An aerial photo of the bridge, showing the close proximity of the main road alongside the river and the many building dotted nearby.
The Iron Bridge, in its previous grey colour, from above in 2008
The Ironbridge Gorge was formed at the end of the last ice age by the overflowing of Lake Lapworth, which resulted in the exposure of useful deposits of resources such as coal, iron ore, fire clay and limestone near the surface where they were readily mined. With the river providing a means of transport, the local area was an important centre of the emerging Industrial Revolution.
Abraham Darby I first smelted local iron ore with coke made from Coalbrookdale coal in 1709, and in the coming decades Shropshire became a centre for industry due to the low price of fuel from local mines. The River Severn was used as a key trading route, but it was also a barrier to travel around the deep Ironbridge Gorge, especially between the then important industrial parishes of Broseley and Madeley, the nearest bridge being at Buildwas 2 miles (3.2 km) away. The Iron Bridge was therefore proposed to link the industrial town of Broseley with the smaller mining town of Madeley and the industrial centre of Coalbrookdale. The use of the river by boat traffic and the steep sides of the gorge meant that any bridge should ideally be of a single span, and sufficiently high to allow tall ships to pass underneath. The steepness and instability of the banks was problematic for building a bridge, and there was no point where roads on opposite sides of the river converged.
The Iron Bridge was the first of its kind to be constructed, although not the first to be considered nor the first iron bridge of any kind. An iron bridge was partly constructed at Lyons in 1755, but was abandoned for reasons of cost, and a 72-foot-10-inch (22.2 m) span wrought iron footbridge over an ornamental waterway was erected in Kirklees, Yorkshire, in 1769.
In 1773, architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard wrote to his 'iron mad' friend and local ironmaster, John Wilkinson of Broseley, to suggest building a bridge out of cast iron. Although he specialised in the design of chimneypieces and other items of interior decoration, and in funerary monuments, he had also previously designed both wooden and stone bridges.
During the winter of 1773–74, local newspapers advertised a proposal to petition Parliament for leave to construct an iron bridge with a single 120-foot (37 m) span. In 1775, a subscription raised funds of between £3000 to £4000 (equivalent to £359,000 to £478,000 in 2016), and Abraham Darby III, the grandson of Abraham Darby I and an ironmaster working at Coalbrookdale, was appointed treasurer to the project.
In March 1776, the Act to build a bridge received Royal assent. It had been drafted by Thomas Addenbrooke, secretary of the trustees, and John Harries, a London barrister, then presented to the House of Commons by Charles Baldwyn, MP for Salop. Abraham Darby III was commissioned to cast and build the bridge. In May 1776, the trustees withdrew Darby's commission, and instead advertised for plans for a single arch bridge to be built in "stone, brick or timber". No satisfactory proposal was made, and the trustees agreed to proceed with Pritchard's design, but there was continued uncertainty about the use of iron, and conditions were set on the cost and duration of the construction. In July 1777 the span of the bridge was decreased to 90 feet (27 m), and then increased again to 100 feet 6 inches (30.6 m), possibly in order to accommodate a towpath.
The site, adjacent to where a ferry had run between Madeley and Benthall, was chosen for its high approaches on each side and the relative solidity of the ground. The Act of Parliament described how the bridge was to be built from a point in Benthall parish near the house of Samuel Barnett to a point on the opposite shore near the house of Thomas Crumpton. Pritchard died on 21 December 1777 in his towerhouse at Eyton on Severn, only a month after work had begun, having been ill for over a year.
The bridge is built from five sectional cast-iron ribs that give a span of 100 feet 6 inches (30.6 m). The construction of the bridge used 378 long tons 10 cwt (847,800 lb or 384.6 t) of iron, and there are almost 1,700 individual components, the heaviest weighing 5 long tons 5 cwt (11,800 lb or 5.3 t). Components were cast individually to fit with each other, rather than being of standard sizes, with discrepancies of up to several centimetres between 'identical' components in different locations.
