A Brief History of the Coalbrookdale Company

Established in 1709

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Photo: Dean Millington, President and Martin Newby

Martin Newby, a Past President of the Branch, presented a talk on the history of The Coalbrookdale Company in the final month of the companies Three Hundredth Anniversary year. He took us through the key events and dates on major innovations innumerable engineering ‘firsts’ and how the company responded to the prevailing economic, social and political conditions of the day.

Abraham Darby was originally involved in the making of brass pots and began experiments in 1707 that finally led to the patent for casting iron bellied pots in dry sand and in particular to the art of casting them in thin section.

In 1708 Abraham was looking for a furnace of his own to develop iron founding and after examining the furnace in Coalbrookdale took it on lease and in the next year began to melt iron using coke as his fuel.

This led him to the founding of the Coalbrookdale Company in 1709

From these beginnings the company expanded rapidly to meet demand for its castings and forgings. Expansion was initially within the works with increases in the number of furnaces, moulding shops and support departments and improvements were made, such as replacing horse powered pumps with steam engine power. The company expanded by securing leases in several neighbouring hamlets initially for iron and coal mines and then by setting up furnaces there. An extensive network of wooden wagon ways between the hamlets and the main works was constructed from 1748 onwards and these were replaced by the first cast iron rail lines some twenty years later.

The company at this time was the largest in the country. The great increase in workmen employed by the company led Abraham II to build work peoples’ houses at several of the hamlets, three schools and the Friends Meeting House in the Dale. The Company expanded further afield with forges at Bridgnorth and as far away as Liverpool

The most publicised event at this juncture was of course the building of the world’s first cast iron bridge gaining the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts after its erection in 1790 for Abraham Darby III. This began a long association with bridge building.

Before the construction of the Iron Bridge, Coalbrookdale already had a growing reputation among engineers, and by 1778 the Company had cast more than 100 steam cylinders and many complete engines, including Boulton and Watt engines, under licence.

Many engineers experimented at Coalbrookdale utilising the facilities and experience there. Adam Heslop, who was apprenticed in the Works, invented the Heslop engine. Sadler, the first balloonist, had his invention of an improved steam engine built in the Dale. Visiting engineers included such men as Hornblower, Telford and Trevithick. Trevithick wanted to build a locomotive to run on rails and he succeeded in 1802 when the high pressure boiler and engine made for him at Coalbrookdale was the first successful locomotive built to run on rails and so created another world record for the Company.

The late 1790’s into the early 1800’s saw a period of distress caused by the high prices and scarcity of food and in some parts of the country there was rioting amongst work people. The Coalbrookdale Company subscribed £8,000 with which stocks of rice and corn were purchased and re-sold to the workforce at 3/4s of cost price. The Dale Corn Mill was built to produce flour from the corn and so avoid any exploitation by millers. This help in obtaining reasonably priced food along with the many allotments provided by the Company helped the steady work of reconstruction to proceed without any rioting in the area. The Company also loaned a substantial amount of capital to enable the Shrewsbury Bank to continue its payments in the crisis of 1797.

Francis Darby, son of Abraham III was now in charge at the Dale and it is to him, after the long depression that we owe one of the best known of Coalbrookdales special lines, that of art castings. In 1849 the Company was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts for its castings.

Towards the mid century there seemed to be an almost inexhaustible field for the application of cast iron. Railway stations, house balconies, bridges, staircases, fireplaces, even shop fronts were made up of cast members and a multitude of furniture both for the house, office and garden was made. In the introduction to The Coalbrookdale exhibits in the Great Exhibition it is stated that the Company employed between 3,000 to 4,000 men and boys at Coalbrookdale and Horsehay. The output was 2,000 tons a week and the Works were then the biggest iron works in the world.

Other company buildings of this period were the school at Pool Hill to accommodate no less than 700 of the employees’ children and the Church in Coalbrookdale in which cast iron is used in abundance.

In 1853 it was proposed to form a Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institute and this was followed in 1856 by the School of Art.

A section of the Works which expanded during the second half of the century was that devoted to the design and manufacture of stoves and fireplaces. The Company was also attending to the two serious issues of smoke abatement and that of improving all forms of the domestic cooking stove from the modest cottage to the largest hotel.

Small utility castings still held an important place in production, and cooking pots, frying pans alongside a rapidly increasing range of rainwater and soil goods, gutters and drainpipes were all being produced. The Company prospered and at the beginning of the 20th century employed 1,100 men in the Dale works.

The 1920’s saw significant changes, with the strain of world conditions and the drive for rationalisation in industry leading to the Coalbrookdale Company forming an alliance with three other companies to form the Light Castings Limited. This culminated in the company becoming an autonomous subsidiary of Allied Iron Founders Limited.

Also in 1925 Alfred Darby II retired as Chairman of the Company which marked the end of the Darby connection with the works after more than seven generations.

In 1930 the great remodelling was undertaken and the whole Works turned over to a public electricity supply. The Coalbrookdale Company again added to its long lists of firsts by designing and installing the first completely mechanised moulding and sand conditioning plant in the country on which a large variety of castings could be produced with greatly increased output.

After the Second World War the Minister of Fuel and Power advisory council to study the problems of space and water heating and cooking in houses. The challenge was taken up and Coalbrookdale designed and manufactured a range of fires that every local authority purchased. Further work on the cookers produced the “Rayburn” of which at its peak manufacture was 500 units per week.

In 1959 the 250th anniversary was celebrated and the Old Furnace cleared and preserved for public view and the Coalbrookdale Museum was opened. Glynwed Foundries Limited absorbed Allied Iron Founders in 1969 and the following year the Coalbrookdale Museum and Furnace was leased to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

The major investments made in the 1990’s were geared to ensuring compliance with environmental legislation and being a good neighbour to the local residents, hardly any of whom worked for the company

The 21st century has heralded investments in the then new GFD230 DISA moulding system and associated sand preparation plant followed a few years later by the introduction of two autopour induction holding furnaces as well as a robotic dressing cell for fettling small volume castings.

The story of the foundry has threaded through events in history and the company and its workforce is looking forward to the challenges that their fourth century will bring.

Martin showed a short video of the works today before a light hearted ‘quiz’ resulted in Gareth Jeramiah winning a limited edition enamelled cast iron pot. A fitting prize to mark 300 years since Abraham Darby started out making pot belly pots.