Once Rich in Natural Resources, Coalbrookdale Now Overflows with Research Gems

by Meg King

As a first-time visitor to Coalbrookdale, I could’ve been mistaken for Owen Wilson, considering how many times I said, “wow.” I mean, who knew that Ironbridge is so much more than literally just an iron bridge? Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Ironbridge Gorge museum network is actually comprised of ten separate heritage sites, including the Blists Hill Victorian Town, the Coalport China Museum, and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, where I spent the majority of my far-too-short time in Shropshire.

Set upon the grounds which served as the birthplace of industry, the Museum of Iron illustrates the lives and work of the family of Abraham Darby. As a staunch Quaker, studying and developing the craft of a skilled tradesman was an obvious path for Abraham Darby. Darby’s notoriety surpassed that of an ordinary artisan, however, when he perfected a method of smelting iron in a blast furnace which was fueled by coke as opposed to charcoal.

19th-century printing blocks which were used to showcase the company’s creation in catalog form

Whereas charcoal tended to be both time-consuming and fragile, coke expedited the smelting process and made the production of iron more cost-effective. Darby’s ingenuity not only enabled the mass production of iron goods, which were intricate in detail, solidly forged, and exported worldwide, but, moreover, established Coalbrookdale as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

Admittedly, I knew very little about Coalbrookdale prior to my visit, but after driving past the Abraham Darby Academy and the Abraham Darby Sports and Leisure Centre, I felt it was safe to assume that the men who bore the name were a pretty big deal. What I did not anticipate, however, was how important women were in securing Abraham Darby’s place in history. In the Quaker faith and in the Darby family business, regardless of any legislative factors, men and women were acknowledged as equal, which offered all individuals access to the same educational and employment opportunities. As this is a history blog rather than a political rant, I shall continue onward, with no further comments or comparisons.

Quaker bonnets worn by the women who at one point ran the company (Ironic how women were so important, yet the only surviving objects from their reign are as stereotypical as clothing)

So, women. Yes, as early as 1709, women of all ages labored in warehouses and mines. Women combed the pit banks and mine shafts for fragments of iron and transported them to the production site. Moreover, upon the death of Abraham Darby III in 1789, women even ran the Coalbrookdale Company. As there were no male heirs of age to fulfill management roles, Abraham’s sister, Sarah Darby, supervised (and might I add, expertly so) all matters of business alongside her sister, Mary Rathbone, and her brother’s widows, Rebecca and Deborah. At all levels, the intelligent and hardworking women of Ironbridge Gorge advanced the company’s operations and profits, and by 1880, ten percent of the Coalbrookdale Company’s payroll were female. Women filling the rank and file of a sector that can only be described as a “boys’ club” is impressive as is, but in nineteenth-century terms, it’s extraordinary. In fact, it was during the reign of the Darby women that Cornwall-based engineer Richard Trevithick came to understand that only the talented artisans in Coalbrookdale could aid him in carrying out his vision of the world’s first railway steam locomotive.

Strolling on the green and listening as the clocktower still chimes every hour on the hour, viewing the Darby Family’s original furnace, which remains preserved upon the property and dating back to 1638 (Fun Fact: It’s historical significance has been awarded Grade I Listed status), and touring the Darby family houses, situated atop the hill alongside the workers’ quarters really puts into perspective both the massive scale of the family’s iron-making operation and its commitment to the Ironbridge Gorge community. For less casual history buffs, the Coalbrookdale Research Library and Archive house rich primary resources, including personal diaries, private correspondence, photographic collections, and local ephemera which reinforce the region’s importance in the Industrial Revolution.

A fireplace cover bearing the scene of the last supper (details on how the Quaker religion influenced and even enhanced the Coalbrookdale Company)

Maybe you’re thinking that all of this information is overwhelming or maybe I still haven’t sold you on exactly how interesting iron can be. If you’re unsure of where to start, go online and plan your visit or reach out to one of the many lovely people who strive to preserve these important historical sites. During my time in Coalbrookdale, I didn’t encounter a single soul who wasn’t willing to answer my questions or point me in the direction of a good cup of coffee. If the latter is holding you back from planning a visit to Ironbridge Gorge, I can promise you that the region has something to offer everyone. Just to reiterate, the area has ten historical sites. Ten. So just trust me.

GSCE ‘Bootcamp’ Revision Session – 16th April 2019

by Amelia Kinsey and Ben Bradley

In order to improve relations with the Old Operating Theatre for future collaborations regarding the Surgical Revolution and to promote the Age of Revolutions project to Schools around the UK, Amelia and I were sent to London to assist in a GCSE revision Bootcamp for the ‘Medicine Through Time’ module currently studied in GCSE History. The day began rather early, as we boarded our train to St. Pancras at 7:00 am!

Ben and I, as student ambassadors representative of the Age of Revolutions Project, were keen to make a good impression. Although a while since our own GSCE days, Ben himself had done the same ‘Medicine Through Time’ module at GCSE and we had both recently studied ‘Surgery, Science and Society from 1750’ here at the University of Kent. This reassured us we would be beneficial in our duties of assisting and encouraging the students throughout the day.

