A journey down the Severn from Thomas Harral’s Picturesque Views of the River (1824) [Text only version]




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13. Coalbrookdale and the Ironbridge


Image: The Iron Bridge, near Coalbrookdale Shropshire. Harral’s description is largely based on the account provided by Samuel Ireland when he visited the area in the 1790s.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“Having left The Birches….the river passes by the opening of Coalbrook Dale, a district which has long been famous for its coal and iron-work, and flows between the opposing summits of Benthall Edge and Lincon (Lincoln) Hill under an iron bridge, the first and perhaps the most beautiful of its kind, ever constructed.


Coalbrook Dale is accurately described, by Mr Young, as “a winding glen, between two immense hills, which break into various forms, being all thickly covered, and forming most beautiful sheets of hanging woods….The combination of coal, iron ore, and lime in these parts, is very remarkable; and it is to that combination, united with the advantage of water carriage, that Coalbrook Dale is indebted for becoming the centre of the most extensive iron-works in the kingdom.


On his arrival at Coalbrook Dale, Mr Ireland (the artist who created the images on which the engraving is based)…was most obligingly allowed to view…the extraordinary wonders of the place:


The noise of the forges, mills, etc., with all their vast machinery; the flames bursting from the furnaces, with the burning of coal, and the smoke of the lime-kilns, were, as Young observes, altogether horribly sublime.” Proceeding along the vale, a succession of volcanic eruptions seemed to flash upon the sight in every direction, from the furnaces which are incessantly employed in smelting iron ore. These eruptions – these flaming apertures, projecting huge columns of intermingled fire and smoke into a dense atmosphere, with here and there a group of gaunt, sooty labourers, like demons of a lower world – produced an effect the most wild, unearthly, and appalling that can be imagined. Perhaps no association of terrene objects could impress upon the mind so vivid an idea of those realms where “hope never comes” as the iron-works at Coalbrook Dale, thus witnessed at midnight.


Having been invited to see the opening of one of the furnaces – an operation very rarely witnessed by strangers – Mr Ireland repaired on the following day to the appointed spot. The immense furnace stood in the centre of a large area walled around, communicating with each side of which was a colossal pair of bellows, whose alternate blasts, with a noise like the incessant roaring of heavy ordnance, excited an intense heat, which had been kept up, night and day, for a considerable time, to separate the metal from the stone, and to reduce it into a state of fusion. The aperture whence the fused iron was to flow, was guarded only by some clay and sand, constantly kept moist by the application of water. Preparatory to the opening of the furnace, a channel of damp sand was formed, from its mouth to a large circular basin of the same material, into which, on its liberation, the burning fluid impetuously rushed. On a wide surrounding space, were numerous moulds, in sand, for the fronts of stoves and other articles. Into these the fluid iron was poured, from ladles with very long handles, carried by athletic workmen, who filled these utensils from the great circular reservoir. So intense was the heat of the metal, that the moment the ladles, though very thick and ponderous, were dipped into it, they became red hot, far above the bowl. Indeed, were it not for that the labourers were supplied with gloves, so constructed as to protect them from the violence of the heat, even at the upper part of the ladle-hafts, it would be impossible for them to perform their work.


The celebrated bridge at Coalbrook Dale was cast upon the spot, in the year 1778, and erected in the course of 1779-80. It occupies the site of an ancient horse ferry between Madeley and Benthall, in the most public road from Shrewsbury to Bridgenorth (sic). The bridge is composed of a single arch, the expansion of which within is one hundred feet six inches, and its height forty feet. Thus, with the altitude of the walls upon which it is supported, the bridge rises more than fifty-five feet above the surface of the water. The road-way, formed of clay and iron slag, a foot in depth, is twenty-four feet in width, and its entire length is about three-hundred feet. The whole of the bridge is covered with iron top-plates, projecting over the ribs on each side; and, on the projection, stands the balustrade, which is also of cast iron. The weight of metal employed in this structure is 378 tons and a half; each piece of the long ribs weighing five tons and three quarters. On the largest, or exterior rib, is inscribed, in capitals –


“THIS BRIDGE WAS CAST AT COALBROOK,

AND ERECTED IN THE YEAR 1779”


All the principal parts of the bridge were erected in the course of three months, without obstructing the navigation of the river, and without accident to the workmen.


