Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Industries of East Shropshire Through Time by Neil Clarke

The Area’s Natural Resources

Modern farming in a former mining landscape: Little Worth with Coalmoor beyond, in the parish of Little Wenlock. (Industries of East Shropshire Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

East Shropshire has been endowed with a variety of natural resources, both below and above ground. In addition to minerals such as coal, iron ore, clay, limestone and building stone, the area possesses rich agricultural land, woodland and water supplies. A wide range of manufacturing industries developed from these resources.

 

Manufacturing Industries

A remarkable range of industrial activity has taken place in East Shropshire over many centuries. Artefacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages (possibly made locally) have been found in the area, and it is thought that the Romans used coal in their manufacture of metal and clay products at locations in and around Wroxeter. In the Middle Ages, the local monasteries at Buildwas, Lilleshall, Wenlock and Wombridge granted licences for the mining and quarrying of coal, ironstone and building stone on their estates. The towns that grew up in the area from the medieval period onwards – Wellington, Newport, Shifnal, Bridgnorth and Much Wenlock – developed the manufacture and trade of such items as textiles, leather and metal goods. The granting of market charters and other privileges to these towns recognised their growing status.

However, from the late sixteenth century, the biggest changes in the area developed on the Coalbrookdale Coalfield. Here, the working of deposits of coal, ironstone and clay laid the foundations of the industries that were to give the area an early lead in the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century.

At first, most of the coal that was mined on either side of the Ironbridge Gorge was transported down-river to areas where it was used as a domestic and industrial fuel. The coal trade on the Severn continued to expand over the next 250 years, but much of the increased output of the Coalfield was needed to feed the area’s developing iron industry in the form of coke. It was Abraham Darby I who first successfully used coke to smelt iron at Coalbrookdale soon after 1709, and from the middle of the eighteenth century all new blast furnaces were coke-fuelled. The earliest method of making coke was to burn off the coal’s impurities in open heaps, but coking ovens were later introduced. In the 1780s, Archibald Cochrane 9th Earl of Dundonald) established works at Calcutts (Jackfield) and Benthall for the extraction of by-products from coal – coke, tar, pitch and oil. Several local ironmasters built coke and tar kilns based on those of the Earl of Dundonald. Another by-product of this destructive distillation of coal was what became known as town gas, which was made at a number of gasworks in the area in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The moulding shop at the Court Works, Madeley, in the 1920s. (Industries of East Shropshire Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

The earliest way of making iron was by the direct process of heating ore in a bloomery; however, by the sixteenth century charcoal-fired blast furnaces producing pig iron had been set up at four locations in the area. The introduction of coke as a fuel in the early eighteenth century, with the availability of local supplies of limestone as a flux, led to a rapid expansion of the iron industry, and by 1800 there were some fifteen ironworks with coke-fired furnaces on the Coalbrookdale Coalfield – one of the country’s leading ironmaking areas. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Old Park ironworks was the largest in Shropshire and the second largest in Britain. During the century, local production of pig iron continued to increase, but its proportion of the national output fell from over a quarter of the total in 1800 to about 10 per cent in 1830 and 4 per cent in 1860. By this time, apart from John Onions’ foundry at Broseley, all the East Shropshire ironworks – including furnaces, foundries, forges and rolling mills – were north of the Ironbridge Gorge. Dwindling mineral resources and competition from other areas led to the closure of most of the furnaces by the end of the nineteenth century, with only Madeley Court, Blists Hill and Priorslee, together with some local foundries, surviving into the next century. Heavy engineering and steel-making firms established in the second half of the nineteenth century at New Yard (Wrockwardine Wood) Horsehay, Donnington and Hadley continued to operate until the 1980s.

Local clays were used in the manufacture of a variety of products from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. There was a concentration of works on the south bank of the River Severn: at Jackfield earthenware and pottery, bricks and tiles, and encaustic tiles were made; Broseley was famous not only for its tobacco smoking pipes but also its bricks and tiles; fine porcelain was made at Caughley and pottery and later drainage pipes at Benthall. North of the river, fine china was made at Coalport; brickworks were built over a wide area, particularly by most of the ironworks owners; drainage pipes were made at Doseley; and sanitary ware was manufactured by the Lilleshall Company at Snedshill (Oakengates).

The quarries of Wenlock Edge were the last productive source of limestone in the area. In the second half of the twentieth century, the bulk of the limestone was used for aggregates in the construction industry, while some was used for concrete-based products and agricultural lime, and a small amount was used for fluxing purposes and building stone.

The produce of the land has fostered a range of manufacturing industries. In the past, crop farming provided barley for brewing and hemp for rope-making, while animal farming provided milk for dairy products, skins for leather, wool for textiles and meat for the food industry. Local woodland at one time provided domestic and industrial fuel, as well as timber for building construction, furniture-making and the production of wood naphtha. Streams drove the water wheels of local corn and paper mills, and a supply of water from the River Severn was a critical factor in the siting of both Ironbridge power stations.

 

 Industry Today

Joseph Sankey bought Hadley Castle Works in 1910 and utilised the buildings of the former tramcar works. Sankey's works specialised in motor vehicle wheels and bodies, and expanded with the burgeoning motor industry. (Industries of East Shropshire Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

Today there is possibly a greater variety of industrial activity within East Shropshire than there ever was in the past, but it is of a very different character. Mining and heavy industry have been replaced by a range of light engineering, technical, food and service industries, and this newer industrial activity has been concentrated on industrial estates and business parks. However, a handful of older industries have survived, including Aga cookers at Ketley, GKN Sankey at Hadley, Blockley’s brickworks at New Hadley/Trench Lock, and Leaton quarry at Wrockwardine. Brewing and the making of encaustic tiles at Jackfield have been revived on a modest scale, and soft toy manufacture is still carried on by Merrythought Ltd at Ironbridge. The newspaper and tourist industries also have their roots in the past.

The largest concentration of industrial estates and business parks is within Telford, where six sites were designated for such use when the New Town area was enlarged in 1968 – Halesfield, Heath Hill, Hortonwood, Stafford Park, Trench Lock and Tweedale. In fact, the first industrial estate had already been laid out at Tweedale and the first factory occupied two years previously (below). Outside Telford, industrial estates and business parks have also sprung up at Bridgnorth, Broseley, Much Wenlock, Newport and Shifnal.

As well as the different character of modern industrial activity in East Shropshire, few local resources are now used in the manufacturing processes. The movement of goods, whether raw materials or products, has been by road haulage since the 1960s, with the completion of the M54 in 1983 providing a vital link to the national motorway network. The only regular rail-borne traffic in recent years has been that to Ironbridge Power Station, which ended with the closure of the plant in 2015. The potential of the rail freight terminal at Donnington has still to be realised.

Neil Clarke's new book Industries of East Shropshire Through Time is available for purchase now.