Monday, 9 September 2013

Shrewsbury's Flaxmill Maltings

A year in the life of our town can’t not include [double negative, I know] Shrewsbury's Flaxmill Maltings.  Its location out at Ditherington is slightly outside the boundary of this blog, but it’s such an important building, of international significance, that it would be a crime against Shrewsbury not to include it.  Especially as, equipped with a hard hat, I visited it yesterday.

The Flaxmill Maltings was having an Open Weekend, providing a last chance to see it before multi-million pound redevelopment work begins.  In particular, I wanted to see the South Silo before it’s blown up. A laser show was on in the main body of the Silo, with music, dancing and fluid light.  The Silo’s stairs were open to the public, so it was possible to climb to the top floor and view the spires of Shrewsbury and the outskirts of town. 

The windows at the top were netted and barred, but it was still a good view.  My companion complained all the way upstairs and down again about the Silo being blown up on the thin excuse of concrete cancer. This was easily treatable, he said, and the Silo should be turned into flats, their rents helping pay for the upkeep of the rest of the Flaxmill Maltings. To many people, however, the Silo is just a massive concrete box taking up land that could be put to better use. It may be part of the Flaxmill Maltings complex, but has nothing like the merit of the other buildings on site.

The history of the Flaxmill Maltings is an interesting one. In 1796, two Shrewsbury men, Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, joined forces with John Marshall of Leeds to construct a flaxmill.  After extensive tests on the structural properties of iron, Charles Bage [recognized as one of the pioneers of structural engineering], designed them an entirely new type of mill.  Mills at that time were highly dangerous, built of brick and stone, with wooden floors. The dust from the spinning process, along with the volatility of lubricants for machinery and the use of candlelight to work by meant that it was easy for them to burn down. Charles Bage’s Flaxmill, however, built of brick and iron, was completely fireproof.

The Flaxmill was built at a time when the woollen trade in Shrewsbury was in decline, which meant that as well as offering good transport links and a ready market for the mill’s products, Shrewsbury also was able to offer the new enterprise skilled workers.  The building remained a mill for over a hundred years. In 1897 it was adapted by William Jones Maltsters, for use as a maltings, and it remained a maltings until the company’s bankruptcy in 1934.  In World War II the building was used as a barracks, but in 1948 it was taken on as a maltings again by Ansells. So it remained until 1987, which means that, more likely than not, there are people in our town who remember working there.

The value of the Flaxmill Maltings, however, isn’t just its history, or the fact that it’s an attractive building, which would enhance its surroundings if restored.  Its value lies in its innovative design - and that in turn owes everything to its iron frame.  

The Main Mill, which now faces regeneration, is the oldest iron-framed building in the world. This means that New York and every other city that has ever put up a skyscraper owes a debt of gratitude to the Ditherington Flaxmill Maltings, still standing here in Shrewsbury 217 years after it was first conceived, courtesy of its iron frame. Not only that, but together with the Cross Mill and Warehouse, the complex has three of the ten oldest iron-framed buildings in the world, and the design of the Flaxmill by Charles Bage is of international significance for its use of structural engineering within building design.

In other words, every way you look at it, the Ditherington Flaxmill Maltings is of international importance. The site in its entirety is a virtually complete surviving example of a major textile mill, and the Cross Mill is believed to be the only surviving example of a hackling shop built for a textile mill.

Interestingly, John Marshall of Leeds is the person who purchased the rights to the flax-spinning machine when it was first invented, bringing cutting-edge manufacturing technology to Shrewsbury.  And as well as designing the Flaxmill and playing his part in the history of structural engineering, Charles Bage also became Mayor of Shrewsbury. Both were important men in their day.  

Here in Shrewsbury, the fight has been on for years to save the Flaxmill Maltings. Open Weekends like the one I’ve just been to have been held to raise public awareness.  The history of the building has been celebrated with spinners in costume weaving flax. Exhibitions have been put on. Tours around the building have been available.  This last weekend alone has had guided tours, a family trail and family activities, a film room, live music, a photography exhibition and installation, flax demonstrations and an interpretation and discovery area.

It might have been raining, and the building might have been swathed in scaffolding, but there was a distinct buzz about the place. Smiles were on the faces of the volunteers, and the Heritage Lottery logo – proudly places everywhere - was smiling too.  Back in July, the Heritage Lottery fund granted Shrewsbury £12.8 for the Flaxmill Malting’s regeneration. After years of struggling to save it, the future of this world class site, an important part of Shrewsbury life and a first-class tourist asset too, is now assured. 


Work will start on the Flaxmill Maltings almost straight away, with a view to the site being open to business and the public by April 2016.  The injection of cash will pay for the Flaxmill’s first phase of redevelopment, which will also see the Kiln, Dye and Stove House, and offices and stables, being restored. This will be a major project, one that Shrewsbury is rightly excited about.  Last autumn, whilst in Toronto, I visited the Distillery District, a part of that very modern city’s preserved past. Housed in a massive old distillery and accompanying outbuildings and warehouses are craft shops, high-end jewellers, boutiques, bars, restaurants and exhibition spaces.  This is a quality destination full of interest and charm, away from Toronto’s skyscrapers and reminiscent of the city’s industrial past. People flock to it. They love it. If you’re coming to Toronto, you’ve got to see it, they say.

And the same could go for the Flaxmill Maltings. People could flock to it as well, locals and tourists alike, making it not only a commercial destination, but a significant destination on the tourist trail around the British Isles. Shrewsbury is a great destination anyway, with a wealth of old buildings, beautiful riverside parkland, quiet squares, old shuts and passageways and a wealthy of tiny, independent shops. A massive amount of work has gone into saving the Flaxmill Maltings and securing Lottery funding. Now we need to be imaginative in terms of putting the site to good use, casting our net wide, looking to other places who’ve gone before us, and learning from them.   

If you’d like to get involved in the future of Ditherington Flaxmill Maltings as one of its Friends, here’s the link:

If you’d like to visit the website for the Flaxmill Maltings, here’s the link:

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