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Ironbridge Gorge Museums

by Richard Elen on 1 Oct, 2009

in History, Science & Technology

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Iron­bridge, near Telford in Shrop­shire, is right­ly regard­ed as one of the foun­da­tions of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Here in 1707, Abra­ham Dar­by per­fect­ed (and patent­ed) a method of smelt­ing iron ore using coke.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the process required char­coal, which takes a great deal of time and effort to pro­duce, first grow­ing the trees (!), then burn­ing the wood under the right con­di­tions. As a result, the amount of iron that could be smelt­ed was lim­it­ed by the sup­ply of char­coal. The dis­cov­ery of a means of using coke – which is derived from coal – meant that iron could be pro­duced as quick­ly as the coal could be mined. This enabled the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion to take off.

In 1779 the great Iron Bridge across the Sev­ern, after which the town is named, was built by Abra­ham Dar­by III. It was the first cast-iron bridge in the world.

Today, the indus­try that char­ac­terised the area for hun­dreds of years is large­ly silent, but in its place is a col­lec­tion of near­ly a dozen dif­fer­ent muse­ums and attrac­tions that help us to under­stand our indus­tri­al her­itage. You can find out more about them here. In 1986 the Gorge was one of the first sev­en UK sites award­ed World Her­itage Site sta­tus by UNESCO.

The Museum of the Gorge is housed in a converted Gothic-style riverside warehouse, where goods where stored prior to shipping down the Severn.

The Muse­um of the Gorge is housed in a con­vert­ed Goth­ic-style river­side ware­house, where goods where stored pri­or to ship­ping down the Sev­ern.

To see all the major loca­tions will take you more than a day, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a result of the exten­sive­ness of Blists Hill Vic­to­ri­an Town. How­ev­er, I sug­gest you start at the Muse­um of the Gorge, which boasts one of the most detailed dio­ra­mas I’ve ever seen, in this case of the stretch of the Sev­ern and the enor­mous col­lec­tion of indus­tri­al activ­i­ties car­ried out here from mediæ­val times onwards.

In addi­tion, you might like to take in the Coal­brook­dale Muse­um of Iron. How­ev­er the most exten­sive loca­tion to vis­it in the area is Blists Hill Vic­to­ri­an Town. Based around the site of an old brick works, the town con­sists of build­ings either restored, relo­cat­ed or spe­cial­ly built fol­low­ing detailed research.

You enter the town via a very impres­sive (and recent) audio­vi­su­al pre­sen­ta­tion which high­lights the region’s indus­tri­al her­itage, and then you’re on the main street, where the first build­ing is a Lloyds Bank. Here you can exchange mod­ern mon­ey for tra­di­tion­al pre-1971 £.s.d. that you can use to buy items in the shops on the site (they also take mod­ern mon­ey, unlike the Ken­twell Hall’s Tudor re-enact­ments, where beyond the “time tun­nel”, all trans­ac­tions have to be done with the tra­di­tion­al coinage).

Replica of Richard Trevithick's locally-built Pen-y-mar loco of 1809

Repli­ca of Richard Tre­vithick­’s local­ly-built Pen-y-Dar­ren loco­mo­tive of 1809

There are work­ing steam engines, includ­ing one used to raise and low­er a mine cage and a repli­ca of Richard Tre­vithick­’s 1802 Pen-y-Dar­ren loco­mo­tive. There are a cou­ple of very impres­sive beam engines orig­i­nal­ly used to blow air into blast fur­naces, but regret­tably these will nev­er steam again and are demon­strat­ed by dri­ving with an elec­tric motor.

The operator of the mineshaft winding gear steam engine

The oper­a­tor of the mine­shaft wind­ing gear steam engine

Cos­tumed staff are on hand to describe the busi­ness­es, shops and indus­try of the Vic­to­ri­an era and I was very tempt­ed to turn up in cos­tume – though I was not sure how they would react. Some places love you to do that, while oth­ers (notably Ken­twell) abhor it, as you might be mis­tak­en for staff and, not know­ing the back-sto­ry, might let them down (at Ken­twell the back-sto­ry is so detailed that this is a real pos­si­bil­i­ty). Beamish, I seem to recall, lets you turn up in cos­tume and they give you a spe­cial tag (suit­ably print­ed in let­ter­press fonts of the peri­od, pre­sum­ably in their print shop) to indi­cate that you’re a “Vis­i­tor”.

Indeed, the obvi­ous com­par­i­son with Blists Hill is Beamish, and there is appar­ent­ly a lit­tle rival­ry between the two sites, it was hint­ed, but in fact the two, while there is some obvi­ous over­lap, have some sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences – the mon­ey at Blists Hill and the trams at Beamish for exam­ple. At Blists Hill, you get around on foot or by horse-drawn wag­on.

Blists Hill has a wide selec­tion of shops, some­times pro­duc­ing and sell­ing items; there are also some per­for­mances by a pair of actors who present hilar­i­ous excerpts from Shake­speare (with the help of the audi­ence) and there are music-hall songs in the pub from time to time.

I did not take a great deal of video, but here is one extract. Down the bot­tom of the town there’s a Vic­to­ri­an fun­fair, includ­ing a mer­ry-go-round, which orig­i­nal­ly, one pre­sumes, would have been dri­ven by a steam trac­tion engine. There’s a nice lit­tle Pell organ on this one, play­ing var­i­ous med­leys of tunes of the era, of which you can hear a sam­ple below.

Blists Hill Fair­ground Organ from Richard Elen on Vimeo.

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