Coalbrookdale Iron Works Essay


Coalbrookdale was a mayor iron works. It grew through the 18th century and was at its peek around 1850 the mid 19th century. It then declined in importance as it was overtaken by larger iron producing centres, but remained one of the top producers of artistic and high quality ironwork.

One of the main characters in the early years of Coalbrookdale was Abraham Darby I. He discovered coke by slowly burning coal, as wood was done to make charcoal, which was used before coke was discovered. Darby used coke instead of charcoal, as it was cheaper. This produced cheep low quality iron, which he used to make cooking pots. He made fortune of these.

Abraham Darby II, Darby I’s son, made coke ovens, which made better quality coke, this in turn made better quality iron. He also made strengthened bellows to give a stronger blow to the furnaces.

Abraham Darby III, Darby II’s son, attracted good workers by buying farms to feed them, paying good wages and building them houses, schools, pubs and even an institute. He also promoted Coalbrookdale iron; he did this by making a bridge out of iron, ‘The Iron Bridge’. This would have been impossible 50 years earlier. This provided great advertisement for his company and his iron was soon in huge demand.

Although the Darby’s discoveries were extremely important in the mass production of cast iron, they did not discover how to mass-produce wrought iron. The current process was done in forges, by heating and hammering the cast iron repeatedly to remove impurities. This was slow and expensive though.

Then along came Henry Court who had discovered a better and cheaper method to mass produce wrought iron. His new method was as follows. He had constructed a special furnace called a reverberatary furnace. In this furnace the iron was kept separate from the fuel with a blocking bar. This meant the iron never came in contact with the fuel, so ordinary cheap coal could be used to fire the furnace. The iron was melted and then puddlers would open the door of the furnace and stir the iron. By stirring the iron this brought the impurities to the surface where they were burnt off. This was repeated until all the impurities were removed, so you were left with virtually pure iron. It was then cooled and shaped into a spongy ball. Then pushed through a set of rollers, like a mangle. What ever shape was between the rollers was the shape the iron came out in. So you could instantly shape the iron, e.g. to a section of railway track, a tube or a sheet of iron. This process was called rolling, so put them together and it was called puddling and rolling or balling and drawing.

As a result of these discoveries and the industrial revolution, the production of iron in Coalbrookdale grew. In 1720, they produced 21,000 tones of pig iron, and the total amount made by Britain was 25,000 tones. Coalbrookdale’s production continues to grow until it reached its peak in 1864. From then on its output declined, as there were many other works in Britain. By 1894 Coalbrookdale could not compete, so started producing only high quality iron, which it still does today.

The works themselves also grew. We can see this as most of the earlier buildings around Darby I were made of stone, we can see this particularly around the Old Furnace area. Then in Darby II and Darby III time, brick was introduced and buildings were made out of them. So we know the works expanded, as there are some original stone buildings with brick extensions built onto them.

Question 1: which is the more useful to a historian studying Coalbrookdale c.1800- the physical evidence you can still see at the site or the documentary and pictorial sources?

(12 marks)

Reliability of the Documentary Evidence

Every piece of documentary evidence that I will use to answer question 1 is reliable, as other evidence supports it.

The 1827 map is backed up the physical evidence as the remaining buildings, such as Carpenters Row and the New Furnace are in the right place as they are indicated on the map; therefore, all the other buildings must be in the correct place. It is also supported by the 1801 description, which mentions the positions of the buildings, like ‘in front of these…’ and ‘to the left appears…’ Finally, the Farington’s sketch shows features in the same place as the map shows them, for example the Wesleyan Chapel and Charity Row.

The 1801 description is supported by the surviving evidence as they are where they are said to be, and also the 1827 map which shows the buildings where they are said to be as well such as ‘residence of some of the workmen, in the vicinity is a boring mill’ and this is also show on the 1827 map.

The Fishers Journal is backed up by 1827 map, as everything it describes is where it is said to be on the map as well, for example the journal says: ‘The Old Furnace (nearest the house)…’ this is shown on the map also. And the physical evidence as the places described that still exists are where they are said to be in the description.

