Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings: The Building That Changed The World’s Skyline

Jan 3, 2023 0 comments

In 1797, an extraordinary building went up in Shropshire that would change the skylines of our cities forever. Described as “the grandfather of skyscrapers”, the Shrewsbury flax mill was the first building in the world to use an iron frame, which later developed into the modern steel frame structure used in modern buildings today.

In the late 1700s, Shrewsbury already had a long history of textile finishing and commerce, and several local merchants found success in the wool industry. Among those who made the most fortune were two brothers named Thomas and Benjamin Benyon. However, towards the end of the century, the sector had begun to decline and the market had started to shrink. So the two brothers decided to diversify into the booming flax-based linen industry.

Photo: Shropshire Star

In 1793, the Benyon brothers formed a partnership with John Marshall of Leeds who was pioneering the mechanization of flax-spinning—the process of taking raw flax and spinning the fibers into threads. They made investments in several mills in Leeds, but one of the mills experienced a catastrophic fire, which was a common problem in mills at the time because of the presence of fibers in the air which made the atmosphere flammable. In addition, most buildings at that time used timber frames in their construction with wooden floorings. Once a fire began, it was extremely difficult to stop it.

Meanwhile, the brothers found a site in Ditherington that was ideal for a mill. It was located right next to the Shrewsbury Canal, which would make it easier to transport coals to power the mill’s steam engines. The canal would also make it easier to export products from the mill to markets across the UK and the world beyond. But first they needed to find a way to stop the fires that had been threatening mills.


In 1796, the men hired architect Charles Bage and tasked him to design a mill that was as fire-proof as possible. Bage was a wine merchant who also dabbled in engineering. He was mostly interested in the application of iron in construction, and Bage saw this as an opportunity to explore his engineering skills.

Bage designed a five-story building that had an internal frame made entirely from cast iron. The frame was made up of three rows of cast iron columns and cast iron beams extended between them. Brick arches were built between the beams to support the floors and wrought iron tie rods prevented these arches from springing apart. Together this made a sturdy and fireproof structure.

The cast iron columns of the mill floors. Photo:

A close-up of the ornately designed compression struts at Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings. Photo:

Indeed, the building was so solid, it outlived its original purpose. The flax mill closed in 1897, exactly one hundred years after it opened. The building was then converted to a maltings for the brewery industry, and as a consequence many windows were bricked up and the rest were made smaller so that maltings workers could control the amount of light, humidity and ventilation, creating the conditions needed to germinate barley. The maltings operated for ninety years before it too closed facing stiff competition from modern production methods.

The building soon fell into disrepair and concerns grew as to what to do with it. In 2005, the site was acquired by English Heritage, and later in 2015, by Historic England. The derelict buildings were restored and reopened in 2022 as mixed-use workspace and public exhibition with a café and shop.




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