Darby, Abraham (DNB00)

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DARBY, ABRAHAM (1677–1717), iron manufacturer, was born in 1677, probably at Wren's Nest, near Dudley, Worcestershire, where his father occupied a farm. After serving his apprenticeship to a malt-mill maker in Birmingham, in 1698 he started in that business on his own account. About 1704 he visited Holland, and bringing back with him some Dutch brassfounders he established at Bristol the Baptist Mills Brass Works with capital furnished him by four associates, who left him the management of the concern. Believing that cast iron might be substituted for brass in some manufactures, he tried with his Dutch workmen to make iron castings in moulds of sand. The experiment failed, but proved successful when he adopted a suggestion made by a boy in his employment, named John Thomas, who consequently rose in his service, and whose descendants were for something like a century trusted agents of Darby's descendants (Percy, p. 887; cf. Smiles, p. 81). In April 1708 he took out a patent for ‘a new way of casting iron pots and other iron-bellied ware in sand, only, without loam or clay,’ a process which cheapened utensils much used by the poorer classes and then largely imported from abroad. But his associates refusing to risk more money in the new venture Darby dissolved his connection with them, and drawing out his share of the capital took a lease of an old furnace in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, removing to Madely Court in 1709. Here he prospered until his death, 8 March 1717. At his death his eldest son, the second Abraham Darby (1711–1763), born 12 March 1711, was only six years old, and did not enter until about 1730 on the management of the Coalbrookdale Ironworks. In Dr. Percy's interesting sketch of the Darby family, from information furnished by its then (1864) representative, there is a circumstantial account of the second Abraham Darby's successful efforts to smelt iron ore by the use of coke instead of charcoal, a process sometimes supposed to have been first effectively performed by Dud Dudley [q. v.], whose secret died with him. But it is clear from the published results of examinations of the books of the Coalbrookdale concern that both during the life of the first Abraham Darby, and for some time at least after his death, coke was used regularly in its furnaces (Smiles, p. 83, and appendix, p. 339). Possibly (but not probably) the use of coke may have been discontinued at some period in the interregnum between the death of the first Abraham Darby and the managership of the second, and the latter may have rediscovered it. However this may be, the Coalbrookdale Works were much enlarged, their processes improved and increased, and their operations extended under the second Abraham Darby, who died 31 March 1763. His son and successor, the third Abraham Darby (1750–1791), born 24 April 1750, took the management of the Coalbrookdale Works when he was about eighteen, and is memorable as having constructed the first iron bridge ever actually erected, the semicircular cast-iron arch across the Severn, near the village of Broseley at Coalbrookdale, the foundation of which was laid 27 July 1769 (Camden, ii. 417), and which was opened for traffic in 1779 (see drawing and description of it by Robert Stephenson in his article ‘Iron Bridges,’ in eighth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’). Presenting a model of it, now in the Patent Museum at South Kensington, to the Society of Arts, Darby received in 1787 the society's gold medal. He died 20 March 1791.

[Dr. Percy's Metallurgy, vol. ii.; Iron and Steel, 1864; Smiles's Industrial Biography; Iron Workers and Tool Makers, 2nd edit. 1879; Scrivener's History of the Iron Trade, 2nd ed. 1879; Transactions of the Society of Arts (1788), vi. 219.]

F. E.