Ironbridge, A Brief History

Ironbridge: A Brief History

The village of Ironbridge, nestled in the heart of the Ironbridge Gorge on the River Severn, is one of Shropshire, England’s most popular tourist attractions. Named for Shropshire’s famous Iron Bridge, the Ironbridge settlement and surrounding areas are touted as the “birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.” While this may be a bit of hyperbole, there is no denying the contributions of the area to the cause. In Coalbrookdale, Abraham Darby’s technique of smelting iron in a blast furnace – powered by coke as opposed to charcoal – significantly decreased the cost of iron production. Darby’s brand of cast iron was a key factor in the Industrial Revolution, being used as a raw material in many of greatest inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

One such spectacle was Shropshire’s Iron Bridge. Raised in 1779 and opened to the public on New Year’s Day, 1781, the Iron Bridge quickly became an 18th century tourist attraction, giving birth to the settlement of Ironbridge, and eventually bestowing its name on the Ironbridge Gorge. Designed by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard and coincidentally built by the grandson of Abraham Darby, Abraham Darby III, the world’s first cast iron arch bridge required 379 tons of iron, and had to span 100 feet while rising 60 feet above the River Severn – a feat that would not have been possible without advancements put forth by the Darby family. An unprecedented undertaking, the structure was based on a carpentry model, and slotted together similar to a timber frame construction. Individual frame members were uniquely cast, and fastenings resembled that of the woodworking profession. Over 800 castings of 12 basic types were used, with the largest parts being the half-ribs, fastened by bolts at the crown of the arch. While its survival of the Great Flood of 1795 is a testament to the strength and design of the Iron Bridge, by 1802 ground movement had left the southern stone abutment in need of repair. The stone was demolished and later replaced with first wooden and then iron arches.

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