Abraham Darby III
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Abraham Darby IIIs most famous achievement was the Iron Bridge. He was only24 when the idea of an iron bridge was first proposed. There are 378 1/2 tons ofcast-iron in the Bridge. To produce it he first had to re-build and enlarge the OldFurnace in Coalbrookdale in 1777. The Bridge was completed in 1779 andopened to traffic on 1 January 1781.The first iron bridge erected was constructed by John Wilkinson (1728-1808) and Abraham Darby (1750-1791) in 1773-1779 at Coalbrookdale over the Severn (fig. 27). It had five cast iron arched ribs with a centre span of 100 ft. This curious bridge is still in use. Sir B. Baker stated that it had required patching for ninetyyears, because the arch and the high side arches would notworktogether. Expansion and contractionbrokethe high arch and the connexions between the arches. When it broke they fished it. Then the bolts sheared or the ironwork broke in a new place. He advised that there was nothing unsafe; it was perfectly strong and the stress in vital parts moderate. All that needed to be done was tofishthe fractured ribs of the high arches, put oval holes in the fishes, and not screw up the bolts too tight.
Close-up of bridge joints.In 1779 Darby's grandson, Abraham Darby III (1750-91), completed the world's first cast-iron bridge (at present-day Ironbridge, near Coalbrookdale.) The bridge's semicircular arch spans 100.5 feet (30.6 m) and has five arch ribs, each cast in two halves.
The world's first cast iron bridge was built over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779. Not only iron founders and industrial spies flocked to see this wondrous bridge, but also artists and travellers. The Bridge had a far reaching impact: on local society and the economy, on bridge design and on the use of cast iron in building. The story of the bridge's conservation begins in 1784 with reports of cracks in the Southern abutments, and is brought up to date with the English Heritage sponsored work of 1999.
Why build an Iron Bridge in Coalbrookdale?It seems strange that a world famous symbol of the Industrial Revolution stands in rural East Shropshire. Why were pioneers in the use of iron working here, and why build an Iron Bridge?
View of a coal pit near Broseley
East Shropshire was an important industrial area thanks to coal deposits near the surface. By 1635 annual production from Broseley and Benthall was around 100,000 tons per year mainly for export, but also for fuelling local clay industries and lead.View of the mouth of a coal pit near BroseleyAcc No: AE185.770Chesham, Francis (engraver)Robertson, George (artist)
Act to build a bridge received Royal Assent
In 1776 the nearest bridge was 2 miles away at Buildwas. A ferry crossing carried people and goods over the river, but was difficult and dangerous, especially in winter. The Act to build a bridge remedying the situation received Royal Assent in March 1776.An Act for building a Bridge across the River Severn from Benthall, in the County of Salop, to the opposite shore at Madeley WoodAcc No: 1991.785
The Tontine family and Commercial Hotel
The Tontine Hotel next to the bridge opened in 1784 and was extended in 1786, and a number of bridge trustees owned shares in the hotel too. As soon as the Bridge was built, tourists were encouraged to come from far and wide to see it.The Tontine Family and Commercial HotelAcc No: 1984.6350.13
Iron bridgeA view from the River Severn
Local printer J. Edmunds of Madeley issued this print, probably immediately after the bridge was constucted as it shows the bottom section of the outer ribs still missing. The bridge stands an 'indisputable proof of the abilities of our mechanics and workmen', a superb advert for Coalbrookdale.A View of the Iron Bridge erected over the River SevernAcc No: 1973.132Edmunds, J. (printer)
Iron Bridge cast at Coalbrookdale
Some of the most notable early engineers including Telford, Boulton and Watt and Trevithick were connected with the Ironbridge Gorge. To underline the technical achievements of the bridgebuilders, this engineering drawing was supplied with prints of the Bridge.The Iron Bridge cast at CoalbrookdaleAcc No: 1973.200Ellis, William (engraver)Rooker, Michael Angelo (artist)
Shrewsbury architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard first suggested to John Wilkinson in 1773 that an iron bridge be built over the Severn. Pritchard later designed the bridge but died in December 1777, only a month after work began.Building the Iron BridgeThe full story of how the bridge was built will probably never be known - only one image of work in progress survives, a watercolour on display in a Stockholm museum. Some of our questions about the building of the bridge are answered here.
