Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings Story

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings is one of the most important buildings in the world and we want to explore the stories connected to it. Not only did it shape modern architecture, but the building has had a huge impact on the numerous industries and thousands of people connected to it over its rich and varied history.

You can explore the story of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings in the presentation and information below. Intrigued? Why not visit us or find out about volunteering to discover more.

Building the dream

Early Days

In 1796 John Marshall (1765-1845) and the brothers Thomas and Benjamin Benyon purchased a seven acre site in the hamlet of Ditherington within the suburb of Castle Foregate on the outskirts of Shrewsbury. Benjamin Benyon wanted to return from Leeds to his native town and the partners saw an opportunity to build a factory to twist thread in Shrewsbury. The nearby carpet weavers in Bridgnorth and Kidderminster provided a market for tow yarns, a by-product of thread-making from the mill.

The site was well-chosen. It stood close to the Bagley Brook which provided a water supply and it was only a few hundred yards from port facilities on the River Severn. Ditherington was also on a turnpike route from Shrewsbury to Whitchurch and Market Drayton. These means of transporting goods would allow raw materials and finished products to be moved to and from the factory. Moreover, the factory was built next to the route of the Shrewsbury Canal which had been authorised in 1793 by an Act of Parliament to enable coal to be moved from Oakengates to Shrewsbury more easily than by horse-drawn wagon along the Holyhead Road. The canal was opened in January 1797 and coal could be unloaded directly into the engine house at Ditherington Mill. The subscribers to the canal included local landowners, industrialists and professional men. They included Earl Gower, the industrialists John Wilkinson and William, Richard and Joseph Reynolds and Dr Robert Waring Darwin, a son of Erasmus Darwin, the father of Charles Darwin and a childhood friend of a partner in the Ditherington enterprise, Charles Woolley Bage. 

In 1776, Charles Bage was living in Shrewsbury and by the 1780s he was a wine merchant in the town. In 1793 he was a liquor merchant in Pride Hill and had an account with Lord Clive. He also worked as a surveyor and it was presumably in this capacity that he came to the notice of John Marshall and the Benyon brothers as a potential colleague in their scheme to build a new mill. Marshall and the Benyon Brothers experienced a devastating fire at one of their mills in Water Lane, Leeds on 13 February 1796. The cost was estimated at £10,000, only half of which was met by insurance. Undoubtedly, they wanted a different mode of construction for a new fire-proof building. The mill in Shrewsbury provided this opportunity. Charles Bage had a great understanding of the structural properties of iron. This is revealed in various records, including his correspondence with the factory master, William Strutt in Derbyshire who shared his interest in iron construction, his discussion in 1801 of Thomas Telford’s design for London Bridge and the building of the pioneering iron-beamed mill at Ditherington. 

Charles Bage, the Flax Industry and Shrewsbury’s Iron-Framed, Malcolm Dick. 

The Flax Mill Years

Fabulous Flax

Flax has been grown for thousands of years. The seeds of the Flax plant produce linseed oil. The seeds and husks are used for animal and human consumption, and the fibrous stem of the plant to make linen thread, fabric and rope. Flax is planted in the spring and takes 90 days to grow. It is broadcast or sown in rows. It will grow in sun or partial shade, which will affect the colour and texture of the linen and has beautiful blue flowers. Flax is pulled from the ground before the seeds ripen, rather than cut. Pulling retains the full length of the flax fibres which extend to the root of the plant. Traditionally, the pulled flax was either tied in bundles and soaked in water (retted) or laid out in the field for the dew to ret. Soaking the flax in water broke down the pectins surrounding the fibres, allowing them to be freed from the stalk. Water-retting often took place in pits. After retting, the flax was tied into stooks or bundles and laid out in the fields to dry. Shewsbury Flax Mill imported flax from English growers, the Low Countries, Ireland and Russia.

When dry, the seeds were rippled off with a metal comb.  The outer and inner straw, called ‘shives’ was removed with a flax breaker, which broke the straw into small pieces. These were then ‘scutched’ or scraped from the fibres. The fibres then needed to be separated into long and short fibres. This was done by ‘hackling’ or ‘heckling’. Hackles were a series of metal combs.  The long fibres, or line, would make good quality linen, whilst the short fibres, called tow, would be used for rough cloth and rope. Shrewsbury Flax Mill brought in fibres ready for hackling. Soon after the construction of the Main Mill the Cross Mill was added to house the hackling process. The hackling at Shrewsbury Flax Mill was done by hand until 1811, when eleven hackling machines were introduced. In some hackling machines the tow would have to be extracted from the hackle pins, and this task would often be done by small children. In addition to working with sometimes dangerous machinery, all the workers were exposed to dust inhalation.

