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This page: The
                       stretch of river
                       Severn known since
The industrial revolution began 300 years ago in a Shropshire gorge, when iron
 was first smelted with coke. That is the c...
                                                                                                     Left: Six
now known as the Ironbridge Gorge.
        Brooke family – father Robert, son
        John, and dynamic and entrepreneurial
history of big names and their great         that something shifted in peoples’
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Rethinking Industrial Origins


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Traditional industrial revolution model challenged by archaeological findings. Article in British Archaeology 107 (July-August 2009), examining new evidence for industrialisation revealed through long-term archaeological investgations in the west midlands.

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Rethinking Industrial Origins

  1. 1. This page: The stretch of river Severn known since the opening of the Iron Bridge in 1779 as the Ironbridge Gorge, looking upstream towards Coalbrookdale 30|British Archaeology |July August 2009
  2. 2. The industrial revolution began 300 years ago in a Shropshire gorge, when iron was first smelted with coke. That is the conventional story, but excavations are revealing a powerful industrial history that long predates 1709. Paul Belford explains the significance of the new findings RETHINKING INDUSTRIALORIGINS The steeply-sloping wooded hillsides of Right: The Upper the Ironbridge Gorge are often known Forge (known originally as the as the “birthplace of industry”. Here, Great Forge) at one of England’s first world heritage Coalbrookdale in sites was established in 1986 to the 18th century, in commemorate momentous events a pencil sketch by Joseph Farrington which took place in 1709. Iron was smelted with coke for the first time – Below right: The old enabling mass production of this furnace at essential material, and kick-starting an Coalbrookdale, lit industrial revolution which spread for the launch of the Cultural Olympiad, through the English midlands and September 2008 around the world. The resulting Coalbrookdale Company developed a substantial foundry business, manufacturing steam engines and other cutting-edge technology – and of course the famous Iron Bridge of 1779. Yet recent archaeological work both at Ironbridge and elsewhere in the West Midlands has begun to challenge some of the assumptions on which this version of history rests. Not only is it clear that large-scale industrialisation was already well advanced as early as the 16th century, but it is also now apparent that the people making this brave new world were not always who we might have thought they were. I will look here at the results of two major projects undertaken by IRONBRIDGE GORGE MUSEUM TRUST (3) Ironbridge Archaeology since the early 2000s. The first of these was a ppg16 developer-funded project in the Black Country town of Wednesbury, and the second a research-led training project in the Ironbridge Gorge world heritage site itself. Both projects have taken over eight years from initial investigation to final report, and both British Archaeology |July August 2009|31
  3. 3. WEDNESBURY Left: Six waterwheels were serviced by massive timber-framed installations, whose plank sides were clearly visible during excavation Right: Fragment of early 17th century water wheel have transformed how we actually do at the very lowest levels of the site – twisted grain, probably from archaeology in the field, as well as our after three seasons of often gruelling Coleman’s neighbourhood of Cannock understanding of industrialisation and and frequently perplexing excavation – Chase. Straight-grained timber would post-medieval archaeology. we found the remains of three parallel have split and fallen apart very quickly timber-framed waterwheel under the pressures of this large-scale Wednesbury Forge installations (representing a total of six industrial operation. The pit bases In around 1585 William Comberford wheels) whose ultimate layout was were lined with massive planks, and leased a forge he had had built at dendrochronologically dated to the their back ends consisted of a curved Wednesbury (some 30km east-south- period of Coleman’s lease. plank matching the circumference of east of Coalbrookdale) to William These structures were wonderfully the wheel. Although truncated by later Whorwood. Comberford was the Lord engineered. Massive timber beams alterations, this evidence – together of the Manor of Wednesbury, a title were laid into the clay subsoil, braced with a fragment of waterwheel we held since his family acquired the land by cross-beams and socketed for the found in the fill of one of the wheelpits at the dissolution. His forge used water insertion of upright studs. The studs – meant that it was possible to power from the river Tame, which was formed a framework which was reconstruct the size and form of the already harnessed elsewhere in encased in a series of planks. Those water-power system. These were high- Wednesbury to the manorial mill and nailed to the inside created smooth breast-shot wheels about 4.5m across, another forge. Whorwood does not side-walls for the wheelpit and tailrace; powering a sophisticated finery forge – seem to have been a good tenant: his those on the outside acted as shoring to the forge where iron smelted and cast PAUL BELFORD, IRONBRIDGE ARCHAEOLOGY men attacked the nearby rival forge of maintain the integrity of the from the blast furnace (pig iron) was Thomas Parkes in 1597, and by the time watercourse. reheated and worked to reduce its the lease was up for renewal the forge Construction of the wheelpits had carbon content. was said to be “decayed”. So in 1606 required considerable attention to It is the scale of the enterprise at Comberford relet it to Walter detail. The vibrations of the Wednesbury which makes it more Coleman of Cannock, on condition waterwheel, and the hammer and significant than other excavated forges that it would be made good and kept in bellows which it would have powered, of the same period. By the first decade proper repair. were considerable. The timber had of the 17th century the forge had five The archaeology suggests that been carefully chosen: the base-plates waterwheels, probably powering three Coleman did as he was told. For here, were very gnarled old wood with or four hammers plus bellows for the 32|British Archaeology |July August 2009
