The happy circumstance that deposited me in the Midlands opened my eyes to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. I suppose I had equated it with the large cities of Birmingham and the flood of people from the country to the city so I was surprised to find Ironbridge in Shropshire was acknowledged as the place where it all began. The Ironbridge Gorge is in a beautiful part of the world but it was the concentration of deposits of coal, iron ore, clay and limestone near the surface and the location on the River Severn for transport that made it a centre for industry.
Back in 1709 a man called Abraham Darby first smelted local iron ore with coke made from Coalbrookdale coal.
Although the River Severn was an important trading route, it was also a barrier for travel around the area as the sides of the gorge were steep. An iron bridge was proposed, with a single span, and high enough for tall ships to pass underneath.
In 1776 his grandson, Abraham Darby III, was commissioned to cast and build the bridge. After a few hiccups work began in 1777 when the masonry and abutments were constructed. The ribs were lifted into place in 1779. The bridge has 1,700 individual components which were all cast separately to fit together. It was opened to traffic in 1781 and was the first iron bridge successfully completed.
In 1997, a watercolour by Elias Martin was discovered in a Stockholm museum, which showed the bridge under construction. In the painting you can see a movable wooden scaffold being used as a crane to position the ribs of the bridge. These had been brought from Darby’s foundry 500 metres downstream.
The bridge has undergone significant maintenance over the centuries and was closed to all but foot traffic in 1934. In 1956 there were even plans to demolish it!
Since we viewed it and walked across it in 2004 it has had a massive restoration costing £3.6 million. It has also changed colour, reverting from blue-grey to the original red-brown colour.
It is hard to imagine Ironbridge in its industrial days but this painting by Jakob Loutherbourg shows the area called Bedlam and why it was likened to Dante’s Inferno.
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Ironbridge is home to thirty-six scheduled monuments and listed buildings cared for by The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust and spread over a six square kilometre site. The Trust also operates ten museums which collectively tell the story of the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. We returned with our daughter for another visit later in the year and spent many happy hours in the Blist’s Hill Victorian Town.
At the time we were watching Fred Dibnah’s “Industrial Age” and “Age of Steam” on TV. A steeplejack from Bolton, he became a television celebrity as his infectious love of British heritage opened our eyes not only to George and Robert Stephenson but Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Who is the greatest Briton of all time? This is what the BBC asked the general public in 2002. Not surprisingly, Winston Churchill was number one, but number two was Isambard Kingdom Brunel (I love saying his full name).
Brunel was born in Portsmouth and lived in London for almost all his life. Yet it is Bristol, which claims him as its own. Brunel gave the city its trademark Clifton Suspension Bridge and built its rail link to London. In Bristol’s harbour, his mighty iron steamship, SS Great Britain, arguably the forerunner of all modern ships, is one of England’s leading heritage attractions.
This brings us to our visit to Bristol one sunny weekend. The SS Great Britain was being restored when we walked around it, wearing our hard hats. On board some cabins were complete and a large open area was to be used for functions at a future date. The Great Britain was designed for the Great Western Steamship Company’s transatlantic service between Bristol and New York City. While other ships had been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, in 1843, Great Britain was the first to combine these features in a large ocean going ship. In 1845 she was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic and took 14 days.
98 years later she was scuttled in the Falkland Islands. In 1970 the vessel was raised, repaired and towed back to the Bristol dry dock where she had been built 127 years earlier.
The Australian connection is strong. From the time of the discovery of gold in 1851 she operated on the England-Australia route for almost 30 years. She earned a reputation as the most reliable of the emigrant ships. In 1861 she carried 143 crew, 544 passengers (including the first English cricket team to tour Australia), a cow, 36 sheep, 140 pigs, 96 goats and 1,114 chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The voyage took 64 days.
Back to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As Jeremy Clarkson said with his usual forcefulness, “Brunel built modern Britain and Britain built the world, which means Brunel built the world”.