The session began with an informative introductory lecture from Julie, explaining the events to follow. This enabled us to gain insight into the students current level of understanding. A short game was then conducted by Hailey and Gareth to motivate the students to really get involved!

Structurally the bootcamp was ordered chronologically, literally going through medicine throughout time, categorising topics into various themes, including key figures to remember and any revolutionary aspects. Julie, Hailey and Gareth would lead the first half of each topic, giving a lecture and presentation detailing all the relevant information. Myself and Ben then got involved in the second part of each session. This was predominantly based on source analysis, as a segment of the GCSE paper requires students to analyse the given source and create their own historical question from their analysis and knowledge.

The sources varied in form, including diary entries, paintings, quotes and photographs. The students were very receptive in their analysis and were eager to discuss the sources and with both each other and Ben and I. There was a mixed bag in terms of student confidence, evident when discussing the imminence of the exam. Despite trying to wrap my head around the newly updated numerical grading system, it was obvious to see that the bootcamp was proving beneficial to all.

In-between topics the students were given refreshment breaks with a lovely selection of food and drink, allowing for a mental rest and a (hopeful) restocking of energy and enthusiasm for medicine! This was encouraged by a range of medical related sweets, courtesy of the Old Operating Theatre.

The students were open to converse about each topic, and noticeably as the day went on, why myself and Ben were there, what we were doing at university and how our own GCSE experiences went. Explaining the Age of Revolutions project, our objectives and roles within, seemed a pleasant distraction for the students, who after 6 hours of revision were getting restless!
In addition to allowing the students a break, discussing the project allowed us to promote the work we were doing to the students, with some even asking for the links to the projects website so they could see for themselves. Finally, we ensured the students they would be fine if they revised and stayed calm and it was time for myself and Ben to leave.

At the end of the session, there was lots of great feedback from the students and I left wishing I’d had the opportunity to attend a revision bootcamp in my GCSE days. Admittedly I wouldn’t say no to the University setting up something similar for my own upcoming exams!

We would like to say a big thank you to Julie, Hailey and Gareth on behalf of the Age of Revolution Project for organising and hosting the bootcamp and for allowing us to be part of the experience.

Swift and Bold: The Royal Green Jackets Museum

by Jack Davis

The Royal Green Jackets Museum is one of several military museums at the former Peninsula Barracks in the historic city of Winchester. The museum chronicles the story of the famous Royal Green Jackets from their beginnings in the mid 18th century, through to the amalgamation into The Rifles today. Boasting an impressive collection of artefacts, the museum captivates the imagination and showcases military history in an impressive way.

On the 17th of April 2019, myself and two other ambassadors, Rory and Arlo, travelled to Winchester and met outside the impressive Peninsula Barracks. Winchester itself is a gorgeous city, rich with medieval buildings, a bustling high street, and a very impressive cathedral. It was a shame that my time in Winchester was limited, although now it is certainly a place to revisit over the summer! We soon made our way through the gates of the barracks and into the museum and were welcomed by the museum’s curator, Christine Pullen. We were then left to our own devices to wander through the museum at our own leisure. There were many uniforms, weapons, and other items of significance in the museum, and the Brown Bess musket and Baker Rifle that you were able to pick up and feel certainly fulfilled many a childhood fantasy! The most impressive exhibition in the museum was the gigantic 25 square meter Waterloo diorama, complete with over 30,000 figures. Taking a bird’s eye approach to one of the most famous battles of the period, the diorama walks visitors through the Battle of Waterloo in painstaking detail. The Age of Revolutions period is covered very well, and aims to tell visitors the role that the Royal Green Jackets, then the rifle regiments in the British Army, played. From Copenhagen to Spain, the impact of these men in their famous green jackets was clear. The museum goes further, though, exploring the Royal Green Jackets’ role in the colonial wars of the later 19th century, and the regiment’s contributions to the First and Second World War, and the campaigns that followed.We had visited the museum as part of the project’s military history aspect, and the Royal Green Jackets Museum is one of several museums that ambassadors will be visiting, or indeed have already visited, over the next couple of weeks. The other museums are the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment at Dover Castle, the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum at Caernarfon Castle, and the Highlanders Museum in Fort George. The aim of the project is to create a pop-up exhibition to be displayed in the museums, highlighting the role the British Army played in this period, with a particular emphasis on the Napoleonic Wars. The exhibition hopes to ‘fill in the blanks’, so to speak, with what the current museums offer with regards to Napoleonic history, exploring the history of recruitment for the British Army among other aspects. As a military history student at the University of Kent, it is sad to see that the school curriculums never seem to truly tackle military history, and so the project hopes to introduce this vital aspect of the Age of Revolutions back into schools.







The museum has great potential for the Age of Revolutions Project, and the staff seemed enthusiastic for the future. It will be interesting to see how the project can expand upon the museum’s rich exhibitions. I would like to convey my thanks to Christine, the museum’s curator, for her warm welcome.