Broseley Local History Society  
Incorporating the Wilkinson Society

Home.gif (631 bytes)
Location.gif (737 bytes)
info.gif (1053 bytes)
History.gif (700 bytes)
Trail.gif (808 bytes)

News.gif (844 bytes)
Books.gif (886 bytes)
Join.gif (928 bytes)
links.gif (640 bytes)


John Wilkinson and the Iron Bridge

Part 1. The Bridge in Modern Times

by Michael Berthoud  ©



Part 2 The Background to the Bridge

The iron bridge, spanning the River Severn near Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, is universally esteemed as a monument to its presumed builder, Abraham Darby III.

 This has not always been the case. Abraham Darby has not always been given credit for building the bridge - which passed, during the early years of the present century, from being one of the wonders of the industrial world to being an eyesore and a white elephant. In 1949 one Edmund Vale was moved to write

 ‘About half a mile down stream there is a free bridge, but no doubt they will, in time, make another on the old site. If so, 1 venture to hope that the authorities will use more discretion than they did at Atcham. A derelict bridge is an unsightly embarrassment and spoils the view. It would be better to take it down (as could quite easily be done in this case) and re-erect it at some place like Whipsnade where it could be both used and well seen’.

 Mercifully, nobody heeded Mr. Vale for some years. Ownership of the bridge and its tolls had passed into the hands of the Rathbones, a Quaker family in Liverpool. Wheeled traffic was then no longer allowed but foot passengers still paid a halfpenny toll between 6 am and 9 pm.

 In October 1950 a ceremony took place in which Major Rathbone, representing the family, symbolically threw the key into the river and handed the bridge over into the care of the Shropshire County Council. The traditional halfpenny toll from foot passengers was no longer worth the effort of collecting, the bridge was in a poor state of repair and it soon became an embarrassment and a nuisance to the County Council. In 1953 the original Minute Book, which provides some valuable information concerning the origins of the bridge, was discovered in the County Library at Shrewsbury. In 1956 the County Council proposed demolishing the bridge and replacing it with a more modern structure. William H. Butler, on whose shoulders the mantle of Thomas Famous Pritchard and Thomas Telford had fallen, drew up a plan for a new bridge. Following the advice of Edmund Vale, Butler proposed demolishing the original bridge (my copy of his plan makes no mention of Whipsnade) and building a new one on the same site. This seems to suggest that the original designer had chosen the ideal - possibly the only - site for a bridge over that part of the Gorge.

 There matters rested for a while. The late Brigadier Goulburn told me, some years ago, the story of what happened next. As a County Councillor he had been at a meeting in Shrewsbury one evening when the proposed demolition of the bridge was discussed. After the meeting he decided to drive home by way of Ironbridge to see for himself the condition of the bridge. He was surprised to see, parked by the bridge, a London taxi-cab. The brigadier stopped his car and engaged the cab driver in conversation.

 He had apparently picked up a fare at London Airport, three Japanese gentlemen who had asked him to drive them to Ironbridge. They wanted to inspect and pay homage to what they regarded as an important industrial monument. Whether they had heard of the proposed demolition of the bridge and had thoughts of buying it and shipping it back to Japan we shall probably never know. The cab driver was quite happy to wait while the brigadier and the three Japanese exchanged courtesies.

 Brigadier Goulburn told me he had been deeply moved by this encounter. He decided there and then that the bridge must not be demolished, went straight home and telephoned anyone he thought might be interested in saving the bridge. The result of his endeavours was the formation of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The bridge recovered from the threat, the plan it was that died.

 Abraham Darby had not, at that time, been given credit for his part in the history of the bridge. On the other hand, the names of John Wilkinson—King of the Ironmasters— and Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, the Shrewsbury architect, had long been associated with it. C. V. Hancock, in ‘East and West of the Severn’ (published in 1956) described it as ‘...“an ancient monument” and a monument also to the faith of the ironmasters of genius, John Wilkinson and Abraham Darby the third’.

 Gradually, over the past few decades, claims on behalf of Abraham Darby as the builder of the bridge were promoted. Almost every writer on the subject since the 1950s has credited Abraham Darby with the building of the bridge while the part played by John Wilkinson and others has been gradually eliminated from the story. Indeed, some modern accounts seem to suggest that Abraham Darby promoted, designed and built the bridge, if not single-handed, with very minimal involvement by anyone else. On closer inspection this version of the legend proves to be of fairly recent origin.

