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West Midlands Blists Hill Victorian Town, nr Telford

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The C18th and C19th were a time of great change in Britain. The Industrial Revolution was to change the landscape for ever from a small scale agrarian economy to a largely industrial one.

Shropshire had good deposits of coal, iron ore, limestone and clay as well as timber and water. The River Severn also provided transport for raw materials and finished goods.

Abraham Darby developed a method of producing iron using coal rather than charcoal and revolutionised iron making. Iron could be provided cheaply and in quantities needed for domestic products as well as for large scale industrial purposes. The Ironbridge was the first bridge in the world to be built from iron. Later on, large quantities of iron would be essential for the building of railways and steam locomotives.

Small scale mining for coal, ironstone, and clay led to rapid development of supporting industry and the need for housing for their workers. Canals and later railways were built to transport raw materials and goods.

The area around Blists Hill in Shropshire was at the heart of this change and is the site of many museums recording this change. It was the first World Heritage Site in Britain.

Blists Hill Victorian Town has been built on the site of a small industrial site and still has the remains of the mine, brick and tile works and blast furnaces, along with a stretch of the Shropshire Canal. There has been a mine here since 1770 and coal, iron ore, and clay have all been mined in the area. A brick works produced domestic bricks as well as firebricks for the blast furnaces which needed replacing every two years. The Shropshire canal carried raw materials and the Hay Inclined Plane transported them to the River Severn 200’ below.

The Hay Incline Plane closed in 1907, once the railways had arrived. The canal stopped being used in 1912 after the blast furnaces closed following a miner’s strike. The mine closed in 1941. The brick and tile works were the last to close in the 1950s and the tall chimneys demolished. The row of houses built for the those who worked in the local industries was demolished in the late 1960s when the remaining inhabitants moved to Telford New Town.

Blists Hill Victorian Town has been developed to show what a small industrial town might have looked like at the end of the reign of Queen Victoria. Additional buildings have either been brought from the surrounding area or else reconstructed here using recycled materials. By then the railway had arrived, replacing canal and river traffic. A siding and goods shed have been built to represent the importance of the railway.

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There are examples of small industries found at that time, along with the shops and services needed by the population.

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Ironworks and foundries would be needed to process iron from the blast furnaces.

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Horses were still important for moving goods and raw materials so blacksmiths and harness makers were needed. Candles were still used underground although increasingly being replaced by safety lamps.

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Although there is a public house, there were few problems with drunkenness as employers wanted their employees to be sober!

Shops and services were needed to support families employed in the local industry.

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As the population got more disposable income, a photographers and cycle shop would be added to the list of essentials. The 1870 Education Act made schooling compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12, leading to the building of a school.

The settlement could not have supported a full time doctor, so a local doctor renting rooms for a surgery.

Civic pride lead to the development of small parks, often with a bandstand.

There is no church on the site, although there is a ‘tin tabernacle’. Methodism was strong among industrial workers and these small buildings could be erected quickly to give the population somewhere to worship , especially in more remote areas.


The site is divided into different sections. There is a town area with Victorian shops such as a bank, bakery, grocers, drapers and post office. There is a traditional sweet shop, pub and fish and chip shop which uses beef dripping for frying.

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The industrial area contains the ironworks, foundry, and other industries supporting them. Stationary steam engines provided the power.

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The Transport section includes the canal, Hay Inclined Plane as well as examples of boats that were used on the canal or river. The highlight must be the working reconstruction of a Colebrookdale steam locomotive built by Trevithick in 1802 and the world’s first steam railway locomotive.

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At the far end of the site is what is described as the countryside district with a squatters cottage, toll cottage and the ‘tin tabernacle’. The funfair would have been a seasonal traction visiting many different settlements during the year.

Many of the buildings have costumed interpreters demonstrating working skills as well as answering visitors questions. Allow plenty of time for a visit and time to talk . Don’t forget to visit the bank and exchange modern money into predecimal currency to use in the shops.

It is a small and fairly compact site, making it much more accessible in a day than say places like the Black Country Living Museum or Beamish, the Living Museum of the North.

