Telford, Birthplace Of Industry?

© Frank Verity 2005

Chapter 1: Why Is Shropshire Regarded As The Cradle Of The Industrial Revolution?

To answer the question posed in this chapter we must primarily define and identify the conditions and technology that existed in the largely agrarian society that was Shropshire in the 16th century. We must then examine the geographical and geological evidence, which brought about the breakthrough that allowed the industries in the region to outstrip the other iron-producing centres throughout the country. By no means could Shropshire be perceived to be the origin of industry or indeed iron production at this time. On the contrary the use of blast furnaces was widespread throughout the country by the last quarter of the 16th century, the first one being recorded at Newbridge in the forest of Ashdown in the Weald of Sussex c.1495. Fifteen more were built in this area by the 1540's, and by the 1570's there were over fifty furnaces in the Wealden areas of Sussex and Kent. By the 1580's furnaces were established in South Wales, Monmouthshire, Cannock Chase in the West Midlands, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and North Yorkshire. There were a number in close proximity to Birmingham in districts including Aston and West Bromwich, and of course Shropshire.1

The earliest furnaces to be established in Shropshire were built in the mid -16th Century at Morville, Shifnal, Willey, Kenley and Cleobury Park. These were water-powered and the construction as was the norm was a masonry stack supported by at least two arches, one containing the air supply which a water-powered bellows obtained, and the other would contain the fore-hearth where the molten iron and slag could be tapped off. Furnaces of this type were usually built into a bank or approached by a ramp of earth, which made the task of loading the furnace easier.2 The key element in the construction of these furnaces however, was the location. These early sites had to have access to running water. This water also had to be managed carefully with reservoirs being built to store the supply not only during the dry spells but also to control the speed of flow necessary to maintain a constant power source. The same restrictions applied to furnaces built in the 17th century up until the development of steam powered pumps. These enabled water to be firstly re-circulated through the mill wheel, and secondly with the development of the steam engine, to actually power the plant independently. Along with water an adequate supply of both iron-ore and fuel was also a major factor in the location of such sites. The iron -ore was mined from the nearby coalmines and the fuel - which was charcoal - obtained locally. J. R. Harris explains that the reason for charcoal being obtained locally was not due to the cost of transporting it being prohibitive but rather the fragility of the product, as he comments: "It was so fragile and friable, crumbling from pieces of a size fit for the furnace to a useless dust", he then adds: "Ironmasters were [only] prepared to carry it five miles".3In order to break this deadlock of limited fuel supplies, which was applying a stranglehold to the burgeoning iron industry, something had to drastically alter in this cycle. It was here that perhaps the most important breakthrough in the development of iron smelting, and indeed the perception of Shropshire as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution unfolded. This development was the use of coal for smelting iron. As Trinder reveals: "The turning of wood fuel to coal was perhaps the most significant change of the Industrial Revolution," although he points out, "it was one that began in the 17th century."4

The abundant resources of the coalfield gave the opportunity to Abraham Darby, relatively early in the 18th century to develop his smelting process. This relied on the use of coked coal. The locally mined clod coal proved to be the ideal material for coking.5 This was a fortunate occurrence, as Trinder reveals that clod coal had no previous uses.6 This process many historians believe, was perfected after Darby's experiences in the malting industry into which he was apprenticed.7 However there is evidence to suggest that Darby was influenced in his quest for an alternative to charcoal for smelting by earlier pioneering work in this field by Dud Dudley who in 1621 and 1638 took out patents for a smelting process using coke in a blast furnace. Dudley also claimed in his book Metallum Martis which was published in 1665, that the process had been successful, but as Trinder reveals; " his process was never taken up by others," he then points out that amongst the archives of the Darby family in the 19th century was found: "an ancient manuscript copy of Metallum Martis".8

This revolutionary technique replaced the use of charcoal in the smelting process, the production of charcoal being controlled by pre-ordered and contracted restrictions made it very expensive and difficult to procure, and therefore an unsatisfactory fuel for a rapidly expanding industrial process. Another perhaps crucial advantage of the use of coke as a fuel for smelting was the fact that when smelting with charcoal it was only possible to sustain the blast furnace for twenty to thirty weeks of the year, the rest of the time being taken up accumulating enough charcoal to fuel the next blast. In his use of coke Darby could run successive blasts, with the only break being the time it took to rebuild the hearth.9 Darby with his revolutionary advances managed to gain a crucial foothold in this race for technological dominance, and this was exploited to its maximum potential. As Arthur Raistrick reveals: "His works broke free from all existing patterns and approached very near to a forecast of modern rationalisation."10 His successor Abraham Darby II harnessed the latest innovations in the use of steam power, the first Newcomen engine to be employed in the iron trade was in 1743 at the Coalbrookdale ironworks and pumped water back over the wheels, which supplied power to the works. This enabled the working of iron to proceed throughout the full year, bypassing seasonal vagaries in relation to water levels and flows. The same pattern of application soon followed at all the ironworks built during the 1750's.11