 Until the discovery in 1953 of the original Minute Book of the bridge, almost the only authority quoted was John Randall of Madeley. Randall, a former painter at the Coalport factory, retired in 1880, publishing a History of Madeley in that year and an account of John Wilkinson and his family in 1886. Randall’s account of the origin of the bridge is unambiguous and credits the proposal for an iron bridge to Wilkinson. Randall describes how:

 ‘Wilkinson had faith in his favourite metal.  He believed in iron thoroughly... When, therefore, it was proposed to put a bridge across the Severn, to connect the Broseley and Madeley banks of the river, at that time two great ironmaking districts, Wilkinson at once proposed that his favourite metal should be employed for the purpose. But the thing was pronounced to be preposterous and Wilkinson was declared to be “iron mad”.’

 Other nineteenth century writers, including Thomas Telford, believed Thomas Famous Pritchard was the designer and original promoter of the bridge. Gradually though, Pritchard’s assumed contribution was eroded until, in the section devoted to the iron bridge in the 1958 edition of Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘Shropshire’ (appearing unchanged in the 1979 edition) the blunt statement appears, ‘It was designed by Abraham Darby’. This is followed by a footnote which reads, ‘The attribution of the design to the Shrewsbury architect Thomas Famous Pritchard is not justified. The designs he submitted in 1775 were for a bridge of stone, brick and timber (see the Minute Books at the Shrewsbury Public Library, and A. Raistrick: Dynasty of Ironfounders, 1953)’.

 It was the shock of reading this categorical assertion by a widely respected authority that prompted me to re-examine the evidence and try to establish the truth of the matter as opposed the widely disseminated propaganda version. I was, at the time, living at John Wilkinson’s former house at Broseley.

 The propaganda, or ‘authorised version’, has a number of minor variations but is essentially as follows: Abraham Darby II had wanted to build a bridge across the Severn but died before his dream could be realised. A group of local businessmen, including Abraham Darby III and John Wilkinson, met in 1775 and proposed building a conventional wooden bridge across the Gorge near Coalbrookdale. Abraham Darby and John Wilkinson were both devoted to iron and insisted that the bridge should be entirely of cast iron. Pritchard, who had offered the meeting a plan for a stone bridge (with cast iron brought in only to form a crown to the arch), was told to go away and design a bridge entirely of cast iron.

 Sixty shares were issued, of which Abraham Darby took fifteen arid John Wilkinson twelve. Abraham Darby was appointed treasurer and agreed to build the bridge. Edmund Vale thought it ‘remarkable that in spite of the confidence of Wilkinson and Abraham Darby III and his very capable and eminent manager Richard Reynolds, it was thought necessary to consult an architect for the design of the bridge’.

 Arguments and disagreements broke out among the trustees and a ‘schism’ developed in their ranks. The shareholders broke up into two camps, those (including Wilkinson and Darby) who approved of building in cast iron and those who thought the idea ‘preposterous’ and ‘mad’. Almost a year had been wasted. Darby had prepared an estimate for building the bridge and, to strengthen his hand, he took over John Wilkinson’s twelve shares, taking his holding to thirty-seven* out of sixty and assuring him of a majority vote. Wilkinson must either have changed sides or had cooled off and lost interest in the project. These figures, which appeared to be confirmed in the Minute Book, disposed of any idea that Wilkinson had taken any active part in promoting, designing or financing the building of the bridge.

 * This apparent discrepancy will be discussed in a later part of the article— Ed.)

 Matters were well advanced by 1777 when further money was raised and the specification was altered to provide a higher arch and a broader carriageway. Pritchard was, by that time, a sick man and Darby took over the responsibility for designing the final version of the bridge and for casting the components at his Coalbrookdale foundry. Pritchard died before it could be completed. It could therefore be asserted that Abraham Darby had promoted, designed, cast and built the world’s first iron bridge while Wilkinson, Pritchard and others had played no more than a supporting role in the early stages.

 This version of events broadly concurred with that given by Randall and was confirmed by the Minute Book when it was rediscovered in 1953. The old myths and legends surrounding the building of the bridge could now be laid to rest and Darby given his rightful place in the history books. The statements by Raistrick and Pevsner delivered the coup de grace to Pritchard and seemed to be the last word on the subject. That, broadly speaking, is where matters stood in 1988 when I began my investigations.

