Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Ironbridge Gorge: Symbolic Birthplace of the Industrial Era

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Ironbridge Gorge: Symbolic Birthplace of the Industrial Era

Article excerpt

The world's first iron bridge, built in 1779 across England's River Severn, came to epitomize the genesis of industrialization based on iron and coal

. . . If an atheist who had never heard of Coalbrookdale could be transported there in a dream, and left to awake at the mouth of one of those furnaces, surrounded on all sides by such a number of infernal objects, though he had been all his life the most profligate unbeliever that ever added blasphemy to incredulity, he would infallibly tremble at the last judgement that in imagination would appear to him.

With these apocalyptic words, written in 1801, the dramatist and traveller Charles Dibdin concluded his observations on the Severn Gorge in Shropshire, in the Midlands of England. What drew Dibdin and numerous other travellers there in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the remarkable concentration of industrial activity, concerned in the main with ironmaking, spread along some five kilometres of the valley of the River Severn. Today this area, known as the Ironbridge Gorge, is a World Heritage Site in recognition of its outstanding importance in the early development of industrialization.


The initial importance of the Severn Gorge stems from the pioneering work of the Quaker ironmaster Abraham Darby (1678-1717) who in 1709 developed a technique for smelting iron using coked coal as a fuel instead of the charcoal - made from wood - which was conventionally used at the time. He had taken over an existing charcoal-fired blast furnace built about 1638 - in Coalbrookdale, a small side valley of the River Severn, and using local coal converted into coke he was successful in smelting iron ore to form a useable iron.

Although the impact of this new technology was limited at first, perhaps because there was little price advantage in coke-smelted iron, by the middle years of the eighteenth century Coalbrookdale and the surrounding area, by then in the hands of the second Abraham Darby (1711-63), had become an important source of good quality iron.

By using coked coal as fuel ironmasters were freed from the restrictions imposed by limited supplies of timber for charcoal. Already, by 1700, Britain had less forest cover than any other European state, as a result of clearance for agriculture, cutting for charcoal and the demands of the Navy for shipbuilding. But coal was available in virtually unlimited quantities; and with coke as a fuel, blast furnaces could be built bigger, thus allowing larger castings to be made. Coke smelting was to become almost universal in the early years of the nineteenth century.


During the eighteenth century the Coalbrookdale Company became renowned not only for the making of iron but for using iron in new and innovative ways. Here the first iron rails were made along which ran trucks with iron wheels, pushed by men or pulled by horses, carrying iron goods down to wharves on the river. Then in the 1770s came the most dramatic and spectacular new use for iron, in the building of the world's first iron bridge.

The River Severn, England's longest river, was one of the keys to the success of the Coalbrookdale area. It provided ready access to outside markets for the products of the iron foundries and forges, for coal and clay from local pits, and for bricks, tiles and pottery. But the Severn also presented a barrier to the movement of goods by road from one side of the gorge to the other. The need for a bridge resulted in the novel proposal to build one of iron. Under the supervision of the third Abraham Darby (1750-89). then in charge of the Coalbrookdale Company, the bridge was cast and erected in the summer of 1779. It was opened on New Year's Day 1781, the first large-scale use of iron for structural purposes in the world and a remarkable demonstration of the utility and versatility of iron for construction. With a span of 30 metres, the graceful semi-circular arch reached across the gorge of the Severn at its narrowest point, an elegant centrepiece for what the cotton master Charles Hulbert was to call in 1837 "the most extraordinary district in the world". …

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