We’re standing on a riverbank just upstream from the Iron Bridge, at the foot of the Coal Brook that once powered the furnaces of the Coalbrookdale Company (the place where coke-fuelled iron casting was invented in 1709), and across the road from a little lane surprisingly called Paradise, which long ago was my daily route to work. As retail parks go, then, this site of re-purposed industrial workshops, it is pretty unusual.
The roof-lit buildings once belonged to the Severn Foundry. They were built in 1901 when Alfred Darby II, last of the dynasty of Coalbrookdale ironmasters, was company chairman. By this time the business was contracting – that is to say, it was moving away from heavy industry to more domestic production, and operating only within the Coalbrookdale Valley. Even so, in 1900 the company still employed 1,100 men, a huge workforce for a small semi-rural community.
The reasons for the new foundry, built on the site of an old timber yard, seem rather remarkable now. Demand for its products came from unexpected quarters in faraway London. From the late C19th the then new London County Council had begun clearing the city’s slum dwellings and putting up council houses – this in response to the passing of the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. Requirements for improved living standards included cast-iron fireplaces and gas cookers, both of which were produced by the Coalbrookdale Company.
Iron founding is of course a dangerous, if highly skilled trade. The pouring of red hot molten metal from handheld crucibles into moulds provided plenty of scope for industrial accidents. The workforce undoubtedly benefited from the better lighting conditions of these roof-lit premises. Although not for long. The London County Council contract was short-lived, and the foundry closed in 1917. Thereafter, the former industrial prosperity of Severn Gorge and the Shropshire Coalfield went into rapid decline, and the foundry buildings were left empty…
…until 1930 when, in another odd twist, along came Merrythought – a small family business producing high quality soft toys and handmade mohair teddies. They took over the foundry buildings and, also benefiting from the well-lit workshops, went into production. By 1940 they were employing 200 workers, mostly women. And yes, those noses and paws are all hand-stitched with, it is said, much pursing of lips by fastidious craftswomen who liked to get the job done without inflicting too much pain to their creations.
And the firm is still going – into the fourth generation, and run by the two elder daughters of the previous chairman, Oliver Holmes, a man with great flair and drive, who sadly died before his time. The company is Britain’s last surviving teddy bear maker. It has had to fight to hold its own against competition from cheap soft toy producers and now specialises in limited edition bears, which it also sells in the Teddy Bear Shop just round the corner from the factory. The shop was the brainchild of my sister – back in the 1980s when she was running the Ironbridge Gorge Museums’ shops and did a deal with Oliver, who until that time only traded through the famous London toy store Hamleys.
Recently, after Oliver Holmes’ death, Merrythought developed the former foundry site, providing new retail spaces in all the buildings not needed for teddy bear production. So now we have a fine little art gallery specialising in prints and print-making equipment, an antiques centre with riverside cafe, a bespoke kitchen fitters, and a small Co-Op store. Oh yes, and the Teddy Bear Shop just around the corner, with Guardsman Bear outside the door, overseeing Paradise.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell