Workers making mosaics at Craven Dunnill & Co. Works, c.1901-1905.


Very few of the men, women and children who worked in industry across the Ironbridge Gorge have left a written record of themselves or their lives and so we can struggle to find their voices. However, every object manufactured in the Gorge is evidence of the labour and lives of these workers and the objects displayed across the Ironbridge Gorge Museums demonstrate their skill and efforts.

‘The excellence of the work depended for the most part upon the great care and skill exercised by the workmen…’
James Nasmyth (1808-1890), the inventor of the steam hammer, on a visit to Coalbrookdale, c.1830

From the Iron Bridge itself to a miniature teacup, a clay tobacco pipe, or a simple brick, these are the remnants of thousands of workers’ lives. Each process, from the mining of raw materials, to these materials being cast, pressed, and hammered into shape before being fettled, painted, glazed or gilded, could involve dozens of workers handling what became the final product. Without their skill and contributions, these objects would not exist.

Cast iron cooking pot, Coalbrookdale Company, 1714.




Cooking pots were a staple of the Coalbrookdale Company’s trade from its earliest days. The labour of countless workers went into making this simple household item, from the miners and blast furnace workers who mined and processed the raw materials, to pattern makers, moulders, and fettlers, who produced the finished item.

During the 19th century, up to 400 people could be employed by Coalport China Works at any one time. From unskilled labourers to highly skilled artisans, designers, bone burners, potters, painters, printers, gilders, burnishers, modellers, engravers, colour makers, mould makers, china slip makers, grinders, saggar makers, kiln men, and warehouse workers were all essential to making internationally celebrated Coalport china. The objects displayed here show the range of goods these workers were capable of producing, from plain mass produced wares to hand painted highly decorated ceramics.

Relief-Enamel and Incised-Enamelled Tile Designs featuring peacocks, cranes, and flowers, Maw & Co., 1893.




When these tile designs were being produced, about 450 people were employed in the decorative tile industry in the Ironbridge Gorge. These workers processed, pressed, painted, glazed, and fired the clay before the finished tile was packed and transported.



Some industrial workers in the Gorge were innovators and inventors. George Bagley (1845-1931), was a colour maker at Maw & Co. He is said to have perfected the red metallic finish known as ruby lustre glaze.

Ruby lustre art chargers, Maw & Co., c.1890-1910.

The buildings of Coalport China Works, today Coalport China Museum, are made of locally made bricks. The names of the brickwork companies can be seen stamped into some of the bricks that pave the yard.



Thousands of workers of all ages, from small children to elderly men and women, laboured in brickworks across the Gorge making bricks that can still be seen in many buildings in the local area today.



Pipe makers, trimmers, and finishers, who were mostly women, made this pipe before it was fired in a kiln, packed, and transported, and bought by someone to smoke tobacco.

Clay tobacco pipe, Southorn & Co., 19th century.

Albert Cureton (1853-1912)

Albert was born in Coalbrookdale to Joseph Cureton, an iron moulder, and his wife Eliza. Albert was born deaf and when he was eight years old he was sent to ‘The General Institution for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Children’ in Edgbaston near Birmingham. There he was taught practical and academic subjects using British Sign Language.

By the age of 17 Albert had left the school and was working with his father for the Coalbrookdale Company, where he continued to work as an iron moulder for over forty years.

Albert would have been paid by the piece to make moulds and pour molten iron into them, to produce cast-iron goods. Pouring the iron required teamwork as it had to be carried in a heavy ladle by two workers before being poured into a mould. Albert would not have been able to use sign language whilst carrying the ladle, so it is likely that he communicated through lip reading instead.

Iron moulding was a repetitive but dangerous job carried out in a very hot environment where burns were common and conditions like silicosis and anthrax infections could develop. Albert lived a relatively short life, dying at the age of 58. We don’t know much about the end of Albert’s life, but he was taken to Madeley Union Infirmary in December 1912 and died the next day.




Albert Cureton possibly worked in this moulding shop or in one very similar to it.

Coalbrookdale Company’s moulding shop at the Severn Foundry, Dale End, 1901.

Workers at Maw & Co tile works, c.1901-1905.



Like many photographs in our collection, the names of these workers are unknown. The one exception is John Windsor Bradburn, seated second from left on the second row, who was a designer at the works. The photograph is probably of other senior workers and office staff at Maw & Co.




In 1864 the Madeley Wood Company sank a pit at Kemberton in Madeley to mine for coal and ironstone. It was the company’s largest mine and around 340 people were employed at this pit when this photograph was taken.

Workers at Madeley Wood Company’s Kemberton Colliery, c.1900.

Munition workers for the Coalbrookdale Company during the First World War, c.1914-1918.



During the First World War, these women made munitions for the Coalbrookdale Company, including aerial bombs and hand grenades.

Training the Workforce

There is a long tradition of skilled work in the Ironbridge Gorge. Historically, this was only possible due to the training of workers. Across the Gorge’s industries, most workers would be trained informally by working alongside an expert in the trade, whilst some received official training through apprenticeships.

There was also a strong tradition of self-education amongst local workers, especially in the 19th century. Many educated themselves on a wide variety of subjects including languages, engineering, history, science, and literature.

Photograph of Harry Hughes (1894-1980), former artist at Coalport China Works, c.1977



Harry was apprenticed as a china painter at Coalport between 1908 and 1915. In an oral history during his later life, he explained the first jobs he was given as an apprentice:

Well... getting used to sketchin' with Indian Ink and a very small brush, you know. And I think I just went on from there. I didn't do any painting much for some time, you know, and when I could sketch a bit I suppose I started with colours and so on.
Harry Hughes (1894-1980) (Ken Jones Oral History Archive, 1977)





Alfred was apprenticed as a china painter at Coalport at the same time as Harry Hughes. This document reveals the wages they expected and the rules that they had to follow whilst they were apprenticed.

Indenture for the apprenticeship for Alfred Keeley Brazier (1894-1979) at Coalport China Works, 1911.

Designs for plate decoration, Alfred Keeley Brazier (1894-1979), watercolour, c.1911-1915.



These designs show the types of work that apprentices at Coalport China Works were producing whilst in training.




In 1853 the Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institute was founded to encourage the education of people living in the Ironbridge Gorge. The Coalbrookdale Company paid for and oversaw the construction of a building to house the Institute in 1859, which contained lecture rooms, a library, a reading room, and an art gallery.

Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institute, c. 1918.




In 1856 the Coalbrookdale School of Art was created within the Institute to improve design education for people working in local industries. Many of its students became talented artists and designers and went on to win prizes for their work.

More about the Coalbrookdale School of Art

One great asset in the village was the Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institution… You could do freehand drawing, design, painting, engineering classes, modelling, metalwork - which I did some of… For the boys who worked for the Coalbrookdale Company, the Company paid half their fees… Some did designing and then went to the tile works, you know - the encaustic, Maw, Craven Dunnill and all those; and some to the carpet factories in Bridgnorth.
Jack Jarvis (1906-1986) (Ken Jones Oral History Archive, 1982.)




In 1872, at the age of 11, John W Bradburn was sent to the School of Art as a day-release student by Maw & Co., where he was employed as a trainee draughtsman. In 1899 he became manager of their department that made glazed architectural ceramics.

John Windsor Bradburn (1861 - 1947)