Bedlam Furnace, Ironbridge: revisited, revised

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Paul H Vigor


Bedlam Furnace, Ironbridge: revisited, revised

In 1995, the present author was delighted to join the Ironbridge Institute’s ‘Industrial Archaeology’ course. This highly regarded, professional course of post-graduate study provided passionate, highly motivated students with a unique blend of theoretical and practical, research-focused training in the identification, investigation and interpretation of the structures, landscapes and technologies comprising Britain’s early industrial heritage.

The confidence-building ethos of the Ironbridge course encouraged students to tackle complicated, challenging research projects, both as individuals, and in small teams. Working and studying in such a charged, proactive environment encouraged students to think ‘outside-the-box’, to push the boundaries of academic industrial archaeological knowledge. Consequently, Ironbridge students were encouraged to seek out, and identify unknown, unrecognised elements of the industrial heritage; elements they might investigate further for course assignments – and, eventually, Masters dissertations.

This paper will comprise a thorough re-examination of just such a Masters dissertation. In this case, the author’s award-winning, 1996 Master of Social Science thesis: ‘The Breaking of the Bedlam Enigma’.

The author will develop, and defend a radical hypothesis that Bedlam/Madeley Wood Furnace – a Scheduled Ancient Monument within the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site – comprises not one blast furnace installation – but two.

This paper will incorporate a fusion of archive research; the close evaluation of historic visual images; observations of standing structures; and post-medieval archaeological landscape investigation.

It will argue that: since at least c.1942-3, historical and archaeological evidence relating to two, physically separate, Severn-side blast furnace installations has been combined habitually to interpret one.

The present author’s investigations in 1996 answered several long-standing, interpretive questions that had dogged investigations of Bedlam Furnace for decades; added a new industrial monument to the existing monumental panoply of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site; and identified probably the earliest known – standing – steam-engine house in the British Isles.

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