Was There a Shropshire Enlightenment?


Individuals with extraordinary talents were active in Shropshire in the late eighteenth century, but were the contacts between them as fruitful as those between the members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham or the Derby Philosophical Society?

Can these networks meaningfully be characterised as a Shropshire Enlightenment?

William Reynolds (1758-1803), the Shropshire ironmaster, described in a letter, probably written in 1782, that he had been walking through Coalbrookdale discussing the Iron Bridge with Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817), and that, as a result of the conversation, a 50 ft long cast iron rib was experimentally broken at the mid-point with a hammer.

This incident involving three contemporary intellectuals exemplifies the ferment of enterprise, curiosity and enlightened thinking that characterised the English Midlands in the late eighteenth century, but it also shows how difficult it is to define cultural networks. The three resided in different places: Reynolds at Ketley, Darwin near Derby and Edgeworth at Edgeworthtown, Co Longford.

They did not meet on a regular basis and they also participated in other networks, Darwin and Edgeworth with enthusiasts for coach building, for example, and Reynolds and Darwin with geologists.

KEYWORDS: Shropshire, Enlightenment, William Reynolds, Ironbridge, Joseph Plymley, Coalbrookdale, Agriculture

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