Forgive me if I speak to you with the benefit of my three score years and fifteen! I’ll try not to patronise, but it’s difficult not to feel a certain smugness having reached this time in my life with my intellect more or less in tact.
I have reached a plateau of contentment, where I no longer feel the need to compete for survival. Of course, I realise this is largely due to an accident of birth. Born into the United Kingdom, one of the richest countries on the planet was a great start and a privilege. Not that there were any silver spoons around, you understand.
So here I find myself, after pursuing multiple career as well as actual pathways throughout my life, quietly wondering what it was all about. More than that, I now find myself looking back not only over my own life, but over the many lives that went before, leading to that one concurrence of coincidences culminating in the single moment of conception when I came into existence.
I think back to the moment when I asked my Granddad where our family had come from. I was ten years old and in my favourite place – on the hearthrug by Granddad Bangham’s knee. Every now and then a spurt of gas from the coal would ignite and flare into life. The light outside was fading as I looked up at him and asked where our family had come from. He smiled down at me and in his broad Lancashire accent told me he understood that two hundred years ago our family lived in Shropshire, in a place called Coalbrookdale.
At the time, I had never heard of Coalbrookdale, and I found the name confusing. Was this a place like Oldham, where I was growing up, where the smoke from the coal fires and mill chimneys hung in the air, diluting the sunshine, even in the middle of summer? Or was it a beautiful place, in a green valley with a brook running through?
I asked him how we got from Shropshire to Oldham, but he didn’t know when or why the family had left that place to move to the industrial towns of the North of England. All he knew, was that his father Edwin had always told him the family was from Coalbrookdale. I determined that one day, I would find the answers.
It was some years later that I became seriously interested in researching the family tree. Eventually I traced the Bangham line back to 1652 and Walter Bangome, living in the Severn Gorge area of Shropshire. In the course of my research, I was fascinated to learn that one of Walter’s sons, Joseph, my fifth great grandfather, had worked for Abraham Darby, at his ironworks in Coalbrookdale. I was even able to locate references to Joseph and his brother William in the surviving accounts books of the Darby works.
Abraham Darby and his descendants were responsible for developing a way of making iron using coke made from coal, rather than charcoal made from wood. Unlike wood, coal was plentiful. With a ready supply in the area of the other raw materials, namely limestone and ironstone, there was virtually no limit to the amount of iron which could be smelted in the Coalbrookdale furnaces. As the process was adopted across the country the unlimited supply of iron fuelled the Industrial Revolution, by providing the raw material for building machinery and engines for the mills and railways of Great Britain and beyond. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, the first iron rails were cast in the Coalbrookdale works, as were cylinders for the first Newcomen steam engines, parts for the first iron ship, the S.S. Great Britain now restored and sitting alongside the docks in Bristol, and the world’s first bridge made of iron, which still stands today at Ironbridge in the Severn Gorge, now a World Heritage Site.
Over the years I have often imagined what life may have been like for Joseph and his family. Did he realise, as he worked at the furnace, that he was involved in events that were to change the world? I have visited the Severn Gorge many times and it never fails to move me just as strongly as it did on the first day I stood in the churchyard of Holy Trinity on the steep slopes of the Coalbrookdale valley, gazing to the south, across the Gorge towards Bangham’s Wood.
Is there such a thing as ‘folk memory?’ That I cannot tell, I only know that as I surveyed the valley I felt at a connection with the place. It felt like home. This was in the 1970’s and the name Coalbrookdale still confused me. This was certainly a beautiful dale, with steep sided, thickly wooded slopes, and a brook running along the valley floor toward the River Severn. There was just a hint as to the origin of the reference to ‘coal’, in the partially derelict industrial buildings standing beside a railway viaduct.
So, this is where my story begins, in Bangham’s Wood, over three hundred years ago. Now in my seventh decade I am able to add the perspective of my own life to that of the Bangham family. I can see and understand more fully the impact of those changes witnessed and, yes, implemented by Joseph Bangham and his workmates. Were those changes for the better? Given the problems of climate change caused by industrialisation which also prompted rapid population growth, the jury is still out.
However, I see the story of our family as a microcosm of so many family stories, as the agricultural gave way to the industrial way of life. Whatever the final outcome for humanity, I do feel it’s a story worth telling. Coalbrookdale, the first book in what I hope will become The Bangham Trilogy, is a fictional story covering the period 1713 to 1759, about the life of Joseph Bangham and his family.
Over this period their lives in the peaceful rural hamlet in Bangham’s Wood must have changed fundamentally as industry came to the Gorge. Working in the fields and coppicing in the woods would have given way to days and nights of toil in the hot, dirty and dangerous world of the smelting and forging of iron. The fresh air and sweet scent of wildflowers was to be replaced by smoke and fumes from the furnaces. Soot and dust must have eventually covered everything, and the sound of birdsong would have been drowned out by the roar of the furnaces and the hammering of metal on metal at the forges.
When Joseph started out at the Darby Works, I have imagined that he was probably excited at the prospect of change coming to the Gorge. I wonder, when he looked back on his life, whether he felt the change had been for the better, or whether something of the old life had been lost? These are the kind of thoughts many of us have as we look at the world today and contemplate whether our civilisation will survive the effects of industrialisation and the resultant climatic changes it has brought about. The problem is, a lifetime just isn’t long enough to find those answers, is it?
I hope to release Coalbrookdale, Book One of the Bangham Trilogy later this year.
3rd September 2021