Harral, vol.1, p 224-232


14. Madeley, Broseley and Lilleshall


Image: Lillyshall (Lilleshall) Abbey, Shropshire. A view of the ruins of the medieval priory with a canal barge pulled by a horse on the Marquis of Stafford’s Canal. Lilleshall was also home to a residence of the Marquis, a member of the Leveson-Gower family with extensive industrial, agricultural and transport holdings across the Midlands and beyond.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“Madeley, on the northern bank of the Severn, formerly had an excellent market, which was discontinued in the time of the civil wars and not revived until 1763. Here the Shropshire canal runs from the Severn to the Ketley iron-works; having been joined, in its course, by the Marquis of Stafford’s canal, which, taking a northerly direction, passes Lilleshull. About a mile below the iron bridge, is an inclined plane, by which iron coals, etc. are lowered in troughs, about six feet wide, from the canal above; and hence, by a small canal, of about half a mile in length, made by damming up the Severn water, they are conveyed to warehouses at the Wooden Bridge.


In forming a foot-road in this parish, in the year 1788, a spring of native, or fossil, tar burst forth from several holes, one of the streams of which was six or eight inches in diameter. For a long time, several hogsheads of tar per day were caught; but the spring is nearly, if not quite, exhausted. Here is a work, however, for obtaining tar from the condensed smoke of pit-coal. Various coal and iron-works are in the neighbourhood.

At Coal Port, just below the inclined plane, is a china manufactory; and a little further, is the Wooden Bridge, already mentioned.


Nearly opposite to Madeley, on the southern bank of the stream, is the village of Jackfield. A little further to the south, is the market town of Broseley, the inhabitants of which are chiefly employed in the iron and coal works. Here also are large manufactories of coarse ware and glazed tobacco pipes. Broseley is remarkable for a burning spring, or well, that was discovered there in the year 1711. This spring, by sinking a coal pit near it, some years afterwards, entirely disappeared. For its combustible qualities, the water was supposed to be indebted to a mixture of petroleum.


The neat little market town of Wellington, eleven miles eastward of Shrewsbury…has a handsome modern-built stone church, the roof of which is supported by cast-iron pillars. The window-frames are also of cast-iron….The neighbourhood abounds with limestone, coal and iron, which are employed to great advantage….


Five miles north-east from Wellington, is the retired village of Lilleshull; about a mile to the south-east of which are the remains of an abbey, or priory, now the property of the Marquis of Stafford.”


Harral, vol.1, p 232 -237


15. Bridgnorth


Image: Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Bridgnorth is spectacularly and strategically situated within a gorge of the River Severn. Originating as a port in medieval times, the town became another of Shropshire’s industrial centres during the 18th century.

[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“Between two rich embowering woods, the Severn, with a full body of water and a strong current, rushes down towards Bridgnorth. Rocks of considerable size present themselves at the extremity of the wood on the eastern side of the river; whilst the town with its churches, on a bold eminence, breaks pleasantly through the thickets by which it is in a manner surrounded.


Bridgnorth is twenty-two miles south-east from Shrewsbury. This ancient borough may be said to consist of two towns, separated by the river, but communicating with each other by a stone bridge of eight arches. The upper town, which is much the larger, rises most agreeably on a hill, or rock of red sand, encompassed by a deep valley, bounded by rising hills....The lower town…is well built, and delightfully situated. In Mill Street particularly – so called from its leading to the town mills parallel to the river - the houses are handsome. The streets are paved with pebbles.


St Magdalen’s church…. was a mean edifice, with a plain square tower at the west end, as seen in the View of “Bridgnorth in coming down the Severn.” This church was much injured during the civil wars. In the year 1796 it was taken down, and replaced by the present handsome structure, from a design by Mr Telford.


Harral, vol.1, p 255-263.


16. Bridgnorth’s Economy


Image: Bridgnorth, Shropshire. A second view of the town.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


Bridgnorth was formerly celebrated as a clothing town; but its chief manufactory now is of stockings. It also has a considerable trade in leather, iron tools, etc. The air of Bridgnorth, and of the surrounding country, is remarkably salubrious. The town is well supplied with water, partly, by means of pipes from a copious spring half a mile off, and partly by an engine, which throws water from the Severn to the top of Castle Hill.


Harral, vol.1, p 264


17. Bridgnorth Castle


Image: Remains of Bridgnorth Castle, Shropshire. The castle was one of the picturesque sites for visitors to the Severn, a location for numerous legends about the locality.


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“The founder or date of the foundation of the castle, does not appear to be known….its only remains were what seemed to be part of a tower. This Leaning Tower, as it is termed…formed an angle of nearly seventy-three degrees with the horizon; a position which…it still maintains.”