The masonry and abutments were constructed between 1777 and 1778, and the ribs were lifted into place in the summer of 1779. The bridge first spanned the river on 2 July 1779, and it was opened to traffic on 1 January 1781.
In 1997, a watercolour by Elias Martin was discovered in a Stockholm museum, which showed the bridge under construction in 1779. The painting shows a moveable wooden scaffold consisting of derrick poles standing in the river bed being used as a crane to position the half-ribs of the bridge, which had been taken to the site by boat from Darby's foundry 500 metres (1,600 ft) downstream. Using the approach depicted in the painting, a half-size replica of the main section of the bridge was built in 2001 as part of the research for the BBC's Timewatch programme, which was shown the following year.
Decorative rings and ogees between the structural ribs of the bridge suggest that the final design was Pritchard's, as the same elements appear in a gazebo he rebuilt. A foreman at the foundry, Thomas Gregory, drew the detailed designs for the members, resulting in the use of carpentry jointing details such as mortise and tenon joints and dovetails.
The two outer ribs are engraved with the words: "This bridge was cast at Coalbrook-Dale and erected in the year MDCCLXXIX".
Two supplemental arches, of similar cast iron construction, carry a towpath on the southern bank and also act as flood arches. A stone arch with a brick vault carries a small path on the northern (town side) bank.
The Iron Bridge is made of cast iron. This is immensely strong in compression, but performs less well than steel and wrought iron when subjected to tension or bending moments, because of its brittleness and lower tensile strength. Analysis of an arch and a strut from the Iron Bridge revealed the following elemental compositions:
The presence of 0.1% sulphur in cast iron is at the upper limit of what acceptable, but the presence of sufficient manganese leads to the formation of harmless manganese sulphide.
Puddled wrought iron was a much better structural material than cast iron but not widely available until after 1800, eventually becoming the preferred material for bridges, rails, ships and buildings until new steel making processes such as the Bessemer process were developed in the late 19th century.
Darby had agreed to construct the bridge with a budget of £3,250 (equivalent to £380,000 in 2016) and this was raised by subscribers to the project, mostly from Broseley. While the actual cost of the bridge is unknown, contemporary records suggest it was as high as £6,000 (equivalent to £701,000 in 2016), and Darby, who was already indebted from other ventures, agreed to cover the excess. However, by the mid-1790s the bridge was highly profitable, and tolls were giving the shareholders an annual dividend of 8 per cent.
The opening of the bridge resulted in changes in the pattern of settlement in the gorge, and roads around the bridge were improved in the years after its construction. The town of Ironbridge, taking its name from the bridge, developed at the northern end. The trustees, as well as local hotel keepers and coach operators, promoted interest in the bridge among members of high society.
In July 1783, a 35-yard (32 m) wall was built in order to prevent the north bank from slipping into the river. Cracks were found in the stone land arch on the south side in December 1784, and the neighbouring abutment showed signs of movement. The Gorge is very prone to landslides, and over 20 are recorded in the British Geological Survey's National Landslide Database in the area. It was suspected that the sides of the gorge were moving towards the river, forcing the feet of the arch towards each other, and consequently repairs were carried out in 1784, 1791 and 1792.
It was the only bridge on the River Severn to survive the flood of February 1795 undamaged, due to its strength and small profile against the floodwaters. The medieval bridge at Buildwas was replaced with a cast iron bridge by Thomas Telford, which, by virtue of superior design, required half the quantity of iron despite a longer span of 128 feet (39 m). The Buildwas Bridge survived until 1906.
In 1800 the trustees commissioned repairs which lasted for several years, which involved the replacement of the stone land arches with wooden ones to relieve pressure on the main span. A proposal to build a rigid support between the abutments to keep them apart was found to be impossible with the available technology, but was achieved during the later restoration of the bridge in the 1970s. In 1812, its construction was described as "very bad" by Charles Hutton, and he predicted that it would not last for long, "though not from any deficiency in the iron-work", but due to cracks that had appeared in the stonework. The timber arches were replaced with cast iron ones in December 1820, and further repairs were necessary throughout the remainder of the 19th century.
On 24 August 1902, a 30-foot (9.1 m) length of parapet collapsed into the river, and a section of deck plate weighing around 5 long hundredweight (250 kg) fell from the bridge in July 1903. The opening of a toll-free concrete bridge in 1909 caused concern among the trustees, but it continued to be used by vehicles and pedestrians.
Closure to vehicles
A 1923 report by engineering consultants Mott, Hay and Anderson suggested that other than the paintwork, the main span of the bridge was in good condition. It was suggested that the metal deck of the bridge was dangerously heavy, and that after removing the dead weight the bridge should be reopened to vehicles no heavier than 2 tons and restricted to the centre of the roadway. A weight limit of 4 tons was imposed, but the housing boom of the 1930s meant that drivers distributing tiles produced at Jackfield were insistent that they should be allowed to use the bridge, so the trustees took the decision to close it to vehicular traffic with effect from 18 June 1934. That same year, it was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Tolls for pedestrians were collected until 1950, when ownership of the bridge was transferred to Shropshire County Council. The tolls collected only marginally covered the cost of collection, leaving no budget for conservation, and the bridge had not been cleaned or painted for many years. Due to its poor condition, between the 1940s and 1970s a number of suggestions were made to scrap and replace the bridge, or move it to a different location. In 1956 the County Council made a proposal to demolish the bridge and replace it with a new one, but this plan did not come to fruition. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was set up in 1967 with the aim of protecting industrial heritage in the Ironbridge Gorge, and was able to secure funding from the council to carry out repairs.
With funding from Shropshire County Council, the Historic Buildings Council for England, and the nascent Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, a programme of repairs took place on the foundations of the bridge at a cost of £147,000 between 1972 and 1975. The consulting engineers Sandford, Fawcett, Wilton and Bell decided to place a ferro-concrete inverted arch under the river to counter inward movement of the bridge abutments. The arch was built by the Tarmac Construction Company, starting in the spring of 1973, but unusually high summer floods washed over the cofferdam, frustrating hopes that the work could be done in a single summer. Filling material was removed from the south abutment to reduce its weight, and the arch through it was reinforced with concrete. The road surface was replaced with a lighter tarmac, the stone of the abutments was renewed and the toll-house was restored as an information centre. In 1980, the structure was painted for the first time in the 20th century, and the work was complete for the bicentenary of the opening, which was celebrated on 1 January 1981.
In 1979, the bridge was recognised by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The bridge, the adjacent settlement of Ironbridge and the Ironbridge Gorge form the UNESCO Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site, which was created in 1986. The bridge is a Grade I listed building, and is owned by Telford and Wrekin Council.
Between 1999 and 2000, the bridge was scaffolded to allow examination by English Heritage. The bridge was also repainted and minor repairs were carried out. In January 2017 English Heritage announced a £1.2 million restoration project on the Iron Bridge, starting in September 2017, the "biggest ever conservation project" undertaken by English Heritage. The cost was quoted in 2018 at £3.6 million, with English Heritage describing it as "an ambitious conservation of its ribs and arches, its stonework and decking." The project was created after extensive surveys of the area revealed that the historic structure was under threat due to stresses in the ironwork dating from the original construction, ground movement over the centuries, and an earthquake in the 19th century. Apart from the structural restoration the bridge was also returned to its original red colour after forensic analysis revealed this was once how the bridge looked when it was first erected. The project was partly funded through the use of crowdfunding in which £47,545 was raised. It also received a €1,000,000 donation from the Hermann Reemtsma Foundation, a German foundation which mainly promotes cultural and social projects in northern Germany. This would also be the foundation's first funding in the United Kingdom. Following the works the bridge was reopened on 6 December 2018.