An 18th-century flax mill in the English Midlands that is considered the grandfather of all skyscrapers will open to the public after an eight-year, £28 million restoration.
Visitors to the world’s first iron-framed building, on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, will learn not only about its revolutionary role in architecture but also about working conditions that saw children strapped to its cast-iron pillars and flogged.
The structure of Ditherington Flax Mill, built in 1796-1797 about 12 miles from the Industrial Revolution sites of Iron Bridge Gorge and Coalbrookdale, paved the way for landmarks such as the Empire State Building and London’s Gherkin. It has been hailed as “the most important building of the modern age” by Sir Peter Luff, chairman of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which supported its rescue and restoration by Historic England, working with Shropshire Council and the Friends of Flaxmill Maltings.
The mill was built by a partnership of local merchants Thomas and Benjamin Benyon and Yorkshire entrepreneur John Marshall, for processing flax imported from Northern Europe into linen yarn and thread for clothing production. According to Historic England, financial backers included the Shrewsbury doctor Robert Darwin, father of the naturalist Charles. Its metal structure was chosen for fire-proofing purposes as the flax, dust and machine-oil used in the spinning process created a serious combustion risk. The Benyons and Marshall had previously lost a mill in Leeds to fire.
The designer, Charles Bage, a local wine merchant, surveyor and polymath, was influenced by the ideas of William Strutt, a mill owner in Derbyshire who had had built a mill with iron columns supporting timber beams that in turn supported vaulted brick ceilings. Bage took the concept to its logical conclusion by replacing the timber beams with iron ones.
Bage’s frame consists of two-piece cast-iron beams that span the width of the building, supported by rows of elegant cast-iron columns. The beams and columns, which were cast by the prominent local ironmaster William Hazledine, form a rigid frame that is strengthened by wrought-iron tie-rods. Historic England likens the structure to “a giant meccano set”.
The building has shallow vaulted brick ceilings and walls built of outsized “great bricks” that cut the owners’ liability for the brick tax levied to help cover the financial fallout of the American Revolution. Although some timber was present in the building, none was exposed in working areas.
In addition to its pioneering structure, the mill boasted the latest machinery, such as a Boulton and Watt steam engine. It had gas lighting from the early 19th century and the glow from the windows in addition to the steam and the silhouette of the mill’s multi-gable roof — resembling fins or teeth — earned it the nickname of “the dragon on the hill”.
An exhibition in the grade I-listed main building — the original structure of which is preserved intact — will highlight the site’s history, including its construction and its main phases of about 90 years each as a flax mill and then a maltings, producing malt from grain for brewing. Other notable episodes include its stint as a light infantry barracks and training centre during the Second World War. It will also tell stories of the workforce, which, during the flax mill period, included children as young as nine working long hours in brutal conditions.
Among other evidence of maltreatment at the mill in the first half of the 19th century is the testimony of Samuel Downe, who spoke to a commission examining conditions of child labourers. He said: “I was about ten years old when I began to work at Mr Marshall’s mill at Shrewsbury. When we were brisk, we used generally to begin at five in the morning, and run till eight at night! The engine never stopped except forty minutes at dinner-time. These long hours were very fatiguing. The children were kept awake by a blow or a box! Very considerable severity was used in that mill [ . . . ] I was strapped on my legs, and then I was put upon a man’s back and strapped; and then I was strapped and buckled with two straps to an iron pillar and flogged!!”
Children’s jobs at the flax mill included “scavenging”, or crawling under moving machinery to clear away dirt and thread, and moving containers of flax between floors. Many of the children were unpaid apprentices who were bound by indentures to serve for a fixed term in return for training, board and lodging.
The building eventually fell derelict after the maltings closed in 1987. English Heritage purchased the site in 2005 as buyers of last resort when further neglect could have led to its collapse. This was funded with a grant of £910,000 from Advantage West Midlands, the government’s regional development agency for the West Midlands. The site was inherited by Historic England when English Heritage was restructured.
The restoration by architects Feilden, Clegg, Bradley Studios adds discreet steel columns and structural elements to provide a safety net and reinforce the cast-iron frame. Many of the large flax mill windows, which were bricked up or reduced in size during the maltings phase, have been reinstated so that windows from both historic phases are prominent across the facades.
The ground floor will house a café and the exhibition space while the upper four storeys have been converted to office space for around 300 people. Admission to the exhibition, from its opening on September 10, will cost £7.50 for adults, £6 for concessions and £5 for children aged 5-17, with under-5s going for free. The longer-term intention is for the restoration to create a new hub for Shrewsbury outside the centre, including construction of 120 new homes on the wider flax-mill site.
The iron-frame form introduced at Ditherington was quickly copied by other British industrialists and was the precursor of the stronger steel-framed buildings that transformed urban skylines a century later. The use of structural steel not only improves fire safety and enables fast construction of buildings with large open-plan interiors, but also allows for very tall buildings on a narrow footprint. Alastair Godfrey, the restoration project lead for the flax mill’s owners Historic England, said: “The DNA for every multi-storey metal building in the world comes back to this building. It’s extraordinary.”