Ironbridge blues


It’s very difficult for historical sites, especially in the English-speaking world, to resist Disneyfication. Ironbridge Gorge is no exception. The visitor website proclaims ‘Ironbridge: Valley of Invention’ and displays video of smiling, happy families walking through clean, well-preserved streets, inspecting clean, well-preserved buildings. The only potentially jarring encounter, that of being cornered by actors in historical character, is endurable. But I don’t want to knock it too much. The Trust that manages what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site needs all the money it can get to maintain ten separate museum sites spread over five square kilometres.

Historians may dispute whether Ironbridge Gorge is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, but it has as good a claim as anywhere. Here in 1709, in this valley of the River Severn, an ironmaster named Abraham Darby was the first to produce iron form a blast furnace fuelled by coke rather than charcoal. Darby’s works at Coalbrookdale is part of the World Heritage Site. The process that Darby perfected was crucial because the switch from charcoal — a product of increasingly scare timber — to coke — made form plentiful coal — was essential to secure future domestic iron production.

Museum of the Gorge Ironbridge

Ironbridge Gorge quickly became Britain’s largest centre of iron production and iron crafts. A slightly later ironmaster named John Wilkinson became known as ‘Iron-mad Wilkinson’, and had his works across the river from Ironbridge village at Broseley. Wilkinson was so enamoured of his product that he left instructions he was to be buried in a cast-iron coffin.

But the most famous monument of the early Industrial Age is the Iron Bridge itself, the first large bridge in the world made of cast iron. It was designed by a Shrewsbury architect named Thomas Farnolls Pritchard and built with iron cast at the Coalbrookdale works, then managed by Darby’s son, also named Abraham Darby. The bridge opened in 1781 and was immediately greeted as one of the wonders of the modern world.

Tontine Hotel Ironbridge

There is something poignant, from a distance of more than two hundred years, about the optimistic faith in industry and progress exemplified by men like Darby, Wilkinson, and Pritchard. They believed they were improving the world and creating prosperity — and so they were. It wasn’t until the super-charged mass manufacturing of the nineteenth century that reformers began to question the optimistic view of industry and material progress.

Britain is now essentially a post-industrial island. Though pockets of manufacturing remain, the once workshop of the world is now the heritage capital of the world. The free-market liberals will say this doesn’t matter and that offshoring manufacturing frees up capital for higher-value knowledge industries. I’m generally sympathetic to the free market and perhaps the liberals will be proved right in the long run. But we seem to have become an island whose economy is fuelled primarily by financial services, fast food outlets, and public sector behemoths like the NHS.

Ironbridge Gorge

There was an interesting video on the FT website recently about the ongoing Brexit debacle (full disclosure: I voted Leave, for reasons which I may cover in another post one day). It contains interviews with British business people, all testifying as to how difficult the post-Brexit rules have made trading with the EU. But what struck me as much as anything was the interview with a couple who run a jewellery business. They design the products in the UK and then have them made in Thailand and Hong Kong. I was surprised, not to say staggered, that even an artisanal — and presumably high-value, low-volume — business doesn’t actually make a thing in the UK.

Several newspapers reported recently that based on current trends, the average UK family will be worse off than the average Slovenian family by 2025 and the average Polish family by 2030. Now I know that these kinds of forecasts are usually wrong, but it’s certainly another example of the current climate of decline. The UK seems to be blocked in every direction, hamstrung by a sclerotic planning system and an incompetent political class. If a present-day Darby or Wilkinson tried to build an innovative manufacturing plant anywhere in Britain he’d almost certainly be blocked by the NIMBYs and the local politicians. Still, we’ll always have Ironbridge.