Abraham Darby (I–IV)

The Darby dynasty were important figures in the British iron industry for nearly two centuries, and were responsible for innovations that profoundly changed the nature of ironmaking throughout the world. 

Abraham Darby I (1678-1717)
The first Abraham Darby was born to a Quaker family near Dudley, and was apprenticed to a maker of malt mills in Birmingham before moving in 1699 to Bristol, where he became involved with the manufacture of brass, and in 1703 began to operate an iron foundry. During this period he brought to Bristol skilled copper and brass workers from the area around La Vielle Montagne (Altenberg) near Aachen. During the first decade of the eighteenth century he developed links with Shropshire. He established a copper smelter and a brass works in Coalbrookdale and in 1708 leased the Coalbrookdale blast furnace, which had been damaged by an explosion a few years previously. Darby and his partners also developed a water-powered works at Tern (on the site of the present Attingham Park), where they intended to refine pig iron into wrought iron and to roll both iron and brass. Darby rebuilt the blast furnace and from 1709 began to smelt iron ore with coke. It is now believed that his predecessor at the furnace, Shadrach Fox, may have used coke as his fuel, but not, apparently with complete success. Darby appears to have experimented with various fuels and mixtures of fuels, with charcoal, anthracite, peat and coal from other regions, but by 1714 had apparently found a successful method of using coke made from local coal. At this time Darby built a second blast furnace at Coalbrookdale while the brassworks was discontinued, and the equipment sent to Bristol. By the time of his death Abraham Darby I had established a successful foundry business, but the iron produced in his furnaces was unsuitable for refining into wrought iron that was then the major part of the iron trade.

Abraham Darby II (1711-63)
The second Abraham Darby, son of Abraham Darby I, was chiefly responsible for the great expansion in ironmaking which began in Shropshire in the 1750s and subsequently spread to other parts of Britain. Changes in technology about which there is little evidence, enabled him to produce pig iron that was suitable for forging into wrought iron. He built a furnace at Horsehay about 3km north of Coalbrookdale which from the time that it was blown in produced iron that was sold to the forgemasters in the Stour Valley in the Black Country. His example was copied, and nine blast furnaces were constructed in the Coalbrookdale area in the years 1755-58. Abraham Darby II also established the pattern under which many iron companies were managed both in Britain and overseas. Mines were leased from landowners, and the coal, iron ore and limestone that they produced went to blast furnaces. Some of the resulting iron was used for castings, some was refined into wrought iron and some was sold as pig iron. Castings and forgings were used to assemble bridges, steam engines and machines. Such companies also sold coal for domestic use, lime and bricks, and most provided housing for at least some of their workpeople.

Abraham Darby III (1750-89)
Abraham Darby III, son of Abraham Darby II, is best known as the builder of the Iron Bridge, whose erection he supervised as a young man in his twenties. The construction of the bridge across the Severn near Coalbrookdale was suggested by the architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard (1723-77) in 1773 in a letter to the ironmaster John Wilkinson (1728-1808). Darby took responsibility for construction at the first meeting of subscribers in 1775. An Act of Parliament was obtained the following year and construction began late in 1777. The bridge was officially opened on New Year’s Day 1781. Details of the construction are recorded in Darby’s personal account books. He was remembered in the Darby family as financially reckless and still owed debts to his kinsmen, not all of which can have been caused by his involvement with the bridge, when he died at the early age of 39.

Abraham Darby IV (1805-78)
The fourth Abraham Darby was the great-grandson of Abraham Darby II. His principal contributions to the ironworks in Shropshire were the re-organisation of the furnaces and forges at Horsehay in the 1830s and the introduction of the manufacture of ‘art castings’ at Coalbrookdale in the late 1830s. Such castings, statues, relief plaques, ornamental tables and fountains, appear first to have been made in iron at a foundry in Berlin during the Napoleonic Wars, and were subsequently made in Belgium, Sweden and elsewhere. Abraham Darby IV was principally important for his role in the iron industry of South Wales rather than in Shropshire. He bought the furnaces at Ebbw Vale in 1844 and subsequently took over ironworks at Abersychan, Sirhowy, Pentwyn and Pontypool. The conglomerate he created had 19 blast furnaces and 237 puddling furnaces in 1872, and was comparable in size to the whole Shropshire iron industry.

The Darby family maintained their connection with the Coalbrookdale Company in subsequent generations, although not as managers, but some members are still involved with the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.