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

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