Thomas Farnolls Pritchard
Shrewsbury architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard first suggested to John Wilkinson in 1773 that an iron bridge be built over the Severn. Pritchard later designed the bridge but died in December 1777, only a month after work began.Thomas Farnolls PritchardAcc No: 1978.218.1anonymous (artist)
Iron Bridge design
The third design is most like the bridge that was actually built, differing in allowing for a towpath alongside the river.Design for an Iron BridgeAcc No: 1986.8609
The earliest estimate of costs for building the Iron Bridge drawn up by Abraham Darby and Thomas Farnolls Pritchard was 3200. The Rev. Edward Harries contributed 525 in a share subscription of 1777 which raised 3,150.Iron Bridge Share CerificateAcc No: 1972.90
Molten iron runs from the furnace into a sand pig bed. It is uncertain whether the parts for the Iron Bridge were cast directly from the furnace, or a stock of pig iron was made like this to be remelted and cast into the correct shapes.Inside of a smelting house near BroseleyAcc No: AE185.762Lowry, Wilson (engraver)Robertson, George (artist)
Sunderland Bridge was a much larger undertaking than the Iron Bridge. Scaffold was used successfully to construct the bridge without obstructing the heavy traffic on the river, and may have been used in the construction of the Iron Bridge.East view of the Cast Iron Bridge over the River Wear at Sunderland in the County of DurhamAcc No: AE185.411Raffield, J. (aquatinter)Clarke, Robert (artist)
Blind dovetail joint
Darby's workers adapted woodworking techniques to take into account the different properties of cast iron. Blind dovetailed joints, where only half the thickness of the iron is in the shape of a dovetail, join the arched ribs to the radials.Blind dovetail joint on the Iron BridgeAcc No: F20.28Conservation and RestorationThe constantly shifting river banks and the weight of stone in the abutments squeeze the Bridge, cracking ironwork and buckling the deck. The first reports of cracking in the Bridge abutments were made as early as 1784, and repair and maintenance has been necessary and regular ever since.
This view of the bridge clearly shows the massive stone abutments, the weight of which cracked the ironwork when the river banks shifted. The south abutment was demolished in 1802, long before this view was published in 1823.Cast Iron Bridge over the River Severn near CoalbrookdaleAcc No: AE185.771Dubourg, M. (engraver)
Wooden Side Arches
This sketch from the north bank of the river looking towards Benthall shows the wooden side arches that replaced the stone abutment between 1802 and 1821.Iron Bridge, ColebrookdaleAcc No: 1978.225.3Holdsworth, Arthur Howe (artist)
Iron Land Arches
Iron land arches were built on the south side of the river in 1821 to reduce the weight of the abutment. A heavily laden cart makes its way up Tontine Hill and three men weigh wool on the north bank.IronbridgeAcc No: 1978.73Fidlor, J. (attrib.) (artist)
1935 after closure to traffic
The Iron Bridge in 1935 just after closure to traffic and scheduling as an ancient monument. The buildings next to the Bridge were demolished in May 1946 to make way for a planned replacement bridge.The Iron BridgeAcc No: 1976.28Temple, Vera Louise (artist)
Work in progress in September 1973, a year after the northern abutment was emptied of rubble and strengthened with concrete. A concrete strut to keep the abutments apart was built below water level, within the safety of a coffer dam.The Iron Bridge during restorationAcc No: 1987.597
Damage to the Iron Bridge
Bank movement has resulted in over 70 fractures in the Bridge ironwork. English Heritage carried out a full survey during 1999-2000 to record and photograph the entire Bridge.Damage to the Iron BridgeAcc No: F22.11
'The Cast Iron Bridge over the River Severn near Coalbrookdale', 1823.
Science Museum / Science & Societyimage detailsDescriptionColoured engraving, by M Dubourg. This bridge, completed in 1779, was the first in the world to use cast iron structurally and was commisioned because ferry traffic on the River Severn had become busy and expensive. It was 40 feet tall and the span of its single arch was 100 feet 6 inches. It was originally designed by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (1723-1777) and built by Abraham Darby III. The combination of its reserves of coal, iron ore and the proximity of the busy River Severn made Coalbrookdale the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Today Ironbridge Gorge is a World Heritage Site.ArtistDubourg, MImage Ref.10322967
Iron Bridge,CoalbrookdaleJuly 15, 2007 inArchitecture,Art,TechnologyThe worlds first cast iron bridge was built over the River Severn in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire in 1779. It attracted visitors