New Works For Old ~ From Foundry To Teddy Bear Factory And More Besides

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.

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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.

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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.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Roof Squares 13

Ironbridge Cooling Tower As Seen From Under Another Severn Bridge

I’m standing under the Albert Edward Bridge to take this photo. It was built in 1863 and opened the following year, named for Queen Victoria’s eldest long before he became the totally notorious  King Edward VII.

You might also say the Albert Edward Bridge is the ugly great great grandchild of Darby’s Iron Bridge just downstream; and the end of the line too – in all senses. It is the last large cast iron railway bridge to be built in the UK, and originally carried the Severn Junction Railway across the river to meet up with the Severn Valley Railway (one of England’s loveliest lines decimated by Mr. Beeching in the 1960s). In more recent times it was used to carry coal to the power station.

It may not be as striking as its ground-breaking elder (and it certainly proved very hard to photograph) but it has much in common with Darby’s bridge. Designed by Sir John Fowler, the single 200 foot span comprises 4 cast iron ribs, each of 9 parts bolted together. The moulds for the spans were prepared nearby at the Darby family’s Coalbrookdale Company ironworks. The steel deck that you can see in the photo was installed in 1933, replacing the original timber and wrought iron deck.

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Now that the power station has run out of steam, one wonders what will become of Albert Edward. Fortunately it is a Grade II listed building  so it will be preserved. At least one hopes it will.  Also the local Telford Steam Railway enthusiasts have their sights set on it to extend their rather limited rail track, and since there is presently a 5mph speed limit on the bridge due to its age, one can conjure a slow and splendid steam-train trundle across the Gorge to Buildwas – poop-poop!

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Roof Squares 12 Not quite a roof, I know, but I was standing under it for the header shot. Please pop over to Becky’s for a plethora of rooftops.

Many Reflections On The Iron Bridge

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Last week we were in Ironbridge inspecting the restoration works on the C18th cast iron bridge that gave the town its name. People come from all over the world to see the bridge, so to find most of it shrouded in plastic would doubtless be a big disappointment. English Heritage, the conservation body whose engineers are carrying out the repairs over the next few months, thoughtfully decided to make a spectacle of their operations. Just beneath the main span they have constructed a walkway with perspex covered viewing portholes along its length. Now visitors have once-in-a-lifetime access to view the structural parts at close quarters.

And while doing this I happened to notice that, at certain angles, the portholes and their surrounds created multiple reflections. Suddenly the town appeared meshed in the dove-tailed struts and roundels of the bridge supports. It seemed fitting somehow – the town within the bridge that gave rise to it; a glimpse of the Gorge whose lucky combination of natural resources: iron ore, coal, fire clay, limestone, made the construction of the world’s first cast iron bridge in this location possible: the now quiet resort place that some call the crucible of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, a once horrifying hell-hole of pounding steam hammers, sulphurous fumes, and streams of white-hot iron.

Thursday’s Special: reflective

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

P.S. Click on the English Heritage link above for more about the restoration project and a very good short video.

Rooftops Galore In The Severn Gorge ~ Even The World’s First Cast Iron Bridge Has One

Yesterday we treated ourselves to a Big Day Out, and on our own doorstep. We went to Ironbridge – all of five miles from the Farrell domain. We wanted to see what English Heritage was up to with Abraham Darby III’s monumental bridge – the high-tech PR stunt of 1779 in which a Coalbrookdale ironmaster set out to demonstrate that cast iron was the building material of the future.

He built a single arch bridge at the site of a notoriously dangerous ferry crossing, over a river prone to massive flooding while also accommodating the passage (without de-masting) of the large sailing barges (trows) that plied the Severn from Worcester.  All the numerous other Severn bridges required the trows to lower their masts. Doubtless this novel feature alone would have made the new bridge the talk of the river.

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Here’s a pre-wrapped winter view, glimpse of the toll house on the far right (since the Iron Bridge was always intended to make money too):

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Interestingly though, and here’s where the new ‘roof’ comes in, while Darby’s construction was daring in its vision and materials, its design has distinctly retro features – the  cast iron components were fabricated and assembled according to tried and tested carpentry methods with lots of dove-tail joints. On top of that, there has been much ground movement, general wear and tear and even structural shrinkage, so now the bridge is in serious need of restoration. While the work is underway, much of the bridge is shrouded in plastic. A walkway has been constructed along the north side of the bridge with viewing windows created at various points  so visitors can view the underbelly of the bridge at close quarters and see the restoration work in progress. It is one stunning enterprise.

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There may well be some controversy ahead though. Once the work is done, the bridge will be repainted – in its original colour on the opening day of 1781: a reddish-brown research has shown. For decades the bridge has been black or slate grey. Reddish-brown will be a real turn-up for the Severn Gorge location and doubtless a shock to some people’s systems. I can’t wait to see it – completion date is set for November just in time for a pleasing backdrop of autumn leaves.

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Here’s a view of the Wharfage from the Iron Bridge. The town of Ironbridge owes its existence to the bridge, which attracted tourists right from its opening in 1781. In 1784 the handsome Tontine Hotel was built overlooking bridge, and today is still a popular place to stay. The Severn Gorge is now a World Heritage Site.

