The Darby Family: Abraham Darby I, II, III
Abraham Darby I (1678 - 1717) was the son of a farmer and locksmith, from Staffordshire, England. He was apprenticed to Jonathan Freeth, who made malt mills (for brewing beer). In 1699 he married Mary Sergeant and moved to Bristol, where he set up his own malt mill business. However he soon shifted to brass casting and joined other Quakers to found the Bristol Brass Company.
Darby clearly had an inquiring and inventive mind, and his interest in metals didn’t stop at brass. Dutch craftsmen were using cast iron to make hollowware (pots and pans) and he went to the Netherlands in 1704 to study their methods. He set up a small ironworks and he and fellow Quaker John Thomas began to experiment with different (and cheaper) ways of making cast iron hollowware. In1707 they patented their innovative sand casting method: now they could produce cast iron hollowware at a fraction of the cost of their Dutch counterparts.
In 1709 Abraham Darby I moved to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, on the Welsh border, where all the raw materials he needed were close at hand. He took over the derelict furnace there, and rebuilt it. He started to experiment again, this time with fuel. Soon they were using coking coal instead of charcoal to smelt the iron: coking coal was plentiful, had fewer impurities, and produced a better quality of metal, so it was a vast improvement. Although not the first coke fired furnace in Europe it was the first to remain productive for several years. This change of fuel was a major breakthrough and the consequent mass production of iron certainly helped accelerate the industrial revolution.
Abraham Darby I died in 1717 when his son Abraham Darby II (1711–1763) was only six. His mother Mary partnered with fellow Quakers Thomas Goldney and her son-in-law Richard Ford, to form the first Coalbrookdale Company. Mary died a year later so Richard Ford protected the interests of young Abraham until he could join the company in 1732.
Abraham Darby II was an innovator like his father. Within ten years he had solved the problem of water supply for the furnace by introducing a steam engine to recycle used water. His initiative enabled the company to expand through taking leases on other furnaces in the area. After Ford’s death in 1745 Abraham II took over the management of the firm. In 1757 another Quaker, Richard Reynolds of Bristol, (who later married Darby’s daughter Hannah) was taken into partnership. He helped Abraham with his expansion plans and made a key innovation himself. Packhorses had been towing vast quantities of iron and coal along wooden rails, which soon wore out: Reynolds replaced the wooden rails with longer-lasting cast iron ones in 1767, setting a precedent for all future railways.
Abraham Darby III (1750 – 1789) was only thirteen when his father died in 1763, so Richard Reynolds took control. Abraham joined the firm in 1768 followed a few years later by his younger brother Samuel.
All three Darbys, and Richard Reynolds, were good employers. Coalbrookedale had a school, workers’ cottages, and lovely country walks. The ironworks paid higher wages than the local potteries or mining. In times of food shortages Abraham III bought up farms and grew food for his workers.
The 1770s was a period of expansion for Coalbrookdale, and a bridge across the river Severn was badly needed. Shares were issued to raise the £3,200 required to build the world’s first cast iron bridge, using an innovative arch design, and Darby agreed to fund any overspend. Although it had been predicted that 300 tons of iron would be needed (costing £7 a ton), 379 tons were eventually used. This and other cost overruns amounted to nearly £3000 over and above what had been anticipated. Darby bore most of the cost over-run, and was in debt for the rest of his short life.
The bridge was completed in 1781 and made Coalbrookdale famous. The village of Ironbridge sprang up and the area became known as Ironbridge Gorge. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. The bridge and some Darby cottages still remain.