 A cursory reading of the Minute Book appeared to support the conventional wisdom but I was left with an uneasy feeling that all was not well. The story did not ring true. There appeared to be some irreconcilable contradictions in the various versions of the events that took place in the Severn Gorge in the 1770s. I decided the best way forward was to assemble all the available evidence and to reconstruct the story from scratch. A number of interesting facts began to emerge. Firstly, that a continuing re-appraisal of Pritchard’s place in the history of Shropshire’s architecture had already begun. This largely rested on the identification by John Harris, the librarian of the Royal Institution of British Architects, of a book of designs for chimney pieces. The book was discovered in a museum in America and Harris identified the designs as those of Pritchard, thus considerably extending the list of houses on which Pritchard is known to have worked.

 In a wry comment in an article published in Architectural History, Volume I, 1968, Harris suggested that as recently as 1954 all that had been ascribed to Pritchard had been the ‘rebuilding of St. Julian’s Church, Shrewsbury, in 1749-50, and his third design in 1775 for Abraham Darby’s famous Coalbrookdale cast iron bridge.’ ‘His ghost,’ wrote Harris, ‘must have been dispirited to have had even the bridge denied him in 1958, although this was happily rectified in the same year’.

 This referred to Pevsner’s damning footnote in the 1958 edition of ‘Shropshire’, denying Pritchard any credit for his part in the design of the iron bridge. Harris noted that this was reinstated in the same year, a reference to an article by R. Maguire and P. Matthews, ‘The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale’, published in the Architectural Association Journal, July-August 1958, of which more later.

 It was noticeable that while Pritchard was gradually being reinstated as a local architect of some importance, this was having little or no effect on the ‘authorised version’ that was still in circulation. An article by J. L. Hobbs in the Shropshire Magazine for September 1959 was similarly ignored although it had thrown some fresh light on the subject. Here the author quoted Tredgold, in an essay on the strength of cast iron (published in 1824), as claiming that ‘the original idea of applying cast iron to bridges came to Pritchard in 1773 and was communicated to John Wilkinson’. Hobbs suggested that this might have happened the other way round, that Wilkinson may have suggested the use of iron to Pritchard—who had originally trained as a ‘mason and statuary’. Quoting the minutes of the meeting of September 15th 1775, at which Pritchard and Samuel Thomas were desired to prepare estimates of the proposed bridge, Hobbs commented ‘It is difficult not to see the hand of John Wilkinson behind this proposal’.

 Dr. Barrie Trinder’s 1981 edition of ‘The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire’ took things a stage further. Although continuing to make the claim that ‘Abraham Darby Ill was principally responsible for the construction of the bridge,’ he added the challenging comment that Pritchard ‘remained a shareholder until the time of his death, and was probably responsible for the design of the bridge which was eventually built’. There were so many contradictions appearing, so many cracks in the ‘authorised version’ (Michael Berthoud, 1996) that could no longer be papered over, that nothing short of a complete re-appraisal of the facts could produce a coherent and credible scenario.

 My dossier on Pritchard continued to grow. All the evidence was pointing towards Pritchard’s involvement at every stage of the development of the iron bridge and there remained many unanswered questions about Wilkinson’s involvement. Pevsner’s position was no longer tenable. At that stage, I found myself unable to continue my researches, having moved to Bridgnorth and the Pritchard material having been temporarily mislaid during the move. After a lapse of several years my interest in the subject was rekindled when I came across my copy of John Randall’s book ‘The Wilkinsons’ and read once again his account of how the bridge came to be built.

 The iron bridge seems destined to remain the subject of paradox and contradiction. Widely advertised as the centrepiece of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, its familiar image features prominently on the ‘passport tickets’ giving access to the various museum sites and is used as the Trust’s logo. In fact, access to it is free, it belongs not to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust but to English Heritage, and a commemorative plaque attached to the bridge reads,

 ‘This bridge was the first great iron bridge in the world, built between 1777 and 1781. It has a span of just over 100ft (33m), spanning the Severn Gorge. It was intended from the start to be a spectacular advertisement of the skills of the Coalbrookdale ironmasters.

 ‘The bridge is built entirely of components cast at Abraham Darby’s ironworks. It was he who developed the design in conjunction with the architect Thomas Famous Pritchard.’

 John Wilkinson’s name does not appear.