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For more about the restoration project including a brilliant short video see:

English Heritage Saving The Iron Bridge

 

Roof Squares 8  Please pop over the Becky’s to join in the June Roof Extravaganza

Harebells Colonize An Old Industrial Wasteland

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This photo was taken at Snailbeach Mine in the wilds of the Shropshire Hills. From the 1780s through the nineteenth century this was the most productive lead mine in the world, employing over 300 workers. But the history of lead mining in the area is much older than this, and for centuries the mineral was mined all over the nearby Stiperstones hills.

The Romans were certainly here. They left behind a great lead ingot weighing over 87 kilos and impressed with the inscription ‘IMP HADRIANI AVG’. This meant that not only did it belong to the Emperor Hadrian, but also that Snailbeach was an imperial mine between the years of his rule, 117-138 A.D.

The Romans used lead for water pipes, cooking vessels, paint and to sheath the hulls of ships.  Of course some of these purposes proved highly toxic to the users.

And it is now hard to imagine an association between something as hard, industrially wrought and poisonous as lead and these delicate harebells that seem to thrive on the waste ground near the mine ruins. In fact this whole area, with conservationists’ help,  has been so reclaimed by wildlife it is now part of the Stiperstones Site of Special Scientific Interest. The birdlife of the area includes red grouse, ravens, buzzards, peregrine falcons, curlew and the rare ring ouzel. There  are grayling and green hairstreak butterflies, fox and emperor moths. The vegetation includes heather, cowberries, whinberries and rare mountain pansies.

It is so heartening, isn’t it, when so much on the planet seems environmentally challenged. Here in this corner of Shropshire at least, the natural world has overcome – reclaiming this once poisonous, highly industrial environment.

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For those of you interested in mining history there is more about Snailbeach HERE and HERE. The latter link includes lots of useful teaching information and has a great video of aerial views of the area, which is anyway worth a look if you want to see more of this fascinating part of Shropshire.

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DP Daily Prompt: overcome

Traces Of The Past ~ Monuments To Cornwall’s Tin Miners

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My very good chum Lesley, took me to Kit Hill for a sun-downer walk back in May. It is an amazing spot, the highest point in Cornwall’s Tamar Valley. From the summit you can see for miles and miles  – south across Cornwall, north to Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor.

The hill itself is an outcrop of the Cornubian batholith, a mass of granite rock formed 280 million years ago, and covering much of the Cornwall-Devon peninsula. The granite is formed from crystalized and solidified magma that has boiled up from deep within the earth’s crust. The resulting rock is mineral rich: principally the tin ore cassiterite, but also copper, lead, zinc and tungsten.

There are signs of mining dating back to medieval times, although this involved only surface quarrying of weathered out tin stones, or ‘shodes’. It was not until the eighteenth century that men were working in deep-shaft mines, drained by adits (horizontal shafts driven into the hillside.)  However you look at it, tin mining was a tough way to make a living.

The ornate chimney in the first photo dates from 1858. Now it is used to house various masts. Back then, and until 1885, it was part of the pumping arrangements for several mining concerns on the hill. Further down is the the chimney of the South Kit Hill Mine (Bal Soth Bre Skowl in Cornish), and the town of Callington below it.

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The shaft of this mine reaches a depth of over 90 metres (300 feet). The chimney served the steam engine house which operated machinery to crush and sort the ore. The mine was worked between 1856 and 1882, but foundered as the quality of accessible tin declined and the business became mired in legal actions for fraud.

Now these chimneys serve only as mysterious and dramatic landmarks within a 400-acre countryside park. It is a wilderness place rich in wildlife: deer, badgers, skylarks, buzzards, stonechats and sparrow hawks. There are signs of ancient humankind too – a 5,000 year old Neolithic long barrow, and some 18 burial mounds, dating from the Bronze Age, including one beneath that ornate chimney stack.

When Lesley and I were there we were treated to some marvellous views of a cuckoo – a bird  more usually heard than seen, it having well known tendencies to sneakiness and stealth. There was also a rapid fly-past by two small raptors – too swift for identification but probably sparrow hawks since this is their well-known milieu. Stone chats and pipits bobbed about in the gorse, and around us the land stretched out as far as the eye could see, its fields and boundaries, in their own way, a document of human activity and endeavour over many centuries. And a very special place. Thank you, Lesley.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past

Present and Past in the Ironbridge Gorge

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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)

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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.

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

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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.

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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:

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

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

Origins of the Skyscraper: Historic Angles

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This detail comes from a building, which believe it or not, was THE proto-type for all our high-rise buildings. It is Bage’s Flax Mill, the world’s first iron-framed building, constructed in Shrewsbury, in the English Midlands in 1797. As with much invention, it was driven by a series of disasters, specifically the conflagration of several timber-framed textile factories. Cotton and flax dust is highly combustible, and these early factories were candle lit. The losses to the owners were considerable  (never mind the damage to the workers).  Fire resistant buildings were what they wanted. The techniques of this iron-framed brick clad mill were further adapted in the rebuilding of Chicago after the great fire of 1871.

Shropshire Archives

For more on this and the grim story of the young flax mill workers who were employed here see my earlier post: Pattern for the Sky Scraper

 copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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