The year is 1709. Famine ravages Europe as a severe and tenacious frost kills crops, fruit trees and livestock as far south as the Mediterranean coast.
And in an obscure corner of Shropshire, England, Abraham Darby, a Quaker ironmaster, makes a discovery that will change the world.
Darby, 31, has perfected a technique for making cheap iron, and lots of it, by smelting iron ore with coke – made from coal – instead of charcoal. A 17th-century English iron smelter would burn up 200 acres of trees in a year. England’s burgeoning population had already cleared most of the island’s natural forest for farmland. Lack of an efficient and plentiful fuel was frustrating England’s ironmasters. Darby changes all that. He becomes composer and conductor. The orchestra of the Industrial Revolution is tuning up in preparation for its world tour.
Today, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, on the gorge of the Severn River in Shropshire, is a massive and fascinating complex of indoor and outdoor museums covering 1,550 hectares (six square miles).
Originally known as Coalbrookdale, but renamed Ironbridge after the world’s first iron bridge, constructed over the Severn Gorge in 1779, the area was ideally situated to be the Silicone Valley of the 18th-century. After the Meuse in Western Europe, the Severn was already the continent’s second busiest river with the bustling port of Bristol at its mouth. Easily recoverable outcroppings of iron ore, coal and clay provided the Severn Gorge with industry’s needed raw materials.
The bridge, and the information center inside its Tollhouse, is the focal point of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum and the ideal place to start our tour.
Just upriver from the bridge is the Museum of the River Visitor Center. Formerly the Severn Warehouse, it was built in the 1840s to house the world’s first iron rails, wheels and other iron products of the Coalbrookdale Company prior to shipment down the river to the world’s markets. The museum has a spectacular 12-metre (40ft) model of the Gorge as it was in 1796.
Next stop would be the Museum of Iron and the Darby Furnace where, in 1709, the Quaker ironmaster pioneered the smelting of iron ore with coke. This museum illustrates the history of ironmaking and the story of the Coalbrookdale Company, including a full scale working replica of the world’s first steam railway locomotive. It was originally designed by Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick, and built by Coalbrookdale ironmasters in the winter of 1802-3.
Adjacent to the Museum of Iron is the Long Warehouse, where the Museum Library and Elton Collection are housed. This is a national collection of industrial art, photographs, books, prints and drawings collected by the late Sir Arthur Elton.
One hundred meters away are Dale House and Rosehill House. Dale House was commissioned by Abraham Darby 1 who did not live to see it completed. It is being restored by the museum. Rosehill House was built in the early 1800s for Darby’s son-in-law. The house displays the possessions and lifestyle of those early Quaker ironmasters.
About 300 meters downstream of the bridge are the remains of the Madeley Wood or Bedlam Ironworks. The Bedlam Furnaces were built in 1757-8, and of the nine coke blast furnaces, which were built on the Shropshire Coalfield over a four year period from 1755, they are the only ones still reasonably intact. Their significance lies in the fact that they are among the first blast furnaces built specifically for coke smelting.
A few hundred meters further downriver is the Jackfield Tile Museum. From the 1850s to the 1960s, Maws and Craven Dunnill, two of the world’s largest tile makers, manufactured their products here. The original tile presses have been reactivated so visitors can witness the production of a kaleidoscopic variety of wall and floor tiles.
Not far away is the Coalport China Museum. Coalport china was made here until 1926 when the company moved to Staffordshire. The old works have been restored as a museum of china, showing the techniques of manufacture and the products of Coalport.
A break from museums is available nearby in the Tar Tunnel. Discovered in 1785 when miners were digging for iron ore, they struck springs of natural bitumen, which were commercially exploited until 1843. The bitumen still oozes from the tunnel walls.
Ample time should be allowed for the last stop, the Blists Hill Open Air Museum. On this 20-hectare (50 acres) site, the visitor can become immersed in the fin-de-siecle ambiance of a typical, working English Victorian town. Stroll along gas-lit streets, hear the hiss of steam and the clank of machinery, taste fresh baked bread and pork pies and wash them down with a pint of real Victorian ale in a real Victorian pub.
The Ironbridge Gorge Museum is a vibrant, developing microcosm of an exciting era that changed the world. Future expansion plans include a Museum of Industrialization, a Social History gallery, a Pipe Works Museum and a Geology gallery.
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