It is doubtful that the Industrial Revolution would have occurred at all in Shropshire if geographically it had not been in the midst of an abundance of natural resources and mineral deposits. This fact ensured that the building blocks of progress could begin to be put into place, and provided the perfect environment for the start of industrialisation. Shropshire was blessed with all the materials that were essential for growth and progress, this coupled with a forward looking land -owning gentry class prepared to exploit these resources, enabled the great advances to be made. The most influential and powerful of these dynasties were the Leveson-Gower family who owned the majority of the parish of Lilleshall and also the manor of Ketley, and who were described in the early 19th century as being: "The richest family in Britain", possessing an "unrivalled concentration of aristocratic wealth", this sentiment, according to Trinder was espoused by its leading family historian.27 The head of the family in 1833 George Granville Leveson Gower was created Duke of Sutherland and the land in Shropshire was added to other holdings in Staffordshire, Yorkshire and most of the County of Sutherland, in addition to Stafford House in London. Trinder comments that, "The formation of the forerunner of the Lilleshall Company in 1764 suggests that the family were aware of the potential income from their land".28 The landowner John Weld of Willey was another member of the local gentry who appreciated the economic potential of the coalfield more than a century earlier. Weld was born the son of a London merchant in 1585. He followed the example of his two brothers-in-law, also London merchants, who invested in land holdings in Shropshire, and bought the manor of Willey in 1618. This was added to in 1619 when Weld purchased the manors of Marsh and then in 1620 a third part of the manor of Brosely. Weld then bought up all the freehold land, which became available within his manors. He was responsible for the building of the Old Willey blast furnace and anticipated the smelting of iron with coal, and also the routes by which coal might be carried to his furnace. Weld - a man of enterprise and vision - estimated that the coal reserves on his land could be worth up to £5,000, if a route to the Severn could be secured. He also vowed that coal from neighbouring land would never be allowed to cross his land to the Severn thus competing with his own. He was very much a man of the hour in all his entrepreneurial zeal and as Trinder affirms:"His determination to make the most of the resources on his estate, to frustrate competition from his neighbours, his awareness of the potential of new processes...were all characteristics which he shared with the ironmasters of the 18th century".29
Curiously however, Weld advised his successors that there was no future in the pursuance of wealth from industry urging them: "Not to be busy searching for coals, nor in Ironworks".30 This advice was heeded and a return to agriculture gradually affected. The question that must be asked is why such potential of income from mineral deposits was not perceived to be worthwhile exploiting? The answer could lie in the fact that the technology or perhaps the finances were not readily available to afford such exploitation. Judith Alfrey and Catherine Clark reveal that during the period leading up to the Civil War, many minor industrialists mined coal in small shallow pits. There is evidence of numerous 'bell pits' (distinguishable by their characteristic ring of spoil) throughout the woods of Benthall, Broseley and Caughley. Alfrey and Clark admit that these diggings are difficult to date but concur that miners of limited capital probably dug them in the 17th century.31 An important breakthrough in coal production of that era was the use of wooden railways; these were in use both above and below ground by the first quarter of the 17th century and made the transportation of both coal and iron-ore a much less labour intensive operation. Trinder cites the existence of a wooden railway running between a pit in Broseley and the Calcutts on the river Severn as being the subject of a dispute between James Clifford and his tenants in 1605, and also reveals that: "Several other lines were built in the Severn Gorge in the 17th century, all having...wooden rails, on which ran wagons with flanged wooden wheels".32
The Civil War saw the break up of the large estates, and local landowners such as Benthall, Weld and Brooke - all Royalist supporters - had their lands confiscated and were heavily fined. Clifford's estate was broken up to pay creditors after his death in 1620, although he is noted for his contribution to the mining industry as well as his numerous disputes with both tenants and competitors. The major consequence of this was that coal mining was unable to reach the scale of pre-Civil War output in that area until the improved technology was utilised. However as Alfrey and Clark divulge this could be due to the fact that: "much of the easily accessible coal had been worked out", by this time.33 This could also go some way to explaining Weld's reluctance to advocate the advantage of industry. The actions of the Parliamentarians in breaking the hold of the large landowners in the district would turn out to be beneficial to future industrialists. Individuals who had no freehold land could now take advantage of the mineral resources and a new breed of men emerged.
