Spanning the River Severn in Shropshire, England, is the Iron Bridge; an historic industrial engineering masterpiece. Opened to the public for transport in 1781, it was the world’s first bridge to have its supports and main body constructed solely from cast iron. The bridge symbolized a new construction method that had massive benefits in comparison to its other, some centuries-old, equivalents and was highly celebrated upon its completion.
Thomas Farnolls Pritchard was a popular British interior designer in the mid-18th century and his designs are featured in many banquet halls and ballrooms around central England. In 1773, he suggested the creation of a bridge to cross the River Severn to his local ironmaster, and thought that he could design it to be made from iron. Word spread quickly about the idea, and within the year a petition had been fronted by four local newspapers to propose the construction to Parliament.
In 1775, a trust fund of £5,000 was raised and in early 1776 the Act for construction received Royal Consent. However, later in the year the trustees withdrew the money and instead decided for the bridge to be made from “stone, brick, or timber”. No agreement was reached, though, and the trustees eventually yielded to continue with Pritchard’s design, although there remained great uncertainty about the use of iron.
CONSTRUCTING A CROSSING
The site was chosen for its solidity on either side of the gorge through which the river ran and would pass close to a house on either side, both of which would function as tollbooths. On the 21st of December in 1977, only a month after construction began, Pritchard died of a long-borne illness nearby in his home. Construction continued in his memory and by mid-1778 all of the masonry and abutments were ready for the iron ribs to be lifted into place.
The five ribs gave the bridge a span of almost 40 metres, and used 1700 individually-cast components which were fitted to each other one-at-a-time, leaving discrepancies of up to a few centimetres between supposedly-identical pieces. Exactly 384.6 tonnes of iron were used in the creation of the bridge, costing an estimated £6,000 in totality. Two decades later the bridge was incredibly profitable, with tolls paying dividends to the shareholders and proving early critics very incorrect.
CLOSING THE CROSSING
After having undergone numerous repairs to its structure in the late 19th century, the bridge was reported in 1923 to be “in good condition” aside from its paintwork. It was also suggested that the central metal deck of the bridge was actually dangerously heavy and that it should be remodeled. In June 1934, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and in the same year the bridge was declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Tolls for pedestrians stopped being collected in 1950 and in 1956 plans were made to entirely replace the bridge, although the plans were ultimately fruitless.
After heated negotiations, the bridge was restored to its former grandeur in the early-to-mid 1970s and the old road surface was re-paved using macadam. The toll-house was converted into an information centre about the bridge and surrounding area and in 1980, the structure received its first coat of paint for almost a century.
Camping and Caravanning Club Site
Ring Bank, Haughton, Shrewsbury
Shropshire, England, SY4 4GB
+44 (0)1743 709 334
- Address: Tontine Hill Rd, Ironbridge, Telford, Shropshire, England, UK, TF8 7JP
- GPS: 52.6268599,-2.4851295999999365
- Phone: 0044 (0)1952 433 424
- Part of UK: England
- Sat Nav Postcode: TF8 7JP
- Entrance Fees: Free Access
- Disabled Access: Excellent
- Visibility from Road: Excellent
- Image Credits: Tom Foxall