Ironbridge gorge museum

Feature: Iron Men

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Marc Zakian introduces us to the places and people that created the modern world.

The Ironbridge Gorge Museums tells the story of the Industrial Revolution in a series of unique collections that include a functioning Victorian town – complete with shops, schools, craftsmen and steam engines.


In 1695 Celia Fiennes travelled on horseback for 2,000 miles across England. Riding side-saddle, Britain’s first female travel-writer chronicled a countryside of open fields and muddy, unsigned roads – a landscape unchanged since medieval times.

Ceilia’s journey took her to Cornwall, a county she described as ‘very bleak and full of mines’ and troubled by ‘great floods, overwhelm’d for a season of raines’.

For centuries Cornishmen had risked their lives in the dark labyrinths of copper and tin mines. The deeper the tut workers and tributers dug, the bigger their risk of being swept away by underground floodwaters.

In 1712 the West Country ironmonger Thomas Newcomen offered salvation. He designed the first workable piston-driven steam engine, a machine that would ‘raise water by fire’ from the dank mines.

The Newcomen engine signalled the end of Celia Fiennes’ horse powered England and the beginning of the age of steam. By end of the 1700s there were 2,000 steam machines operating across the country.

Men working at Coalbrookdale


Newcomen built the first proper working engine at the Conygree Coalworks in the West Midlands. The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley is home to a working replica of the original machine.

Abraham Darby III took over his grandfather’s Coalbrookdale foundry. In 1779 he built a 30-metre cast-iron bridge across the River Severn.


Abraham Darby I was a Worcestershire Quaker with a fascination for furnaces. In 1708, after years of trial and error, Darby discovered the secrets of smelting iron in a blast furnace – perfecting the production of the metal that made the industrial revolution.

Darby established an ironworks in the Shropshire valley of Coalbrookdale – filling the kitchens of England with affordable pots, pans, kettles and cutlery. Thomas Newcomen, who had struggled with expensive and unpredictable brass fittings, powered his machines with Darby’s reliable iron cylinders.

Abraham Darby III took over his grandfather’s Coalbrookdale foundry. In 1779 he built a 30-metre cast-iron bridge across the River Severn. The world’s first iron bridge was so celebrated that the area now takes its name.

James Watt

James Watt


In the 1740s baby, James Watt sat watching a boiling kettle in his family kitchen on the Firth of Clyde, spellbound by the steam forcing the lid from the kettle top. These childhood observations inspired Watt to invent the steam engine.

This story is, of course, legend. Steam machines were pumping before Watt was born. But the myth of little James and his mother’s kettle is so powerful that Watt and the steam engine are inseparable.

Watt revolutionised the Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser boiler, making it five times more efficient and – most importantly for thrift-minded industrialists – saving 75% on coal costs.

He also developed a reliable system for measuring the strength of a steam engine; horsepower. In a world that depended on animals for transport and agriculture, people could visualise a machine doing the work of 20 horses.

The engineer’s contribution to science and industry is marked by our measurement of the rate at which electricity is generated and consumed: watts.


Once a month during the 18th century a group of men would meet by the light of the full moon. These natural philosophers, alchemists and entrepreneurs were determined to change the way we live.

The Lunar Society – jokingly known as ‘lunarticks’ – lived near the booming city of Birmingham. Members included James Watt, Matthew Boulton, the potter Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley – discoverer of oxygen and inventor of soda water. The moon provided enough light for them to journey home safely.

Matthew Boulton was a Brummie businessman who inherited his father’s ‘toy trade’ business, making buckles, coins and medals. He introduced machine processing, worker specialisation and mass production, building the first modern factory and the largest industrial complex in the world.

Boulton invited James Watt to Birmingham and together they built the finest steam engines of the age, including the Smethwick Steam Engine. Developed in 1779, it is the oldest working engine in the world and today is part of the Think Tank Museum in Birmingham – Boulton and Watt employed William Murdoch to pioneer gas lighting. He developed a process for ‘cleaning’ coal gas and piping it to street lights, factories and homes.

The first gas lighting companies sprang up in London in 1812. Gas lamps allowed nightlife to flourish and factories to work longer hours. The relics of this industry are the gasometers found across Britain and the 2,000 gas lights still in use in London.

Smethwick engine

Smethwick engine

Clogs became popular in the Industrial Revolution. Strong, cheap footwear was popular in the Lancashire mills (Lancastrians are known as ‘cloggies’). Clog dancing may have started with mill workers syncopating foot taps to the rhythmic sounds of the loom shuttles.

Soho House

Soho House


Medieval England was full of spinsters – women who spun fleece into yarn. The industrial revolution wiped out this cottage industry, leaving the etymological footnote of a word to describe unmarried females.

In 1769 Richard Arkwright patented the spinning frame. This turned the fast flowing rivers of the Pennines into power for mills. By combining water-powered machinery and semi-skilled sweated labour, Arkwright transformed a medieval trade into a manufacturing industry.

Families with children as young as seven worked at Arkwright’s Lancashire and Derbyshire mills. Labouring in 13-hour shifts, workers were woken at 5.00am and the factory doors closed by 6.00am – anyone left outside lost a day’s pay.

Arkwright opened the first steam driven mill on Manchester’s Miller Street in 1781. Four decades later ‘cottonopolis’ had become the first city of mass production, with over 100 mills spinning a third of the world’s cotton. Arkwright died a knight of the realm with a fortune of £500,000 – around £7 billion today.

Cottonopolis quickly became ‘canalopolis’. A modern world needed modern transport, the pack mule was sent packing and replaced by the industrial canal. First came the Bridgewater, built by the ‘Canal Duke’ of Bridgewater in 1761 to ship coal to Manchester’s mills – halving the price of anthracite.

Soon thousands of mostly Irish navigational engineers (navvies) were digging up a golden age of canals that boomed between 1770 and 1830. Huge sums were invested as 4,000 miles of canals networked across Britain. But the canal’s reign was brief. On the horizon was the iron horseman of the apocalypse.

Belper Mill

Belper Mill

Trouble at Mill In 1779 a young textile worker, Ned Ludd, smashed two weaving looms. This protest gave birth to the Luddites who destroyed the machines that threatened their skilled jobs. Weavers burned mills and machinery in Nottingham, Yorkshire and Lancashire. The government responded by sending in the army and sentencing the Luddites to execution and transportation.

Mills and Sir Richard Arkwright

Mills and Sir Richard Arkwright

Derwent Valley Mills is a World Heritage Site located along the River Derwent in Derbyshire. It includes Cromford, Belper, Milford and Darley Abbey as well as more than 800 listed buildings including mills, workers’ housing and canals.


Richard Trevithick was a Cornwall miner’s son with a fascination for steam engines. His goal was to develop Watt’s engines into high-pressure boilers that could power a rail engine.

In 1804 he realised his dream when the world’s first locomotive railway journey took place in the Pen-y-darron Ironworks in Wales. The engine pulled five wagons and 70 men on a 10-mile journey – the modern railway was born.

Trevithick’s revolutionary invention won him little acclaim and less money. The man who built the first railway engine died penniless in a Kent hostel.

The Cornishman was followed by the Stephensons. ‘Geordie’ George Stephenson was an illiterate collieryman who built the first passenger steam railway in the world; the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830. It was powered by the famous Rocket locomotive, and the most advanced steam train of its day became the template for locomotives for the following 150 years.

Stephenson pioneered the main train routes across the north of England, earning him the nickname ‘the father of the railways’. His son, Robert Stephenson, continued the work, establishing himself as a gentleman engineer and politician. His Westminster Abbey funeral was attended by 3,000 people, heralding the age of the celebrity engineer. The superstar of Victorian celebrity engineers was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A little over 5ft tall in his stovepipe hat, the cigar smoking showman pioneered a series of increasingly audacious projects.

The Thames Tunnel was the first to be constructed underneath a navigable river. Brunel worked alongside his father, supervising construction in the muddy depths. Isambard nearly drowned when the tunnel accidentally flooded. Completed in 1843, the tunnel is still in use, taking London Overground trains under the river at Wapping.

