Wondrous Symbol of the New Iron Age; MIDLANDS Millennium Chris Upton Looks Back to Ironbridge's Glory Days While, below, Ross Reyburn Investigates Its Present Situation
Upton, Chris, The Birmingham Post (England)
Minerals can change landscapes. And the rise and fall of minerals can make and break the industries that lived on them: tin and coal, iron and steel. In 200 years, the Midlands has moved from pre-industrial to post-industrial, mirroring wider changes in the country as a whole. But it's hard to believe that anywhere shows the enormity of that transformation more vividly than the place once known as Coalbrookdale.
This corner of Shropshire could never have remained a rural backwater.
The backwater concerned was too accessible and too navigable for that. No city grew up on this stretch of the River Severn but much else did: pottery kilns, small smelting works, pipe makers and collieries.
The area had clay and wood and iron enough to support them all and a great highway to take the products far and wide.
But it was the arrival of a Quaker brassfounder from the Black Country, Abraham Darby I, which heralded the region's first metamorphosis. In 1708 Darby leased an old charcoal furnace from the lord of the manor and within a year had perfected a method of producing iron from coke.
Not only was coke intrinsically hotter, it also spared the woodlands of Shropshire from the further depredations of the charcoal makers. Overnight, Coalbrookdale went iron mad.
Abraham Darby's chosen sphere of manufacture was iron bellied pots, but once this genie was out of the pot, anything and everything could be made of it.
As an 18th century commentator described it: "It is astonishing to think of the uses to which cast iron is converted. They make their chimney tops, their window cases, their sashes, their floors, their roofs, doors, pallisades, ploughshares, besides a hundred other utensils for domestic use of this permanent and durable material."
Just as the 1950s fell in love with plastic, so iron became the comfortable commodity of Darby's generation. Iron gravestones sprouted in the churchyard, marking the place where iron coffins lay buried.
But it was not the iron chimneys, grates and gravestones that gave Coalbrookdale its most enduring icon. That was something far bigger by far; so big in fact that it obliged the town to change its name.
By the middle of the century, industry was beginning to outstrip the ability even of the great River Severn to cope with it. By the 1750s, the river which had provided the conduit for economic expansion, had also become something of a barrier. …