The first skyscraper: Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings

A rare survival from a dramatic stage in the Industrial Revolution, Shrewsbury Flaxmill was built during a period of innovation and social upheaval.

We’re fundraising to save this Shrewsbury icon, find out more here.

When industry was transforming towns and countryside, it was one of the largest and most technically advanced of a new generation of factories. Shrewsbury had a long tradition of textiles and iron production, and the flaxmill embodied the latest thinking in factory design and structural engineering.

The world’s first iron-framed building

The third floor of the Main Mill, with it's orginial cast iron frame of 1797 c Historic England
The third floor of the Main Mill, with it’s orginial cast iron frame of 1797 © Historic England

Built in 1797, this pioneering building was the first to use an internal iron frame of columns, beams and tie rods. Architect Charles Bage designed it to be fireproof with the structural strength to support multiple storeys. It was a bold and experimental first step towards the skyscrapers that define our cityscapes today.

A sad history

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, late 19th century.
Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, late 19th century. Image courtesy of the Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings

The flax industry was a major local employer and in the early 19th century more than 400 people worked at the mill. Well over half the workforce were women, and over a third were children under 16. As new machinery was introduced, fewer adult men were needed so an Apprentice House – basically a dormitory- was added in 1810 to make room for more child workers.

Conditions at work were harsh by modern standards: some jobs were very bad for the workers’ health and it wasn’t until the 1850s that the working week was reduced to 48 hours.

From flax to yarn

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings main mill during renovation c Historic England
Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings main mill during renovation c Historic England

Flax is a plant which grows in much of the world, including Britain. The tough fibres inside its stems make linen yarn and thread, while its seeds make linseed oil. At Shrewsbury, flax was processed then sent away and woven into a range of products including rope, playing cards and even wings for early aeroplanes.

Steam powered textile

In the 1790s water was still the main source of power in industry, sometimes in combination with steam power. Water from the Shrewsbury Canal, built beside the mill, powered the steam boilers. The first engine at the mill was a Boulton and Watt beam engine of just 20 horse power – the latest technology in 1797, but incredibly primitive compared with later mill engines. As the mill grew, five more engines were installed along with boilers and tall chimneys, dominating the local skyline.

The jubilee crown

Ditherington Flax Mill, Shrewsbury, Shropshire
Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, view of the main mill with the Jubilee Crown © Historic England

In 1897, Jubilee-fever swept the nation. Street parties were held and civic works were erected across the globe. In celebration, Shrewsbury’s people had a special coronation of their own- crowning their best building to show their pride.

A new life

Following the closure of the flaxmill in 1886 the machinery and engines were removed. In the 1890s the site was converted into a modern maltings and remained in industrial use until the 1980s.

Derelict for many years, we’re now working with partners to save this iconic monument to the Industrial Revolution, bringing it back into modern use for generations to come.

Further Reading

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