Ironbridge museums at 50: Duck race that nearly quacked Iron Bridge

The iconic centrepiece of the Ironbridge Gorge for more than 230 years – the Iron Bridge – has had various trials and tribulations during its long life.

Ironbridge work 1973
A concrete corset was fitted in a two-year programme to save the Iron Bridge in the early 1970s. Picture: Ken Harris

There’s been a big squeeze exerted by the riverbanks, a bombing attack by the Luftwaffe, and it groaned under an assault which was prompted by 10,000 little yellow plastic ducks floating down the River Severn. Yes, plastic ducks.

Somewhere along the way an aircraft is supposed to have flown underneath it during World War Two.

In the Ironbridge Gorge Museum’s 50 years of existence – there are various events this year to celebrate the golden anniversary – it can rarely have captured the public’s imagination in the way that its first duck race did.

Held on Monday, May 6, 1985, which was the May Bank Holiday, it was a huge success. The race, a modern twist on the game of pooh-sticks, brought huge crowds to the town.

Many went on the bridge itself to watch the finish, for which the prize for the owner of the first duck home, which was fished out of the water by Ironbridge coracle man Eustace Rogers, was a holiday for two in Disneyworld.

Police saw the danger of overloading on the bridge, which is limited to about 120 people on it at a time for safety reasons, and tried to keep the numbers down, but afterwards it was discovered that the historic bridge had been damaged by the weight.

Bolts and rivets which had broken from deck plates were found underneath the bridge.

It was not the end of the duck race, but the following year people were banned from the bridge, and the third and final race, involving 10,000 ducks, was in 1987.

A direct physical assault on the bridge structure came in 1977. Telford Development Corporation thought it would be a good idea to floodlight the bridge. So it fixed floodlights to it.

Unfortunately it was not its bridge to drill holes in, and the county’s chief bridge engineer was not at all happy.

At least the bridge was still standing. It has had various scrapes over the decades. On August 24, 1902, a portion of it fell off and into the River Severn.

On November 9, 1940, the Luftwaffe got in on the act, when a lone raider flew down the River Severn and dropped a stick of bombs which landed not far away, on Benthall Edge.

Whether the Iron Bridge was the intended target, we shall probably never know. Local opinion was that the aircraft was aiming for the power station.

Also during the war, there is a story that a twin-engined Beaufighter flew underneath, which as it would be suicidal for an aircraft that size seems to be folklore.

But there is more reason to think that a pilot from the airfield at Hinstock flew underneath in a Tiger Moth biplane and was court martialled for it.

But the most serious danger to the bridge came through the gradual movement together of the riverbanks, which could have eventually squeezed the bridge to destruction.

So these days it wears a corset to stop it bulging. This concrete corset was fitted in a two-year programme to save the bridge for future generations, which began in 1972. The completion of the work, which was affected by an unseasonal summer flood, was marked in October 1974.

 

The engineering solution comprises a large concrete slab on the river bed to stop the structure being squeezed.

Nevertheless, in 2008 a new investigation was announced because it was continuing to be bent out of shape by landslides.

The bridge was, said Telford & Wrekin Council, showing “considerable evidence of distortion.” Talking of landslides, at Blists Hill in 1988 a landslide brought down power cables which blacked out hundreds of Telford homes and damaged two buildings at the Blists Hill museum site, the blacksmith’s shop and the sweet shop.

To landslides, we can add floods, an obvious occupational hazard problem in the Ironbridge Gorge. Thinking of new things to keep the museum fresh takes imagination, but sometimes there have been plans which have not quite come off.

A bright idea in 1991 was to have a working replica of a Trevithick engine at a circular track at the Museum of Iron at Coalbrookdale.

Residents living nearby were underwhelmed, complaining of noise and smoke, and getting up a petition.

Environmental health officers at Wrekin Council were not impressed either, slapping a noise abatement order on the troublesome loco.

The loco then found a new home at Ironbridge Power Station.

It ran there for weekend events, making as much noise and smoke as it liked, before eventually being moved to the Blists Hill site.

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