Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In the cradle of the industrial revolution

I am grateful to Maria at American Metal Market , for sending me a link to an article that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, written by David Bear. If you ever get to the UK David, I would gladly be your guide to Ironbridge for the day.


IRONBRIDGE GORGE, Shropshire, England -- It may be common to believe that Pittsburgh, with the steel mills that sprang up along the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers at the end of the 19th century, was the birthplace of the modern metals industry.

But that distinction belongs to this placid, tree-draped, 4-mile-long valley along the upper reaches of the Severn River, 100 miles upstream from Bristol.

It was here that Abraham Darby, an enterprising, God-fearing Quaker, arrived in 1708 to set up an operation for casting iron cooking pots. In those days, most metal cookware was made from brass and was very costly. Darby, then 31, had apprenticed at a foundry in Bristol where he'd worked out and patented a method to cast pots out of iron, which was cheaper than brass.

But Darby's inventiveness didn't end there. He also devised a way to smelt iron with coked coal, which was abundant in the hills of western England, rather than using charcoal, which required stripping the land of lumber.

Before long, Darby's new iron furnace was producing the unimaginable quantity of six tons of iron per week, and his company began mass casting a range of cooking pots at high quality and low cost. The age of industry was under way.

Unfortunately, the pollution generated by his industry sickened Darby, who died in 1717 at age 39. But his family continued the operation, and the Coalbrookdale iron works grew and pioneered innovative techniques for making and casting the versatile metal, ideas that were quickly applied elsewhere.

By the 1770s, the once pastoral river valley had become an industrial dynamo, with much of its machinery cast from local iron. There were more furnaces and forges along the gorge's two miles than anywhere else in the world, and the iron that flowed from them enabled the expansion of the British Empire. Smaller factories making clay tiles and smoking pipes had taken root along one bank, while fine ceramic china was being manufactured on the other.

The ravages of industrial pollution were becoming a problem as troublesome as the floods that periodically roared through the narrow valley.

In 1775 a local draftsman, T. F. Pritchard, approached Darby's grandson, Abraham III, with an audacious plan to erect a bridge of cast iron to span the capricious Severn. His design called for a graceful, 60-foot-high arch of iron members to span 100 feet between two masonry abutments. No iron structure had ever been attempted on that scale. Some 800 structural members, the largest of which weighed 4 tons and measured 70 feet long, were cast in open sand forms constructed right on the building site.

The bridge's construction took most of two years and required 380 tons of iron, all of it smelted in nearby furnaces. No one really knew what would happen when everything was bolted together and hoisted into position. The project's extra costs nearly bankrupted Darby's grandson, who had agreed to pay all overages.

But the design was true, and from the moment the iron toll bridge across the Severn opened on New Year's Day 1781, it became an immediate, international sensation, a tourist attraction drawing admiring visitors from around the world. Artists, writers, engineers, spies, royalty and peasants all came to marvel at that "most incomparable piece of architecture."

Other iron bridges were built along the river, but Darby's delight had captured an enduring place in history. And the bridge itself has endured for nearly 230 years. Vehicular traffic used it to cross the river until 1934, and tolls were still collected for pedestrians until 1950 when ownership of the bridge was turned over to the county council, which began developing the bridge and other industrial facilities as historical attractions.

In 1986, the entire Ironbridge Gorge was declared a World Heritage Site, a place of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. In addition to the bridge and its adjacent toll house museum, the gorge features a clutch of other engaging small museums, each packed with artifacts from the area's industrial age.

Among these are the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, three floors of exhibits housed in Darby's former iron works, with a detailed history of the company and its products, including the brick works for the original blast furnace. Another building contains Enginuity, a modern, hands-on museum chronicling all the ways that good ideas are transformed into reality. Nearby, the two sturdy stone houses erected by Abraham I and his successors, have been carefully restored and filled with generations of family history and Quaker memorabilia.

Situated in an old brick warehouse down on the river's bank, the Museum of the Gorge serves to catalog and explain the history and ecology of the gorge.

On the valley's upper slopes, Blists Hill Victorian Town re-creates the coal mining village that took root along the Shropshire Canal above the gorge. In its collection of authentic shops, homes and a working forge costumed interpreters bring the past to life.

On the river's opposite bank is the Jackfield Tile Museum. By the time the Iron Bridge was erected, utilitarian tile had been made from local clays for more than a century. By 1800, decorative tiles were being cast, and in Victorian times came in vogue for adorning everything from subway stations to pubs.

All in all, Ironbridge Gorge makes for a fascinating foray into the early evolution of the industrial age, and a full day is not enough time to explore all of its various elements.

I was lucky enough to live close to Ironbridge and spent many hours exploring the sights and museums dedicated to not only the Industrial life of the region, but also the social history of the 19th and early 20th century in a region that was the birthplace of the Industrial revolution.I would agree with article in recommending a visit to the region which is contrary to what outsiders may expect set in a most beautiful and overlooked area of British countryside. Shropshire is a delightful county. If you have five minutes to spare you will find some photographs of the county in my collection here.

More links to the region Blists Hill, Ironbridge Gorge.


No comments: