Branch AGM followed by the Peter Wakeman Memorial Lecture

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

“Coalbrookdale Foundry 300Years of Iron Founding – a Reflection”
Eddie Lindsay FICME

Branch President Richard Heath, MICME, extended a warm welcome to members and guests to the Branch AGM and the Peter Wakeman Memorial lecture.

At the AGM Darren Pritchard was given the presidential chain of office as President for the year 2018/9. Mark Holliday Prof MICME and David Hall Prof MICME were voted in as Senior Vice President and Junior Vice President respectively.

On completion of the business of the AGM now Past President Richard introduced Eddie Lindsay and his talk, “Coalbrookdale Foundry, 300years of iron founding – a reflection.

Eddie spoke of the sadness felt by ex-employees, the local community and many foundrymen and women throughout the UK and beyond with the closure of Coalbrookdale foundry after 300 years of founding. Iron smelting had been practised in Shropshire well before Abraham Darby began his iron business. In the early 16th century iron was smelted at Wenlock Abbey and then in 1638 Sir Basil Brooke built a furnace in Coalbrookdale smelting iron using charcoal.

In the late 1600’s and early 1700’s cooking pots were mostly imported from France and the Netherlands. Abraham Darby spent time in the Netherlands studying their methods and began experimenting with innovative methods to produce them. In 1707 he registered his patent for producing pots using sand moulds and a reusable pattern. This enabled him to produce at a much lower cost and take not only the UK market but also was able to export into Europe.

Around this time Dud Dudley had begun to smelt iron using coal, a method he did neither patented nor did he give much detail of the technique in his papers of the time. In 1708 Darby leased the defunct Sir Basil Brooke furnace, rebuilt it and began smelting iron using coke, which was a major breakthrough in iron melting, enabling the melting of larger quantities of metal at lower cost.

In 1717 Abraham Darby died and the company was then managed by Darby’s wife, son in law Richard Ford and Thomas Goldney. His son, Abraham Darby Ⅱ joined the company in 1732 being too young at the time of his father’s death. Ford remained manager of the company until 1745 when Darby Ⅱ took over. Like his father he was an innovative engineer and introduced a steam engine to supply the blast. This was a time of expansion with many new furnaces built and new products introduced, pumps, pipes, cannon and later engine cylinder castings.

In 1763 Abraham Darby Ⅱ died and the company was managed by Richard Reynolds who had been taken into partnership in 1757.
Iron, coal and other products were transported by horse pulled trucks along wooden rails which had a relatively short working life. To overcome this Reynolds cast rails and so doing created a precedent for future railways. Abraham Darby Ⅲ joined the firm in 1768 aged 18 and his brother Samuel a few years later. The company expanded further and not just locally. A bridge was needed across the river Severn and Darby and the architect James Pritchard developed the design for the world’s first cast iron bridge. Using knowledge of the time wooden bridge methods of construction were used in the design. The casting of 70 foot bridge members would test today’s engineers but for the late 1700’s it was unchartered territory and it is not fully understood how with open sand moulds they achieved it. The bridge was completed in 1781. The cost was almost double estimates and as Darby had agreed to cover cost over runs the company ran up debts which continued to be a burden throughout the life of Abraham Darby Ⅲ. Cannon production had stopped some years earlier for ethical reasons and, despite it being a lucrative market which could have eased the fortunes of the company, it and was not a market the company was prepared to re-enter.

The beginning of the 1800’s was a difficult time for the company which did not really begin to improve until Francis Darby developed castings for the structural and art markets around 1830. Steam engine manufacture continued to be a major market throughout the 19th century. At the start of the 1900’s products included rainwater goods, architectural castings and gas fires for London County Council as well as large cooking ranges for canteens and hotels. Munitions were produced for the 1st World War.

For over 200 years the Darby family were involved in the Coalbrookdale foundry but in 1929 it was incorporated into Allied Iron Founders ltd. Rainwater and soil products and domestic appliances became a major market. Munitions and other items, including wings for bombers were produced during the 2nd World War. Then after the war domestic appliances were designed on site and introduced including the Rayburn cooker. In 1969 the company was acquired by Glynwed Holdings to become part of the Glynwed Foundries Ltd subsidiary. Engineering and boiler castings were introduced and more investments were made into the mechanisation of foundry processes.

The recession of 2008/9 hit the foundry hard and it never really recovered. In 2015 the foundry was sold to the Middleby Corporation of America but regrettably it was unable to provide the company with the volume of work necessary to make the company viable and in November 2017 the gates were closed for the last time. Although Aga products are still assembled in Shropshire castings are now sourced outside the company.

The final slide of the presentation was that of the last of the employees’ foundry boots hanging from the closed gates of the factory.

A vote of thanks for an excellent presentation was given by Gareth Jeremiah, Prof MICME, and then the members and guests enjoyed an excellent buffet sponsored by the branch.