The Farrington’s sketch 1789 is supported by the surviving buildings as they show buildings where they still stand, along with the 1827 map. Also, the sketch is so detailed and accurate that Farington could only have drawn if he was actually there.

The Williams’ painting 1777 looking north and south could only have been painted if Williams was actually there as they are very detailed. They are also supported by the 1827 map and 1801 description as they describe and show buildings indicated in the same place as Williams has drawn them, an example of this is it shows the upper furnace pool in the same place that it is on the 1827 map.

Vivares engraving 1758 is supported by the 1801 description as it describes buildings in the place as he has drawn them. Also there is the 1827 map which shows buildings in the place where he has drawn them.

The Westwood engraving is supported by the physical evidence of Dale House. The windows of this house are set out unusually and they are drawn the same in the engraving. Also, the other buildings are in the correct place in relation to dale house. The 1827 map shows the buildings in the same place as well.

The 1859 photograph shows the buildings in the same place as they are shown and described in the 1827 map and 1801 description.

Finally, the archaeological reconstruction of the Upper Forge Site is reliable because it was done by and archaeologist who would have known what the building would have looked like at the time. Also, it looks like it does now, and it has been restored to look like it did at the time. It also looks like it is shown in the other sources.

All of the documents support each other, therefore the are all reliable and we can trust them.

The Old Furnace Area

The physical evidence of the Old Furnace is very good. There is evidence of the old water wheel that used to power the bellows. We can see evidence of the old water trough on the side of the furnace, there is a ledge where the trough used to sit, and we can see the holes that used to support the trough.

There is evidence of the original furnace as we can see some of the foundations. Above the bellows hole there is a beam with the date ‘1638’. There are postholes for the support beam of the lean-to-sheds. Above the tap hole there is another beam also with the date ‘1838’, and another two beams both saying: ‘Abraham Darby 1777’. Finals there is the charge hole on the top of the furnace.

All of the parts of the furnace are there, e.g. tap hole and charge hole. It looks like a furnace; even the bricks are the right time of late 18th centaury. However, we cannot be totally sure just from the physical evidence, we need supporting evidence as well.

The documentary evidence that supports the Old Furnace is: the 1827 map-which shows the position of the Old Furnace in relation to the other buildings, vivares engraving-which shows the top of the furnace and the upper furnace pool which powered the water wheel, Westwood’s engraving which shows the upper furnace pool, Fisher Journal also mentions the furnace: ‘The Old Furnace has been in blast without the least diminution for 7 years last past. It continues to vomit out its flames and emit a vast column of smoak’ and the 1801 description: ‘Here we enter a great pile of building consisting of Furnaces…’

Because of the supporting evidence, we can be sure that the Old Furnace is the Old Furnace.

The physical evidence is quite useful as we get an idea of the size of the furnace, the amount of people that would have worked there and an idea of the conditions of the workers would have to work in. What the evidence does not tell us is that 20-25 tones of iron was produced a week, which is not very much. We also do not know that for 1 tone of iron

-4 tones of coke

-3 tones of iron ore

-1 tone of limestone was needed. Therefore, the evidence that we have is quite useful.

The physical evidence of the New Furnace is the charge hole, the tap hole, bellows hole, it is the same shape as the Old Furnace but not as big, it is made out of old brick. It is now not complete though, it was converted to be storeroom after the furnace was not in use.

The supporting documentary evidence for the New Furnace is: the 1827 Map-which shows the position of the New Furnace and the 1801 description-which says: ‘Here we enter a great pile of buildings consisting of Furnaces…’ here it talk about furnaces suggesting there was more than one so there would have been the Old Furnace and the New Furnace.

This is useful because it tells us that they were trying to produce more iron, and increase production as they built another furnace. They were trying to expand.

From the physical evidence we know the size of the furnace and the time it was built, from the bricks. What we do not know from the physical evidence is about the conditions and the amount of workers there, we can only guess. Therefore, the physical evidence for the New Furnace is not that good. However, it is supported by the documentary evidence, which tells us where the furnace is positioned. It does not tell us though about the conditions and the amount of workers there. So, from the documentary evidence and the physical evidence put together we can be sure that the New Furnace was there, as the physical and documentary evidence support each other.

