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)