Industrial Revolution Power Brokers

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Industrial Revolution in what is now a quiet Shropshire town as well as the 200th anniversary of the death of one of Britain’s greatest industrialists, Matthew Boulton. Ross Reyburn reports.

The Iron Bridge built to span the Severn Gorge by Abraham Darby III in 1781Ironically, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution occupies one of the finest scenic views in England. Opened on New Year's Day in 1781, the striking arched Iron Bridge that spans the Severn Gorge is today overlooked by the town that takes its name from the famous construction, serene focal point for the UNESCO Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site.

'The Iron Bridge is unbelievably beautiful,' says David de Haan, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust's Director of Learning. The location was just a wharf where there was a ferry and the town didn't exist when it was built. The bridge was a fantastic exercise by Abraham Darby III to promote the use of iron.'

A mile from the bridge into the valley at Coalbrookdale lie the remains of the Old Furnace where the first Abraham Darby (1678-1717) succeeded in smelting iron using coke instead of charcoal 300 years ago in 1709.

'He was aware this area was rich in raw materials with the River Severn, the motorway of its day, for transport,' points out de Haan. 'So he took a lease on a derelict brick furnace in Coalbrookdale and experimented making cast iron. In doing so he solved a fuel crisis. Charcoal is made from coppicing trees and the forests were being depleted for building houses and ships.'

But Darby's cast iron was not suitable for conversion to the stronger wrought iron. A solution was found in the 1750s by his son Abraham Darby II (1711-63). Coalbrookdale was now spearheading the Industrial Revolution, producing the iron for the steam engines that transformed manufacturing.

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