In the beginning…
The Iron Bridge
Ironbridge is renowned for being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Here the world’s first single span cast iron bridge was constructed between 1777 and 1781 and spans the River Severn.
During the 18th century, this area was rich with raw materials including coal, iron ore, water (which was used for both the generation of power and transportation), sand (for moulding cast iron), limestone to flux the slag in the blast-furnaces, and clay to make tiles and bricks.
This wealth of materials first attracted the attention of Abraham Darby to Coalbrookdale in 1708. He was the first of three generations, who were to be awarded the prestigious title of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution.
Darby was the Quaker ironmaster who had travelled from Bristol to take over the blast-furnace at Coalbrookdale. In 1709, Darby became the first person to smelt iron using coke as a fuel rather than charcoal, as was traditional.
This proved to be one of the most important technological breakthrough's ever discovered. At the time, there was a significant fuel crisis in Britain. Charcoal, which was made from timber, was the only source of fuel used by the iron industry, which had resulted in large areas of deforestation. In order to fuel a single blast-furnace that produces only a few tons of iron each day, several tons of timber was needed each day.
The process meant that high-quality iron was available in quantities undreamt of using the traditional charcoal smelting. It was this process that formed the basis of the industrial revolution that would transform Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The greatest memorial to Darby’s achievements is the iron bridge itself, perhaps the best known industrial monument in Britain.
Building the Bridge
The initial idea for the iron bridge came about in 1775, when a group of local businessmen met to discuss how communication between both sides of the river could be improved. The group was made up of, Abraham Darby III, who became the treasurer of the project, John Wilkinson, an ironmaster and Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, an architect from the nearby town of Shrewsbury. At the time, the nearest bridges were located at Bridgnorth and Buildwas.
The number of trading vessels using the river as a means of transportation at the time meant that a bridge with a single arch was paramount. It was Pritchard who proposed a revolutionary iron structure that would span 120ft and cost £3200, a huge amount in those days.
Darby agreed to undertake the building and construction work. Casting and transporting the bridges components must have caused problems for them, each rib weighed 5 tons!
More than 200 years ago, about a quarter of all iron in Britain was being smelted in and around the Ironbridge Gorge. Even then, it was one of the most visited places in the whole of England, with writers, artists, engineers and even industrial spies all adding it to their 'Grand Tour'.
Times have changed. Most of the furnaces, forges, factories and coal mines are now quiet. And the fiery impact of the Industrial Revolution has been replaced by a green and pleasant landscape.
But everywhere you look, there are reminders of the past: monuments to the Valley that changed the world.
Today, the Ironbridge Gorge is 'home' to a series of unique museums, linked together by means of a special 'Passport ticket', which visitors can use to marvel at the achievements of the men and women who made Britain the world's first industrial nation.
Abraham Darby's original furnace, where he made his breakthrough by using coke, rather than charcoal, is on today's Grand Tour, as is his former residence in Coalbrookdale, and the nearby Museum of Iron.
Elsewhere, the Jackfield Tile Museum and Coalport China Museum provide an insight into the history and manufacture of products still associated with the birthplace of the industry; while the intriguing Tar Tunnel and aptly named Bedlam Furnace add to the district's undiluted atmosphere.
Today's crowning glory is the award-winning Blists Hill Victorian Town, where the past is brought back it life in the form of a liv- ing town at the turn of the century, with craftsmen in shops, pubs, and of course, a foundry, giving demonstrations of their skills, and explaining to modern day visitors what life was really like at the end their Queen Victoria's reign.
The Visitor Centre located at the Museum of the Gorge helps to explain the history and heritage within the six square miles that changed the world.