Below The World’s First Cast Iron Bridge: Half ‘n Half-Light

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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:

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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:

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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.

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January Light #24

45 thoughts on “Below The World’s First Cast Iron Bridge: Half ‘n Half-Light

  1. I love that shaft of light over the first photo, Tish, and I’m quite given to ornamentation, in its place. 🙂 🙂 Watching tennis from Oz on a driek Algarve day!

  2. One tends to forget what it has taken in creativity and boldness and risk to get us where we are now when so much is done for us by artificial intelligence and so much money expended persuading us to believe that something new is both beautiful and functional when it is not! Thanks. Sarah

    1. That is a very pertinent point, Sarah. As time goes on we (consumers) become more and more remote from the processes and products we are conditioned to buy into. Which makes us ever more dependent and susceptible. Hard to know how to begin to unpick it all though, even for oneself.

      1. Yes, I agree.

        The New York Times is reporting a large resurgence of communes (now mostly called Intentional Communities, perhaps) in the US. Young people but people of all ages growing food and making interesting and necessary and beautiful things).

        For ourselves, I agree the unpicking is hard. But it does start with seeing and valuing the individual historical stiches and stitched networks. And your post reminds me of the importance of this.

        Sarah

      1. Weeerll, I have to write nice things in case you refuse to offer me a cup of tea and a tour of your allotment should I ever come calling!
        😉

  3. I love that first picture with the veil of sunlight over it. And it’s a beautiful bridge. We have a lot of old stone bridge that nothing larger than a kayak could go under, but then again, you can’t really navigate the Blackstone. It’s too steep and has at least 46 dams and a lot of white water, not to mention many areas that are very shallow but fast. That’s why they built a canal because the barges couldn’t navigate the river. I often forget how important the river is until one of our bridges has gotten so rickety that they have to take it down and rebuild it … and suddenly, a two or three-mile drive is a 10-mile drive!

    That’s a beautiful bridge and it must be a pretty deep river, too.

    1. I think it’s deep near the bridge, but it was a very tricksy river back in the day. The winter floods created hidden bars, and there are tales of the barges getting stuck on them for weeks. Which may account for the large number of riverside taverns. Also apparently hotspots for industrial espionage, would be competitors trying to tap the workforce for technical secrets in the iron industry. The Gorge is so sleepy these days apart from a few canoeists.

  4. So that’s where it all began. I do love the early cast iron, even if it’s a bit overdone. I’m a big fan of the art nouveau style. And that park bench is quite wonderful. I like both shots of the bridge, especially the second.
    Alison

  5. Abso-bloody-lutely brilliant photograph!!! 😀 … I love that the Victorian built beauth onto the most mundane of things, even it to our modern eyes they did get a bit overwrought about wrought-iron. 😀 (an impossible to resist pun) I look at the brutalist buildings and bridges,etc, that surround us now and I wonder why someone didn’t take a few moments out of their design time and make them beautiful as well. But then, brutalism was all about removing the ‘human’ from the design. Silly humans.

    1. And resounding praise from Madame Widdershins. Thank you. I do agree about the brutalist overload. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t intentional: lowering the human spirit so we go on putting up with stuff that truly isn’t good for us.

  6. I disagree, finding the first image an incredible shot. That light! That composition! Marvelous. Not only is there the contrast between the light and the dark in a most unusual way, but also with the stone, grey-green pillars supporting cast iron against the white wooden structure across the river. So much to enjoy in the image. And your closing image is STUNNING as well. Two very different takes on the same general scene.

    You know I love any bridge that Amandla can pass under without de-masting. Am I correct to assume that traffic on the River Severn is quiet these days now that we have rail and truck transport?

    1. Thank you for all those lovely words, Lisa. And you have given me the lovely notion of the Amandla sailing under the Iron Bridge. Wouldn’t that be a sight to see. But you are right about the lack of river traffic. I think as a waterway it always was a bit hair-raising, silting up etc and making mudbanks all over the place. Even back in the day the sailing barges plying the upper Severn were smaller than those trading round Bristol. But there were lots of boatyards along the Gorge just up from the bridge so it would have had quite a maritime air despite its great distance from the sea. The locals of course used coracles too – very much the salmon poachers’ vessel of choice since you could go ashore in quiet spots and carry it on your back to the best fishing pools.

  7. I like both shots . . .the first though almost gives a feel of what it might have been like when it first opened. Just have to add the noise of all the factories!!

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