John Wilkinson and the Iron Bridge

Part 2 The Background to the Bridge

By Michael Berthoud


Before looking at the apparent discrepancies between John Randall’s account of the building of the Iron Bridge and the information contained in the Minute Book, it would be as well to consider why the bridge was proposed in the first place. It has often been described as ‘a bridge to nowhere’. Indeed some recent writers have gone out of their way to suggest that there was no real need for the bridge at all and that it was built chiefly to advertise Abraham Darby’s Coalbrookdale ironworks. In fact, the true state of affairs in the eighteenth century was very different.

In the eighteenth century Coalbrookdale (originally Caldbrook Dale according to Randall) was an obscure village about a mile to the north of the Severn and forming part of the parish of Madeley. The spelling ‘Coalbrooke Dale’ was retained until the end of the century at least, and the ironworks itself, usually referred to today as the ‘Coalbrookdale Works’, was in its day known as the ‘Dale Company’. The company’s reputation in the eighteenth century rested on coke, cooking pots and cannon, and Coalbrookdale was virtually unknown to the rest of the country until after the Iron Bridge was built.

The difficulty of defining Coalbrookdale geographically has bedevilled generations of historians. Not only did it apply to the village on the north bank of the Severn, but to both sides of the Severn Gorge for some distance upstream and downstream of the site where the Iron Bridge was eventually built. Obviously, before there was an Iron Bridge there could not have been an ‘Ironbridge Gorge’. Once the bridge had been built and the area’s international fame had become established, the name Coalbrookdale was used even more widely. By the early nineteenth century even the Coalport China Works was regarded as being in Coalbrookdale, and at one time John Rose, never a man to miss a good marketing opportunity, used it as a factory mark on his porcelain.

Across the river to the south lay Broseley, an important industrial town with fast-growing coal, iron and clay industries. John Wilkinson had been making cast iron at his Willey Foundry at Broseley since the 1750s.

To the north of the river lay the coal mines of Madeley and iron works at Ketley and Horsehay. In addition, there were extensive limestone works on the north bank of the river, gradually eating their way into Lincoln Hill (the name itself doubtless a corrup­tion of ‘Lime Kiln Hill’). These two centres of local industry, Broseley and Madeley, were linked only by a ferry across the river. The geography of the gorge caused the river to rise and fall with dramatic suddenness, the current was strong and the ferry crossing was often hazardous. The only alternative to the ferry was by way of the bridges at Buildwas and Bridgnorth, an expensive detour in either direction.

This combination of geographical features and industrial necessity presented a unique challenge to the eighteenth century bridge designer, a fact which has not been sufficiently taken into account in considering the history of the bridge. Randall expressed very succinctly the problems posed by the site when he wrote, in his History of Madeley, that the Iron Bridge represented ‘a great advance upon the rickety wooden structures, affected by wind and rain, it was no less so upon those clumsy-looking ones of stone higher up and lower down the river, which, choking up the stream and impeding navigation, caused apprehensions at every flood for their safety’ and, in his book on The Wilkinsons, of ‘the heavy, clumsy looking structures of stone, that impeded navigation, and choked up the stream by their huge abutments’. Ideally, the bridge should not further narrow the gorge but should span the river in a single arch. That was the nub of the problem. The gorge was deep and narrow but navigable; the River Severn was the main waterway to the port of Bristol. Had it simply been a matter of getting from one side to the other it would have been easy enough to build a stone bridge with two arches. Although the gorge was narrow, it was still too wide for a single span built of brick or stone. Another important consideration was the height of the arch; it must allow tall ships to pass under it, again presenting difficulties if it were to be built of brick or stone. A single span bridge of cast iron, if such a thing were possible, would overcome all these problems. On the other hand, it had never been done before and needed great courage, faith and conviction. In national terms, the bridge itself was not of great interest or importance and did not become so until after it was built. It did not form part of a far-reaching road network. It did not link any distant towns. It was, in fact, a matter of purely parochial interest, but to local industrialists it was a matter of vital importance. What aroused the admiration of the world at large and earned the bridge international acclaim was not so much its location as the fact that it was built of cast iron. To suggest that it was built as an advertising gimmick to promote the Coalbrookdale ironworks is to trivialise the bridge and insult the memory of all who took part in its construction. One has only to look at the muster roll of those appointed as commissioners in 1775, when the trustees of the bridge first met, to recognise the absurdity of such statements. Among those appointed were the Earl Gower, Lord Craven, Sir Henry Bridgeman (a major landowner, owner of Weston Park and father of the first Earl of Bradford), Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, George Forester (a major landowner in the Broseley area, landlord of John Wilkinson’s New Willey Ironworks and the father of the first Lord Forester of Willey Park), William Pulteney (‘the richest Commoner in England’, MP for Shrewsbury for 37 years and patron of Thomas Telford), the Rev. John Fletcher (vicar of Madeley), Abraham Darby, John Wilkinson, Edward Blakeway and Thomas Farnolls Pritchard. To these were added, in November 1775, John Stanley, the Rev. Mr. Holmes, William Ware, Daniel Onions, John Guest and Thomas Rowley.

