Bridge, what bridge? Only the world’s first cast iron one

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I love the way this little girl is much happier to play on  the railings than notice the wonder of this bridge,  a bridge that in its day was considered a world wonder. Nothing like it had been constructed before. It was opened to the public on New Year’s Day 1781, and right from the start was a visitor attraction, seized on by both coach operators and hotel proprietors to boost their trade. In the summer of that year The Swan Inn (which is still in business today, and for much the same reason) pronounced in an advertisement that is was:

situate near the most incomparable piece of architecture, the Iron Bridge.

One of the companies for the Shrewsbury to London route also made much of the fact that travellers would be passing:

that striking specimen of Art and so much admired object of travellers.

Today the bridge may seem quaint, and the manner of its construction somewhat bizarre, since it utilises wood joinery techniques in its iron rib-work.  But for all that, we are talking major, life-changing innovation: something akin to the technology boot-up begun in Silicon Valley. Here, though, we have a rural Shropshire valley, otherwise known as the Severn or Ironbridge Gorge in Coabrookdale. It is just a few miles from my house and, with its steep banks of hanging woodlands, and the mostly tranquil river below, it seems an unlikely location for epoch-changing events.

Yet this bridge was the first of its kind in the world, and thus a proving ground for what could be achieved with hitherto untried applications of cast iron.  It led to the iron framed factories of the Industrial Revolution, and was a step on the way to the sky scraper. The growth in demand for iron and steel products for shipping and steam engines and weapons put the great in Great Britain. Iron made the country rich, and gave it the wherewithal to set off conquering the planet.

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From the outset then, the Iron Bridge was very much as a PR stunt, and although there were practical considerations – including replacing a very dangerous ferry crossing wherein Severn coracles were used to transport people (mostly large numbers of workers) between the town of Broseley on one bank and Coalbrookdale on the other, the main object was to prove the worth and usefulness of cast iron. Its builder was Abraham Darby III, the third generation of the Quaker iron founding dynasty that operated in Coalbrookdale from the early 1700s . The other Darby family claim to fame was Abraham I’s discovery of how to cast iron using coke instead of charcoal, which did much to halt the decimation of the nation’s forests, and was a piece of technological mastery that had been called for back in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In fact she offered a prize for anyone who could do it. She needed timber for her navy. She did not want it going up in smoke in furnaces and forges.

But back to the Iron Bridge. The design was roughly based on drawings by Shropshire architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, but there were many changes in the course of construction, and he did not live to see the finished project.  The site was not only difficult, but the bridge builders had further set themselves the task of creating a single span that was high enough to allow large Severn sailing trows to pass beneath without the nuisance of lowering their masts as they had to do for all the River Severn’s other bridges. This objective alone could have scuppered the project. The raising of the iron ribs proved an epic undertaking on a river that is prone to massive floods, and whose banks are not stable.

Visitors came from all over Europe to see the finished product. They included artists, princes and Swedish industrial spies. The Severn Gorge was likened to Hell with its burning lime and coke kilns, furnaces and forges. The eighteenth century tourists came and gawped with horrid fascination. I will leave you with one such response made in 1801 by popular song writer, Charles Dibdin:

…if an atheist , who had never heard of Colebrook Dale, could be transported there in a dream, and left to wake at the mouth of one of those furnaces, surrounded on all sides by such infernal objects, though he has been all his life the most profligate unbeliever that ever added blasphemy to incredulity, he would infallibly tremble at the last judgment that in imagination would appear to await him.

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This post was prompted by Sally at Lens and Pens Phoneography & Non-SLR Digital Devices Challenge. Week 5 of any given month is about editing/processing images on a theme of choice, in this case architecture. The first image was cropped and  then played with in Windows Photo Gallery. I rather like the sepia version. I included the final image to show the construction techniques in more detail. It was taken in ‘Dynamic Monochrome’ on my  Lumix point and shoot, and then cropped and histogrammed to achieve this final look. Given the subject, it thus makes a virtue, I think, of the sunburst on the bridge parapet. It makes me think of blast furnaces and the way the iron was produced.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

37 thoughts on “Bridge, what bridge? Only the world’s first cast iron one

  1. Another piece of substance. You really know your neck of the woods – and your technology – and use both sets of knowledge thoughtfully. The bridge is very attractive as industrial stuff often is: must be the necessary marriage of form and function.

    1. The intriguing thing about the bridge is that no matter how many times you have seen it, when you come round the bend in the river and behold it, it always takes you by surprise. My photos didn’t really capture that aspect or how high it rises above the river. Must have another go at it. 🙂

  2. Bridges are one of my favorite subjects; they mesmerize and tease our sensibilities and our visual awareness. Your capture does this unusual architectural feat justice. The vintage rendering is apt for a bridge that has stood the test of time. The young girl is timeless as is the way the post processing makes for a classic depiction. I also like the back story. Happy Photo Challenge.

    1. Glad you liked this, Sally, and your comment about bridges is very fascinating. They have abstract/metaphorical connotations as well as being a means to an end. And then their form is dictated by circumstances, physical and otherwise, they embody all kinds of desires and intentions. Hm. Now you’ve started my mind running…:)

  3. This bridge is famous, such as to mean that even we colonials know about it, Tish. 😀
    I once saw an episode of “Time Team” wherein they dug the site of an iron foundry; and it was absolutely bloody FASCINATING …

    1. Ah-ha! Time Team, my other half is addicted to the episodes on YouTube. One of their earliest excavations was here in Much Wenlock at the bottom of my road. They dug in the back garden of a house near the Priory ruins and came up with a medieval hall. As to the Iron Bridge, the first director of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Sir Neil Cossons, did a lot of promotion of same in Australia back in the 1970s. I think he was doing, and still does a lot of consultancy work for your industrial museums.

    1. It’s interesting, Tiny, how you have to leave a place, and come back to it before you can see it. And it truly is amazing how much went on in this part of Shropshire.

  4. Once again Tish, a really interesting post — and great images to go with it. I used to pass signs for Ironbridge going north to visit my mum and always thought one day I’d go and see the bridge. Never did of course, and it’s not on the way to anywhere for me now. So thanks for giving me a virtual visit.

    1. It’s nice to think that you’ve visited my stamping ground, Jo. The Long Mynd is a wonderful place. My sister lives beneath it – bit of a steep back garden though 🙂

  5. Love this bridge Tish – and I really like the way you have woven the story of the bridge with the photo edits. I have visited many times and as you say, it always takes your breath away the first second you see it appear.

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