Magnificent PR Stunt ~ Cast-Iron Success Story
World Heritage site
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
Present and Past in the Ironbridge Gorge
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)
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.
Ironbridge town and bridge, trows in the foreground; attributed to J. Fidlor some time after 1837, Shrewsbury Museum
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.
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:
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
Black & White Sunday Go here for more ‘unusual’ shots in B & W
Transported on Lamu
There came a time when Sendibada signed on with a strange sea captain. The next day, as dawn was breaking, the ship cast off, a strong breeze filling the lateen sails, and bearing them swiftly out to sea. But towards noon the wind died, and the boat drifted, becalmed, on still waters.
At this the captain strode out on the bridge, and began to utter words that Sendibada could not fathom. He stared and stared for, to his astonishment, the ship began to rise, graceful as an egret taking flight. Sendibada grinned. He liked a good adventure, and now it seemed this strange captain of his was none other than the most powerful magician.
Up into the clouds they soared, flying, flying until at last they saw a faraway red spot. But little by little the spot grew, until at last Sendibada saw it was a city in the sky, and that every house there was made of copper. Soon they set down in the harbour and, as the crew made to go ashore, from every quarter, lovely girls came out to greet them, bearing on their heads copper trays laden with the most delicious fruits and sweetmeats and tender roasted morsels.
And so it was that much time passed, the ship’s crew enjoying month after month of this most gracious hospitality. Sendibada, though, was growing homesick, and said as much. Now the magician gave him a round mat and told him how to use it.
Sendibada followed the instructions, placing the mat on the ground and seating himself upon it so that he faced the direction of his home town. Then he spoke the foreign words that meant: Behold! We shall all return to it . And at once the mat rose into the clouds, and faster than a diving hawk, set Sendibada back on the beach just outside his home town.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
The Copper City retold from a translated text in Jan Knappert’s Myths and Legends of the Swahili
P.S. In case you hadn’t guessed, Sendibada is the Swahili version of Sinbad.