estimate of £3,200. However, by the mid-1790s the bridge was highly profitable and the shareholders were receiving a substantial annual dividend of 8 per cent. By way of contrast, BP currently (as of 6 January 2020) pays a dividend yield of 6.28%.
Although its use of iron was a radical departure from previous practice many of the techniques employed were surprisingly traditional:
Research also revealed that 70% of the components of the bridge – including all the large castings – were made individually to fit, and all differ slightly from one another as a result. Darby’s workers employed joining techniques used in carpentry, such as dovetail and shouldered joints, adapting them for cast iron.SOURCE: English Heritage website, retrieved 7 January 2020
The bridge remained in full use for over 150 years, but in 1934 it was finally closed to vehicles and designated an Ancient Monument. Remarkably, pedestrians continued to pay tolls to cross it until 1950. It is, however, reassuring to note that the owners of the bridge had an egalitarian view of who should pay the tolls: quite simply, absolutely everyone had to cough up:
‘Every officer or soldier whether on duty or not, is liable to pay toll for passing over as well as any baggage wagon, mail coach or the Royal Family.’SOURCE: Taken from the Table of Tolls (see photograph of the sign)
Ironbridge Gorge Museums comprises no fewer than 10 separate museums on sites scattered throughout the area, including Blists Hill Victorian Town, Jackfield Tile Museum, Coalport China Museum and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. Anyone with an interest in industrial history can easily spend two or three days here – as we have done, spread across a couple of visits – and still feel that there’s more to explore.
But without doubt the jewel in Ironbridge’s crown is the iconic bridge itself. Shockingly, in the 1960s there was a serious possibility that it would be taken down and sold for scrap. Fortunately for scholars, tourists and local businesses alike, wiser heads prevailed and the bridge was saved for the nation by English Heritage. It remains the most potent and memorable symbol of an age when this relatively remote and rural corner of rural England led the international community into a brave new industrialised world.