The level of interest shown in the project may be judged by com­parison with that shown in the Shropshire Canal project in 1788 (while the problems surrounding the Iron Bridge project were still unresolved), which was founded with a share capital of £50,000, with Richard Reynolds and Joseph Rathbone taking £6,000 worth each and John Wilkinson £5,000 worth. In comparison with these figures, the Iron Bridge was financed with small change, the original sum raised for its construction being a mere £3,150. Any one of the major shareholders in the bridge could have carried the cost single handed, and it is difficult in retrospect to appreciate the passions that were aroused by the proposal to build it of cast iron. Clearly it was a matter of principle rather than of money.

In the eighteenth century neither central government nor local authorities had the power or the will to build bridges and these, like canals and turnpike roads, were left to private enterprise to provide. It follows that if there was a real need for abridge, there was also the potential for collecting lucrative tolls. Local businessmen who invested in the bridge would be assured not only of a dividend but of free rights of passage.

The rapid growth of Broseley and Madeley in the second half of the eighteenth century provided the spur. There was no shortage of money for investment. Wilkinson, living at Broseley, was already a wealthy man. So also was his partner and brother-in-law, Edward Blakeway, a former mayor of Shrewsbury, who had retired from his successful drapery business and invested his money in a variety of local industries, including Wilkinson’s iron foundries, banking, a new bridge across the river at what was to become Coalport and, later, the Coalport China Works itself, in which he was a partner with John Rose.

On both sides of the river there were landowners, industrialists and members of the local gentry who would be willing to finance a proposed new bridge in the interests of safer and more convenient travel and the opportunity to gain a good return on their investment. Most of the potential investors would have been familiar with bridges built of stone, brick or timber and would have regarded any of these as a safe investment. There was, however, a growing awareness of the potential of cast iron as a building material, an awareness that Wilkinson shared with the architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard.

Bridges had become a matter of great concern to architects and industrialists along the Severn following severe flooding in 1770. The flooding that year was so serious that it became a yardstick by which floods continued to be measured for the next 25 years. Contemporary records refer to severe flooding in Shrewsbury in February 1794 and that ‘... the Severn at Cotton-hill was 9” higher than in the flood of 1770; in Frankwell 7”, and in Coleham 2½”. The Severn rose at Coalbrookdale 25¼” higher than it did in November 1770.

These figures are useful in showing the exaggerated rise in flood levels caused by the constriction of the river as it flows through the Gorge. Any new bridge contemplated would need to be designed to withstand the pressures of such flooding, which must also have increased the hazards of crossing the gorge by ferry. Some years later, in 1779, while taking 43 workers from the Coalport China Works home to Broseley, the ferry did capsize with the loss of 28 lives. Pritchard had left Shrewsbury in 1769 to live at Eyton Tower, the only remaining part of an Elizabethan house close to the river, from where he would have been well placed to observe the effects of flooding. He seems to have occupied himself at this time in designing buildings and bridges rather than in undertaking practical estate work. He must have been well aware of another incident in the Gorge which had occurred in 1773 and was widely reported at the time. This was the landslip at Buildwas which may well have affected Pritchard’s thinking on bridge design.

‘Next the river’, according to a contemporary account, ‘on the east side, there was a coppice, in which grew twenty or thirty large oaks. This coppice was forced into the Severn, and entirely choked up the channel, one side resting on the opposite shore. Most of the trees still stand erect; some few lean on one side and three or four are fallen down. The Land, which came down from the higher part of the hill, brought the hedges and trees standing in their proper position, a few only excepted. A turnpike road, at the bottom of the hill, which ran parallel to the river, is removed about thirty yards nearer the river and is, in all probability, made forever impassable. ‘The coppice...forced the waters of the Severn in columns like a fountain into the air, heaving the bed of the river up, and throwing out the fish upon the dry land, and leaving the channel dry below! It is not said how far, but we may suppose from the time the current was stopt, that it must have been for some miles. The stoppage of the river caused a sudden inundation above and a fall below, which happened so quick that some boats were heeled over and, when the stream came down, were sunk.’

