Monday, June 21, 2010


Coalbrookdale, near Birmingham, is where the Industrial Revolution started. In 1709, Abraham Darby built an iron smelter which used coke from coal, rather than wood char. He wasn't the first to attempt this, but previous attempts to use coal failed, possibly because a good coking coal has specific characteristics - volatile matter, sulphur content, rank, swell and so on - and earlier attempts had used the wrong sort of coal. Coalbrookdale's coal was the right sort.

Darby died in 1717, but the process was refined throughout the 18th century. Previously iron had been expensive, as wood char manufacture was labour intensive and required a lot of wood to smelt a small amount of iron. The adoption of coal, however, meant that iron could be produced in large quantities. What followed were railroads, steam power, large factories and the growth of major population centres. Coalbrookdale became a town of workers' cottages, clanking railroads, coal smoke and the night time glow of furnaces and forges that never cooled.

"Coalbrookdale by Night", by Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1801

As a demonstration of the uses of iron, Darby's grandson Abraham Darby III built an iron bridge across the river Severn at Coalbrookdale. Finished in 1779, it was a marvel of the age, and a demonstration of Britain's burgeoning engineering prowess.

On the way back to Telford after Prescott, Roy made a quick diversion to Ironbridge Gorge and showed me what a centre of industry looks like a century after the fires have gone out. The river's clean, flowing slowly between green banks, and the old workers' houses and coach inns have become cafes and trendy restaurants. On a warm Sunday afternoon, Coalbrookdale was a green and brick, post-industrial haven.


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