Area #1: The Industrial Midlands, Coalbrookdale
I can write no better an introduction to the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron than to quote from the opening display:
“Iron is everywhere – it is the fourth most common constituent of the earths crust. It is in our blood and part of a healthy diet. Iron is in our vocabulary and there is a word for iron in almost every known language. Iron is taken to represent strength and steel as a symbol of determination. Iron is a part of everyday life and a basic component of the world in which we live now. Our world is a product of the Industrial Revolution which gathered pace from 1700 and in which this corner of Shropshire was to play a major role.”
“The history of ironmaking stretches back over 4 thousand years but some of the most important events in the development of ironmaking occurred here at Coalbrookdale so we can claim to be one of a handful of places in Britain where modern industrial society was created.”
I left school at the age of 16 and immediately went to work in the local ironworks in South Cumbria, following in my father and grandfathers footsteps, so quite truly both iron and ironmaking was in my blood. Blast furnaces, coke ovens, sinter plants, foundries, open hearth furnaces, slab mills, rolling mills were all highly dangerous places in the 1960s, but by god they were exciting places too. Seeing a slab of steel weighing 10 tonnes being rolled into a coil of sheet steel for car bodies and travelling at about 25mph was a sight to behold, and the noise! Likewise tapping a blast furnace or an open hearth furnace …… spectacular.
I owe the steel industry of Britain a lot, my early experience in industry, my sponsorship to university, a new career after my PhD, and some friends for life!
A few of these friends were always interested in the history and culture of steel making and it was in 1980 that a gang of us took our families to Coalbrookdale to the small museum opened in 1959, to pay homage to the man who revolutionised ironmaking in 1709, Abraham Darby I.
Abraham Darby rebuilt the old Coalbrookdale furnace in 1709 and began experimenting with using coke instead of charcoal in the smelting process; it worked and ironmaking became more consistent and was changed forever. Darby used it to cast pots, kettles and other goods and his grandson Abraham Darby III smelted the iron here for the Ironbridge, the world’s first iron bridge.
Today, the Museum of Iron is based in the Great Warehouse constructed in 1838 and Ironbridge Institute is based in the Long Warehouse, these two forming the sides of a large open area. On another side of which is the Old Blast Furnace, now under a glass pyramid building (erected in 1981) to protect it from the weather. This was new to us in our visit of a few days back compared with our 1980 visit, and is an excellent addition to protect such a historic site. The fourth side is a viaduct carrying the railway that delivers coal to the Ironbridge Power Station.
Overall this is not the biggest of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums, but surely it IS the most significant and we strongly believe in preserving our heritage, Industrial or otherwise, in this way. Something to think about next time you use anything made from iron …… remember Abraham Darby I.
If you are interested to know how our Tour of England began you can read it here.
(Writing An American Tourist Guide To England a few months back set me thinking about how many of us take for granted our own country, preferring to visit Notre Dame Cathedral instead of Salisbury, The Prado instead of The Tate, ignoring our wonderful Industrial Museums, and having no idea of the significance of Magna Carta, Mappa Mundi or even where to find them. I suppose it was this sort of ignorance or myopia that led the Labour MP for Wolverhampton Eleanor Smith to sound off about the flag representing The Black Country of the Industrial Midlands of England to be racist! I think she objected to using the word “black” too.)
Thus was born The Two Doctors Tour of England, a personal list of things and places we want to see, divided into 5 geographical areas that will take us several months to visit.