Ditherington Flax Mill

Year:1797

Duration:1 year

Cost:£1.9m (in today's money)

Country: Shrewsbury, UK

What did this project achieve?

Construct the first iron-framed building in the world…the first skyscraper

Merchant John Marshall and brothers Thomas and Benjamin Beynon jointly owned a wood-framed flax mill in Water Lane, Leeds. Cloth mills were prone to catching fire as the factory air was often full of highly flammable fibres.

The Water Lane mill went up in flames in February 1796 causing damage worth about £10,000 – around £1m today.

Their insurance only paid out on about half of their loss, leaving them severely out of pocket.

The three merchants hoped to avoid this kind of financial setback again. This made them open to new construction methods for a more fire-proof building – such as the cast-iron frame proposed by structural engineer Charles Bage for Ditherington Flax Mill.

Difference the iron mill made

Ditherington Flax Mill has been called the ‘grandfather of skyscrapers’ and it’s seen as the first skyscraper in the world, despite only being the equivalent of 5 storeys tall.

Its cast iron framework made it safer as it was less likely to catch fire. The combination of cast iron columns and beams developed into the modern steel frame that made possible the modern skyscraper of today.

How the work was done

Structural engineer Charles Bage wasn’t an architect but he knew a great deal about iron. His letters to Derbyshire engineer William Strutt contain the earliest known analysis on the strength of iron beams and columns.

His research meant that building Ditherington on an internal iron frame would make it much safer against fire than contemporary textile mills with wooden floors.

Bage used 3 rows of cruciform cast iron columns to support inverted Y-shaped cast iron beams spanning the building at each floor level. His engineers built brick arches between the beams to carry the floors and used wrought iron bars to brace the frame.

The finished mill was 53m long and 11m wide with brick walls 450mm thick.

Ditherington was quickly acknowledged as a success and led to other iron frame mills – including buildings at Salford, Belper and Leeds. These later mills used improved beam designs drawn up by Bage.

Innovation continued at Ditherington. As the complex expanded it was lit by gas produced from coal at an onsite gasworks – 9 years before Shrewsbury’s first gas lights went on in 1820.

“​‌

An extraordinary part of our industrial heritage which changed the world of construction and design with its revolutionary iron frame.

Ros Kerslake

Chief Executive, Heritage Lottery Fund

Fascinating facts

Ditherington has had several names. Early on, it was called Bage’s Mill after the structural engineer who designed it. It became known as Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings after late 19th century conversion works – a maltings is a building where cereal grain is converted into malt by soaking in water.

Other expansion on the site included an iron frame warehouse, a timber frame building for preparing raw flax, and a workshop for a blacksmith and stables.

The mill is currently on English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register. Following a grant of £20m from the Heritage Lottery Fund the main mill and kiln are now part of a continuing restoration project. Previous works have seen the opening of a visitor centre and education facility.

People who made it happen

  • Structural engineer: Charles Bage
  • Clients: Merchants John Marshall, Thomas Benyon, Benjamin Benyon

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