THE ``industrial heritage'' has become a byword in conservation circles as what is left of the great working legacy of the Industrial Revolution rapidly runs down in the face of new technology. Throughout Britain, conservationists are turning manufacturing plants of every description -- some long disused, but others only recently abandoned -- into museums. Inside, the machines that made Britain's Industrial Revolution are being coaxed into production again. And the products, which often failed in days past for lack of foresight, are today finding a ready market in the current wave of nostalgia. As part of this movement, the distant 18th-century origins of the Industrial Revolution are being rescued from obscurity by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust at Telford, a town in Shropshire near the Welsh border.
The revolution can be said to have begun nearby in Coalbrookdale in the beautiful wooded valley of the River Severn. Iron was first produced in the valley in the early 16th century, using a process that consumed huge quantities of timber to produce charcoal. But by the beginning of the 18th century, the industry was in a crisis. Timber was in short supply in the face of heavy demand for ship building and housing. Then in 1709 Abraham Derby, an iron smelter, arrived in Coalbrookdale and took over a well-established blast furnace. Derby was the first to use coke to fuel the furnace, which proved to be an important breakthrough for the industry. Coal was in plentiful supply from local mines, and soon production was increased to such an extent that British iron began to dominate the world's iron market.
Furnaces and foundries quickly grew up along the banks of the Severn. They turned the once-beautiful valley into an inferno, the cradle of industry, belching clouds of smoke and fumes over rural England -- and sending a profusion of technological innovation into the next century.
Here was cast the world's first iron cylinder for a steam engine in 1712, leading to the development of the first steam railway locomotive, built at Coalbrookdale by Richard Trevithick in 1802 (even though it was never used). Here the first iron railway wheels were cast in 1729, and the first iron flange rails in 1767, both precursors of the modern railways. Abraham Derby III enlarged his predecessor's furnace and cast the great iron girders used to build the world's first iron bridge; the bridge, which still spans the Severn, was opened in 1770. Here was launched the first iron boat in 1787. The first iron aqueduct designed by Thomas Telford was cast here and built in 1796, the same year in which the first iron-framed building was erected in nearby Shrewsbury. An endless variety of domestic and industrial implements poured out of the Severn Gorge for many decades. Poets came and lauded it, artists came and recorded it, and social workers came and deplored it.
But this was not all.
Coalbrookdale is famous for more than its furnaces. Fine porcelain and iron appear to be an odd combination, but the locality also produced a good clay for lining kilns. The 18th-century wares of Caughley and Jackfield are well known to collectors. In about 1795 John Rose, apprenticed at Caughley, established his own kilns at the new town of Coalport, which became world-renowned for its fine domestic and decorative china. Later, in the 19th century, the area became the center of a huge trade in ceramic tiles.
But ideas -- as well as coal -- are necessary to fuel production. And the ideas were the first to run dry. Keen competition and innovation in other areas led to the collapse of the iron and mining industries in the gorge by 1870, and the potteries either moved away or closed. Furnaces and kilns grew cold and were abandoned. The relics of the birth of industry moldered and rusted until 1967, when the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was formed to preserve and display this remarkable heritage.
Today the gorge is beautiful once more, its steep sides covered in trees and dominated by the superb iron bridge. This is the centerpiece in a collection of sites that are spread over five miles. Abraham Derby's furnace has been restored and is close to the Museum of Iron, which houses an excellent collection of iron furniture and objects and clearly outlines the history of iron and steel production.
Nearby is Blists Hill, an open-air museum developed in an area once covered by blast furnaces, brick and tile works, and mines. The museum is assembling a collection of original shops, houses, and workshops from the area to create a typical workers' community of a century ago. The museum has captured the period's flavor by making no concessions to modern tastes. There is no attempt to disguise that life in that age could be hard.
The museum is open daily during the summer from 10-6. For opening arrangements from November to February, contact: Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Ironbridge, Telford, Shropshire, TF8 7AW. Telephone: (095245) 3522 weekdays, (0952) 882753 weekends.