The Iron Bridge ~ Our World Famous Local Landmark

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Well some of us might be excited by the sight of the world’s first cast iron bridge (a single span built in 1779 to replace a treacherous ferry crossing, while being tall enough to let the Severn sailing barges pass through without de-masting; cutting edge technology of its time). But then none of this appears to cut much ice with the lass on the fence. I love her look of wistful nonchalance. Bridge? What bridge?

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Upstream of the bridge we find a band of happy industrial architecture enthusiasts. They have just enjoyed a spirited ‘Iron Bridge’ talk from the late John Powell, for many years librarian at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust,  and seen here leading the group onwards to other exciting Severn Gorge sights.

Which could well be this, the Coalbrookdale ironmasters’ riverside warehouse (built in Gothic style), the point from which their cast iron goods (especially cauldrons) were exported downriver to the wide world:

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And at the time when these photos were taken, visitors to the Severn Warehouse would also have seen these:

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The cooling towers of the now demolished Ironbridge Power Station.

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: on or by the water

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

 

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