  4. 4. now known as the Ironbridge Gorge. This was in Coalbrookdale, a tributary valley of the river Severn. Here, the postglacial Severn had cut a section through the same Coal Measures geology as was evident at Wednesbury – coal, fireclay and ironstone. Coalbrookdale formed a part of the Manor of Madeley, which in the middle ages was a possession of the priory of Much Wenlock. Industrial activity took place during this period: a licence to mine coal was granted to Walter de Caldbroke in 1332, and ironstone began to be mined in the 15th century. All of this cheerful and prosperous state of affairs came to an abrupt end when Wenlock Priory was dissolved in 1540. Four years later, the whole of the Manor of Madeley was acquired from the Crown by Sir Robert Brooke. By this time Coalbrookdale already contained two iron forges. Sir Robert Brooke was an interesting furnaces. These were in three separate WEDNESBURY suggests that quite substantial iron- character. From middling Shropshire installations, each oriented east-west Above: The curved making infrastructure was already in yeoman stock he seems to have with the pond at the western end and end of the northern operation at this date in the midlands followed a similar career path to that of the outflow to the east. The northern wheelpit during Coal Measures. With post-dissolution Thomas More a generation earlier. A installation was a single wheelpit. This excavation manorial management encouraging skilful lawyer, he rose to become was the first to have been built on the Below: The 16th and entrepreneurial capitalism, and speaker of the House of Commons and site, after the dissolution. The pit was 17th century water surrounded by a wealth of outcropping a leading courtier of Henry VIII; well- widened in the early 17th century to power system at minerals such as coal, fireclay and placed to receive the spoils of accommodate a more powerful wheel. Wednesbury Forge, ironstone, it is perhaps not surprising dissolution. However Sir Robert died whose final layout The central and southern was dated by tree that Wednesbury Forge was one of the in the 1550s and never lived at Madeley. installations were more complex, rings to the time largest in the country at the time. It was his son, John, who began to comprising a staggered pair of when Walter develop the Coalbrookdale landscape wheelpits and parallel tailraces. The Coleman leased the A Catholic Dynasty into an industrial enterprise during the forge from 1606 staggered wheelpits enabled two Meanwhile an even larger iron making second half of the 16th century. wheels to be run independently, one complex was being created in what is What is interesting about the powering the hammer and the other the bellows. The parallel tailraces ran out to an open watercourse which eventually returned to the river; in the case of the central tailrace the timber- framed outflow survived for over 25m. This 16th century arrangement was fossilised by further improvements in the second half of the 17th century when the timber tailraces were largely replaced by brick ones, and then later again culverted. Even quite significant alterations to the site in the 19th and PAUL BELFORD, IRONBRIDGE ARCHAEOLOGY 20th centuries were constrained by these much older water-power landscapes. Previous archaeological work has suggested that 16th century finery forges were small scale (only one hammer), and that the main focus of the iron industry at this time was in the south-eastern Weald, in East Sussex and Kent. The case of Wednesbury British Archaeology |July August 2009|33
  5. 5. IRONBRIDGE ARCHAEOLOGY Brooke family – father Robert, son John, and dynamic and entrepreneurial grandson Basil – was its unabashed Catholicism, not only flying in the face of contemporary society, but also against what generations of historians and archaeologists of industrialisation have characterised as the “protestant work ethic”. John’s initial investments were in the lucrative coal and ironstone mining concerns, and by 1579 he was directly employing a number of miners. But Brooke was not content with simply selling his minerals to others. He also sought to add value himself and so to bring in further profits. Building on the two forges already extant when his father acquired the estate, Sir John built a third forge further upstream. the Forest of Dean and elsewhere. IRONBRIDGE these earliest furnaces were actually This “Great Forge”, later known as the Sir John had used the money from Above: Plan of the constructed at the Upper Forge in Upper Forge, became the centre of the these operations to extend and two steel furnaces Coalbrookdale – the hub of the Brooke and their associated Brooke’s ironmaking enterprise at enhance the former monastic grange at family industrial operation. buildings as about the same time as William Madeley Court, turning an already revealed by The Upper Forge was also the Comberford (whose family later comfortable house into a grand excavation (see primary focus of the self-funded became connected to the Brooke Elizabethan mansion. The use of the photos opposite) Coalbrookdale historical archaeology dynasty through marriage) was medieval monastic grange as the core research and training programme Below: The early developing his very similar undertaking of the new house made a very powerful 17th century (Chart), which began in 2001 at Wednesbury. statement about the Brooke family’s gatehouse at specifically to investigate these earlier authority to control the wider Madeley Court, a aspects of the Ironbridge landscape. The Upper Forge landscape, as well as their being former monastic Originally conceived as a joint grange enhanced by By the time Sir Basil Brooke inherited appropriate inheritors of the Catholic programme with the University of the Brooke family the Manor