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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.

Rowden Farm


I’m not old enough to remember the Great Train Robbery of 1963, but I am old enough to remember the time when the Sex Pistols recorded a couple of songs with Ronnie Biggs, by then the most famous of the robbers. These were the post-Lydon, post-Vicious Pistols. The once-seminal band was now little more than a novelty act, a status confirmed by the collaboration with Biggs. The Pistols liked to see themselves as outlaws and Biggs was a genuine outlaw. It was a match made, not in heaven, but in the mind of Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols manager and a genius of outrage marketing.

The performances, if you can call them that, appeared in Julian Temple’s film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, a film that signified that as far as the McLaren and the Sex Pistols were concerned, the game was up.All that remained was to make as much money as possible before the whole thing imploded. Ronnie Biggs was by this time (1980), the most notorious of the Great Train Robbers and the Pistols were the most notorious rock band. The hook-up was, as McLaren knew, publicity dynamite.

But rewind almost thirty years to the original heist and Biggs was a bit-part player, recruited to the gang only because he happened to know a train driver who’d be able to shift the hijacked train along the track. It was Biggs’ daring escape from Wandsworth Prison in July 1965 (almost all the gang had been rounded up and convicted by this point) that made him really famous. He became a staple character of the tabloid newspapers as he scarpered overseas to live in exotic places like Australia (you may laugh, but in the 1960s, Australia was exotic to most British people) and Brazil.

Sears Crossing
Sears Crossing

The hunt for Ronnie Biggs became something of a national sporting contest: the dour, plodding operatives of Scotland Yard in pursuit of the crafty, lovable rogue. But by the time that Biggs was finally tracked down in Rio de Janeiro in 1974, he’d blown his share of the takings — £147,000, almost £3 million in today’s money — on travel, plastic surgery, and legal fees. So he decided to consort with the media rather than go to ground again. He needed all the money that the newspaper exclusives, and eventually Malcolm McLaren, could supply.

There is a strain of admiration for robbers in British culture that goes back to Robin Hood, via Dick Turpin, AJ Raffles, and others. But whereas Hood was a medieval social democrat, redistributing from the rich to the poor, Turpin and Raffles, though perfect gentlemen, were in it strictly for themselves. Nobody would call the Great Train Robbers gentlemen. But it was the 1960s, and permissiveness extended to crime as well as sex and art. The Krays got themselves photographed by David Bailey and John Bindon partied (and possibly more) with Princess Margaret on Mustique. The Great Train Robbers rode that zeitgeist. They may have been villains but they really stuck it to the system. After all, weren’t the ruling class robbing people every day anyway? Theirs was victim-less crime — apart from Jack Mills, the train’s driver, who was beaten with an iron bar and never fully recovered.

Bridego Bridge
Bridego Bridge

The landmarks of the robbery are in Buckinghamshire. At Sears Crossing, the gang stopped the Glasgow-to-London mail train by tampering with the signal and changing it to red. At Bridego Bridge, a little way down the tracks, they unloaded the money, £2.6 million in all, and took it to a nearby farm where they had cars and vans waiting. Sears Crossing and Bridego Bridge (now called Mentmore Bridge) aren’t exactly tourist attractions, but if you visit the cafe at Rowden Farm, just up the road from Mentmore Bridge , you can see a little wall display of photographs and documents. It’s as quaint a display as a corner of a tea shop given over to mementoes of, say, Jane Austin or Admiral Nelson.

Aylesbury Proclamation


As with most Britons alive today, there hasn’t been a change of the UK’s Sovereign in my lifetime. Not any more. I don’t follow that branch of the entertainment industry known as ‘The Royals’ and I have no particular affection for its various actors. Most of them strike me as charmless or gormless or both. But I think the system of constitutional monarchy has served this country well, all things considered. I like it that we have a head of state in the UK who’s independent of political parties, lobby groups, and financial donations. The monarch unites the nation in a way no elected president ever could.

The Crown is not just a symbol of the nation in unity, but of continuity, stability and tradition. A symbol, in other words, of the simple things, the understandable things, the relatable things. The things that radicals, progressives, and leftists sneer at and want to abolish, along with the monarchy itself.

Aylesbury Proclamation

I went to my local market square to see the Proclamation of the new Sovereign. It’s a ceremony that’s been held in towns and cities all over the United Kingdom in recent days, and it’s just the kind of event that republicans love to mock as outdated and comic. It’s all a bit of a joke, a bit Gilbert & Sullivan, a bit cringe, actually. Other countries don’t have this nonsense, they’ll say, as if being the same as other countries is a end in itself.

Of course, most of us there didn’t think it was cringe. We gave three cheers for the new king and sang the national anthem. This being the county town of Buckinghamshire, there were mayors from all over the county who came to take copies of the proclamation back to be read to their own citizens. Just as happened in 1952, when Elizabeth II became queen, and just as happened before with preceding monarchs. This kind of ceremony may be archaic and faintly daft, but I found it comforting and moving.

Metaphysical monarchists will tell you that the Crown and the person who wears it should not be conflated. Still, it seems that the monarchy’s popularity since 1952 has, with a few wobbles, been due to the personal qualities of Elizabeth II. She became queen when she was just twenty-five and effectively began with a clean slate. Charles III is seventy-three and begins with several slates’ worth of incidents which cast him a poor light.

Aylesbury Proclamation

The Royal aides have been trying to manage the mainstream media for decades now, with mixed results. They haven’t a hope in hell of managing social media. The ongoing William/Kate vs Harry/Megan conflict might simply have kept the tabloids and gossip columns fuelled with endless copy thirty years ago. Now it’s become another front in the culture wars.

