ichard Arkwright and John Smalley’s’s Cromford Mills may have been the starting point of their revolution in water-powered mills, but Abraham Darby’s Old Furnace at Ironbridge Gorge had far more importance for Britain’s industrialization. There in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, Darby pioneered replacing charcoal with coal or coke to create the extraordinarily high temperatures needed for smelting iron. The owners of iron mills took advantage of the new fuel and process that enabled making high-quality iron in massive quantities, thus providing a cheaper cast iron, the absolutely essential material of the Industrial Revolution.
Darby’s pioneering work meant that the iron-smelting plants soon crowded the banks of the river Severn, exemplifying the way industrialization transformed areas of rural England in a way that some Victorians lamented, in part because it made these places less beautiful, in part because they thought it that destroyed that settled feudal order in which all men knew their place. What happened at Ironbridge certainly exemplifies the transformation of parts of rural England. Its very name derived from the bridge built by Abraham Darby III with, of course, cast iron. Construction of the ‘Iron Bridge’ began in 1779 and it was opened on New Year's Day 1781. (It is currently being renovated using approximately the original techniques.) Soon afterwards the new ironmasters and their agents transformed the ancient loosely scattered rural community of Madeley Wood into the town of Ironbridge, which served as the commercial and administrative centre of the Colebrooke Dale coalfield.
Left: The Iron Bridge. Right: Ironbridge as seen from the bridge. Courtesy of Wikipedia [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Colebrooke Dale proved to be, and still is, a popular tourist attraction. The most significant visitors were those whose early observations shaped later responses. For example, Arthur Young (1741-1820) on his travels around Shropshire in the West Midlands gave this impression in 1776 in which he employs eighteenth-century aesthetic terminology to contrast between natural beauty and man-made horrible sublimity:
Viewed the furnaces, forges, etc., with the vast bellows that gave those roaring blasts, which make the whole edifice horribly sublime. These works are supposed to be the greatest in England. The whole process is gone through here from digging the iron stone to making it into cannons, pipes, cylinders ….These iron works are in a very flourishing situation….Coalbrook Dale itself is a very romantic spot, it is a winding glen between two immense hills which break into vaporous forms, and all thickly covered with wood, forming the most beautiful sheets of hanging wood. Indeed too beautiful to be much in unison with that variety of horrors art has spread to the bottom. The noise of the forges, mills, etc., with all their vast machinery, the flames bursting from the furnaces with the burning of the coal and the smoak of the lime kilns, are altogether sublime (Dugans, p. 47. My emphases).
Unlike Sir Edward Baines in the 1830s, Young was not concerned primarily with the practicalities of the revolution which he witnessed. He was more concerned with its spectacularity and its ‘horrors’ which he negotiates in Burkean terms. The natural setting is beautiful; he can take for granted the beauty of the hills: they are simply there. But then, according to Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), ‘beauty is, for the greater part, some merely fenfible quality, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses’ (Sect. XIL. ‘The real cause of Beauty’). However, human enterprise has introduced machinery into the landscape, and this is sublime: in fact horribly sublime. Trying to interpret the new phenomenon, Young, as one might expect, relies, in the absence of any new terms in which to interpret what he observes, on the assumptions of his own world again as articulated by Burke: ‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analagous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. (Sect. vii: ‘Of the Sublime’).
He does not develop his own observation that Colebrooke Dale is far too beautiful to compose any sort of harmonic relationship with its man-made ‘variety of horrors’. Others did explore this aspect of what the early entrepreneurs were creating at Colebrooke Dale. George Perry, for instance, was a partner in one of the iron works and one might expect him to disagree with Young’s observation of a clash between the existing natural beauties and the newly introduced machinery. Part of what he has to offer is surprising:
This place affords a number of delightful prospects. One might venture to say that all the Principal Beauties of landscape may be observ’d from some or other of the hills that surround it….These with a view of fine fertile Country. Water’d by the Severn, all contribute to form as agreeable a Variety to the Eye as well can be conceived. The Beauty of the scene is in the meantime greatly increas’d by a new view of the Dale itself. Pillars of Flame and smoke rising to vast height, large Reservoirs of Water, and a number of Engines in motion, never fail to raise the admiration of strangers, tho’ it must be confess’d these things join’d to the murmuring of the Waterfalls, the noise of the Machines, and the roaring of the Furnaces, are apt to occasion a kind of Horror in those who happen to arrive in a dark Night. UPON the whole, there are perhaps few Places where rural prospects, and Scenes of hurry and Business are so happily united as at COLEBROOKE DALE (Quoted in Dugans, p. 44).
Perry, who argues that the new machinery enhances the picturesqueness of Colebrooke Dale, even asserts that the fires of iron smelting create the biblical ‘Pillars of Flame’ from Exodus, which implies that these flames of industrialization lead God's chosen people — now the English instead of the Israelites — toward a promised land, something with which many who praised the Industrial Revolution would have agreed. As a partner in one of the local iron works, Perry had an obvious vested interest in praising such examples of industrialization, and in retrospect his finding something quite felicitous in the way in which ‘rural prospects’ and ‘Scenes of hurry and Business’ are so ‘happily united’ appears deeply ironic. However, Perry does, perhaps unconsciously, admit the ambiguity of this industrial landscape when he admits that the more pleasing view of the iron works only becomes available in daylight. At night matters are very different, and, like Young before him, he acknowledges ‘a kind of Horror’ created by industrial activity. Such horror is a feature of the earlier responses and will dominate those of many Victorian writers.
Blake, William. The Poetical Works. Ed. John Sampson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1949.
Burke, Edmund. ‘Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. London: R. and J. Dodsley: 1757. (http://www.archive.org/details/enq).
Dugan, Sally and David Dugan. The Day The World Took Off: The Roots of The Industrial Revolution. Channel 4 Books. London: Macmillan, 2000.
Ure, Andrew. The Cotton Manufacture of Great Britain. London: Charles Knight, 1836.
Last modified 21 June 2018