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Ironbridge Museum launches hunt for ‘hidden LGBTQ workers’ of the industrial revolution

A museum is to use Government cash to host a virtual drag queen night to kick-start a research project to find gay, lesbian and transgender Britons who may have helped in the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago. 

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust runs sites in the Shropshire Valley region known for its 18th century cast iron bridge and for being the birthplace of British manufacturing innovation.

A virtual cabaret night, named ‘Steam Punq’ and featuring cocktails and drag acts, will kick off the Trust’s ‘Hidden Histories’ project to try to look for ‘queer stories’ in the area. 

But Tory MP Andrew Bridgden blasted what he called the ‘PC brigade’ for trying to turn Britain’s Industrial Revolution into the ‘sexual revolution’. 

The Trust last year received more than £2million in emergency public money after it was hammered by plummeting visitor numbers caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Historian and researcher Sacha Coward, who is leading the project and is related to famous playwright Noel Coward, told The Telegraph that while Ironbridge is ‘traditionally a masculine place’, ‘you’re still going to get queer people there’.

The area’s iron bridge, which spans what was formerly the Severn Gorge, was built in 1779 to link the industrial town of Broseley with the smaller mining town of Madeley.

It was the first structure of its kind in the world and the process by which it was made is considered the catalyst for the boom in industry which saw Britain become the industrial centre of the world.

The Trust's project will launch on Saturday with the virtual cabaret event, tickets for which cost £3.50. Non-binary entertainer 'Miss Sundi' will perform at the cabaret event

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust is to use Government cash to host a virtual drag queen night to kick-start a research project to find gay, lesbian and transgender Britons who may have helped in the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago. Left: Historian and researcher Sacha Coward is leading the project. Right: Drag act ‘Miss Sundi’ will perform in the cabaret event 

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust runs sites in the Shropshire Valley region known for its 18th century cast iron bridge and for being the birthplace of British manufacturing innovation

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust runs sites in the Shropshire Valley region known for its 18th century cast iron bridge and for being the birthplace of British manufacturing innovation 

The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, will receive money from public body Arts Council England for its new research. 

Mr Coward, who is the great nephew of Noel Coward, said: ‘Even if the town is industrial, about steel and coal, and traditionally a very masculine place, you’re still going to get queer people there. 

Referencing the gay 19th century author Oscar Wilde, Mr Coward added: ‘Rather than say queer people are these bizarre, outlandish lords – wealthy, strange, with these kind of slightly perverse lifetstyles – well, they’re also the person down the pub.

‘We want to show that we are also salt of the earth and we’ve always been there. 

A virtual cabaret night, named 'Steam Punq', will kick off the Trust's 'Hidden Histories' project to try to look for 'queer stories' in the area

A virtual cabaret night, named ‘Steam Punq’, will kick off the Trust’s ‘Hidden Histories’ project to try to look for ‘queer stories’ in the area

‘We’ve existed in every strata of society. I could be a gay coalminer, or engineer or landlord.’ 

Mr Coward admitted that Ironbridge was not a ‘traditional’ area to look for ‘queer’ stories in but said ‘that doesn’t mean it’s not there, we have to look a little harder.’

However, MP Mr Bridgden said he thought Ironbridge was part of the Industrial Revolution, ‘not the sexual revolution’.

He added that there appeared to be ‘no limit for the PC brigade’.  

The Trust’s project will launch on Saturday with the virtual cabaret event, tickets for which cost £3.50. 

Viewers are told to expect ‘performances, drag, history and fascinating stories’.  

They added: ‘We guarantee there’s no better way to spend a Saturday evening indoors!’ 

Non-binary entertainer ‘Miss Sundi’ will perform at the cabaret event.  

The Trust’s attractions in the Severn valley, which include its museums and a re-created Victorian town, are normally popular with millions of visitors each year.

However, the charity last year needed a £500,000 grant from the Art’s Council’s Emergency Response Fund and a further £1.86million from the Government’s separate Culture Recovery Fund. 

Both were set up to help deal with the fallout of both the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns imposed as a result. 

The area's iron bridge, which spans what was formerly the Severn Gorge, was built in 1779 to link the industrial town of Broseley with the smaller mining town of Madeley. Pictured: A contemporary painting of the bridge being constructed, by artist Elias Martin

The area’s iron bridge, which spans what was formerly the Severn Gorge, was built in 1779 to link the industrial town of Broseley with the smaller mining town of Madeley. Pictured: A contemporary painting of the bridge being constructed, by artist Elias Martin

Ironbridge: The industrial town that changed the world 

The first iron bridge in the world was built over the River Severn, at Coalbrookdale, in Shropshire, England, in 1779.

The town that grew around the structure took its name – Ironbridge. 

The gorge which the bridge spans is in a region rich with minerals, coal, iron ore, limestone and clay. 

The area first begun being exploited in the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

By 1700, there were several furnaces and forges in the area. 

In 1708, the blast furnace leased by industrialist Abraham Darby began to make iron there using coke as fuel instead of the customary charcoal.

The first iron bridge in the world was built over the River Severn, at Coalbrookdale, in Shropshire, England, in 1779

The first iron bridge in the world was built over the River Severn, at Coalbrookdale, in Shropshire, England, in 1779

This momentous development allowed for a vast increase in Britain’s iron production, helping to spark the Industrial Revolution.

By 1758, 400 vessels were trading between Gloucester and Welshpool and within 50 years this number had doubled. 

To get across the gorge, six or more ferry crossings were operating.

They were essential for carrying raw materials across the river to the ironworks and other industries. 

However, with the river shallow in summer and too swift and high in winter to allow for reliable deliveries, a new bridge was commissioned. 

Nearly 400 tonnes of iron was needed to build the bridge over the course of three months.

A single painting showing its construction depicts a simple scaffold with the ironwork almost free-standing.

The final cost of the bridge was around £6,000, which equates to £1.5million in today’s money. 

It was the first in the world to be made from cast iron and its success inspired the use of the material for other similar structures. 

Ironbridge is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Source: Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust 


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