Telford, Birthplace Of Industry?

© Frank Verity 2005


Visitors to present day Telford are initially assailed by signs on the approach roads that proclaim the area as: "The Birthplace of Industry", finding evidence of that fact however requires careful investigation. The modern Telford landscape conceals its industrial heritage extremely well. The traces of the mines and forges that began the drive towards an industrial society are now covered by housing developments, retail parks and sprawling industrial estates, housing both people and companies from all over the world. The pit mounds and spoil-heaps once very prominent reminders of the past are now wooded and overgrown; nature has reclaimed its land. The industrial scars once described by Barrie Trinder are now either gone or heavily disguised. Even the most recent intrusive industrial process of opencast mining, which only finished in the last decade, has now been landscaped and grassed over and is now a local authority run golf course. Telford itself of course has only been in existence for a very short time, the new town encompassing all the old market towns, villages and hamlets that have existed for centuries. Many people believe that the formation of the new town and the emphasis on the past glories of the area are an attempt to construct an identity, or indeed a foundation on which to imply a sense of permanence. It is however when the visitor looks closely at the buildings and in particular the old cottages and houses remaining, that the history of the area begins to reveal itself. This is particularly evident in the Ironbridge Gorge. It is in this part of Telford that the most important symbol of industrialisation, The Iron Bridge, was conceived and now stands. The building of this landmark structure caused a sensation in its time and drew visitors from all over the world who came to see this wonder of a new age. Little has changed; every weekend visitors still flock in droves, coming to see the bridge and also to visit the museums and displays created on the back of the boom in industrial heritage sites. It is in these museums that the past glories-in terms of progress that is- of the region can be viewed and some idea of the society that existed in the build up to industrialisation can be formed. Ironbridge itself is now a prosperous and thriving society and much changed from the rundown and semi-derelict town that remained after the demise of industry and trade in the post-war period. Before this dereliction and decay, the town went through a series of changes throughout its two hundred year history, which started with the building of the bridge itself. Before the bridge was built, the principal settlement in the gorge was Coalbrookdale and it was here that Abraham Darby the first set up his ironworks in the early 18th century. When the bridge was completed in January 1781 the local traffic system was greatly enhanced. The bridge provided a link from the Madeley Turnpike on Lincoln Hill on the north bank of the river with the Broseley Much Wenlock Turnpike on the south of the river. This had the immediate effect of a very rapid growth of a town, which took the name of Ironbridge and developed into the main centre of trade and commerce in the gorge. The bridge also enabled a new and swifter stagecoach route to be established between the county town of Shrewsbury and the capital London by October 1781. But by far the most profound effect of the bridge was the enabling of the new technology required in its construction to be showcased to the rest of the country, and indeed the world. One could look at the bridge as the catalyst for the spread of this advanced technology throughout the industrial world.

The object of this study is not to describe or explain the many technical advances in all the associated industries present in the area now known as Telford. That has been sufficiently chronicled in a plethora of publications both academic and technical. Rather this study sets out to identify four of the major factors that have caused the area to be perceived as a leading force in the establishment of an industrial era. In chapter one the question of 'Why is Shropshire regarded as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution?' is broached. This will cover salient points in the development of the iron trade in Britain from the earliest days in the 16th century through to the mid-18th century when the introduction of steam power enabled profound changes. It will also examine albeit briefly the changes in the way coal replaced charcoal as the fuel for the iron trade - the main significance of this being an increase in production, coupled with a decrease in cost. Another equally important factor in the use of coke as fuel was the ability to sustain the blast for longer periods, thus enabling a continuous pouring of molten iron for the larger castings to be attained. This was a crucial element in the construction of the Iron Bridge, its successors and other large castings, such as mill wheels and other factory-scale machinery.

The second chapter studies the mineral deposits and raw materials examining the importance of these in relation to the progression to an industrial era. It focuses on the existing materials such as coal and iron ore, and also on the fact that a progressive gentry class were willing to make the step from agriculture as a main source of income to the exploitation of such resources. We will focus briefly on some of these families looking at the concentration of wealth and holdings both in and away from the area. A natural progression occurred in the post-civil war period, which enabled a new figure of importance- the master collier-to emerge. These master colliers were the forerunners to the great industrialists, and partnerships and alliances enabled full exploitation of natural resources. Consequently a brief study of one such man is undertaken. Once again a deliberately brief study of technological advances within the various industries is examined and discussed.

Moving on to the third chapter, here we will examine the importance of the ready-made trade route of the River Severn. It is this that perhaps holds the key to the rapid development of the Shropshire coalfield, the river enabled all the raw materials and goods produced in the area to be successfully and economically transported out of the area to the rapidly expanding markets. It also enabled goods to be brought into the area to feed and supply a rapidly growing population. We must also investigate the construction of the canal system that evolved in the latter part of the 18th century and examine any effect of this development on the demise of industry in the area. This aspect of study will take in the progress of technological advances associated with the canal era. The lives of the 'watermen' will also be examined in order to give an insight into conditions that existed at the time.

The last chapter investigates the lives of the workers in the coal and iron related industries. Social housing, working conditions, migration patterns and human skills will figure heavily in this analysis. These aspects are believed to have contributed greatly to the development of industry in the area.

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