Ditherington Flax Mill Maltings

Ditherington Flax Mill Maltings - Hoist Tower and Kiln

Date

10 December 2011
Location

Ditherington, Shrewsbury

SJ 49855 13826; 52.71974°N, 2.74382°W

Information

There were many fire hazards associated with 18th century textile mills — wooden floors, combustible atmospheres heavy with suspended fibre particles, and illumination by candles, to name a few — and many did indeed burn down. It was against this background that surveyor, engineer, wine merchant and future Mayor of Shrewsbury Charles Bage developed the fire-proof construction techniques employed in his design of Benyon, Bage and Marshall’s Ditherington Flax Mill. Opening in 1797, this was the world’s first iron-framed building — a pioneering innovation in the building technology that would ultimately lead to the construction of skyscrapers. Cast-iron columns had already been used in mills, but Bage’s design utilised these in conjunction with iron beams to support the brick-vaulted ceiling spans.

The site was developed in several phases and operated as a flax mill from 1797 to 1886. The original timber-framed Cross Mill burnt down in 1811 and was replaced the following year with an iron-framed structure of a design similar to that of the Main Mill. The complex was converted into a maltings in 1897-98 by William Jones (Maltsters), which went out of business in 1934. During World War II the site was used by the army as a barracks. The brewers Ansells, which became part of Allied Breweries in 1961, acquired the complex and operated the maltings from 1948 until its final closure in 1987. Vacant since then, the site is now in the hands of English Heritage, which is, in conjunction with Shropshire Council, the Homes and Communities Agency and regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, exploring the possibilities for the future of the site, most of the structures of which are listed buildings. Planning permission for mixed-use redevelopment of the site was granted in November 2010. The plans involve the demolition of non-listed buildings and the conversion of the listed ones to create homes and business space.

Flax production at the mill involved the following processes. First of all, partially pre-prepared imported flax was hackled (combed to separate long from short fibres) in the Cross Mill. Next, in the Main Mill it was carded (further combing), roved (stretched and joined into lengths) and then spun. And finally the resulting yarn was dyed in vats in the Dye House.

The malt kiln was completed in 1898. Various other structural changes, such as the blocking off of mill windows, the demolition of redundant structures, and the construction of the wooden hoist tower with its wrought-iron ‘Jubilee’ coronet, were also made at the time of conversion. The concrete silos were a late addition to the complex, being built in the 1950s and 60s.

Malting is the process, in which the enzymes necessary to convert the grain starches into sugars are developed, of turning barley into malt for use in brewing, for example. The production method at the maltings was as follows. Barley was first of all steeped for several days in metal tanks with three or four changes of cold water. It was then emptied out and spread across the mill floors and turned over twice daily. Once germination started — after three or four days — the barley was then conveyed to the kiln and spread out over perforated floors heated by coal fires. And finally, after drying in the kiln, the finished product would then be stored in silos ready for dispatch.

Former Ditherington Flax Mill and Attached Former Malting Kiln (English Heritage);
Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings;
Shrewsbury Flax Mill plans approved (5 November 2010)

View from the south - South Silo, South Engine House, Main Mill (in scaffolding), Kiln, and Warehouse behind. Built in 1797, the Grade I listed Main Mill is the world’s oldest iron-framed building. Its innovative construction technique was the precursor to the development of steel-framed skyscrapers. It was served by the Shrewsbury Canal, which also opened in 1797 and ran alongside the mill. Flax was combed, stretched and spun in the Main Mill and, in the maltings era, barley was soaked in tanks here and then spread over the floors and turned daily until germination started.

Hoist Tower and Kiln. The wooden Hoist Tower is surmounted by a wrought-iron coronet celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The Grade I listed Kiln was added in 1897-98 when the site was converted to a maltings. Malt was produced here by roasting germinated barley over perforated floors.

Hoist Tower, Kiln and Warehouse. The Grade I listed Warehouse was built in 1805 and was used to store firstly raw flax and latterly malt until the North Silo was built.

South Engine House. The South Engine House was built in 1797 and originally equipped with a 20 horse-power steam engine, which drove line shafting to power machinery in the Main Mill. A second engine house with a 40 horse-power steam engine was added at the opposite end of the Main Mill around 1800.

South Engine House - hoist enclosure

Between the South Silo and Smithy looking towards the South Engine House

South Silo. The concrete South Silo was built in 1951 for the storage of barley arriving at the plant. Before this, the South Engine House and Dye House were used for this purpose.

North Silo

North Silo. The concrete North Silo was built in the 1960s for the storage of the finished product. Prior to this, the malt was stored in the Warehouse.

Dye House hoist enclosure

Dye House, looking towards South Silo. The Grade II* listed Dye House was originally built before 1804 and was altered in the 1850s. Spun flax thread was dyed in vats here and the building was later used as a barley store before the South Silo was built.

Dye House

Apprentice House. The Grade II* listed Apprentice House was built in 1811-12 and served as accommodation for the pauper children, some as young as eight, apprenticed to the mill.

Apprentice House

North Silo (left) and Cross Mill (right). The original 1803 Cross Mill, which was not iron framed, was destroyed in a fire in 1811. It was rebuilt in 1812 and is now a Grade I listed building. This was a hackling shop, in which the flax was combed to separate out the long from the short fibres. After conversion of the site, the Cross Mill was also used for soaking and germinating the barley.

Warehouse

Kiln - coal hopper and fire chest – the heat source for roasting the germinated barley to produce malt

Kiln

Kiln

Kiln

Iron pillars and beams and brick vaulted ceilings

12 thoughts on “Ditherington Flax Mill Maltings

  1. Well, a fabulous set of photographs. The colour in the first one is beguiling, I like the turquoise against the priussian blue of the sky. Lucams, corrugated iron and rust…a fascinating set. The wooden hoist tower is superb, too. They may be listed buildings, but I guess in this “harsh economic climate” they will be left to rot. At least you have made a very evocative record.

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  2. Had a look round here on a supposed heritage ‘open day’ but saw virtually nothing of the place as they allowed you into a small fenced off section inside and then allowed you to wander round some of the outside. Well done for getting a more thorough look round!

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  3. Wow, Graham. What things you get to see and photograph. A bit envious here. Great photos. I think my favorite, is the Kiln shot, with the curve of the wall and the the light at the back of the photo. Great post.

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  4. Once again, how do you find such wonderful places. The exterior shots are great, but the interior ones hold such a sense of mystery, almost a longing for the bygone days of industry. Well done, as usual.

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  5. Keep an eye on the Friends of the Flaxmill-Maltings website http://www.flaxmill-maltings.co.uk/ or follow @flax_maltings on Twitter for news of Open Days (May and September) and other opportunities to visit the site. On guided tours it’s now possible to access more areas of the site than last year, when the condition of some of the buildings led to restrictions imposed by owners English Heritage. The Heritage Lottery Fund have made a grant for detailed plans to be taken forward for the site.

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  6. Pingback: Ditherington Flax Mill Maltings | GeoTopoi

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