The pattern shop has very little physical evidence. There are holes in the wall where beams would have gone, we know it was a two story building because there are two iron pillars with a support joist across them and there are chimneys built into the wall half way up. The physical evidence tells us how it was constructed, size and we can make a guess at the size of the workforce. We do not know what was done in it, the pay or the hours worked. Overall, the physical evidence is very poor, as from it we cannot tell that it is a pattern shop. There is not much documentary evidence either, the 1827 Map-which tells us the position of it, and the 1801 description-which says: ‘…different rooms for stowing patterns’. The documentary evidence only tells us the position of the pattern shop. It does not tell us the pay, size of the workforce or the conditions. If we put the physical and documentary evidence together then we find out that the evidence for the pattern shop is poor.

The physical evidence for the turning mill is quite good. We know it had two stories and a loft by the shape if the side of the building. It was heated by a boiler, as there are the rusted remains of one. It was powered by a water wheel, as there is a 28′ trough where the wheel used to be. There was also a grinding stone found near by which was probable from the mill.

The supporting documentary evidence for the turning mill are, the 1827 map, and the 1801 description that says: ‘here another water wheel 28 feet Diar meets the Eye whose steady & deliberate pace evinces the laborious task it performs.’ From the Physical evidence, we can see how it was heated, how it was powered, and some of the equipment used. We do not know though the amount of people that worked there or the pay. The documentary evidence only tells us where the turning mill was positioned. It does not tell us the conditions or how it was powered. The documentary evidence is supported by the physical evidence, proving that the evidence is very good, and proves that the turning mill did exist.

The physical evidence for the smith’s and joiners shops is not very good: there are only two walls remaining, and we know it was two storey because of the joist holes in the wall and viaduct. The documentary evidence for the smith’s and joiners shops are only the 1827 map and the 1801 description which says: ‘Here we enter a great pile of building consisting of…Smiths Shops…’ which gives some support but does not accurately tell us where they were. The physical evidence only tells us the size of the building and the height. It does not tell us the amount of workers that worked there or the pay. The documentary evidence only tells us the position. It does not tell us the height of the building or the conditions.

Overall, the evidence for both the smiths shops and the joiners shop is very poor as there is not much physical evidence and not much documentary either.

For this area overall I think that the documentary evidence is the most useful, even though the physical evidence is very good, the documentary evidence is more useful as it tells us facts about the buildings and tells us about the building which have no physical evidence any more, if it was not for the documentary evidence we would not know about them.

The Upper Forge

The upper forge changed cast iron into wrought iron, they did a process called puddling and rolling it or balling and drawing. There used to be two forges, but only on is remaining now. The foundations of this are buried under the car park next to the remaining forge. We know this because it is indicated on the 1827 map, also in the 1801 description in mentions “forges” suggesting that there was more than one. There is the upper forge pool which is nearby that powered the upper forges, we know this because it is supported by the 1827 map and it is mentioned in the 1801 description ‘a beautiful sheet of water strikes our view being a reservoir for the forges just left & is called the upper forge pool.’

The Farington’s sketch 1789, which shows the forges and the buildings around them. 1859 photo, which is labelled ‘B’ showing the forges, the pool and the buildings surrounding it. The Williams painting looking south 1777, shows the upper forge pool, which powered the forge. Finally, there is a secondary source of the archaeological reconstruction of the upper forge building. The usefulness of the documentary evidence is not very good. This is because we can only know where the forge was positioned, how it was powered and the jobs of the two forges. It does not tell us the amount of workers need to run it, there pay, their hours of work or the conditions that they worked in.

All around the building there are arches filled in. This is because when it was a forge it would have been very hot inside so there would be many arches around it to give ventilation. They have been filled in because the building did fall into disrepair, but it was restored so most of it now in new, but it was based on the original shape, so it looks exactly like it used to be. There only used to be the central part of the building at the beginning of its time, but they then extended it and added the tower and other end. They did this to make it bigger as the company expanded. There is also some old brickwork on the building, which is from the time that the building was supposed to have been built. We know it was water powered, as around the back of the building there is a trough and water pipes that go under ground up to the upper forge pool, these would have supplied water to the water wheel. Finally, around the building there used to be many other buildings, which are now not standing. These included: the hammer engine, blast engine house, warehouse and a malt house. The usefulness of the physical evidence is fairly good. This is because we know that about ten people worked there, the size of the operation and what it looked like. It does not tell us what their pay was or how long they had to work. Although the physical evidence is only limited and can only tell us so much.

