I admit this is not a great shot of one of industrial history’s key artefacts, though you can just make out the new rust-red livery of the ironwork. Obviously the thing that caught my eye here was the strange lighting effect between bridge and river.
But for those of you who like a few facts to support ‘first in the world’ claims, the bridge was built in 1779 by Quaker Ironmaster Abraham Darby III. It spans the Severn Gorge in Ironbridge, Shropshire, and was intended to replace a (sometimes treacherous) ferry crossing between Broseley and Coalbrookdale, much used by the local workforce. But most of all it was designed to impress. Not only was it the world’s first cast iron bridge, so demonstrating a pioneering structural material, it was also the first single span bridge on the River Severn (all the other bridges were built of stone and had low arches). This new design meant that the large sailing barges (trows) coming up from Bristol did not have to de-mast to pass under it.
The River Severn trade was a busy one too – all manner of luxury goods coming upstream, locally produced pig iron, castings, ceramics and porcelain going downstream. Inevitably then, word of this daring new structure would quickly spread. People would start thinking of cast iron as a material with prospects. The Coalbrookdale iron masters certainly had plenty of ideas – from the industrial (iron framed factories, wagon wheels, rails, boiler castings) to the decorative and all points in between. The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the world trade fairs that it engendered provided the shop window for their ever more ingenious fabrications.
The Company’s catalogues were the ‘style books’ of the late 19th century. Cast iron was used to make just about everything – glasshouse frames, intricate park gates, garden rollers, seats, horse troughs, statues, fountains, stoves, boot scrapers, fire surrounds, nut crackers, bandstands, lamp posts, fruit bowls, cooking pots, grave memorials and all manner of finials and fancy pieces. Its beauty lay in the fact that once designs had been committed to moulds, pieces could be mass produced, and whether for grand architectural statements for the stately pile or a cauldron for the workman’s home the material was supremely functional (if a little cold to the touch).
So how about one of these to hang your hat on:
These pieces might seem ‘overdone’ to our eyes, but they involved consummate skill (and physical risk) in their moulding and casting. As to design, the Coalbrookdale Company founded a technical institute for its workforce with the specific aim of nurturing local expertise and innovation in the fields of decorative ironwork.
But these days it is perhaps the enduring and durable ornamental garden seat that is more appealing to us. Here’s one I spotted at Dudmaston Hall back in the summer:
And now back to where it and I started, but with a better view of the Iron Bridge: Abraham Darby III’s magnificent cast iron PR stunt. And it’s still going strong after 241 years (thanks to some recent rigorous conservation work by English Heritage). And still the tourist attraction it was back then too – even to us locals who like to pay homage to this piece of engineering chutzpah every once in a while.