On 23rd November 2017, the remaining ‘iron men’ working at the Coalbrookdale Works in Shropshire clocked off for the last time and hung up their boots on the foundry gates. The image of the redundant boots encapsulates the sadness and anger of the moment, as over three centuries of iron-making came to an end in Coalbrookdale. The foundry was, and is, like no other. It was the birthplace of the industrial revolution and where the world’s first ‘Iron Bridge’ was constructed. But beyond its reputation for engineering genius is the history of the iron workers, who laboured in the furnaces and are now writing their own history.
Coalbrookdale was originally in the manor of Madeley, which belonged to the Wenlock Priory. Manorial Rolls show that in 1322 a fine of 6 shillings was paid to the Priory, to allow Walter de Caldebrook to dig sea coal for a year in Caldebrook (later known as Coalbrookdale). This would appear to be the earliest record of industrial activity in the Dale. By 1544, iron was being made in Smethy Place and Caldebrooke Smethy and, by the seventeenth century, there were two furnaces in Coalbrookdale owned by the estate of Sir Basil Brooke, one of which survives in Coalbrookdale to this day. After the Coalbrookdale blast furnace blew up in the early 18th century, the works remained derelict until Abraham Darby I took over the site in 1709.
The Abraham Darby dynasty was one of engineering genius, involved in some of the key technological innovations that propelled the industrial revolution. In 1713, the first Abraham Darby smelted iron ore in the blast furnace using pit coal instead of charcoal, which was cheaper and enabled the mass production of iron manufacturing. Up until this point, charcoal from wood burning had been the main fuel of furnaces, but wood was becoming scarce and consequently the iron-making industry had started to go into decline. Others had experimented with using different materials with limited success, but Abraham Darby was the first person in Europe to refine the process, enabling a second furnace to be opened in 1715. By the time the foundry passed to his son, Abraham Darby II, and then his grandson Abraham Darby III, the Coalbrookdale furnaces had become the ‘principal seat of one of the most important branches of the iron trade’.
In 1757 Richard Reynolds, son-in-law of Abraham Darby II, took over managing the Coalbrookdale Works and, in 1767, introduced metal rails for transporting coal and iron around the works and down to the river, as wooden rails were easily damaged and costly to repair. This was the first time metal rails had been used anywhere, inspiring tramways to follow suite, and the original metal tram rails can still be seen at the Wharfage in Ironbridge. In 1779, Abraham Darby III built the world’s first Iron Bridge, which replaced the ferry across the nearby River Severn and showcased the extraordinary talents of the iron workers of the Dale. The bridge was made entirely of iron, cast at the Coalbrookdale Works, and, after it opened, the town of Ironbridge grew up around it.
The foundry’s reputation for cutting-edge engineering attracted business and, in 1802, it built the world’s first steam engine railway locomotive for engineer, Richard Trevithick. Abraham Darby IV showcased the company’s products at the Great Exhibition in 1851, including the iron Coalbrookdale Gates now at Kensington Park. In ever changing times, the foundry continued to thrive, making wings for Lancaster bombers during the Second World War. After changing hands several times after 1646, however, site was bought by the US Company Middleby Corporation in 2015, reportedly for £129 million, and by November 2017 they had closed the works, leaving an empty derelict space.
The words ‘up the Dale – history is made, not bought’ were made in a statement read out by the last remaining iron workers at Coalbrookdale as they left the Works for the last time. The local newspaper, the Shropshire Star, predicted that in years to come, historians would track the workers down to capture their experiences. But workers are instead recording their own histories, gathering oral histories and collecting memories, with a book to be written. It is not going to be a linear history of the works like the rough sketch I have made; former employees involved in the project are interested at the men and women that worked the Dale and what they did.
As a public historian, this is my type of history. It might have been Abraham Darby’s Iron Bridge but it was the workers that built the bridge and their stories that are missing. The former employees have created a Facebook group ‘Memories of Coalbrookdale Iron Foundry’, with its stated aim:
“An attempt to record every employee by name and nickname who has worked for the Coalbrookdale Company since 1709 together with their job descriptions and stories of their employment. Much is written about the iron masters and managers of the Coalbrookdale Company. This group wants to pay tribute to the grafters i.e. the workmen and their families who made this a unique company which started the Industrial Revolution.”
They have set themselves a huge task, but the group is growing; 451 members in total, with 201 joining in November 2017.
One such ‘grafter’ was Thomas Parker born in Coalbrookdale in 1843. He started at the Dale Works as a boy and his job was to light the fires in the foundry at 4am, which he did it each day before going to school. Having attended the Coalbrookdale Quaker School and then lectures given at the Birmingham and Manchester Hulme Institutes, he returned to work at the foundry in 1867, before finally leaving to form his own electrics company in 1882. Thomas is described as a pioneer of the British Electrical Industry, inventing battery-powered public transport in 1885 and an electric car in 1884. He was responsible for electrifying the Liverpool Overhead Railway in 1893 and acted as consultant engineer with the Metropolitan Railway Company on the electrification of the London Underground between 1899 and 1905. He passed away in 1915 and is buried in St Michaels churchyard in Madeley Shropshire.
My dad is one of the 20th century ‘grafters’, working in the foundry for two and a half years in the 1980s when it was owned by Glynwed. He was spot welder in the maintenance shop where he fixed core boxes sent down from the knock-out shop. Core boxes were made from aluminium, cast iron and light steel and were filled with dry sand and a mould for casting in iron. Boxes could be damaged by hammering out the mould and workers like my dad would then repair them by spot welding. The ‘wound’ in the box would be repaired with a cast iron rod, heated to almost white hot at all times or else a new wound would appear. I remember my dad coming home filthy covered in black soot one morning from a nightshift and being horrified at the state he was in. Thinking back, everyone at school seemed to know someone who had family members who worked or had worked there, yet as a school child I hadn’t recognised the significance of the place. Yes, it was noisy and dirty, but it was just there.
The foundry was a vibrant place of skilled work that supported the local economy, but now to save the derelict building it may in turn become a museum. The Ironbridge Gorge is already a World Heritage site and next to the Coalbrookdale Works is the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust’s Coalbrookdale site, where the Enginuity and now the Museum of Iron are housed. Both spotlight the remarkable industrial feats that were carried out by the iron workers of the Dale. A stream and numerous tunnels run under the Works, which are possibly as old as the original blast furnace. Perhaps like the Tar Tunnel, another of the Museum’s sites in nearby Coalport, they might be made safe and opened up for visitors to walk through. Exploring them would be an industrial archaeologists dream, stumbling on remnants of the past as you step into the water. Indeed, at the height of the industrial revolution, the foundry was part of the tourist trail and people came in awe to watch the fiery furnaces from the ‘Rotunda’, a local viewpoint high on the steep sides of the Ironbridge Gorge.
Whatever happens next, the foundry must not be forgotten. It may no longer be economically viable for its American owners, but its rich vibrant history and the skills of the workers who worked there must be preserved and passed on to future generations.
In the words of the workers: ‘Up the Dale – history is made, not bought.’
Lisa Edwards works at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury as a Public Services Officer (Community Outreach & Projects). She has an MA in Public History from Ruskin College, Oxford. She is an oral historian and writer whose current research includes the project ‘Memory, Myth & the Truth: Secrecy & the State in WW2’.