Harral, vol.1, p 261.


18. Quatford and the nearby Landscape


Image: Quatford, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Another tourist attraction, given the beauty of the natural landscape in this part of the Severn Valley


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“About two miles below Bridgnorth, near the tumbling Sailors, on the eastern side of the river, is the village – or rather the church, for there scarcely seems to be a sufficient number of houses in the parish to entitle it to the denomination of a village – of Quatford.


The rocky bank, which rises with grandeur almost approaching to sublimity from the Severn side, the solitary church on the eminence, and the surrounding beautiful combination of sylvan scenery, render this spot peculiarly deserving of notice.

This is the only ford upon the Severn within several miles. On the opposite bank of the river, rather lower down, is an iron foundery (sic).


The river may be said to increase in beauty at every point in the descent from Bridgnorth. On both sides of the stream, the banks continue to be enriched by a succession of luxuriant hanging woods….Here it may be remarked, that the banks of the Severn, nearly all the way from Shrewsbury…abound in beauties. Hence to Stourport they are eminently beautiful…. The river assumes, in some respects, the appearance of a canal; its placid water, continually winding under lofty and frequently well-wooded precipices and crags, until it reaches Bewdley, presents a succession of scenes truly enchanting.”


Harral, vol.1, p 265-269.


19. Bewdley


Image: Bewdley, Worcestershire, from below the Bridge. Bewdley was the most important port for the West Midlands in the 17th and 18th centuries, serving Birmingham and the Black Country until the opening of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal in 1771. It also had a long history of manufacturing, but many of its trades declined after 1700. Nevertheless, Bewdley, the Wyre Forest and nearby townships such as Dowles and Wribbenhall remained as industrial centres into the 19th century, producing charcoal, rope, pewter and brass goods as well as the products described by Harral.


[For more on Bewdley's industries see the website under Industry and Innovation]


[Image from Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, 1824.

Shropshire Records and Research]


“Within a mile of Bewdley, and just below the parish of Dowles, Dowles Brook pours its waters into the Severn through the western bank. In this neighbourhood are Skey’s clay-works, and Skey’s oil-of-vitriol works.


The houses in Bewdley, like those of most other old towns, were originally timber, or of timber or plaster; but, of late years, most of the wooden buildings have been superseded by more secure and permanent structures of brick; and at this time, the principal streets are as well built and paved as those of any other provincial town.


The bridge over the Severn, mentioned by Leland, is believed to have been erected by Edward VI….It is this building which is represented in the View of Bewdley Bridge. On the western pier of the centre arch, is seen a wooden gatehouse, the end of which, towards the north, served as a residence for the toll-gatherer, whilst that towards the south, commonly called the Bridge-House, was used as the corporation prison.


Since this view was taken, the old bridge has been replaced by a new structure, of elegant proportions, exhibiting a light and graceful appearance, superior even to that of Worcester. The sides are at once protected and embellished by balustrades.


The navigation of the Severn here presents a very busy appearance; and it is the boast of the inhabitants, that their trows and their sailors are the best upon the river. On each side of the stream, are extensive and commodious wharfs. It is said, that the people opposed the intention of making the Staffordshire canal communicate with the Severn at this place. In consequence of their opposition, the canal was carried on from Kidderminster to Stourport; a circumstance which tended greatly to increase the trade of the latter town.


The tanning of leather has long been an established and lucrative business in this town; and, in former periods, Bewdley was distinguished for its extensive sailors’ caps, generally denominated Monmouth caps. This once flourishing occupation, however, has been nearly destroyed by the almost universal adoption of Beaver and silk hats. Formerly also, as is evident from the many traces of malt-houses that occur, a great trade must have been carried on here in malt. The working of horn has for a number of years, given employment to a considerable proportion of the industrious poor. A flannel manufactory of recent origin, was established in the town by subscription, for the purpose of employing the aged and infirm. Bewdley may be considered as the emporium for the smaller neighbouring towns.


Soon after leaving Bewdley, Mr Ireland (the engraver, who visited in the 1790s) was struck by the appearance of a barge, carrying about thirty tons, which had been built by Mr John Wilkinson, five years before. Cased with iron plates, about a quarter of an inch thick, she did not draw, when unladen more than nine inches water. The shrouds, stays and blocks, originally of iron, had been exchanged for others of rope and wood. This barge, he was informed, answered every purpose extremely well.”


Harral, vol.1 p 271-272, 281-292

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