Ironbridge Gorge: Iron and Furnaces

So I spent last week in the little Shropshire village of Ironbridge, where I had rented a cottage  for a week of writing and walking (which was actually mostly a week of editing and getting rained on XD). Ironbridge is a deceptive place–at first glance it appears rural and serene, perched on the steep wooded sides of the Severn Gorge with the River Severn running at its foot.

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Looking upriver towards Coalbrookdale.

Yet from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth century, this scene would have been very different. Arthur Young, writing in the Edinburgh Review in 1797, described the valley thus:

After having passed over a few hills, that singular valley comes all at once into view, from whence, night and day, there arise clouds of fire and smoke… Nothing would be more dismal than this scene, if it did not exhibit the image of industry, and consequently make one conclude the condition of its inhabitants to be comfortable…. The trees are few in this valley, they are stunted in their growth, and bare of leaves; the ground, at every step, presents fragments of iron and coal, and the dark orifices of the pits dug for the extraction of these useful minerals. The birds, that animate and enliven country scenes, fly from this bleak and barren spot; and the most comfortless silence would reign throughout the whole valley, were it not disturbed by the noise of forges, of fire-engines, and of furnaces.

It was here in the Ironbridge Gorge that one of the most important strands of the Industrial Revolution began and the scars of that extraordinary era linger everywhere. A walk through the woods seems peaceful, until you realise the very straight track you are on was once a railway line, that the overgrown bricks were a furnace, or the supports for a slide bringing coal down from the higher slopes. Peering between the houses, you see brick walls built into the side of the slopes, pitted with the hollows of old furnaces. The whole area is a world heritage site, and its endlessly fascinating.

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This is one of several lime kilns within a few minutes walk of the village. Although kilns have been used to process limestone since medieval times, lime is used in the iron refining process, so there was increased demand as the iron industry grew.

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This is where it all began. This is the Upper Furnace Pool in Coalbrookdale. In 1709, a man called Abraham Darby arrived here from Bristol. He was a successful and innovative maker of brass pots, but wanted to develop his business by using a cheaper metal–iron. The greatest challenge he faced was in finding fuel to power the abandoned blast furnace he had bought here. At that time, blast furnaces were powered by burning charcoal–which is impractical for mass production because of the sheer amount of wood needed. Owners of blast furnaces frequently had to stop work to wait for the local woods to regrow.

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Darby, however, had used coke–coal with the impurities burnt out–in his previous work. Ordinary coal made iron brittle and unusable, but he believed coke would do the job. It was also much cheaper and quicker to produce than charcoal. He hired a few local men and set out to build a coke-fired furnace. His plan was a success, and he celebrated simply, by buying his workers a consignment of beer and setting to work to mass-produce pig iron. Here you can see the dam across the pool from the picture above and the location of the waterwheel which worked the bellows that were essential for his furnace.

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And this is what remains of Abraham Darby’s first blast furnace. It was a while before the rest of the world realised the significance of his invention. By then, he had established his business. He was succeeded by his son, Abraham II, who further refined the process.

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The site Darbys’ factory now houses two museums, and several archives and study centres, including the Museum of Iron. This fountain was created for the Great Exhibition in 1851, along with many other pieces (there was a whole gallery full of them inside). The most recent offshoot of the original company is slightly further down the valley and is still in operation making Aga stoves–the latest iteration of Abraham Darby I’s cooking pots?

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Of course, fuel wasn’t the only problem the Darbys faced. This is the little stream that powered the Industrial Revolution, just before it runs into the River Severn. Water powered the bellows that powered the furnaces and if the stream dried up in a hot summer, the furnaces stopped. To deal with this, the stream was channeled into a sequence of reservoir pools and channels and the later Darbys built a succession of engines which pumped the water back to the top of the valley. By then industry had spread the length of the side valley of Coalbrookdale, now full of furnaces, foundries, rails (the foundry here was one of the main producers of rails and engines for the first steam railways), wagon trains full of coal, iron and stone being pulled by horses, debris heaped high on the riverbanks, and smoke and steam. The industry was also spreading along the banks of the Severn, where great barges carried away cargoes of iron. 

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Not far from the mouth of the stream, you can look along the river to the foundry’s most famous product–the Iron Bridge. This is how the Ironbridge Gorge got its name–produced by Abraham Darby III in 1779, it was the ultimate demonstration of the potential of iron. It is 30m long and was the first bridge ever to be created out of cast iron. It opened on New Year’s Day 1781. In 1795 it was the only bridge on the Severn to survive an unusually bad flood undamaged. 

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It’s now in the care of English Heritage and is a huge tourist attraction. It’s also quite stunning. 

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The whole gorge has felt the impact of industry. These steps through the woods a couple of miles downriver of Coalbrookdale looked charming, until I read the information board at the bottom which explained why they were necessary–a landslide. The gorge is prone to landslides anyway, and the end of industry exacerbated this. The village of Jackfield, across the river from here, lost 27 houses in the early 1950s as a result of abandoned mines flooding and causing subsidence (watch the Pathe news clip from the time). 

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That path came out at another blast furnace, known as the Bedlam Furnaces (here seen from the other side of the river). Note the colour of the stream here, showing the minerals still in the water!

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In 1801, Philip James de Loutherbourg painted the Bedlam Furnaces at work.

Of course, iron wasn’t the only industry to be found in the gorge, but that’s story for another post…

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4 Responses to Ironbridge Gorge: Iron and Furnaces

  1. Michelle says:

    I absolutely love your, what would you call them? – travel blogs? Photo diaries? Not only do you take lovely photos, but you provide the historical/cultural context as well. Whenever I read one, I want to take the same path you have, to see all the same things.

    Have you ever thought of a possible third (fourth?) career in the future of becoming a historical tour guide? Because truly, these blog entries are lovely and inspiring. 😀

    • amyraenbow says:

      I always think of them as inspiration posts. As I wander around, I do think about how I would describe what I’m seeing. It’s a really good exercise for building worldbuilding skills. I’ve vaguely pondered travel-writing, but it’s an oversaturated market and I’m not passionate enough to do it properly. I’m glad you enjoy them, though 🙂 I’m always a little wondered that ‘what I did on my holidays’ posts are a little self-indulgent.

  2. Nor says:

    Thanks for this charming and informative article.. I went on line to find an answer to how Darby’s bellows worked because I am revising my book Irons in the Fire (Station Hill, 2002) and found not only your description of that fabulous area, but photos too! You’ve packed so much fascinating detail into this small space– wish I’d been along on the tramps through the woods and around town.

    • amyraenbow says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. If you ever get a chance to visit the area, do–there’s so much fascinating history in such a small area. Hoping to get a post about the tile and china factories at the other end of the gorge up this week.

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