The decorative ironwork found in the centre of the world's first Iron Bridge in Ironbridge, Telford, Shropshire. The design features a central circle, surrounded by flowing loops and neighboured by railing. The central section is adorned with the type 'ERECTED 1779'.

Industrial Revolution characters

People often ask, who started the Industrial Revolution? Where did the Industrial Revolution start? Why is Ironbridge regarded as the Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution? The answer to some of these questions is revealed with the story of the great innovators and iron masters who lived and worked in the Ironbridge Gorge.

Abraham Darby I (1678 – 1717)


Abraham Darby I is famous for pioneering the use of smelting iron with coke (roasted coal), rather than charcoal. This development was a major step forward and changed the course of the iron industry in the Industrial Revolution that was to follow.


Darby was born on 14 April 1678 near Dudley in the heart of the West Midlands. He was the son of a locksmith, and was born into a practising Quaker family. He became part of the wider Quaker business networks, which played an instrumental part in his later success.

In his early life, Darby was an apprentice in Birmingham’s malt mills (brewing beer), and moved to Bristol aged 21 to work set up his own malt mill business. He soon changed career path and began work in the brass industry – an industry which used sand moulds to cast pots. Darby saw the opportunity to use the advantages of sand moulds with iron – a significantly cheaper material. It was in 1703 that he set up an iron foundry in Bristol, and two years later he leased and repaired the blast furnace at Coalbrookdale. It was here that Darby began to use coke as a fuel to smelt iron, rather than charcoal which was previously used.

In 1709 Darby’s advance in using coke was successful, which paved the way for mass production of iron products to become a reality. By 1713 the first purpose-built coke fired blast furnace was built – a monument that still survives at Ironbridge Gorge to the present day.

Abraham Darby I died on 8 March 1717 (aged 39), but his legacy and industry were continued by one of his four children, his son Abraham Darby II.

Abraham Darby II (1711 – 1763)

 Abraham Darby II was largely responsible for the great expansion of the Coalbrookdale Company and wider iron industry across the West Midlands and Shropshire, building on this father’s legacy after his invention of smelting iron using coke in 1709.


Darby II was born in Coalbrookdale in 1711, and was only six years old when his father died. In his father’s absence, Quaker friends (and already shareholders in the company) Richard Ford and Thomas Goldney took charge, and in 1734 Darby II became Ford’s assistant.

Several advances were experienced during this period, including casting the world’s first cast-iron steam engine cylinders (1722); the first iron flanged railway wheels (1729) and using horse-drawn water pumps to return water from the lower works to the upper works – hereby increasing production capacity (1735). They installed a Newcomen Engine to replace the horse-drawn pumps in 1742, which is regarded as the first time that steam power was used in the iron industry.

By the 1750s, Darby II had expanded Coalbrookdale and began to make pig iron that was suitable for use in the forges (this was key if they were to dominate the iron industry). Within the next four years, Darby II had nine blast furnaces built within just six kilometres of Coalbrookdale, resulting in Coalbrookdale becoming the main producer of iron in Britain.

Darby had two marriages, the latter which produced seven children, four of which survived to adulthood. Upon his death in 1763 (aged 51) Darby II was buried at Sunniside – the house he built in 1750 which was located above Coalbrookdale, and later became the Quaker burial ground for Coalbrookdale.

The Coalbrookdale Company was entrusted to Richard Reynolds (Darby’s son-in-law, who was married to one of his daughters, Hannah Darby), who ran the company until Darby II’s eldest son, Abraham Darby III, was old enough to take control of the family business.

Abraham Darby III (1750 – 1789)

 Following impressive family of Quaker ironmasters and inventors, Abraham Darby III was no different. He is best known for building the world’s first Iron Bridge (1777-1779) – the catalyst for the architectural use of cast-iron.


Darby was born in Coalbrookdale and lost his father (Abraham Darby II) when he was just a young boy. Whilst he was growing up, Richard Reynolds oversaw the Coalbrookdale Company, where Darby III worked as an apprentice. When he reached 18 years of age in 1768, Darby III was old enough to manage the Coalbrookdale Company.

During his time in charge, he installed two steam engines at Horsehay and Ketley ironworks, and in 1776 he acquired the lease of the Madeley Wood Company, with its Bedlam Furnace. Continuing the family’s entrepreneurial spirit, Darby saw the need to build a bridge across the river, to connect both river banks. This also demonstrated the capabilities of the Coalbrookdale Company, and the versatility of cast iron.

Building of the Iron Bridge began in 1777 and was completed two years later. The iron used to make much of the bridge was cast at the Bedlam Furnace that Darby had acquired a few years earlier. This iconic Grade II listed furnace, though now dormant, is still available for the public to see today and is located just 0.4 miles from the Iron Bridge.

In 1789 Darby died from scarlet fever. The Iron Bridge had cost more than Darby anticipated, and as he took financial responsibility for any overspend on the project, upon his death he was in debt. His estate (Hay Farm) and possessions were subsequently sold, and the inventory from the sale Hay Farm is available to view in the re-furbished Museum of Iron.

The Darby Women


After Abraham Darby III died in 1791, the Darby Women oversaw the management of the Coalbrookdale Company, as they already had shares in Coalbrookdale, owing to the Quaker belief of equality.



Francis Darby (1783 – 1850)

Francis Darby was one of two sons from the marriage of Abraham Darby III and wife Rebecca Smith, who had a passion for music and fine arts.


Francis Darby introduced ornamental castings such as vases, garden furniture, fountains and gates to Coalbrookdale in the mid-1830s. This was the first time Coalbrookdale began to break away from pure iron products to art – items which are still celebrated at Coalport China Museum and Jackfield Tile Museum today.