It was against this background of a volatile river, subject to sudden floods and associated landslips, that Pritchard was asked to design a new bridge across the Severn at Stourport in Worcestershire. The story of this bridge, like so much of Pritchard’s history, has been lost. His grandson John White, himself an architect, wrote in 1832 that Pritchard had originally intended to build a wooden bridge but changed the design to one built of bricks around an iron centre.

An advertisement in Berrow’s Worcestershire Journal in 1774 invited trustees, to attend a meeting at which a ‘matter of some consequence’ was to be discussed. It seems that Pritchard had designed for Stourport ‘a commodious wooden bridge’ with a single arch but in the end built one of either brick or stone (accounts vary as to detail) around a core of iron crossing the river on three arches. The Stourport bridge was completed in September 1775, the same month in which the first meeting of the iron bridge trustees took place at Broseley. It was damaged by the severe floods of 1795 and was demolished soon afterwards. It is just possible that Pritchard’s design for a wooden bridge, set against his friendship with Wilkinson, the fanatical promoter of cast iron for all purposes, may have ignited the first spark in Pritchard’s mind. Suppose that, on looking at his design in wood, the thought struck him that, if the individual members could be cast in iron instead, with all the traditional timber joints exactly reproduced in the casting, the bridge would be much stronger and could be made to span a broader stream. Suppose that, on presenting his proposals to the trustees at Stourport, he was met with sheer horror and incredulity. What could be more natural than that the trustees should call a special meeting, advertising in the local newspaper that it concerned ‘a matter of some consequence’? Suppose that, at that meeting, Pritchard’s plan was rejected out of hand and he was forced to compromise and design a bridge of brick with only an incidental use of iron. What more natural than that he should then write to his friend John Wilkinson, on whose full support he could rely? All this is, of course, pure speculation but it does have the merit of being fully consistent with the known facts. Whatever the facts of the matter the possibility must remain that Pritchard had decided on an iron bridge at Stourport but had been forced by the trustees to com­promise and build a bridge partly of brick and only partly of iron, a bridge that in the end proved unsatisfactory and was destroyed in 1795.

John White wrote later that ‘Pritchard made a gradual progress in the application of iron to the erection of bridges’ suggesting that the Stourport bridge was only partially of iron and that he was working towards the idea of a bridge built entirely of iron. In 1773, the same year in which Pritchard designed the Stourport bridge and the year in which the Buildwas land slip occurred, Pritchard wrote to John Wilkinson suggesting the idea of an iron bridge across the Severn Gorge, linking Broseley with Madeley. In this project he could not have found two more ideal support­ers than Wilkinson, the fanatical man of iron, and Edward Blakeway, his partner and financier in many schemes, both men then based in Broseley. The idea surely could not fail.

Nor is it surprising that, of the two principal ironmasters of the area, he chose to confide in Wilkinson rather than in Abraham Darby. For one thing, he already knew Wilkinson well and had had dealings with him over the past seventeen years. For another, Wilkinson was an older and more experienced man as well as being an adventurous and dedicated user of iron. By contrast, Abraham Darby III was then only twenty-three years of age and, although he had been managing the day-to-day running of the Dale works since he was eighteen, he could obviously not have matched Wilkinson in experience, ingenuity or force of personality.

Wilkinson’s reaction to Pritchard’s proposal is not recorded but it was doubtless an enthusiastic one. As early as February 1774 the Shrewsbury Chronicle reported that the people of Broseley and Madeley were proposing to build an iron bridge of one arch over the Severn near Coalbrookdale with a span of 120ft. The wording of this announcement is crucial to what followed and to the way the story has been presented in more recent times.

The first mention of the possibility of an iron bridge seems to have come in Pritchard’s letter of 1773, supported by the subsequent newspaper advertisement. Failing any stronger claim, the credit for the concept itself must go to Pritchard who has, for too long, been left out of the reckoning. A contemporary portrait of Pritchard bears the anonymous inscription:

‘Thomas Famous Pritchard

Inventor of Cast Iron Bridges’

• .a fitting epitaph for the designer of the world’s first Iron Bridge.

© Michael Berthoud 1997