Living History Museums of Ironbridge Gorge, England


By Glynn Burrows


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Glynn Burrows discusses the living history museums he experienced in Ironbridge Gorge. Watch here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on Acast.


When Diane and I were in Wales, we visited lots of great places of interest and we decided to add a couple of nights extra on the way back to Norfolk, to allow us to visit an area we had wanted to visit for years.

We found a lovely little B&B in Broseley and spent two days exploring the area around Ironbridge Gorge.

The Gorge was originally part of several villages, including those of Madeley and Broseley, but, after the bridge was built, in 1779, the settlement around the new river crossing became known as Ironbridge and it is now a distinct Parish called The Gorge.

The area was being developed during the Industrial Revolution and, because of the development of a new technique of smelting iron with coke, which reduced the cost of production, the area made fortunes for the owners of the factories. With the construction of the bridge, which was the first cast iron bridge in the world (and is one of the very few early iron bridges still standing), the area became world famous.

Abraham Darby was the man behind the development of the area and Darby Houses are two of the places we visited. The two buildings are beautiful examples of early Georgian architecture and parts of the houses are laid out as they would have been during the middle of the C19th, when the Darby family were still living there.

Dale House was one of the houses we visited and in 1851, Lucy Darby, a 69-year-old widow, and her daughter Mary, who was 42 and single, together with four servants were living in the house. Interestingly enough, by 1861, Abraham Darby IV was living in West Court, Stoke Poges, with his wife and his mother, (Lucy, aged 80). The ladies had a live-in companion and those four adults had fifteen servants looking after them and the house. It seems that iron was a good business to be in.

Another museum we visited was in the village we were staying in and that was Broseley. The Pipeworks was fascinating, as there were demonstrations, showing how clay tobacco pipes were made.

We have all seen old clay pipes, but seeing how they were made was intriguing. The factory we were looking at had only closed its doors in the 1950s, so much of the information was gleaned from the people who actually worked there. Many of the tools, molds, and furniture had been left in the buildings when they closed, so, thanks to the team who decided to save the factory, we can still see the whole process in action.

The next museum we went to was the tile museum and, although we thought that we were not really interested in this one, we were really pleased that we went. The art on wall tiles is amazing and the Victorians were experts at discovering new ways to use porcelain and other forms of ceramic to best use. In London, we still see the Underground Stations which are tiled from floor to ceiling and, for people of my generation, we remember the old hospitals which were also tiled, many with pictures on the walls of the corridors.

  • 19C tea time
    19C tea time


Obviously, many of these old buildings are no more, but there were people who rescued the tiles before the bulldozers went in and we can see them today. Even for those of you who think that you aren’t interested in a subject, go and have a look. You never know!

The main reason I wanted to visit this area, apart from the actual bridge itself, was to go to Blist’s Hill, which is a Victorian town, built using buildings rescued from other sites during demolition or redevelopment. Some of the buildings were built from old materials, using old photographs and drawings to get the styles right, but most of the buildings were taken down brick by brick and reconstructed on-site.

There are staff in the shops, workplaces and in the streets, all dressed in costume and performing the jobs they would have been doing at the time. They are also very knowledgeable about the period and are happy to answer questions too, which, for an historian like me, is invaluable.

For most of the places within the town, the most memorable things were the smells and sounds. The sounds and smells of a horse, in full harness, walking past us along the street. The smell of the printing works and the sound of the old wooden school desk lid closing. The smell of the steam foundry and the sound of the shop doorbell, as we walked inside.

It never ceases to amaze me how sound and smell are the two main senses when it comes to memory. Taste is also a big one, but sight and touch are a long way behind sound and smell when it comes to transporting me back to my dim and distant past.

You may think that visiting a living museum showing what life was like in Jamestown or Williamsburg won’t bring back any of your memories, but it will amaze you how little things like the smell of a real fire in a grate, the smell of fresh bread baking, the sound of the Church bell and the sound and smell of livestock can possibly transport you back to your childhood.

There are living museums all over the world and some are better than others, but, if you get the opportunity, try to visit one soon and let me know what you think.

Glynn provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history. Past guests have visited and experienced stately houses and gardens, castles and churches, ruins and villages, birding and wildlife, World War II airfields, and general area taster tours too. Accommodations can be in all types of establishment, from character buildings such as windmills, thatched cottages and castles, self-catering or five star luxury –  just say what you want and it can be arranged. Nothing is too much trouble for Glynn! Visit

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About the Author:

Glynn provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history.

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