Discover more from Age of Invention, by Anton Howes
Age of Invention: The Industrial Romantics
I’ve been reading more from the 1776 travel diary of Samuel More. Last week I quoted his impressions of John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson’s volcano-like iron foundry at New Willey in Shropshire, and how the region was already starting to see the proliferation of iron railroads — long before the rise of steam locomotives.
This week I can’t resist sharing even more fascinating details and impressions, not only because the diaries have been so rarely used, but because More’s passion for industry sometimes could hardly be contained in the words he put to paper. Although we associate the Romanticism of the likes of Byron, the Shelleys, and William Blake with a reaction against industrialisation — Blake’s “dark satanic mills” — Samuel More’s sense of the sublime was unabashedly pro-industrial. He was an industrial romantic.
Here, for example, was the path from Coalbrookdale to Horsehay:
We travelled through the most romantic and beautiful country that can be imagined, on each side of the valley are hills of a stupendous height covered with wood in some places, deep pits in others, huge masses of limestone and ore lying in view, in the bottoms large pools of water, which is drawn up by the fire engines [steam engines] for the use of the bellows and running along the loaders forms very considerable rivers which are suspended in the air. Add to these the many fires which break out from the tops of the smelting furnaces and those which are lighted to burn the coal into coke and to calcine the ore, and a scene more magnificent can hardly be conceived.
He then sounded almost elated, when sitting down for dinner with the Quaker ironmaster Richard Reynolds that evening, at having to wash off “the dust contracted in passing through these regions of fire and smoke”.
Or here’s Samuel More on Reynolds’s works at Ketley, where the bellows of three large blast furnaces were driven by water-wheels, their spent water raised up again for the wheels by two large Newcomen steam engines. More arrived just in time to see the furnaces cast, expelling seven tons of molten metal through a fifty-foot channel into sand moulds. Yet because of some wet clay or stone blocking the channel,
It had not ran far before it began in the language of the workmen to boil. Immediately the building was filled with sparks of liquid iron forming the most beautiful appearance of stars that can be conceived, and though it was about noon and a fine day, yet their brilliancy was such that they were all distinctly visible, and exhibited a firework magnificent beyond conception.
It was, he was told, the kind of industrial accident that happened only once in twenty years, and noted the workmen’s great courage in extinguishing the explosion — some of them were badly hurt. Most of More’s dozen or so companions had “decamped as fast as possible” when it happened, but he and a handful of others remained to see it all first-hand. More frequently risked his own safety to experience industrial awe.
The highlight, however, is More’s first-hand description of the rapidly expanding Staffordshire Potteries. He had last visited his friend Josiah Wedgwood there a couple of years earlier — I’m unfortunately not aware of a travel diary for that visit — and noted that “the spirit of improvement (which Mr Wedgwood so happily began in this neighbourhood) continues to spread itself through all the people”. A new turnpike road was being built to connect up many of its towns and villages, at least three or four new pottery works had sprung up along the new canal, and at Wedgwood’s own Etruria works the number of workers’ houses had more than doubled. There was even an inn being built there to accommodate “the company who are continually visiting his works” — it was becoming a centre for industrial tourism. Wedgwood was even planning a monument in honour of the late civil engineer James Brindley, whose canals were credited with the transformation.
Brindley had died years before one of his crowning achievements, the nearby Harecastle Tunnel, had been finished. The tunnel, which in 1776 seems to have only just been opened to traffic, was the longest canal tunnel in the country — 1.6 miles. It allowed the Trent and Mersey Canal to connect Etruria, Stoke, and Derbyshire with the burgeoning port of Liverpool. It had been a “most laborious and expensive work”: they had struck veins of sand that were difficult to support, and which caused spring water from the hill above to continually trickle through. In other parts, they had had to cut through solid rock, lifting thousands of tons of stone and rubbish up through shafts to the top of the hill.
Despite all this effort, the tunnel was still too narrow to accommodate a path for the horses pulling the canal boats, so “the the boats are worked along by the men on board them shoving with their hands against the top and sides, and by use they move them with great velocity and regularity”. It was even too narrow to allow boats to pass one another, so there were timetables posted at both ends for when they were allowed to enter.
Yet the tunnellers had also struck veins of fine coal, which was now being used for fuel in the Potteries. And Brindley’s canals connected the centres of industry to still more sources of coal. Samuel More was shocked that despite the barrenness of the hills above the tunnel, “it seems that wherever fuel can be had cheap, there inhabitants are never wanting”. The canals seemed to be making Staffordshire more populous, though other innovations may also have been at play.
Samuel More related how the vicar of Newcastle-under-Lyme had been surprised a few years ago to find that despite the large increase in the town’s population, the number of burials had fallen — upon consulting the registers, which happened to detail the causes of death, the vicar found that “under the article of ‘smallpox’ such a decrease had happened since the introduction of inoculation (which is now general through the whole country), as accounted fully for the difference.” (Note that inoculation at this stage could still be deadly, involving the use of the smallpox virus itself, before Edward Jenner popularised the use of non-lethal cowpox to achieve the same effect.)
Improvements in medicine, iron, and ceramics, along with the building of new roads, railways, and canals to bring raw materials and connect the region to new markets, was allowing the West Midlands to flourish and grow. While the rest of the country suffered from the interruption to trade from the American Revolution, the Potteries, Birmingham, Coalbrookdale, and many of the areas between were “going on with great spirit, and as if there was no defect in the trade of the country”. Technology and infrastructure had created an extraordinary boom. It was no wonder Samuel More could hardly find the words to express his awe.
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