Spinning twists the thread to make it stronger for use in weaving or knitting. The spinning of wool, hemp, flax and latterly cotton took place in domestic settings until several major inventions revolutionised the spinning process. The invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 by James Hargreaves and the water frame by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1769, had a great social impact.  Large Mill towns developed employing thousands of men, women and children.

John Marshall pioneered the industrial spinning of flax. The earliest flax spinning machinery spun the flax dry, generating a great deal of dust. Wet spinning was introduced In the 1830s, this involved drawing the fibres through a trough of hot water during the spinning process. The dry, dust laden atmosphere during spinning was replaced by a humid one, equally as bad for the workers’ health.

When Shrewsbury Flax Mill was built in 1797, it housed 900 spinning and twisting spindles. Both line and tow were spun into yarn and thread for weaving and sewing. Shrewsbury Flax Mill employed over 400 people in 1813 and over 800 by 1845. The mill was the largest employer in Shrewsbury and a successful and profitable producer of thread. Flax dressing at the site ended in the 1850s, and the site was switched to finishing the thread and yarn produced at the Marshall’s Leeds premises.

Textile mills needed large windows to let in light for the spinners to work by.  When Shrewsbury Flax Mill became a Maltings in 1896-7 many of the windows were blocked to provide a dark space for the barley to germinate.

Until 1856, when William Perkin patented chemical dyes, coloured dyes would have come from plants and minerals, with these being mainly imported.  Colours such as purple were very expensive. Before weaving, yarn would be boiled in lye and wood ash to whiten it. Later, chemical bleaches were used. The woven cloth was laid out in “bleach fields” to lighten the colour. In 1811 Marshall purchased a water mill in Hanwood to be used as a bleach works for the Shrewsbury Flax Mill. Shrewsbury Flax Mill had its own large Dye & Stove House, originally built in 1803 and substantially rebuilt in the 1850s. The Hanwood bleach works was considerably expanded in the 1850s & 1860s. These developments reflect the increase in bleaching and dyeing that arose when Shrewsbury Flax Mill became a finishing mill.

Workers at the Flax Mill

The Flax Mill factory was employing apprentices from as early as 1802. It is though that there were 800 employees in the early 1840s. The census of 1851 shows that 55% of the 377 workers in that year were aged 20 or younger, 33% were under the age of 16. The present Apprentice House was built in 1812 to house workers. Inside male and female apprentices were kept segregated. The Benyons took seriously the welfare and moral upbringing of their younger employees. John Marshall who owned the mills, in Leeds as well as Ditherington is known to have treated his workers better than most factory workers, forbidding corporal punishment and installing fans to regulate the temperature. However the testimony of brothers Samuel and Jonathan Downe to the Parliamentary Committee of 1832 tells a very different story. When asked about his treatment during his employment at Mr Marshall's mill in Shrewsbury, Samuel Downe replied:

'Strapped? Yes, I was strapped most severely till I could not bear to sit upon a chair without having pillows, and I was a forced to lie upon my face in the night-time at one time, and through that I left; I was strapped both on my own legs, and then I was put upon a man’s back, and then strapped and buckled with two straps to an iron pillar and flogged, and all by one overlooker; after that he took a piece of tow, and twisted it in the shape of a cord, and put it in my mouth, and tied it behind my head.'

Ditherington Flax Mill ceased production due to the competition from mills in Leeds. The mill was sold to William Jones Maisters (Ltd) who adapted the building for use as a Maltings factory in 1897.

The Maltings phase

Adaptation of the Mill

There is much evidence, both inside and outside of the buildings, showing how they were adapted for Malt production. For example, holes were cut in the floor to hold cone shaped hoppers, concrete floors were laid, large tanks to ‘steep’ or wet the barley were installed, the prominent timber hoist tower, with its ornamental capping to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, was constructed.  The malting process demanded controlled daylight and ventilation so that two thirds of the windows were blocked off and smaller windows with shutters were inserted. A Malt Kiln was also constructed on the site in 1898.

Making malt from barley corns is the first stage of the brewing process. Barleycorns are left in cold water, usually for two days before being moved and spread in thin layer across germination floors. Each batch would be periodically tuned by hand, using a wooden malt shovel. After sufficient germination, when the starch within the barleycorn has been partially converted to malt sugars, the barley is dried and cured by heat treatment in the Malt Kiln stopping the process.

William Jones Malsters (Ltd) went bankrupt in 1934. Since then the site has been used as a Light Infantry Barracks during the Second World War, and again for malting production (Ansells) from 1948 until closure in 1987. 

Creating a Master Plan for the future

So much for the first 200 years in the life of the Flaxmill Maltings: now for the next 100.

