Present and Past in the Ironbridge Gorge


This coal-fired power station sits at the entrance to the scenic Ironbridge Gorge on the River Severn in Shropshire. Even when you know it’s there, to come upon the four great cooling towers through the trees, is always a surprise. Its days, however, are numbered, and many of us are wondering how the power station powers-that-be will go about recycling the place, and especially on the edge of a World Heritage Site. Just downstream is Ironbridge town, named after the world’s first cast iron bridge, built between 1779-1781 by Coalbrookdale ironmaster, Abraham Darby III. (See my earlier post Bridge, What Bridge)


Before this bridge arrived on the scene as an 18th century world wonder, earlier bridges were mostly built of stone, usually with several low arches. The particularly novel aspect of the Iron Bridge’s design, then, was the high single arch, devised to allow the large sailing barges, known as Severn trows to pass beneath without lowering their masts. This was a clear piece of Coalbrookdale Company bravado, since the trows would have had to lower their masts for all the numerous other Severn bridges, both up and downstream of the Iron Bridge.

Looking at the sleepy river today, it is hard to imagine that in 1712, Coalbrookdale’s iron works were exporting  1,400 tons of iron wares downriver. It’s hard to imagine too, that although a hundred miles from Bristol, that the towns of Ironbridge and Broseley (on either side the bridge) were busy inland ports, with boat builders’ yards, and locally owned trows. The trade also went upriver to Shrewsbury which in turn exported cloth from the Welsh hinterland and local agricultural produce.


Ironbridge town and bridge, trows in the foreground; attributed to J. Fidlor some time after 1837, Shrewsbury Museum


Fascinating details of the trade are preserved in the Gloucester Port Books. For instance, they record one of the  Bristol-bound cargoes of the Broseley barge Thomas & Mary  in 1722. It included:

10 tons of ironware; 8 tons of cheese; 8 packs of Manchester ware; 2 packs of sadlery ware; 2 hogsheads of oats; 2 barrels of oats; 8 hogsheads of hair; 80 crates of earthenware; 1 barrel of brass; 2 trunks of wearing apparel; 2 boxes of wearing apparel.

An upriver cargo that same year comprised:

40 bags of cotton wool; 40 packs and a truss of cloth; 4 hogsheads of train oil; 1 ton of saltery; 2 barrels of herrings; 5 cwt. of salt fish; 4 cwt. of red lead.

The prestigious nature of the trade is perhaps embodied in the Severn Warehouse, now part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. It stands on the river mid way between the Ironbridge Power Station and the Iron Bridge, and was built by the Coalbrookdale Company in 1834 in flamboyant Gothic Revival style. Down its iron rails to waiting barges would have trundled carts loaded with iron castings of every sort, both functional and decorative, heading for markets throughout Britain and across the Empire. It did a particularly thriving trade in iron bellied, so-called Missionary Pots – some holding up to 400 gallons, and thus big enough to hold a  missionary or two.  They were actually used for processes like soap making and rendering down whale blubber.


But back to those cooling towers. I am rather fascinated by them; as indeed was TV historian Dr. David Starkey, when I was showing him around the Severn Warehouse many moons ago. He was doing some consultancy for me at the time, and when I told him that in 1979, the Iron Bridge bicentenary year, the cooling towers had been lit up at night, he grew very animated, and said it was a pity that this was not a permanent feature. He felt that the power station provided a dramatic analogy of industrial prowess that would help visitors to the Gorge to grasp a sense of the importance of past technological innovation. Some people will of course hate them as ‘blots on the landscape’. But anyway, see what you think. Here’s a shot that Graham took during their nightly illumination in 1979:


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell


Black & White Sunday Go here for more ‘unusual’ shots in B & W

41 thoughts on “Present and Past in the Ironbridge Gorge

    1. I do see your point, but then the Gorge is littered with the remains of past industry – blast furnaces, lime kilns, slag from furnaces, bottle kilns, canals that no longer work. Even an inclined plane, and a tar tunnel. So in a way the power station is carrying on a long tradition of industrial activity which began back in the monastic period. And on the whole the Gorge manages to hold its own. It’s still beautiful. 🙂

  1. I love both yours and Graham’s photo 🙂 This is the first time for me to see a single high arch steel bridge. Fascinating. I appreciate the history behind the towers, Tish, and these beautiful captures.