in the 1590s, Coalbrookdale tradition. Money also provided with industrial Birmingham to provide field training contained three or four forges within a education and opportunities for travel. money for undergraduates, the Chart project kilometre of each other on a fast- Sir Basil quickly proved himself as an expanded from 2003 to include formal flowing stream. Together these more ambitious and technically training for postgraduates at Bristol or less equalled the capacity of the accomplished entrepreneur. His most and overseas students from Wilfred great forge at Wednesbury. significant achievement was arguably Laurier University, Ontario, as well as Coalbrookdale was at the centre of a the construction of the first informal placements for students and substantial industrial empire which not cementation steel furnace in England. others from elsewhere. Fieldwork has only included mines in Shropshire but This had long been assumed to have also involved local volunteers and also ironworks and mining concerns in been at the Forest of Dean works, but community groups. The bulk of fieldwork at the Upper Forge took place from 2001 to 2005, and in the last two seasons the remains of two cementation steel furnaces were discovered. Cementation was the earliest method by which steel could be made in bulk from large batches of wrought iron bar. The first furnace at Coalbrookdale (and indeed in England) was operational by 1619, and, after initial experimentation Sir Basil’s furnace was a metallurgical and commercial success – so much so that he built a second one in the 1630s. Sir Basil was thus able to refine pig iron, work it into wrought iron bar, convert it into steel, further work it to his customers’ specifications, and export it to various markets – all the while adding considerable value to the product and further income to the 34|British Archaeology |July August 2009
  6. 6. history of big names and their great that something shifted in peoples’ discoveries. Stories of mass perception of how the world worked. production, power and The reformation (and its English communication: Abraham Darby and material consequence of dissolution) coke smelting of iron, Josiah was evidently a key factor. So too were Wedgwood’s ceramics, Richard new developments in scientific and Arkwright’s satanic mills, James Watt philosophical understanding, estate. Most of the finished iron and and the steam engine, Thomas culminating in the empiricism of steel was exported overland to the IRONBRIDGE Telford’s roads, George Stephenson’s Francis Bacon which in turn led to the growing armaments factories in Above: The remains Rocket and Isambard Kingdom Enlightenment. At the same time, Birmingham and the Black Country. of two cementation Brunel’s engineering excellence. The voyages of discovery and colonisation The remainder was shipped down the steel furnaces were driving force of a “protestant ethic” were discovering new physical worlds. discovered at the river Severn to Bristol and thence to Upper Forge, for unleashed by the reformation was However it is time to shed some of markets in London and overseas. making bulk steel suggested by Max Weber in the early the more traditional ideas about Arguably John and Basil Brooke did from wrought iron 20th century, and later generations of Enlightenment, industrialisation and more than anyone before or since to lay bar. Photos show historians and archaeologists made modernity as a protestant ascendancy the foundations for industrialisation in the base of the 1619 little effort to challenge some of his in the face of papist idolatry. The fact furnace, the first of the Ironbridge area – and, it could be its kind in England assumptions. This mythology was that some of the people behind these argued, for the development of the (scale 2m) emphasised in the early days of developments in the West Midlands post-medieval West Midlands iron industrial archaeology by Arthur were Catholics is clearly important. industry. Unfortunately, just as Sir Raistrick – himself a Quaker – in his Industrial enterprise was a way in Basil’s ingenuity and enterprise were book Dynasty of Ironfounders which non-conformists of all shades beginning to bear fruit, the sun began (Longmans, Green 1953). This study could make their way in life when many to set on his dynamic era of Catholic resulted in the rediscovery of the old of the conventional routes of social entrepreneurialism. Puritan furnace where Abraham Darby’s advancement were closed to them. parliamentarianism was in the experiments took place, and, Even after 30 years of digging at ascendancy, and Sir Basil was eventually (to cut a long story short) the Ironbridge we are still uncovering new imprisoned in the Tower and his establishment of the Ironbridge Gorge secrets in this fascinating landscape, estates confiscated. He died in 1646, Museum. and adding to the debate about the and after the restoration the The significance of Darby’s creation of the modern world. There is Coalbrookdale ironworking complex discovery should not be downplayed. still a great deal left to explore and to was let out to a series of tenants. One of Yet it would be fair to say that none of celebrate. these tenants was the Quaker the achievements of the classic brassfounder Abraham Darby, who “industrial revolution” period would Paul Belford is head of archaeology and rebuilt the old furnace and started coke have been possible without the two or monuments at the Ironbridge Gorge smelting in 1709. three centuries of development which Museum and a part-time PhD student at took place before it. Whilst the University of York. The self-funded Non-conformist industry technological improvements – such as Chart programme undertook fieldwork PAUL BELFORD (3) Ask anyone about the “industrial the great water-power installation at from 2001–09. Fieldwork at Wednesbury revolution” and chances are they will Wednesbury, or the cementation steel took place in 2004–05 (evaluation) and talk about events of the 18th and 19th furnaces of Coalbrookdale – were 2006–07 (excavation), and was funded by centuries. This is the schoolbook undoubtedly important, it is also clear Opus 9 and Arlington Securities British Archaeology |July August 2009|35