Coalbrookdale is regarded by many as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The town of Ironbridge on the eastern bank of the River Severn is the location of the worlds first metal bridge. Designed in 1775, the gracefully arching prefabricated cast-iron structure, appropriately named Ironbridge, was fixed to its masonry abutments in the summer of 1779. Spanning 100 feet 30 meters, the bridge supports itself without a bolt or a rivet in the entire structure! In terms of the creative application of new materials and technology, it remains one of historys great architectural and engineering feats, the product of the fervent inventiveness of optimistic industrialists, opening the way to the modern era of iron- and steel-framed buildings.
Coal and limestone mining and iron smelting made the River Severn, which reaches the sea through the Bristol Channel on Englands west coast, one of Europes busiest waterways. In 1638 one Basil Brooke patented an iron-making process and built a furnace at Coalbrookdale. Seventy years later the operation was acquired and overhauled by the entrepreneurial Bristol Quaker Abraham Darby I, an ironmonger and brass founder. In 1711 he developed a cheaper means of smelting iron by using coked coal as fuel rather than charcoal. The process liberated iron production from fuel restrictionsindustrialization initially meant deforestationas well as making very large castings possible.
Within a couple of years Darby and his partner, Richard Ford, developed what was a minor business producing mainly pots and pans into the worlds leading ironworks. After a few decades the Coalbrookdale Company and its subsidiary Lilleshall Company had expanded to own mines, forges, factories, and farms throughout the region. The burgeoning iron-, brick-, and pottery works in the parishes of Madeley and Broseley, facing each other across the Severn Gorge, brought workers flocking to the district. That dramatic population growth and the obvious increase of commercial and industrial traffic meant that the local ferry, precariously approached down steep, slippery banks, soon proved inadequate for local needs.
Abraham Darby II had proposed to bridge the Severn between Madeley Wood and Benthall but the project lapsed when he died in 1763. It was left to his son, Abraham III, to carry out the project. With the eager cooperation of the squire of Broseley, ironmaster John Wilkinson, in 1775 young Darby convened a meeting of potential subscribers to plan a bridge. The group obtained Parliaments approval for a structure of cast-iron, stone, brick or timber.
The worlds first cast-iron bridge was designed by the Shrewsbury architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, who two years before had suggested using the new material for such projects. He proposed a single-span bridge, estimated to cost