So by the second half of the 18th century iron founding was well established in the region, but this alone did not justify the 'birthplace of industry' connotation. This then begs the question of: "what did set the region apart from the rest of the country"? The major factor would be once again progress through technical innovation. We have discussed how advances in smelting techniques enabled the early ironmasters to gain crucial advantages, but it was rather the results of these techniques that facilitated the ongoing benefit. By the time that the plan for the Iron Bridge was conceived smelting and forging methods had enabled better grades of iron to be produced. The quality of iron coupled with advances in casting techniques enabled items that were both lighter and thinner, to be fashioned. This impacted greatly on the very fabric of the region and was manifested in a profusion of everyday, as well as industrial objects being manufactured in cast iron.12 As one surveys the buildings and landscape of the Severn Gorge these items are still apparent. From chimney pots to fireplaces, from door and window lintels to doorsteps, railings and fences and from mileposts on the roads to markers in the graveyards everywhere is iron. It was no surprise then that when the idea was conceived of a bridge that would link the two sides of the rapidly expanding industrial area the chosen material of construction would be iron. Once again I must stress that the object of this study does not lie in technical details so we will not attempt to discuss the implications of construction from such an angle. Rather we will look at the wider issues that arose after construction and attempt to further our study thus. A question immediately presents itself, was the whole concept of the bridge an attempt to showcase the regions, and more to the point the company's prowess in both technology and advancement of casting methods? Perhaps, the finished bridge as we know was 'The phenomena of the age'13 and attracted visitors from all over the world. Trinder certainly proclaims the showcase concept; "The proprietors of the Iron Bridge promoted their enterprise by encouraging the publication of images".14 These images subsequently appeared on souvenirs and objects as diverse as porcelain tankards, trade tokens and cast-iron fireplaces.15 Curiously if one examines the bridges constructional methods it is very much old-fashioned, or traditional woodworking joints that are used. It is almost a case of technology over-running itself, or did the innovators of this groundbreaking enterprise whilst trusting new materials not feel confident enough to use new untried methods of construction? Whatever the reason for the mode of construction the individual castings were themselves revolutionary, it is believed that furnaces were actually created on site to cast the individual sections which themselves had to be extremely accurate in order to slot together during construction, there was no margin for error!16 The quantity of mouldings used in the construction was indeed phenomenal, "378 tons 15 cwt. of iron", consisting of, "more than 800 castings, of only 12 different types", were produced.17 So the bridge was built and the link between the two sides of the coalfield completed. No longer was there a reliance on boats to ferry goods and raw materials over the river. A road link was thus established and utilised by the stagecoach operators after connections were made with the turnpike roads, the journey time to London was slashed. The town of Ironbridge was established and began to flourish as the main commercial centre of the district.18 But perhaps the most significant consequence of the building of the bridge was the demonstration of the potential of iron as a construction material: "It showed that iron could [his italics] be used rather than how to use it".19 In an era of great innovation and technological understanding the construction of the bridge could be perceived as a step in the dark, it was untried and untested thus was pioneering work at its best. The great engineering minds of the age built reputations on bold moves and this project was one of the riskiest. It is best perhaps summed up by Cossons and Trinder who utilise a cotemporary view; that of Thomas Tredgold who in 1824 reflected that: "One of the boldest attempts with a new material was the application of cast iron to bridges".20 This was indeed a bold move. But also one that would pay dividends, ten years after the opening of the bridge the Coalbrookdale Company was commissioned to produce a: "Small wrought iron replica" of the bridge for export to Prussia in 1791.21 The very same year an order for a bridge from The Netherlands was cast at Coalbrookdale. There is also speculation that small ornamental bridges were produced for use on canals, docks and landscaped parks. In 1794 when the Marquess of Stafford requested a pattern for his grounds at Trentham the company was able to: "Instantly produce six alternative designs, displaying a versatility and confidence which suggested that it was accustomed to meeting such orders".22 Iron bridges became more and more popular attracting interest nationally; contemporaries such as: "John Rennie, John Nash, Rowland Burdon and Thomas Paine all concerned themselves with the subject".23 A great flood in February 1795, which caused severe damage to every bridge on the Severn except the Iron Bridge, bore testament to its qualities, and when Thomas Telford replaced the bridge at Buildwas he chose an iron arch. The Coalbrookdale Company was soon supplying bridges to the whole country; and indeed the world. Nash implemented iron in his bridge at Stanford spanning the Teme, whilst the river Parret in Somerset was crossed by a structure cast at Coalbrookdale. In 1807 a fifty ton bridge was despatched across the world to Jamaica.24 This 'craze for iron bridges' prompted a rather grandiose statement in the company's list of products in 1801 which listed: "Iron bridges of any span or height".25 It is perhaps when such evidence is collated that the answer to the first question posed becomes more apparent. If the brouhaha that clouds the debate on the origins of industry is resolved. Whenever the question of whether or not there was an industrial revolution is settled. The fact remains, that the modern day town of Telford does indeed have a tangible link with the beginnings of industry. That link is the Iron Bridge it was then and is now: "A symbol of the Industrial Revolution".26

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