Not Any Old Bridge ~ But The World’s First Cast Iron Bridge Built By Abraham Darby in 1779


For this week’s Thursday’s Special Paula is asking us to focus on traces of the past.  For those of you who have not seen my earlier posts on the Ironbridge Gorge, this bridge was the first to be made from cast iron, and in a single arch that spans the River Severn in Shropshire. It crosses the Severn Gorge just a few miles from my house, and is a World Heritage Site.

The height of the bridge was dictated by Quaker Ironmaster, Abraham Darby’s desire to show off – not only to prove the versatility and potential of cast iron, but also to build the first bridge on the the Severn that would allow the river’s big sailing barges (Severn trows) to pass under with out lowering their sail masts. One up on all the river’s stone bridges then! And what a sales (sails) pitch it was too, for people to see his bridge with a fully rigged sailing barge passing beneath it.

He also built the bridge in one of the most spectacular parts of the Gorge, and on the site of a treacherous ferry crossing. Before the bridge was built people had to cross between the two industrial settlements of Broseley and Coalbrookdale in a coracle, an ancient skin covered craft that was used by local poachers.

The bridge itself is a curious construction. If you look closely at the iron framework you can see that although Abraham Darby was breaking new ground (and in its day the Iron Bridge was definitely a world wonder), the building techniques include the kind of joints that people would expect to see in carpentry: mortise and tenon joints and dovetails.

It is hard to know if Darby was erring on the side of caution by sticking to tried and tested construction methods, or simply being innovative in ways that weren’t too innovative for people’s sensibilities. After all, one of the best ways to make people accept and welcome the new, is to start from something they already know and recognise. In such ways does the past follow us into the future.


copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Traces of the Past