The guide book has a lot of pictures, some information about what it might have been like to live in Blists Hill, but little information about the different buildings, apart from where they came from. There is virtually nothing about the different industries. It is probably not worth buying unless you want a pictorial reminder of the visit.

Frustratingly there is little information on the web and a lack of historical information. Perhaps the record have been lost and it just doesn’t exist? There are a few information boards around the site, but not many. If you want information, you need to spend time talking to the costumed interpreters in the different buildings or around the site.

You can either buy a single attraction ticket, but if planning on visiting more than one site, the annual pass is much better value.

It was the Victorian Christmas Weekend when I visited. Everywhere was decortated for Christmas but several of the buildings were not open.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Victorian Town

Many shops and other services have been reconstructed to give the impression of what a small industrial Victorian town might have been like.

Blists Hill would have been self sufficient and people would have been able to buy everything they needed from the local shops.

Leaving the Visitor Centre, the first building is Lloyd’s Bank, a solidly built brick structure. Every town would have had at least one bank.

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Still lit by gas lights, metal grilles separated customer and teller. This is the place to come to exchange modern currency into sterling and coins with wonderful names like with farthings, half pennies, truppeny bits and silver sixpences, to spend in the shops.

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Next to the bank is Jack Crabtree Cycle Showroom. Cars had still to arrive, but by the end of the C19th cycling was a very popular pastime

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Next to this is AF Blakeman and Sons, Grocery and Provision Shop dating from around 1880 and brought here from Telford. As well as selling some fresh food like butter, sausages and other pig products, it also sold some fresh fruit and vegetables (although many houses would have had their own vegetable gardens) and a wide range of dried and tinned goods. It also sold household items like cleaning products and enamel cook ware.

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Next to this at the corner of High Street and Canal Street is Bates and Hunt’s Pharmacy and Chemist’s Shop. As well as dispensing pills, and home made remedies, this also was a dentist and optician.

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Round the corner is Canal Street.

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W Corbett and Co, Iron Merchants, had an impressive collection of articles for sale in the window. There was everything from cast iron grates for the fire to watering cans...

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cont....
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Victorian Town cont...

Next to this was the shop and home of McClure General Draper and Outfitter. The shop is an impressive building made of engineering blue bricks typical of those made in Telford at the end of the C19th. The shop oozed class from the brightly coloured tiles in the doorway and advertising signs on either side of the door.

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The shop sold everything from bales of cloth to ready made garments and hats as well as accessories.

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The ground floor room of the draper’s house next door would have been used as measuring and fitting room for wealthy customers, and was furnished to look like a living room.

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Next to the Drapers is the Post office and Stationers. As well as sorting and delivering letters, it also sold stationery and other writing requisites. This was the place to buy pen and ink.

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Next door is Rowland Percy Smitheman, the Photographer’s House, with a wooden photographic studio attached. Photography was becoming increasing popular in the C19th and available to the masses. Everyone wanted their photographs taking, standing in front of suitable rural backdrops.

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cont...
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Victorian Town cont....

Across the road is Annie Pritchard’s Sweet Shop, complete with jars of sweets that are weighted out on a set of scales. This always has queues and is particularly popular with the children. Spinsters or widows often set up a small shop in a room in their house as a way of making extra money.

Just down from it is W. Bates, Fish Fryer and chipped potatoes. These were a popular shop on every high street, using beef dripping to fry the food. It is still frying and has long queues at lunchtime although portions are served in polystyrene trays and not wrapped in newspaper.

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Near it is WE Lloyd’s Cobblers shop, complete with an appropriate enamel sign next to it.

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The New Inn stands on the corner of Canal Street and High Street. Dating from 1880, it was moved here along with its contents, from Walsall. It is typical of the many small and very basic pubs found in towns and cities across the country.

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It still sells draught beer and is always busy. There is a separate window for off sales

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Next to the Inn is C Jesse’s Butchers Shop, complete with a sign advertising ‘Refreshments for cyclists, travellers and visitors’. As well as serving fresh meat, butcher’s sold a range of pies and different sausages, all made by the butcher. There is no refrigeration and meat is hung from hooks in the ceiling and displayed on marble slabs.

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Different scales are on display inside the shop along with a very ornate cash register. Parcels were carefully wrapped in paper and tied with string.

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Nearly every town would have had a print shop. As well as producing local newspaper, this did all the printing for local businesses and fliers for attractions in the area.

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John Edmunds Printer and Stationer’s Shop has a state of the art eagle press in the front window along with smaller presses and other machinery in the back. It does all the printing for Blists Hill, including their paper bags and fliers. Newly printed sheets were pegged up to dry.

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Further down the road, towards the industrial area, is A Farryner’s Bakery, complete with teagle to lift flour into the building.

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This still has the ovens at the back of the shop and bakes bread and rolls to be sold from the shop. At Christmas this included shortbread and slices of Christmas cake.
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Other domestic buildings

Blists Hill would have required a large working force, with a mine, brick and tile works and the blast furnaces. The families were housed in rows of two up and two down houses. Unfortunately none of the original buildings survive and, apart from Wash House Terrace behind the sweet shop, there are few domestic buildings around the site. Most of the shopkeepers either lived above the shop or in adjacent houses. Many of these had small vegetable gardens behind. Many households also kept a pig.

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The largest domestic building on the site is the Mine Manager’s House and doctor’s surgery. This is a large brick built detached house set it its own garden complete with yard with outside toilet and coal shed.

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Marked as 'Cottage' on the maps of Blists Hill, the costumed interpreter explained this was furnished as the mine managert's house. The mine manager was well off compared with many people and was well furnished.

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The scullery even had a cold water tap!

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Two rooms at the side of the house were let out to the doctor. Many small towns were unable to support a full time doctor. The doctor would rent rooms and visit once or twice a week. One room is the waiting room, sparsely furnished with a wooden bench round the walls. Patients arrived and waited their turn. The surgery was behind. As well as prescribing medicines, the doctor also carried out basic surgery.

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The 1870 Education Act made schooling compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12, leading to the building of a school. Stitchley Board School was built in 1881 and was in use as a school until 1976 and has been rebuilt as a typical Victorian school. (When I visited during the Victorian weekend, it was being used for Santa activities.)

There is no church at Blists Hill and, perhaps more surprising, no methodist chapels. Methodism was strong among industrial workers and every settlement would have had at least one chapel. On the edge of the site, surrounded by trees is St Chad’s Mission Church. Made of corrugated iron, these were affectionately known as ’tin tabernacles’. They could be erected quickly to give the population somewhere to worship, especially in rural areas which might not have been able to afford a stone or brick built chapel. The inside was clad with wood panels and was simply furnished.

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On the side of the canal beyond the mine is the Gospel Car and Sunday School. This was originally a double decker tramcar on the Birmingham and Midland Tramways. Only the lower deck remains, when it was converted into a Sunday school for the Bridgenorth People’s Mission in 1928 and was also used for religious services.

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cont...
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Other domestic buildings cont...

Just before the tin tabernacle is Shelton Toll House Cottage. Before the arrival of the Turnpike, many roads were little better than quagmires. The Turnpike Act of 1707 was designed to remedy that, giving trustees responsibility to maintain roads and collect tolls from road users for this. Small lodges were built to house the toll collectors. They were typically single storey buildings with a bay front allowing the toll keeper to spot traffic, open the toll gate and collect the toll. The toll house came from near Shrewsbury on the main road to Holyhead and was designed by Thomas Telford.

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Originally two men, usually ex soldiers, were employed as toll keepers rather than a family as there was always a danger the wife or children could be held hostage for money. It is now furnished for a family of seven. One of the front rooms is set up as the ‘best’ living area.

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The parents and baby slept in the other room at the front of the house and four children in the bedroom at the back.

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The other room at the back was the main living area with basic cooking requisites. There was no bath, only a large shallow basin which functioned like a shower. Water was poured over the head, but it did have the advantage of not having to sit in dirty bath water.

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The toll house had a small garden with pig stye and outside toilet.

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Perhaps the most interesting domestic building is the Squatter’s Cottage. Increasing industrialisation depended on an increasing workforce. Many families moving into an area were unable to afford housing, and the number of squatter’s cottages increased rapidly. These were built on unregulated wasteland and families were allowed to continue to live in them as long as they paid an annual fine imposed by the manorial court. The buildings were basic and very few still exist. The squatters cottage at Blists Hill has been reconstructed from the remains of a squatter’s cottage near Telford.

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The cottage was surrounded by a small area of land to grow vegetables, keep a pig and some chickens. It was roughly constructed with very thick stone walls and a tile roof. Windows were small with wooden shutters.

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Doorways and ceilings were low, making the inside feel very dar, especially as candles would have been the only means of lighting. The main room served as kitchen and living area with a small cast iron grate which provided heat as well as basic cooking.

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Off this was a small pantry and laundry area, with a fire heating a cauldron of water for washing clothes.

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There was a single bedroom that slept the whole family. Furnishings were minimal with the few clothes being hung on nails along a shelf. The only concession to privacy was a cutain that could be pulled acroos the parents' bed.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Heavy Industry

Blists Hill was once the centre of industry with mine, brick and tile works and blasts furnaces. Other industries followed.

The mine opened in the 1770s and was one of the many small mines in the area producing coal, limestone or clay. It eventually closed in 1941. The winding gear, short line of track and engine house have been restored.

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There was no in formation about the buildings and no costumed interpreters. although I did find this youtube I found on the internet.

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Across the canal from the mine is the remains of the Madeley Wood Brick and Tile Works which was opened here in the 1870s and would originally have spread across a wide area on both sides of the canal. They included clay preparation areas as well as kilns and drying sheds. They seem to have produced a range of products from domestic and industrial bricks to roofing tiles and decorative garden tiles as well as drain pipes. Finished products were shipped out by canal.

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The only other original industrial building on the site is the remains of the Madeley Wood Company Blast Furnaces. Three furnaces were built between 1832-1840 employing over 200 men and and produced pig iron.

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Coke, ironstone and iron ore were brought by canal and poured into the top of the furnaces. Blowing engines in the tall engine houses at either end blasted air into the furnaces to raise temperatures to up to 1200˚c to melt the ore.

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The furnaces worked 24 hours with two teams of men and the molten iron and slag were tapped (removed) from the base of the furnace twice a day.

The blast furnaces stopped working during the 1912 miner’s strike and now all that remains are the two engine houses and the back walls of the furnaces.

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The blast furnaces depended on a constant supply of air through them to raise the temperature high enough to melt the ore. David and Sampson are two blowing engines that have been moved to Blists Hill, from the nearby Priorslee Ironworks and are similar to the blowing engines which would have been used here. They are housed in a shed at the far end of the Industrial area.

They are basically two beam engines that are joined by a flywheel and work together. One end of the beam is attached to a cylinder and the other to a blowing tube. Steam forces the cylinders down and pumps the air through the blowing tubes. Volume and speed are controlled by the flywheel.

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cont...
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Heavy Industry cont...

Ironworks were usually sited near blast furnaces . Across the road from the remains of the blast furnaces is GR Morton’s Wrought Iron Works, which was rescued from the Woolwich Dockyards. This is one of the few places on the site that had detailed information about how it worked.

Pig iron from the blast furnaces contained many impurities including carbon and silica which made it brittle. It could be used to make cast iron products but was unsuitable for most industrial purposes.

To make a strong and malleable product, the impurities had to be removed, resulting in wrought iron. Not only did this have strength and durability, it could also be rolled and welded. It was needed for making everything from steam engines, ship’s anchors and chains to nuts and bolts.

Impurities were removed by a process called puddling. The iron had to be melted and stirred in a bowl shaped puddling furnace lined with puddling cinder which was high in iron oxides. When heated, this burnt off the carbon in the pig iron. The iron had to be kept continuously moving and this was the job of the puddler and his assistant. They judged by eye when all the carbon had been burnt off and masses of white hot metal were then transferred by a trolley to the steam hammer.

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The molten metal was beaten to remove the slag and this also also help ‘bond’ the iron together. This process took a team of five men. The hammer drive controlled the action and speed of the hammer. The Shinglers moved the iron bar while the slagger removed the hot slag as it was beaten out. The bogier wheeled the iron bloom away to the rolling mill.

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The iron bloom was then passed through rollers to flatten into a long thin strip.
Long tongs were used to manoeuvre the iron bar. The first roll was often of poor quality athe process had to be repeated up to four times to produce high quality wrought iron. The rolled iron then went to smaller finishing mills for final production into machinery, tools, nails etc.

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Blists Hill usually has 2 or 3 running days each year when the ironworks can be seen working.

Puddling is no longer carried out here, and scrap iron is used instead.

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The massive hammer dominates the inside of the shed with the brick built Rastrick boiler behind it. This uses waste heat from the furnaces on either side to produce steam to work the hammer. In front are the rollers.

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Next to the ironworks are the company offices.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Other Industry

There are smaller industrial workshops around the site. These are typical of small industry which grew up in the industrialised towns.

S Corbett and Sons Foundry tucked away between Canal Street and High Street, produced a wide range of cast iron goods using scrap iron which was melted and moulds. It now produces souvenir ironwork for visitors.

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Jack Crabtree Engineering Works was involved in precision work. The workshop is lit with large windows with Colebrookdale cast iron frames.

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The machinery is worked by a small stationary boiler in an adjacent shed.

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Every settlement would have had a blacksmith. Heavy horses were used until World War Two in both industry and agriculture and were essential for moving goods. Shoeing them was a major source of work for the village blacksmith. He was also responsible for mending machinery and equipment as well as making small items.

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Stables were also needed for the horses and also workshops for those that make or repair horse harnesses.

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The local carpenter and sawmill provided for most of the construction needs of the community.

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Lowe and Fletcher, Locksmith in a small brick workshop, made and repaired locks for domestic as well as industrial purposes.

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Before gas and electricity, large quantities of candles were needed not only for domestic use, but also for industry.

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These were made from tallow, animal fat which was rendered down in large vats.

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Wick made string was dipped into baths filled with hot tallow to gradually build up the candles. Candles for domestic use where white. Those for industrial use had a green arsenic dye added and woe betide anyone caught using them at home! The arsenic also helped as pest control for any mice or rats that took a nibble. Now the arsenic is replaced with a vegetable dye.

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The Victorians loved decorative plasterwork in their houses. water was added to ground up Gypsum which was then poured into decorative moulds to set. T Biddulph Plasterer is typical of small workshops that would have been found in all Victorian towns.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Transport - the Trevithick Steam Locomotive of 1802

The development of steam power was the key to the success of the Industrial Revolution, and small stationary steam engines can be seen around the site powering the different industries.

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Richard Trevithick, a Cornish mining engineer developed the use of high powered stationary steam pumping engines to drain the mines. In 1802 he visited Coalbrookdale which was making boiler plates for his stationary locomotives. He had already built a steam powered road locomotive, Puffing Devil the previous year and was encouraged by local Ironmaster, William Reynolds, to built a locomotive that would run on rails. Reynolds died the following year and funding ended. It is not known about this experiment or even if the locomotive ever ran or how successful it was.

A drawing of his 1802 engine survives in the Science Museum, showing a three foot gauge locomotive with a large flywheel and cogs providing power to the wheels. It is virtually the same design as the steam locomotive he built for the as the 1804 Pen-y-Darren tramway in South Wales in 1804, the first recorded moving steam locomotive to be built. Trevithick has rather been overshadowed by people like George Stephenson, who built his first steam locomotive ten years later.

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In 1989, a group of apprentices from GKN Sankey of Telford constructed a replica of this locomotive, but with the addition of a a trailing platform for the driver as a safety modification.

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The locomotive is kept at Blists Hill and runs along a short stretch of track in front of the brick and tile works.

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cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Transport cont - the Shropshire Canal

Before roads and railways, the River Severn and canals were the main method of transport of goods around the area.

Flat bottomed boats called tubs were designed to be used on the Shropshire Canal, either hauled by gangs of 'tub men' or by horses. They were made of either wood or iron and could be floated onto the cradle of the Hay Inclined Plane so moving from the canal to the River Severn 200’ below.

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The tubs could carry up to eight tons of cargo and were a cheap way of moving heavy materials. They could be chained together to form ‘trains’ and one horse was able to pull up to twelve loaded boats, controlled by the steersman. Walking along the tow path he would use a long pole to direct the train of boats and stop them colliding with on coming traffic.

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Canals could freeze over in winter and this could stop all traffic. Icebreakers with hulls reinforced by iron, were used to keep the canals open for traffic. These needed teams of up to twenty horses to keep them moving and break through the ice. The central rail was rocked by up to ten men in an attempt to rock the boat from side to side and help crack the ice.

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cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Transport cont - the Hay Inclined Plane. An ingenious solution to lowering canal boats without using locks

The Shropshire Canal carried goods and raw materials, but there was a problem as it was 200’ above the River Severn, which was needed to carry goods to other destinations within the area.

This was solved by William Reynolds, the local Ironmaster, by building an inclined plane between the two.

The Hay Inclined Plane was built at the 1793. With a 1in 4 incline it only needed four men to operate it and it could transport six barges an hour and took just four minutes to descend. A traditional lock system would have needed 27 locks, taken up much more space, needed water to operate and would have taken three hours to transport one barge.

The design was so successful it was used for another six inclined planes on the canal. This is the best preserved example of its kind. The system was in use until 1894 when railways had arrived.

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The Inclined Plane has been restored to how it might have looked when working and is just one of the many remarkable features of Blists Hill.

The Shropshire Canal used box shaped tub boats which could be loaded onto wheeled cradles that ran up or down the double rail track of the incline.

A small winding drum, powered by a small stationary steam engine was used to lift the upper boat out of the water in the canal and onto the cradle. This was connected to the empty boat at the bottom of the incline by a cable. The incline worked by gravity, with the loaded boat descending the incline and pulling up the empty boat. Speed was controlled by a brake on the winding drum at the top of the incline.

All that is left is the chimney

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The tubs and cradles were hauled over a low hump at the top of the incline before descending. They would pass the ascending tub half way.

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At the bottom of the incline, the rails continued under the water so the tub boats could be floated into the water. Contents could then be loaded onto larger boats for transport.

The following three pictures were taken using slide film on a visit about thirty years ago.

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cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Transport cont - River Severn

Before the arrival of the railways nearly everything was transported by water. Raw products and finished goods were transported along the River Severn to the industries based along it in trows or barges. It was the second busiest river in Europe.

The name trow comes from the word ‘trough’ and described the large open hold,
which was designed to carry as much cargo as possible. Canvas side cloths protected the cargo from waves. Trows sailed with a crew of captain and two crew members. They travelled downstream with the current, using sails when possible. The return journey against the current depended on teams of 6-8 human 'bow haulers'.

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Drought, flooding or ice could stop river transport. The arrival of the railway not only provided reliable transport, it was also cheaper. The amount of goods carried by the trows virtually disappeared.

Spry was one of the last trows to be built in 1894 and carried stone and coal between Chepstow and Newport. She continued to work as a ‘dumb barge’ without a sail and pulled by a tug until the 1950s. She has been carefully restored and is thought to be the only surviving example of a Severn Trow. She is now stored under cover at Blists Hill, but is almost too big to photograph.

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Wooden steps lead to a walkway above the trow, with views down into it.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Blists Hill Victorian Christmas Weekend

The Victorians put Christmas on the map and many of our Christmas traditions stem from them. Blists Hill makes a point of celebrating Christmas on the weekends running up to Christmas and the week after Christmas.

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The shops and town are festooned with Christmas trees and decorations.

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There was an artificial snow machine, so as soon as you left the Visitor Centre to go into the town it was snowing. The children thought it was magical and there were shrieks of ‘It’s snowing’. I must admit I was impressed too.

There were carol singers in Victorian costume singing all the traditional favourites as well as a brass band.

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Shire horses were giving wagon rides and Father Christmas paraded through the town.

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The fun fair was open and there was a pantomime as well. There was even an ice rink! There were all things Santa, including a train ride to him in his grotto in the mine. His elves were busy entertaining small visitors too. (Not having as child with me, I gave these a miss, although I was tempted by the train ride... )

The traditional sweet shop had long queues, as did the fish and chip shop which fries in beef dripping and smelt amazing. The bakers was selling slabs of traditional Christmas cake, as well as spiced fruit loaves.

For the adults there were wood turners and a small display selling Christmas tree items.

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The rest of the site was open as usual, so there was plenty to do and see. The Christmas activities were a bonus!
 

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