Objects that changed our world


The first local firm to subscribe to the telephone when it arrived in the area was Craven Dunnill. Places such as Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton had been connected some years earlier, but the telephone arrived in Ironbridge in 1904 and the National Telephone Company took out a lease on 29 September on premises on the Wharfage to be used as a telephone exchange. The lease was initially for a period of seven and a half years at an annual rent of £16.0s.0d. Originally the exchange would have housed a public call box (from where members of the public could make calls as public telephone kiosks did not exist at this time), but by 1909 this had moved and could have been inside a shop, as a Kelly’s Directory lists an entry for the ‘National Telephone Company Limited, public call office, Tontine Hill’. The Post Office eventually took over all National Telephone operations from 31 December 1911. A 1905 list of subscribers contains only 16 names. Numbers were issued in order and would be re-used if they became available; several of these had disappeared by 1936. By this time there were only about 200 subscribers, even though the exchange included Madeley and Broseley as well as Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. Amongst those listed are: Ironbridge Post Office (Ironbridge 1), Ministry of Labour Employment Exchange (Ironbridge 3), Craven Dunnill & Co., (Ironbridge 4), Maw & Co. (Ironbridge 12), and Coalbrookdale Co. (Ironbridge 17).


Swimming Baths

Visitors to Ironbridge in the 1870s often took trips on the river, but when young men hired rowing boats or went bathing there were often accidents, sometimes drownings, so suggestions were made for the building of a bathing station with changing facilities. Here children could learn to swim and a lifeguard could keep watch. As local men and boys were used to bathing without clothes, a bathing station would also reduce the risk of causing offence to females. The decline of commercial river traffic meant that a floating swimming bath could be set up in Ironbridge and Arthur Maw agreed that the bath could be sited at his Severn House (now Valley Hotel) property. The first plans for the bathing station were thought to be too ambitious so an alternative plan was put forward. This swimming bath would be 50 feet long and 16 feet wide, and was to be made up of a grid of wooden spars, a foot apart along the sides and two inches apart at the bottom, with folding doors at one end, to connect with the river. The water level would vary from 2 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 6 inches, and the structure would be supported by seventy two petroleum barrels to act as pontoons and also foundations for the gangways. One side and end would have a roof and four dressing rooms were to be arranged at the deep end. In June 1879 advertisements for shares in the Ironbridge Floating Swimming Bath Co. were offered and the bath was officially opened at the end of August. During the summer of 1880 a weekly average of 318 people (260 men and 58 women) used the bath and the highest weekly attendance was 432 (345 men and 87 women). The bath was probably swept away in one of the great storms during the winter of 1880-81.

Swimming Baths

The Darby Furnace

How did this pile of old bricks change the world? Well it’s because it was the furnace where Abraham Darby I first smelted iron with coke as a fuel instead of Charcoal. This meant that iron production was only limited by the amount of raw materials that could be mined and transported and not by how fast a tree could grow.

Iron became the material of the Industrial Revolution. It was used for steam engines, machinery, bridges and buildings, and for the ships and railways which transported raw materials, finished goods and people throughout Britain and across the world. It was even used for cast iron pipes which carried fresh water to keep these people alive.

Ultimately it could be said to have created the industrial revolution and made the modern world in which we live today a possibility.

Darby Furnace

The Cooking Pot

How could a cooking pot change the world? Well it wasn’t because it was a cooking pot, but because of the way in which it was made. Cooking pots were extremely complex to make and if you could produce one of these then you could make almost any component you needed - provided it could be made out of cast iron.

Casting by pouring molten metal into a hollow mould is the quickest way of manufacturing complex shapes in iron. When Abraham Darby I patented his method of sand casting iron pots using re-usable patterns in 1707 he laid the foundation for the British foundry industry. This technology was able to provide mine owners with iron wheels, steam engine cylinders and machinery. By the end of the century foundries were springing up across the country supplying not only factory owners with parts for machinery, but grates and cooking pots for Britain’s growing urban population, and farmers with the iron ploughs and implements used to grow the food to feed them.

Cooking Pot

The Lightmoor Engine

In 1712 just three years after Abraham Darby I first smelted iron with coke, Thomas Newcomen installed the world’s first practical steam engine at a mine in Dudley. When these were fitted with cast iron cylinders - first cast by the Coalbrookdale Ironworks in the 1722 - these engines allowed miners to dig deeper providing the industry with the materials it needed to expand.

These early engines could only pump water, but in 1783 James Watt built the first rotative steam engine - an engine which could drive machinery directly. The Lightmoor engine is just one example of this type of steam engine. These engines freed Britain’s factory owners from the need to use water power and industry moved to the coalfields where it could rapidly grow to meet the needs of an increasing population and an ever more industrialised society.

Lightmoor Engine

The Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge was the first large cast iron structure in the world. For 20 years it remained a much talked about ‘one-off’. All this changed in 1795 when terrible floods swept away or damaged every major bridge on the River Severn except for this bridge.

No longer was a bridge of iron seen just as a novelty. The great bridge builder, Thomas Telford, used iron to build a new bridge upstream at Buildwas and from then on cast iron became an indispensable building material for the new industrial age.

The Iron Bridge

The Trevithick Locomotive

This clanking wheezing contraption was the first railway locomotive in the world. It was designed by Richard Trevithick and built by the Coalbrookdale ironworks in 1802. It wasn’t a great success, but this, and Trevithick’s other engines, showed what could be done and inspired the engineers who made steam powered railways a practical proposition.

For the first time in history fast, cheap transport was available – to transport finished goods, raw materials and people from one place to another and to carry perishable foodstuffs from the countryside to the towns and cities of Victorian Britain. - and all this was thanks to Richard Trevithick and his experiments at Coalbrookdale.

Trevithick Locomotive

Veritical Blowing Engine

The modern world is built on steel. It provides the frames for buildings and bridges, for the hulls of ships which carry goods around the world, the bodies and engines of the cars we drive and the tools to build with and shape other materials.

For most of its history steel was expensive and only produced in small quantities. Nearly 90 years before Abraham Darby I came here, steel was being produced in Coalbrookdale, but steel was not widely used until 1856 when Henry Bessemer devised a method of steel making which meant for the first time it could be produced in bulk. Architects and engineers were quick to take advantage of the availability of this material. Steel soon became the foundation of the construction and engineering industries of the late Nineteenth Century and it is a material which remains of crucial importance to the world we live in today. Henry Bessemer visited Coalbrookdale in 1871 he said that:

"the iron trade of the world had learnt a great deal from Shropshire, and he had experienced a great deal of pleasure in inspecting those old works where had been inaugurated and successfully carried out some of the most important and useful improvements of which the iron trade could boast."

This Vertical Blowing Engine in the North Engine House at Blists Hill was originally used providing the air blast for Bessemer converters at Priorslee Steel Works which were not far from the present day Telford town centre.

Caughley Porcelain "Dresden Sprigs" Pattern Tea Wares - about 1790 - 1792

Fancy a brew? Nowadays a cup of tea is so commonplace we hardly notice the mug or cup we drink from. But when tea was first introduced to Britain in the 1650s, it was an expensive luxury. Those who could afford tea drank it from expensive porcelain tea services. Porcelain was able to withstand the high temperature of hot tea, making it an ideal material for the special equipment needed for this new drink. In the 1780s tea became affordable for the middle classes and they too needed porcelain tea services. The Caughley Porcelain Manufactory produced large quantities of elegant tea services aimed at this market, such as these "Dresden Sprigs" pattern tea wares.