We can be sure that this is the upper forge because there is substantial physical evidence, which is backed up by the documentary evidence. Therefore, the physical evidence is supported by the documentary evidence and therefore is quite reliable.

The Boring Mill

The boring mill was like a big lathe; it bored into metal to make things like cannons and steam engine cylinders, to precise accuracy.

The documentary evidence for the boring mill are: the 1827 map, which shows the position of the mill and the cottages in front of it; the 1801 description, which says ‘a row of houses built in 1642, for the residence of some of the work men. In the vicinity is the boring mill adapted to boring cylinders of the greatest dimensions.’ Also in the description the mill pool mentioned ‘another reservoir called then millpool.’; there is also one other piece of evidence, that is vivares engraving 1758, this shows a boiler that has just bean bored coming from the boring mill. The documentary evidence is quite useful as it tells us where it was positioned, where the workers lived, we can guess at the number of people who worked there, how it was powered, and what sort of things it made. It does not tell us however how much the pay was, the hours worked or the conditions.

The physical evidence for the boring mill is also very good. The mill itself has hardily changed, it is almost perfect. It has big doors, to allow big things like cannons and steam engine cylinders in and out. Around the back of the mill is a trough that the water wheel would have gone in, a filled in hole where the axle for the water wheel would have gone, and there is a filled in triangle on the roof where the roof would have come out and gone over the water wheel. There are also the remains of the pool that powered the wheel. On the building it self there is 18th century brick work, which is the same as some of the other buildings. There is also old 18th century tile work on the roof, the tiles are uneven. This is supported by the documents, which does show the portions of the mill. The physical evidence is fairly useful as it tells us: the size of the building, the age, that it was water powered and that it handled large materials. We can also make a guess at the size of the work force. It does not tell us though the pay, the conditions, or the amount produced in a day.

We can be sure that this is the boring mill because there is substantial physical evidence, which is backed up by the documentary evidence.

The Lower Works

The lower works no longer remain. This is because they are buried under the modern works. Therefore, the physical evidence for the lower works is totally unreliable and not useful.

The documentary evidence therefore is one hundred percent useful as there is no other evidence. The documentary evidence is: the 1827 map, which shows the position of the works and what buildings were there; the 1801 description which says ‘a considerable pile of buildings, consists of 7 mouldings rooms, 3 mills for boring ; grinding, 4 shops for carpenters and smiths, besides a large warehouse ; several rooms for depositing patterns.’ This shows some buildings that were in the lower works; the Farington’s sketch 1789 shows the works in the centre, we can see a small cluster of buildings no bigger than the upper furnace; this is supported by the Williams painting looking north 1777 is the final documentary evidence. It shows a small group of buildings, some fires and lots of smoke.

We can be sure that the lower works were there as there are several pieces of documentary evidence that prove it was there. They prove this as they back each other up.


Overall I think that it is very difficult to give a judgment to weather the documentary of physical evidence is ore useful. This is because it varies from area to area. Clearly, for the Lower Works, the documentary evidence is more useful. However, for the Boring Mill the physical evidence is more useful. So it is very difficult to give and over all decision.

Question 2: How far did Coalbrookdale change after Abraham Darby’s discovery of coke smelting? Explain your answer using the site and documentary evidence.

(18 marks)

Evidence of expansion and growth

The Old Furnace is evidence of expansion; it was originally built in stone but then rebuilt in brick. They rebuilt it because the old furnace made from stone was too small; this shows expansion because they were trying to produce more iron by building a bigger furnace.

There was also the New Furnace built. This was built to produce even more iron; this also shows that the company was trying to expand by increasing production.