Various regeneration schemes have come and gone since 1987, none of them successfully harnessing the necessary private sector investment to give the buildings a new lease of life.

Vandalism and neglect have also taken their toll on the site, which has been on the Heritage at Risk register for many years. Things came to a head in April 2004 when an urgent repairs notice was served on the site's then owner, forcing a resolution.

With support from Advantage West Midlands and the then Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council, Historic England acquired the freehold of the site in March 2005. Since that time, this partnership has worked to resolve the difficulties facing the development of the site.

The need for conservation

In 2005, a detailed structural assessment of the buildings was undertaken by Alan Baxter Associates. This work was necessary to understand the load bearing capacity of the buildings - and what new uses might be appropriate. A number of problems were revealed by the study.

The engineers were able to make use of Charles Bage's original papers and determined his experiments and calculations on cast iron were reasonably accurate.

The documents revealed that Bage did not fully understand the principal of what is now called 'hogging'. That is, if a long beam of cast iron rests at its centre point on a column, and weight is applied to its ends, it will bend to a small extent. The beam can then fail without any warning.

Bage also seemed to have not allowed for the fact that as the building was constructed, the additional weight of the outer brick walls made the ground settle - to a greater degree than the ground beneath the columns. Combined with the hogging effect, this resulted in a number of beams failing.

Another problem is the facade walls of the Main Mill, wood, rather than stone, was used to support the beams on the wall. Wood has also been used at the back of the window arches, passing deep into the brick piers on either side. The sheer volume of timber used, and the fact some of it has rotted over the past 200 years, has added to the urgent need for conservation.

The outer skin of the Main Mill is very delicate and scaffolding has been built to hold the walls in place while a solution is designed. Internal propping has also been used to make sure movement is kept to a minimum.

Since 2005, the land adjacent to the Flax Mill site has been acquired by Shropshire Council. This has enabled the design of a scheme that will provide a suitable, high quality setting for these internationally important buildings. It also provides a site big enough to consider new buildings to help stimulate the wider area.

Master Planning

The project partnership of Historic England, Shropshire Council, the Friends and the Homes and Communities Agency appointed a design team - led by award winning architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, and including leading structural engineers Adams Kara Taylor and nationally acclaimed landscape architects Grants Associates. Together a master plan has been developed for the Flaxmill Maltings, which will secure its future and bring it back into productive use.

The Flaxmill Maltings aspires to be an exemplar heritage-led regeneration scheme that rescues a group of outstanding heritage buildings, including the world’s first iron frame building. The project aims to engage an international audience, at the same time as encouraging the people of Shrewsbury and their visitors to appreciate and celebrate the importance of this unique heritage that stands right on their doorstep.

Detailed planning permission was granted for the proposed first phase of development involving most of the historic buildings and outline permission for the Master Plan was given in November 2010.

Where are we now?

The partnership is now led by Historic England and they are working closely with the Friends to develop the Master Plan and initiate Phase one of the Flaxmill Maltings redevelopment. In March 2014 they appointed one of their senior managers, Tim Johnston, the Planning and Conservation Director for the West Midlands to run the project for the next 12 months. 

Historic England is currently drawing in key personnel, and establishing a management structure in order to maximise the potential funding for the project that is on offer, including £12.8m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £6.6m from the European Regional Development Fund.  

Chris Smith, Historic England's National Planning Director said:  “Shrewsbury’s Flax Mill Maltings is one of the most significant monuments of the Industrial Revolution – an outstanding structure that changed the world of construction and design. English Heritage remains committed to the conserving this unique site for future generations.”

Tim Johnston, Historic England's West Midlands Planning and Conservation Director said: “Shrewsbury’s Flax Mill Maltings is the most important industrial building on Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register and one of Historic England's top priorities in the West Midlands. I am delighted to be working on this project and am currently drawing in key players such as the Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings and the current funders, who have been incredibly supportive throughout this transition. We are committed to bringing the world’s first iron-framed building back to life and to stimulate a wider regeneration.”

Alan Mosley, Chair of the Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings, said: “Our Board, Committee and volunteers have been greatly reassured by that fact that Historic England has responded so quickly to move forward with this Project, and has already initiated work to establish an alternative strategy to utilise the funding previously achieved.  We are highly confident that a regeneration and restoration project will be in place soon.

We look forward to working closely with Historic England to ensure this happens and then to bringing exciting new opportunities for interpretation, community, learning and cultural activities on to the renewed site, in due course. In the meantime we will shortly be announcing a programme to open up the site again so that the local and wider community can renew their interest in this fabulous, iconic and internationally important site and the stories which lie within, until work commences.”