As chief engineer on the Great Western Railway, Brunel built one of the wonders of Victorian Britain. He rode on horseback for days to survey the route; he designed most of the stations (including Paddington); he insisted on building the longest railway tunnel in the world at Box; he demanded a double-gauge track so that passengers would ride in total comfort, earning the GWR the nickname ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’.

But Brunel was not satisfied with transporting passengers from London to Bristol. He wanted to take them across the Atlantic. So, in 1843 he built the SS Great Britain, the first passenger steamship to cross the Atlantic and the largest in the world. Today, the great iron leviathan is preserved and open to visitors in Bristol docks.



George Stephenson’s rail gauge of 4ft 8in became the standard gauge for the world’s railways.

SS Great Britain

SS Great Britain

There is a theory that the Geordies are named after the railwayman and inventor. George ‘Geordie’ Stephenson developed the pit lamp that became the symbol for miners in the North East. The ‘Geordie’ lamp was so popular that people used its name to refer to locals.

George Stephenson's Safety Lamp

George Stephenson’s Safety Lamp

Boxing Clever Brunel’s GWR Tunnel is at Box near Bath. At nearly two miles long, it was completed in 1841. Some passengers feared that the air pressure inside the tunnel would be so dangerous it would kill them and chose to leave the train before the tunnel and rejoin it on the other side. According to legend, Brunel deliberately aligned the tunnel so that the rising sun shines through it on April 9, Brunel’s birthday.

Stephenson’s Rocket was built in 1829. The steam engine won the Rainhill Trials, held by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway to choose the best design to power the railway. Today it is on display in London’s Science Museum. There is also a working replica in the Railway Museum in York.


The second industrial revolution began in a Mayfair basement. In the 1830s, in the Royal Institution’s laboratory, Michael Faraday invented the electric motor – transforming electricity from a curiosity into a technology that changed the way we live.

Faraday was a self-educated bookbinder who preferred reading books to binding them. He convinced the gentleman scientist, Sir Humphrey Davy, to employ him as an assistant at the Royal Institution. Historians remarked that ‘Faraday was Davy’s greatest discovery’ – no small claim, as Davy himself discovered five chemical elements.

Faraday is recognised as one of the greatest scientists of the century, defining the laws of electricity, magnetism and the properties of light. Every electric motor operating today is based on Faraday’s discovery.

Faraday worked on the planning of the great wonder of the Victorian age; the Great Exhibition of 1851. Staged in a 20-acre glasshouse designed by gardener, Joseph Paxton, the ‘Crystal Palace’ in London’s Hyde Park, the exhibition was a celebration of the technology, wealth and prestige brought to Britain by the industrial revolution.

Six million people visited, equivalent to no less than one-quarter of the entire population of Britain. It was a symbol of the extraordinary progress seen in the Victorian Age. During the Queen’s reign, Britain had gone from horsepower to steam power, from candlelight to gas and then electric light, from oil paintings to photographs and on to moving pictures.

The 1851 Great Exhibition featured wonders from across the world. It also exhibited innovations that never caught on, including furniture made of coal, a carriage pulled by kites and false teeth on a hinge.

The Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition


During the 1800s, thousands of people left the countryside for jobs in the industrial cities. Many paid a heavy price – toxic air, poor housing, long hours and dangerous machinery meant that during the 1850s in Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool the average life expectancy fell by five years.

Some professions were poisonous. In the Victorian era, mercury was used in hat-making to finish felt. Hat-makers exposed to the toxic metal developed tremors and tics – giving rise to the expression ‘mad as a hatter’.

Another dangerous trade was ‘white lead’, used in making tiles, ceramics and cosmetics. So many young women fell ill working in these finishing factories that they became known as ‘white cemeteries’.

Women and teenage girls working at the Bryant and May factory in east London regularly suffered from ‘phossy jaw’, a disease caused by exposure to the yellow phosphorus used to tip the matchsticks. Symptoms included swelling gums, brain damage and organ failure. In 1888 the matchgirls went on strike for better pay and working conditions. The company conceded and safeguarded the health of the match girls. It was a landmark on the road to better welfare for workers in the new industrial age.

Book a Blue Badge Guide for a personal tour to learn more and visit the places mentioned here.