The growth of the Upper Forge also shows this, it was originally just one section, but then the tower and the other end was added. They extended the building to fit a Boulton and Watt engine; this shows growth as they were trying to increase production with the new engine.

The company built an entire new works in the late 17th century, the Lower Works. This was built as they were getting more demand for goods, this shows how the company was trying to increase production, and expand.

In 1740, the company rebuilt the Boring Mill; they may have done this to install a new machine. This shows growth as they were trying to make better quality goods.

The company built a water re-cycling system, this involved all the water that had been used to power the water wheals to be collected and pumped back to be used again. They did this to try to save water, this proved very useful when one year there was a drought, but the company was all right as they had there water system installed. The building of this shows they company was expanding so much that they thought it necessary to save and reuse water.

They also built a transportation system, this involved plateways to transport coal and the products, etc. The investment of time, the effort and money for the plateways shows the resources the company had. There is evidence of the plateways, as on some of the roads they have gravel in the sides like train tracks, and they are straight, they are also parallel. They built these to transport coal and good around the works, they show expansion of the company as they were trying to make it easier and quicker to transport things, therefore trying to produce more goods and make them quicker.

The company build increasing numbers of houses, for example, Smokey Row and Charity Row. These house help support the family of the workers, meant the worker did not have far to go to work, and would encourage good workers, as they would be set up and not have to do a thing. This shows the company was trying to get the best worker, by offering the best facilities, therefore with the good workers they could get more goods made increasing production and trying to expand.

There was a boy’s school and a girl’s school. The girls’ school was really good, as there were only usually boys’ schools at that time. The schools were built so the worker children would be intelligent, so that when they were older they would hopefully work for Coalbrookdale and the company would have intelligent workers. This shows the company was thinking ahead and hoping to expand latter on in the company’s history.

They company also built two pubs for the workers, these helped them socialise and relax.

They also built and institute to educate the workers and entertain them. At that time people used to go to lectures at institutes, instead of doing thing like watching television.

A was built, the Holy Trinity Church, even though the Darby’s were not Christians. It was funded for by the Darby’s; it must have been very expensive as it is very grand. It is on a hill looking down on the valley.

The Company built all these to attract good workers and to accommodate for their families. This shows the reflecting size, wealth, power and father figure of the company, as they helped the whole of the workers family as if they were their own family.

Evidence of Decline

When the company abandoned the Old Furnace Area, this meant that the company had started to decline, as they had no need for the area any more, this was probably because they were not getting as much business as before. There was also competition from larger iron works.

The changed use of the Upper Forge from a forge to a storage building. This show they were getting less work and had no need for the forge any more.

The company filled in some of the pools and started to not take care of them. This was because they did not need them any more. As the building they powered was not being used any more.

They also demolished some of the houses for example Smokey Row, as there were no workers living in them, as they were made redundant as they were not needed for jobs any more.

The company also took up the plate ways, as they were not needed any more.

Once the company had got rid of all of their other works, they were left with the Lower Works, so this has been converted into the modern works.

In 1720, Coalbrookdale had a high proportion of the UK’s output; this was due to Shropshire having wood, iron ore and waterpower readily available. In 1806 there was a huge rise in production at Coalbrookdale; this shows the importance of the Darby’s discoveries and that it was taken up quickly in the 1770’s and 80’s. In 1854, Shropshire’s share of national output was much less. Many more ironworks existed, for example: in the Black Country, south Wales and Scotland. Although according to Raistrick, in 1850 Coalbrookdale was the largest works in Britain-and probably the world, with and output of 2,000 tones per week. By 1894, Coalbrookdale was in decline. Although it remained important in producing high, quality and artistic iron goods and engines.


Coalbrookdale can claim to be the birthplace of the industrial revolution, because the discoveries made their meant they could make iron cheaply, which enabled them to mass-produce it, which made the industrial revolution possible. This is because they could build things like ships, bridges, railways, machines, weapons etc. These inventions lead to Britain to being able to increase trade and build up an empire that covered a quarter of the world land surface area. It included countries such as, Australia, India, Canada and parts of Africa. This lead to Britain being the number one country in the world at the time. None of this could have happened without Coalbrookdale.

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