Curator's Choice: Dr Matt Thompson on the romance and excitement of an ancient wheel

| 07 October 2013

Curator’s Choice: Dr Matt Thompson, Senior Curator at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, on The Broseley Wheel…

A photo of a curator holding a large brick up while wearing white gloves
© Courtesy Ironbridge Gorge Museums
“Provenance is everything. Without it we can find ourselves in a difficult situation, unable to put our feet on solid curatorial ground.

But, if I’m pushed, I think my favourite object in the collection is one that has, at best, a complicated provenance.

Because its history is so shrouded in speculation, to me it embodies all of the excitement and potential that museum objects ought to have. I think, in simple terms, what this object has for me is romance.

Unfortunately, some of that romance may well dissipate when I go on to explain that the object in question is a railway wheel.

The Broseley Wheel, as it has come to be known, is around 25 cm in diameter and 20cm in depth. It is made from elm, has a rough hole through the middle and a single ‘S’ shaped iron cleat holding together a serious crack in the rim; in truth, it looks something like a burnt sponge cake.

What is most remarkable, however, is that it has a four-centimetre flange running around the outside of one edge. It may be crude but the flange means that it is unmistakably a wheel that belonged to some form of railway wagon; it was designed to run on rails with the flange helping to keep the wheels on the track.

It was found in the small town of Broseley on the South side of the river Severn, an area intimately connected with the industry of the Ironbridge Gorge.

It was dug up in the fill of an old coal mine, possibly in the 1930s, and the closest anyone has come to dating it has been to say that it may indeed belong to the 17th century.

To put this into context, the earliest documentary evidence for a surface railway dates from 1603 or 1604, but Broseley comes a close second with documents that tell of a railway from at least 1605.

With these early lines there is almost nothing left of the physical railways that we know once existed and, in general, evidence of 17th century railways is very thin on the ground.

Therefore a date somewhere in the 1600s, however tentative, relating to a railway object is certainly not to be overlooked.

There is a huge amount of research required to understand more about this wheel and to establish a firm date but, as it is stands, this object has the potential to connect Ironbridge with the earliest phase of surface railway building.

There is the temptation to speak in terms of this object being perhaps the earliest example of a flanged railway wheel in the world, although I am conscious of not giving in to what one historian commented were the ‘mindless superlatives’ of world’s firsts. But there is so much more that needs to be established before that particular claim can be made in earnest.

But back to the romance, at the moment this object is not definitive – it is not fixed into a known historical framework and it does not provide much in the way of answers.

What it does give us is possibility and potential; the opportunity to learn more and to explore the world rather than to be simply provided with bare facts.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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