Richard Reynolds (1735 – 1816)

Richard Reynolds was, like Darby I, also a Bristol born Quaker. He was the son of an iron merchant whose firm Daniels and Reynolds were important customers of the Coalbrookdale Company.


Upon moving to Coalbrookdale in 1756, he soon became the manager of Ketley ironworks, and in 1757 became a partner of the Coalbrookdale Company. Reynolds married Abraham Darby II’s daughter Hannah, and when Darby II died, Reynolds became custodian of the Coalbrookdale Company, until Abraham Darby III was old enough to take over.

Under Reynold’s direction, the Coalbrookdale Company saw many developments, including casting the first iron nails (1767) and encouraging the use of coal in forging wrought-iron.

Away from iron products, Reynolds created ‘Sabbath Walks’ – some of the first public walks in Britain – designed to benefit the workers at Coalbrookdale. He also built houses and schools for workers and their children, in the Coalbrookdale area.

After Reynolds lost his wife Hannah, son and daughter-in-law, he left Coalbrookdale and returned to Bristol in 1804 where he took a keen interest in the city’s charities, such as the Samaritan Society.

William Reynolds (1758 – 1803)

 William Reynolds, son of Richard Reynolds and Hannah Darby, was born in Ketley, near Coalbrookdale. He was the pioneer of a multitude of innovations in ironmaking, canal building, engineering and the chemical industry.

Reynolds became a partner of the Coalbrookdale Company in 1781, and was involved in building the world’s first cast-iron aqueduct, which was designed by Thomas Telford and was built in 1796 to carry the Shrewsbury Canal across the River Tern.

Reynolds was also the creator of the ‘new town’ of Coalport in the 1790s, and instigated the digging of the Tar Tunnel, which visitors can still visit today. There he built an inclined plane - rectangular ‘tub boats’ on wheeled carriages invented to connect the upper and lower levels of the Shropshire Canal, to improve (and speed up) the way in which coal was transported between the valley floor and higher ground

Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (1723 – 1777)

 Thomas Farnolls Pritchard was a Shrewsbury born joiner turned architect, whose most famous project was the world’s first Iron Bridge. He played a hugely important role in Ironbridge’s story, despite not being an ironmaster himself.

It was in 1773 that Pritchard saw the need for a bridge to connect the two banks of the River Severn at Coalbrookdale. He designed the first plans for the building of what became the Iron Bridge, and worked alongside Abraham Darby III, who was the iron master who constructed the bridge.

Work began on the Iron Bridge in 1777 and was completed in 1779. Sadly, Pritchard died the year before the bridge was completed, so never got to see the final structure. It is known however, that his brother Samuel Pritchard was paid £39 19s 0d “for his late Bror. T. F. Pritchard’s Bill”.

John Wilkinson (1728 – 1808)

Born in Cumbria, Wilkinson was an inventor and ironmaster who is associated with a series of inventions, including precision boring methods for cannon and steam engine cylinders.


His career with iron began in 1745 when he started an apprenticeship. Following this, he worked alongside his father at Bersham Ironworks in North Wales before moving to Shropshire in 1757, where he took over management of the New Willey ironworks. He soon became a managing partner of Bersham (1763) and built a new ironworks in Bradley, Staffordshire (1760s).

During his time in Shropshire, Wilkinson developed a new cannon boring machine in 1774, which was hugely successful and led to the government ordering all cannons to be made to Wilkinson’s design. The following year Wilkinson invented a machine to accurately bore cylinders for steam engines, and installed the first Watt steam engine to direct air into the Coalbrookdale blast furnaces in 1776. Wilkinson also launched an iron boat on the River Severn, and patented both a new method for making lead pipes in 1790 and a new steam powered rolling mill in 1792.

Wilkinson was also one of the investors in the Iron Bridge, which Abraham Darby III built between 1777-9, and issued his own wage tokens - becoming the only commoner to appear on a British coin in the eighteenth century.

 Upon his death in 1808, John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson was buried in an iron coffin.

Thomas Telford (1757 – 1834)

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Telford did not build the Iron Bridge.

Telford was a Scottish civil engineer, architect and stonemason, who is widely celebrated for his work on several road and canal projects across Shropshire and the wider UK.


Telford moved to Shropshire (from London and Plymouth) in 1786, where he was tasked to convert Shrewsbury Castle into a house for the town’s MP. During his time in this county, he started experimenting with different materials – including iron which was being cast in Coalbrookdale. Working with the Coalbrookdale Company, Telford designed the world’s first aqueduct, which was built by ironmaster William Reynolds in 1796.

Telford’s main achievement was the creation, and recognition of, an entire profession: civil engineering. In fact, Telford was elected as the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he held for 14 years until he died in 1834.

Richard Trevithick (1771 – 1833)

Richard Trevithick was an inventor from Cornwall. In 1802-03 Trevithick visited Shropshire, specifically Coalbrookdale, and became a client of the Coalbrookdale Company. The company, encouraged by William Reynolds, began building the world’s first steam railway locomotive, based upon designs by Trevithick.

When Reynolds died in 1803 the construction of the locomotive ended, and it was unknown if the engine was ever run, or if it was, how successfully.

The Coalbrookdale locomotive that Trevithick commissioned followed a series of railway innovations seen at Coalbrookdale, such as the first iron wheels and rails being cast in 1729 and 1767 respectively.

In 1979, historic and contemporary evidence was gathered after the idea of recreating a replica of the Coalbrookdale locomotive was suggested. Between 1989-1990, a full scale working replica was constructed, which was officially launched at Blists Hill Victorian Town on 18 July 1990. Today, this replica frequently runs at Blists Hill.

This locomotive played a significant role in the development of portable steam powered engines – an invention that was well ahead of its time. In fact, Trevithick’s locomotive was designed and built 26 years before Stephenson’s Rocket.