Ironbridge Gorge: Tiles, China and Tar

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my trip to Ironbridge and its pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution. This is a rather belated follow up post about the later industrial history of the Ironbridge Gorge. Although the initial industry in the Gorge was all related to iron, other industries soon arose to take advantage of the riverside location and a technically capable local workforce. On the second day of my visit to the Gorge, I visited the sites of some of those industries.

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This is St Mary the Virgin church in Jackfield, just over a mile downriver of Ironbridge. As you can see, the weather was grim, but I hope you can see a hint of the patterns and colours in the brickwork. Pattern and colour was at the heart of this little village’s contribution to industrial history, because here clay, not iron, ruled the day. Although the village first existed as a river port for the coal mines higher up the slopes, its first pottery opened in 1713.

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By the mid-eighteenth century, the pottery was successfully producing Jackfield ware–black-glazed pottery decorated in gold. As more sophisticated techniques were invented, though, they fell behind the times. By the mid-nineteenth century, the original pottery works had been replaced by two vast tile works. The factory buildings remain–one is now a crafts centre and the other is the amazing Jackfield Tile museum.

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And here are some of their tiles. From the 1870s to the 1950s, tiles were produced here and shipped to all over the UK and beyond. The museum tells the history of tile production, covering both the processes by which they were made and the changing fashions.

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Tiles were increasingly popular in the Victorian era. Used for everything from floors of public buildings to decorative fire surrounds to hospital walls, they were easy to clean, added colour and interest to a room, and could be successfully mass-produced. Tiles made here appear in many great public buildings of the era, from tube stations to banks (there is even a reconstructed underground station in the museum, which was not something I was expecting to find in rural Shropshire).

 

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I was surprised by how much the tiles fascinated me, but this was by far my favourite of the museums. The colour and lustre of them draws the eye, and some of the artwork is stunning. The Gorge had its own art school in Coalbrookdale and artists were employed not just here, but in the China Museum and designing decorative ironwork.

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Although the works here originally closed in the 1950s  when the company moved to Bridgnorth, but they have since reopened a small workshop in the museum which specialises in producing tiles using Victorian methods for restoration work.

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Here’s the tiled walls of a children’s ward which was rescued and restored here. It reminded me of the fairytale tile pictures I fell in love with at St Thomas’ hospital in November.

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This is the side of the other tile works in the village, now a craft centre, to give you a sense of the scale of the industry.

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This footbridge links Jackfield with the village of Coalport on the other bank of the Severn. This footbridge dates from 1922. You may be able to see the plaque halfway along–the bridge was erected as a war memorial, and the plaque is the roll of honour. A sign at the end reads “This bridge is free / oh tread it reverently / in memory of those who died for thee.”

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As you can see, there was a need for a bridge. The Severn is a fast and far from friendly river, and ferry crossings could be very dangerous. On October 23rd 1799, a ferry carrying workers back over the river from the china works sank. 28 people, including 15 women, drowned.  There had been a wooden bridge, erected in 1780, but it had been swept away by a flood in 1795. A replacement only lasted a few years, and eventually an iron road bridge followed in 1818.

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Some of those who drowned were likely too weakened from their jobs to swim through the dangerous waters. This is the Coalport China Factory. Another success on a national scale, it combines displays of gleaming and delicate china with chilling details about the dangers of the work. Working with plaster of Paris and china clay could be lethal and the workshops are full of signs wanting workers to treat even minor cuts seriously. If you avoided that danger, the specialised work of painting the china was even more deadly–lead based paints meant the life expectancy for a china painter was about thirty-five. Other jobs in the factory might let you live into your forties. To my modern sensibilities, there’s something obscenely ironic about an industry that could set up an art school and then kill the artists it produced.

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A strange offshoot of the Shropshire Canal runs through Coalport, along the side of the kilns. It meets the river after only a few hundred metres, but its inland end is a much stranger device. The Shropshire Canal runs across the county at a much higher elevation. To link it to the river, the canal authorities installed an inclined plane–a rail based pulley that hoisted tub boats up 63 metres to connect with the main canal at Blists Hill.

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Here it is from the top (no pictures from the bottom, I’m afraid, as I was getting rained on at that point). Of course, the inefficient pulley hadn’t been the first attempt to solve the problem of moving boats. Originally, the plan was to dig a tunnel from the riverside to connect with the lower galleries of the mines on the hill above. Unfortunately, they ran into a problem once they started building the tunnel.

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This is the Coalport Tar Tunnel. Despite the name, the goo oozing down the walls is actually bitumen. Although this was originally meant for boats, the excavators hit a spring of natural bitumen. They managed to get almost 1000m into the hill before they gave up and turned their proposed canal tunnel into a bitumen mine (gotta love that Victorian entrepreneurship!). You can still borrow a hard hat and walk along the first 100m and see the bitumen oozing out of the cracks in the walls (it looks like Marmite).

The rest of my trip was mostly steam trains and ruined abbeys, so there may be another post yet, but no promises 😉

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6 Responses to Ironbridge Gorge: Tiles, China and Tar

  1. Michelle says:

    Maybe it’s because the day was overcast, but those pictures were simultaneously beautiful as well as haunting. It’s as if you can hear the ghosts of the previous workmen/women as you look at them.

    And steam trains and ruined abbeys? If you’re taking a vote, yes please. 😀

    • amyraenbow says:

      I came away from that day with all sorts of ideas for ghost stories. It’s such a fascinating part of the world–so much happened in such a small space.

  2. Pete Jackson says:

    Great blog – thanks for sharing

  3. Tony Richardson says:

    Not being picky about such a brilliant blog, but it’s an inclined plane. There’s a story about a barge breaking free, sliding down the track to hit the canal water, then bouncing up and landing into the River.

    • amyraenbow says:

      Drat it, there’s always one blasted typo. Thanks for the catch–I’ll change it.

      I remember reading that story somewhere on my travels and hoping there was nothing passing on the river at the time.

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