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.

Bridge, what bridge? Only the world’s first cast iron one

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I love the way this little girl is much happier to play on  the railings than notice the wonder of this bridge,  a bridge that in its day was considered a world wonder. Nothing like it had been constructed before. It was opened to the public on New Year’s Day 1781, and right from the start was a visitor attraction, seized on by both coach operators and hotel proprietors to boost their trade. In the summer of that year The Swan Inn (which is still in business today, and for much the same reason) pronounced in an advertisement that is was:

situate near the most incomparable piece of architecture, the Iron Bridge.

One of the companies for the Shrewsbury to London route also made much of the fact that travellers would be passing:

that striking specimen of Art and so much admired object of travellers.

Today the bridge may seem quaint, and the manner of its construction somewhat bizarre, since it utilises wood joinery techniques in its iron rib-work.  But for all that, we are talking major, life-changing innovation: something akin to the technology boot-up begun in Silicon Valley. Here, though, we have a rural Shropshire valley, otherwise known as the Severn or Ironbridge Gorge in Coabrookdale. It is just a few miles from my house and, with its steep banks of hanging woodlands, and the mostly tranquil river below, it seems an unlikely location for epoch-changing events.

Yet this bridge was the first of its kind in the world, and thus a proving ground for what could be achieved with hitherto untried applications of cast iron.  It led to the iron framed factories of the Industrial Revolution, and was a step on the way to the sky scraper. The growth in demand for iron and steel products for shipping and steam engines and weapons put the great in Great Britain. Iron made the country rich, and gave it the wherewithal to set off conquering the planet.

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From the outset then, the Iron Bridge was very much as a PR stunt, and although there were practical considerations – including replacing a very dangerous ferry crossing wherein Severn coracles were used to transport people (mostly large numbers of workers) between the town of Broseley on one bank and Coalbrookdale on the other, the main object was to prove the worth and usefulness of cast iron. Its builder was Abraham Darby III, the third generation of the Quaker iron founding dynasty that operated in Coalbrookdale from the early 1700s . The other Darby family claim to fame was Abraham I’s discovery of how to cast iron using coke instead of charcoal, which did much to halt the decimation of the nation’s forests, and was a piece of technological mastery that had been called for back in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In fact she offered a prize for anyone who could do it. She needed timber for her navy. She did not want it going up in smoke in furnaces and forges.

But back to the Iron Bridge. The design was roughly based on drawings by Shropshire architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, but there were many changes in the course of construction, and he did not live to see the finished project.  The site was not only difficult, but the bridge builders had further set themselves the task of creating a single span that was high enough to allow large Severn sailing trows to pass beneath without the nuisance of lowering their masts as they had to do for all the River Severn’s other bridges. This objective alone could have scuppered the project. The raising of the iron ribs proved an epic undertaking on a river that is prone to massive floods, and whose banks are not stable.

Visitors came from all over Europe to see the finished product. They included artists, princes and Swedish industrial spies. The Severn Gorge was likened to Hell with its burning lime and coke kilns, furnaces and forges. The eighteenth century tourists came and gawped with horrid fascination. I will leave you with one such response made in 1801 by popular song writer, Charles Dibdin:

…if an atheist , who had never heard of Colebrook Dale, could be transported there in a dream, and left to wake at the mouth of one of those furnaces, surrounded on all sides by such infernal objects, though he has been all his life the most profligate unbeliever that ever added blasphemy to incredulity, he would infallibly tremble at the last judgment that in imagination would appear to await him.

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This post was prompted by Sally at Lens and Pens Phoneography & Non-SLR Digital Devices Challenge. Week 5 of any given month is about editing/processing images on a theme of choice, in this case architecture. The first image was cropped and  then played with in Windows Photo Gallery. I rather like the sepia version. I included the final image to show the construction techniques in more detail. It was taken in ‘Dynamic Monochrome’ on my  Lumix point and shoot, and then cropped and histogrammed to achieve this final look. Given the subject, it thus makes a virtue, I think, of the sunburst on the bridge parapet. It makes me think of blast furnaces and the way the iron was produced.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell