Last edited 17 Nov 2020

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The Institution of Civil Engineers Institute / association Website

Abraham Darby III

This article is part of ICE's Engineer biographies series.

DARBY, Abraham, III (1750-1789), ironmaster, was born on 24 April 1750 in Dale House, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, the eldest son of Abraham Darby II (1711-1763) and his second wife Abiah Sinclair (nee Maude).

Confusion often arises due to the fact that there were four different members of the Darby family who bore the same name. Abraham Darby I (1678-1717) moved from Bristol to take over the operation of a blast furnace in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, in 1708. Soon after, he pioneered a new method of smelting iron in the furnace, using coke as fuel in place of the traditional charcoal.

His son, Abraham Darby II (1711-1763) was responsible for numerous technical improvements at the works, and their rapid expansion, including the building of new furnaces at nearby Horsehay and Ketley in the 1750s.

Abraham Darby IV (1807-1878), a member of the fifth generation, having helped the Coalbrookdale Company through a difficult period of change in the 1830s and 1840s, moved away from Shropshire in 1851 to pursue interests in the Ebbw Vale area of South Wales.

Abraham Darby III is best remembered for his involvement with the Iron Bridge. Having served an apprenticeship under Richard Reynolds, he took over the management of the works on his eighteenth birthday in 1768. His diary reveals that a bridge across the Severn was suggested as early as 1773, though the first meeting of interested parties took place in Broseley in 1775, and he was elected treasurer. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, a Shrewsbury architect, was appointed to design the bridge, and an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1776.

Darby, Pritchard and the ironmaster John Wilkinson convinced the other subscribers that the bridge should be built of iron, since some were suggesting alternatives made of stone, brick or timber. Preparatory work was undertaken in 1777-1778, and the ironwork of the bridge was erected during a three month period in the summer of 1779. Following completion of the approach roads on either side, it was opened to traffic on 1 January 1781.

Although details have survived concerning the cost of the bridge, opinions differ as to how it was put together and, despite the fact that the Coalbrookdale Furnace was enlarged in 1777, exactly where the bridge components were cast. It was a triumph in engineering terms, but financially it was a disaster, leading the Darby family, who were major shareholders, to near ruin and years of debt.

Abraham Darby III died on 20 March 1789 at The Haye, a prestigious house on the northern slopes of the Severn Gorge from which he had a splendid view of the bridge he helped to create. He is buried in the Quaker Burial Ground in Coalbrookdale. There are no known portraits of the first three Abraham Darbys, probably due to their strong religious beliefs as practising Quakers. Abraham Darby IV was an Anglican, and there is an oil painting and an engraving of him in the collection of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.


Written by JOHN POWELL.

This text is an extract from A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, published by ICE in 2002. Beginning with what little is known of the lives of engineers such as John Trew who practised in the Tudor period, the background, training and achievements of engineers over the following 250 years are described by specialist authors, many of whom have spent a lifetime researching the history of civil engineering.

--The Institution of Civil Engineers

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