Charter-masters or master-colliers worked with the landowners but took the responsibility for the organisation of the pits. They laid railways and attended to maintenance within the mines. Some were already wealthy members of society, but it was also possible for a master-collier to emerge from the ranks of the workers.
One such man was Richard Hartshorne who was seen by Trinder and Cox as: "The outstanding coal master of the period".34 Hartshorne leased mines in Ketley, Wombridge, Little Dawley, Great Dawley and Little Wenlock, also building a railway from Little Wenlock to the River Severn. He was a man of vision and a pioneer in the use of iron railway wheels and steam engines in Shropshire. He also diversified into other industries operating the Kingley Wich salt works. His date and place of birth are unknown but we know he died in 1733, leaving a widow, Jane35. It is Jane's inventory that provided information on the monies and property amassed by the family. Trinder & Cox reveal that the Hartshorne's owned two properties less than three miles apart, Ketley Bank House (which bears the initials RJH and the date 1721), and a house in Watling Street. The inventory valued the estate at £546.14s. 0d. and contained entries relating to various pits throughout the area.36 However and perhaps more importantly, the fact that after Richard's demise in 1733, Jane took over the running of the various businesses proves her very able in what was very much a male dominated environment. As mentioned earlier Richard Hartshorne's place and date of birth are unknown but evidence would appear to point that he was the son of Walter Hartshorne of Malins Lee whose will we are informed by Trinder & Cox was proved in 1696. His inventory was valued at £120 3s.4d.characteristic of a yeoman farmer. His working tools and mining equipment and stock of coal were valued at only £25.00 so it is likely that mining was very much a secondary source of income. The fact that the bulk of the surplus monies were invested in livestock and farming equipment, would bear this theory out.37 Another local collier Edward Darrell of Holywell in Little Dawley was, according to Trinder & Cox, probably the same man mentioned in Abraham Darby I's accounts in 1709 which show an Edward Darrell employed to 'charck' coals and also clear ditches.38
The Coalbrookdale coalfield stretched from Lilleshall in the north 10 miles southwards to Willey, and 3 miles east to west, approximately 24 square miles in all.39 The western edges of this coalfield were worked from the earliest days of drift mining until the 19th century when the technological advances of steam power utilised in pumps made the exploration and working of the deeper eastern seams viable.
The Shropshire coalfield was the birthplace of the longwall system of mining. This was one of many technological advances within the area and differed from the traditional pillar and stall technique in use countrywide.40 Longwalling according to Trinder was established by the first half of the 17th century and he explained it thus:"By the longwall system the whole of a seam of coal was removed as working advanced from or retreated towards shaft bottoms. The space from which coal had been extracted, known as the gob or goof, was packed with rock or slack, and its roof was supported by wooden pit props."41
This system proved to be extremely efficient and spread to Lancashire, Yorkshire, South Wales and the East Midlands.
The abundance of coal supplies was matched by a profusion of other minerals. Also present were Iron Ore, clays suitable for the manufacture of amongst other things tobacco pipes, pottery, house bricks and firebricks. Brine, Iron Pyrites and natural bitumen were also present in the coalfields. Carboniferous and Silurian limestone deposits were also worked, the former at The Hatch, Steeraways and Lilleshall, whilst the latter were found beneath the lower coal measures and Lincoln Hill.42 Other manufacturing bases such as Coalport china, Maws tile works of Jackfield and the glassworks of Wrockwardine Wood supplemented the smelting of iron, and the mining of coal, which was the mainstay of the growth of industry in the region.