Below The World’s First Cast Iron Bridge: Half ‘n Half-Light

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I admit this is not a great shot of one of industrial history’s key artefacts, though you can just make out  the new rust-red livery of the ironwork. Obviously the thing that caught my eye here was the strange lighting effect between bridge and river.

But for those of you who like a few facts to support ‘first in the world’ claims, the bridge was built in 1779 by Quaker Ironmaster Abraham Darby III. It spans the Severn Gorge in Ironbridge, Shropshire, and was intended to replace a (sometimes treacherous) ferry crossing between Broseley and Coalbrookdale, much used by the local workforce. But most of all it was designed to impress. Not only was it the world’s first cast iron bridge, so demonstrating a pioneering structural material, it was also the first single span bridge on the River Severn (all the other bridges were built of stone and had low arches). This new design meant that the large sailing barges (trows) coming up from Bristol did not have to de-mast to pass under it.

The River Severn trade was a busy one too – all manner of luxury goods coming upstream, locally produced pig iron, castings, ceramics and porcelain going downstream. Inevitably then, word of this daring new structure would quickly spread. People would start thinking of cast iron as a material with prospects. The Coalbrookdale iron masters certainly had plenty of ideas – from the industrial (iron framed factories, wagon wheels, rails, boiler castings) to the decorative and all points in between. The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the world trade fairs that it engendered provided the shop window for their ever more ingenious fabrications.

The Company’s catalogues were the ‘style books’ of the late 19th century. Cast iron was used to make just about everything – glasshouse frames, intricate park gates, garden rollers, seats, horse troughs, statues, fountains, stoves, boot scrapers, fire surrounds, nut crackers, bandstands, lamp posts, fruit bowls, cooking pots, grave memorials and all manner of finials and fancy pieces. Its beauty lay in the fact that once designs had been committed to moulds, pieces could be mass produced, and whether for grand architectural statements for the stately pile or a cauldron for the workman’s home the material was supremely functional (if a little cold to the touch).

So how about one of these to hang your hat on:

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These pieces might seem ‘overdone’ to our eyes, but they involved consummate skill (and physical risk) in their moulding and casting. As to design, the Coalbrookdale Company founded a technical institute for its workforce with the specific aim of nurturing local expertise and innovation in the fields of decorative ironwork.

But these days it is perhaps the enduring and durable ornamental garden seat that is more appealing to us. Here’s one I spotted at Dudmaston Hall back in the summer:

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And now back to where it and I started, but with a better view of the Iron Bridge: Abraham Darby III’s magnificent cast iron PR stunt. And it’s still going strong after 241 years (thanks to some recent rigorous conservation work by English Heritage). And still the tourist attraction it was back then too – even to us locals who like to pay homage to this piece of engineering chutzpah every once in a while.

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January Light #24

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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