Yes, I know — it’s the Crown, not the person. But in the social media age the personal qualities of the monarch are scrutinized as never before. I do wonder whether Charles or his successor (who can’t be that far off) will be the last of the line, especially given almost everybody under age of forty seems to think socialism is the answer to everything.

But those republicans who want an elected president as our head of state — so much more modern, so much more egalitarian — should be careful what they wish for. It could as easily turn out to be a Trump or an Erdogan (or a Corbyn, God help us) as an Obama or a Macron.

Forty-five years, ago, Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, writing about the Silver Jubilee, compared the queen with the prime ministers who’d served under her:

Success is the real difference. Whatever it means to be a successful queen, Elizabeth is that. Her system visibly works. The ceremony glitters, a simple speech brings tears to the eyes. And so much else in Britain, political and economic, does not work.

Plus ça change…

St Mary Redcliffe window

Cancelling Colston

Bristol’s connection with the slave trade goes back a long way, a thousand years and more. Slavery was an accepted practice in Anglo-Saxon England, and historians have estimated that between 10 and 30 per cent of the population were slaves. There was also money to be made by exporting English slaves to Ireland, and by the eleventh century Bristol was the main centre for this trans-Irish Sea trade.

The twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury looked back with revulsion at this Bristolian commerce:

They would purchase people from all over England and sell them off to Ireland in the hope of profit; and put up for sale maidservants after toying with them in bed and making them pregnant. You would have groaned to see the files of the wretches of people roped together, young people of both sexes, whose youth and beauty would have aroused the pity of barbarians, being put up for sale every day.

English slavery was brought to an end through the efforts of two churchmen, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury and Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester. Both men preached on the evils of slavery and Lanfranc, who had a close relationship with William I, eventually persuaded the king to outlaw the practice. To paraphrase a well-known line, what did the Normans ever do for us? Well, they did abolish indigenous slavery.

The better-known Bristolian slavery connection originates a few centuries later, when the Royal African Company’s monopoly of the British transatlantic slave trade was ended in 1698. The merchants of Bristol, ever eager for a new business opportunity, leapt in and were soon reaping a great deal of profit from this traffic in human beings.

One prominent Bristolian merchant who made a lot of money from the slave trade was Edward Colston (1636-1721). Colston was a member of the Royal African Company and, later, of the Society of Merchant Venturers, the company which controlled Bristol’s sea trade. Both companies dealt in West African slaves. In later life Colston turned to philanthropy, endowing schools, churches, almshouses, and hospitals. In 1895, a statue was erected in the centre of the city to commemorate the great man and his generous benefactions.

When I was a student in Bristol, more than twenty-five years ago, Colston’s name was everywhere. There was a Colston Hall and a Colston Tower, a Colston Avenue and a Colston Street, Colston Almshouses and even a Colston Bun. Bristol, it seemed to me as an outsider, was very proud of its famous and generous son. Still, there was no conspiracy of silence about Bristol’s connection with the transatlantic slave trade back then. I remember it was talked about and acknowledged quite openly. Which brings me to the present day and to how that debate has changed over the years.

I think there are two main differences. Whereas the slave trade was regarded as a terrible, shameful episode in the city’s past, it was then treated as history, something that had occurred in less enlightened times, yet another example of man’s inhumanity to man. In the present day, it is viewed as a collective sin in which every Bristolian, many of whom have benefited from Colston’s bequests, is complicit. This tremendous wrong must not only be acknowledged but expiated.

Colston plinth
Colston’s empty plinth

The other difference is that Edward Colston’s involvement in the trade has been foregrounded. Colston is the man who personifies all the evil of that time. Which is why, when the Black Lives Matter protests reached their height in June 2020, his statue was pulled down by a mob and dumped in the harbour. This in itself was unsurprising, given the febrile period we were living through then. What was surprising, at least to me, was that the Bristol police stood back and watched.

‘Whilst I am disappointed that people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it’s happened, it’s very symbolic,’ said Superintendent Andy Bennett, of the Somerset and Avon police. What’s also symbolic is that the police decided to let it happen. It should be acknowledged that an investigation into criminal damage was carried out after the event, but, well, whatever happened to crime prevention?

The historian David Olusoga wrote a piece of purple prose for the Guardian — ‘tonight Edward Colston sleeps with the fishes’ — in which he commended the protesters for their direct action. Which only goes to show, once again, that leftists are happy to justify mob violence so long as it supports their cause. To be clear, I’m not out to defend Colston. He profited from a barbaric trade. By all means, if that’s what the people of Bristol want, remove his statue from the town centre. But that’s not a decision for a self-appointed popular committee to make.

The statue has been recovered from the harbour and is now on display in the M Shed museum. I hope this means that Bristol’s part in the history of the slave trade can be discussed and contextualized, rather than erased. And I mean really contextualized, which the likes of Olusoga never actually do. To listen to them you’d never know that slavery has been an almost universal institution in many different civilizations and epochs. And is still practiced today. In other words, it’s not the sole invention and legacy of the evil British.

Bristol is home to one of the most beautiful churches in England, St Mary Redcliffe. Until recently there were four small stained glass lights dedicated to the memory of Edward Colston. In the wake of the statue toppling, the church authorities decided to remove them. I’m puzzled as to why, if these objects were so objectionable, the good men and women of St Mary Redcliffe left it so late to take them out of public view. It was obviously a preemptive move, to spike any criticism from the social justice crowd and to make sure the windows don’t get smashed in. I doubt more than one in a thousand Bristol people even knew they were there.

The information board by the window explains the church’s rationale for the removal and it’s worth showing it here.

St Mary Redcliffe info board

That the window is not an original feature of the church is a bizarre argument for the removal, and clearly made in bad faith. That it reflects ‘a different worldview’ is true not just of the stained glass but of this information board, of the church that houses it, and indeed of the campaign to cancel Colston. Worldviews gonna change, that’s for sure.