Address: Ironbridge, Shropshire

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Phone: +44 (0) 1952 433424

 

Ironbridge History

This part of the country has been a busy and industrious area for centuries. The combination of being rich in coal, iron-ore, limestone and clay, as well as being on the River Severn, the longest river in Britain, has seen a hive of activity here, especially in the eighteenth century. But whilst using the river to transport materials was fine, locals had the problem of crossing it, and such was the activity at the time, a large number of people and materials needed to cross the river every day.

The nearest crossing point from today’s bridge location was two miles away, so ferries operated to satisfy the needs of the community. It was only a short crossing, but they struggled at times to cope with the ever changing conditions of the river – in summer it was too shallow, in winter too fierce. The locals needed a more reliable crossing.

In 1773, architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard contacted local ironmaster John Wilkinson suggesting a cast iron bridge. Wilkinson had finalised the plans by 1775 and Abraham Darby III was commissioned to build the bridge from his nearby foundry. Darby was only 23 at the time and his grandfather, Abraham Darby I, had pioneered the use of coke in ironmaking seventy years before and this allowed the project to be financially viable. An Act of Parliament in 1776 authorised the building of the bridge and work began in November 1777. The final construction was based on Pritchard’s original design but with slight alterations.

The cost was estimated to be £3,200. Shares were issued and Darby agreed to meet any overspend. Tolls were introduced to recoup the cost, but such was the overspend in building it, Darby never recovered his outlay. The final cost was over £6,000, and this was without the connecting land and roads. To give an idea of the cost at modern day prices, a nearby bridge cost £1.7m in the 1990s. One factor in the high cost of Pritchard’s bridge was the over use of iron in the design, with the nearby bridges of Buildwas and Coalport using a lot less.

Construction started in May 1779 (using scaffolding) and since this was the first of its kind, practice was done on dry land with small models being used to overcome problems. Joints and fixings of the type used in carpentry were implemented as more modern metal fixings weren’t used at the time.

The bridge was opened on 1st January 1781 and tolls were collected at the toll house. An annual pedestrian ticket cost a guinea (£1.05) and a monthly coach ticket cost 3 shillings (15p) a month. At today’s value this equates to about £120 and £18.

The bridge soon encountered problems as the unyielding cast iron and the moving clay in the ground resulted in settlement cracks. The stonework on each side had to be demolished after 20 years and was replaced by timber arches that were themselves replaced in 1821 by the cast iron side arches that we see today.

The bridge was closed to vehicles in 1934 and then listed as an ancient monument, although tolls were still charged to pedestrians until 1950. At this point, bridge ownership was transferred from the Rathbone family, who were related by marriage to the Darbys, to the local council.

As can be imagined, the upkeep and restoration of this iron structure has been substantial, with one of the biggest structural renovations taking place in 1972/3. During this time the river bed was excavated and a concrete bed laid across the river under the bridge to stabilise the pillars on both sides. Nowadays, restoration takes place every few years as is sensible for a structure of such age and construction.

On 1st January 1981 there was a mass gathering to celebrate the bicentenary of its opening. The bridge, with the surrounding gorge, forms part of a World Heritage site.

 

Ironbridge Visit

It’s a nice bridge, no doubt about that. It’s small, it’s quaint and it’s in the kind of sleepy village that tends to add to its quaintness. You could imagine pictures of the river and bridge featuring on the front cover of ‘Angler’s Times’. It’s not any old river either, it’s at the upper end of the River Severn, the longest river in the UK.

It’s an iconic bridge both locally and internationally, being renowned as the world’s first steel bridge, and this would have been a key point in the Ironbridge Gorge being designated a World Heritage Site.

In visiting, you may come over the main road bridge further down the river, but it’s only a short drive to this bridge from there and there’s a car park pretty much next to it on the south side. Also on the south side is the Toll House – and this is well worth a visit. But be advised that it’s only open briefly each week. Further down the street on the north side you’ll find the Gorge Museum. This gives details of the whole World Heritage Site and is a key place to begin if visiting the area.

As far as the bridge itself is concerned, it’s wonderful to look at and to study. There are no cars flying past at 50mph, in fact there are no cars at all! Consequently, they’re able to have a nice sandy coloured gravel surface that contrasts nicely with the grey steelwork. You can walk over it and view the bridge from the riverbanks. You can even study the foundations and intricate steelwork if you wish, it’s only a few steps down.

Steeped in history, it’s a great place to visit and well worth spending the day there.