  2. That’s a great bridge. We also live in an historical industrial zone, now returned to sleepy rural life. We have the canals, the hulks of old factories and mills. Many have burned down or turned into malls … or in one case, senior housing. The industrial era left a lot of polluted water behind and even now, more than half a century since the last working mills closed up, we are finally almost back to having some healthy waterways.

    1. Ah, now then. It was back in the 80s when I was research fellow at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum. I was coordinating consultancy papers from a number of historians on how to develop the educational potential of the Museum. Sad to day, the outcome of the effort was not good. The work we all did was pretty much ignored. So it goes. I enjoyed talking with some really thoughtful people though, so at least I learned a lot 🙂

  3. You have a very benevolent attitude to cooling towers. I guess that’s because they aren’t still in use. For many years I lived in area where brown coal is used to provide the energy for the State I live in. There are many cooling towers and chimney stacks belching brown smoke across the skies. The towers are lit up at night and, to me, they look like malevolent beings hovering over the land.

    1. I can appreciate that malevolent vision too, Suzanne. The Gorge ones benefit from their setting, but when you see them in a totally urban or industrial setting, I agree that they are v. overbearing, if not downright intimidating. If you look at Ark’s comment above yours there’s a link to a photo of what they did to their towers in Soweto. Much more creative.

      1. yes, I’ve seen photos of the Soweto towers. I wish they’d do something like that in Latrobe Valley, Victoria, Australia. Even more – I wish they would stop burning brown coal for electricity over here,

  4. Oh lucky you, Tish ! – here our maniacal guvmint does nothing but sing the praises of coal. UGH !
    They’ve removed all incentives to go solar, so that they can keep their mates in luxury. Bastards.
    I think your towers do look impressive: but could they also be actually utilised within …?

    1. You probably will well believe then the fact that in recent years Iron Bridge power station has been powered by Australian coal!!! As to future use, who knows. Ark in the comments above yours has posted a link to some fantastically revamped towers in Soweto. Now that would be something in the Gorge. As to green energy, our Gov. isn’t much better than yours. They want to frack the nation 🙂

  5. trish – the bridge is a work of art – one of my brother’s is a proud iron worker and he would be interested to see this – so I bookmarked it to show him when he visits this summer. Also, seeing the old photo of the bridge and then comparing the old version to the more current one (with people walking up) let me see the cool arch even more (and who would have thought back then that we would have bridges that could open up and part ways – lastly, I love Graham’s 1979 photo (and like it lit up) but just the story part of that was a nice “memory lane touch”

      1. It is just great, isn’t it. When the Ironbridge towers are finally decommissioned, I’m kind of envisioning massive artwork on them showing ironworkers and barge men and women. What a backdrop for the Gorge that would create.

    1. Hey, Prior. Thanks for your very enthusiastic comments. I think your brother would also be interested in the other iron working sites at Ironbridge – the Bedlam Blast Furnaces that were the first specifically coke fired blast furnaces (c 1745). There is also Abraham Darby I’s original blast furnace that dates to 1638 (I think that’s correct) and where in 1709 he perfected the coke smelting process. And at Blists’ Hill Open Air Museum there are the remains of a huge 19th century ironworks and re-located rolling mill. They do some casting there as well. Just one point about the Ironbridge. It doesn’t open. That would be too cool. The creation of the tall arch has caused problems in more recent times, and much work has been done to stop the bridge from actually splitting apart as the uprights on either bank push inwards towards each other. So much for an iron worker to get to grips with. 🙂

      1. thanks for the reply Trish – and I assumed it did not open – when I wrote that part of was thinking of the draw bridges here on the east coast of the US – and how they still amaze me when they open up.

        and wow – 1638? well I look forward to sharing all of this with my brother – the two things that can get us lost in conversation is anything iron and home brewed craft beer – lol
        thanks again for the nice reply :0
        and here is a shot of what that link brings us too

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