Monday, 12 June 2017

164. Livery Company Weekend at Ironbridge

As many of you will know, the birth of the industrial revolution took place in the Severn Valley in Shropshire near a town called Coalbrookdale. A natural combination of water, coal, iron ore and timber combined with the ingenuity of Abraham Darby, a Quaker, resulted in the production of pig iron in a blast furnace fuelled by coke rather than charcoal.

A number of industries grew up in the gorge which has been renamed as Ironbridge. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was established in 1967 to preserve this unique location and it was subsequently designated as a World Heritage Site.

Each summer for the last 34 years, Livery Company Masters and their Consorts have stayed at Ironbridge for a weekend of visits and social events. This year the event was held over the weekend of Friday 9th – Sunday 11th June and was attended by 100 Livery Companies as well as the Lord Mayor and his two Sheriffs. (See photograph of list of attendees, itinerary and maps).

We gathered during Friday afternoon at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Telford and events began when we were taken by coach to Coalbrookdale for a Black Tie Livery Dinner. We were welcomed by Anna Brennand the Chief Executive of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust before sitting down to an excellent dinner in a converted and beautifully decorated industrial building. (Photograph shows the Master with the Master Firefighter enjoying a glass of bubbly.)

On Saturday morning we were up early and after breakfast joined one of four coaches for an all day tour of some of the ten museums managed by the Trust. Our first stop was at the Jackfield Tile Museum – this site was originally occupied by Craven Dunnill who manufactured high quality tiles for hospitals, underground stations, Palaces in India, the palace of Westminster, butchers shops and homes. They exported their products all over the world and after leaving the site in 1951, returned in the year 2000 to restart the manufacture of high quality tiles. (Photograph shows Fiona in their reconstructed Trade Showroom).  The Company and the Trust have developed a fascinating display of tiles manufactured during their long history and have built exhibitions of an underground station, butchers shop and a pub! (Photograph shows a Craven Dunnill tile display rescued from an about to be demolished children’s ward of a London hospital).

Our next stop was the town of Ironbridge and the world famous cast iron bridge. The bridge (see photograph) was the first cast iron bridge built in the world. All the parts for this 30m span bridge were cast at nearby Coalbrookdale and construction was completed in 1779 at a total cost of £6,000, almost twice the original estimate of £3,200. The bridge, which operated as a toll bridge until 1950, was opened in 1781 and brought visitors from around the world to marvel at the use of this new material in bridge construction. The Trust owns the Toll House on the South side of the bridge which houses an interesting collection of memorabiiia.

We then drove to Coalbrookdale for the next part of our tour visiting the Darby Furnace, now housed inside a dramatic building (see photograph). This was the furnace developed by Darby using coke as a fuel to produce pig iron. It was in this very crude looking structure that all the 1700 components of the iron bridge were cast before assembly on site. We then walked the 200m to the Museum of Iron, a newly refurbished exhibition over three floors tracing the history of iron manufacture in the gorge. This was a particularly impressive museum with great displays.

Our next stop was for lunch also in Coalbrookdale, where I was delighted to see the Water Conservators crest (see photograph) proudly displayed among many others, as supporters of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

After lunch we headed off for Blists Hill, where the Trust have recreated a Victorian High Street with shops and businesses – this is a large site covering over 52 acres. The purpose of this reconstruction is to show what life was like in the area around 1900. There are innumerable shops (bakers, post office, bank, drapers, photographers) all fully stocked with goods of the time as well as local businesses including plumbers, tinsmith, candle maker and a sawmill. (See photographs of signs outside two of the businesses). A very interesting visit.

Our last stop of the day was at Coalport to visit the world famous pottery. This pottery was founded in 1796 by John Rose following completion of the Shropshire canal in 1793. This enabled raw materials (including coal to fire the kilns) and finished goods to be easily transported into and out of the site. We visited the wonderful exhibition of porcelain produced at the site (see photograph) before watching demonstrations of delicate flowers being made ready for firing. One of the kilns has been “opened up” to show how it would have worked and has been stacked with newly made products prior to firing. (See photograph).

After a long and busy day we returned to our hotel for a brief rest before setting off back to Coalbrookdale for the Black Tie Presidents Ball. The champagne reception was held in Engenuity (a hands-on exhibition for children of all ages!) – see photograph of Fiona and I. After a very enjoyable dinner and a very amusing speech given by the Lord Mayor, Andrew Parmley, we headed off back to our hotel, arriving as the clock struck midnight.

On Sunday morning, immediately after breakfast, a meeting of Masters and Consorts was held in the hotel bar to establish the names for the 2017 Association of Masters and Consorts who will continue to meet and socialize into the future. As 2017 is a Prime number the names chosen were “Prime Masters” and “Prime Mates”! Late on Sunday morning, we packed our bags and headed off home to Gerrards Cross.

Many thanks to the Trusts’ CEO, Anna Brennand, and the London Committee (Chaired by Tony Gordon-James) for organizing such an enjoyable weekend.

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