Page last updated at 18:27 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 19:27 UK
Historic Ditherington Flax Mill

Flax mill graphic
The flax mill site incorporates several buildings and the former canal basin

Nestling in a north Shrewsbury suburb it isn't much to look at, yet Ditherington Flax Mill is one of the UK's most important historic buildings.

Designers Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios have come up with a long-term plan for the flax mill site.

Conservation work on the building's structure has already begun and it is now wind and water proof.

Historic building

The mill was built in 1797 using a revolutionary design that makes it the forerunner of the world's skyscrapers.

It was designed by local engineer Charles Bage for flax spinners John Marshall and Thomas and Benjamin Benyon. The building was the first of its kind to used an iron frame, a technique which was later developed to allow the construction of skyscrapers.

Charles Bage chose to experiment in the use of iron because of the dangers associated with processing flax. The dust was highly combustible and an iron frame helped to protect the mill, making it less likely to burn than a traditional timber and brick build.

Ditherington Flax Mill
The Grade I listed Ditherington Flax Mill was built in 1797

The adventurous design also meant that the building's structural integrity could be assured without the use of internal walls. This allowed owners Marshall, Benyon and Bage to make maximum use of space as the large, open-plan floors still testify.

During the Napoleonic wars, yarn was processed, spun and then turned into uniforms for troops abroad by thousands of men and women working at the mill.

The building continued to operate as a flax mill, distributing products on the Shrewsbury Canal (which passed the mill). In 1886 it was converted into a maltings, principally to process barley for the brewing industry.

Ironing out the problems

The Grade I listed Ditherington Flax Mill
The original flax mill was later converted into a maltings

It is unsurprising that the world's first iron-framed building is in Shrewsbury, just a few miles from Coalbrookdale the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Just 17 years before the flax mill sprung up, Abraham Darby III built the world's first iron bridge.

Bage's technique proved successful, although recent history has also revealed its shortcomings. For instance Bage wouldn't have realised that an iron beam supported at the centre would bend and eventually crack without warning.

Iron smelting was still in its infancy and the flax mill, made from cast iron (rather than the more forgiving, but expensive, wrought iron) exhibits many of the problems associated with new technology.

Inside Ditherington Flax Mill
The iron frame meant that the building didn't need internal walls

In March 2005 English Heritage officially bought the building for an undisclosed fee, thanks to grant funding from Advantage West Midlands and set about looking for new uses for it.

The original site was enlarged when Shropshire Council bought a strip of land between the mill and the main road. The latest plans incorporate a mix of retail, office and residential developments using the historic buildings and some new buildings.

The Grade I listed Ditherington Flax Mill
A horse and cart delivers to the Maltings at Ditherington

Project architect for the Flax Mill, Tim Greensmith, said most of the problems were in the masonry skin around the original cast iron frame: "One of the easiest things to do would have been to take down the masonry skin and rebuild it without the timber in it.

"That would have preserved the frame but looking at this building what's really special about it, where a lot of its stories are told, is in that masonry skin.

"We thought protecting it was one of the key things we had to achieve in our technical solutions."

The plan is to create a secondary frame to take the load of the new uses: "If in 100 years time engineers have some new amazing way to rebuild the building or use it for something else, our new frame could be taken out. It's fully reversible."

Difficult building

Phase one of the project is a £15m scheme involving the three Grade I listed buildings on the site.

Tim Greensmith said it was expensive, but worth it: "It's like lighting the touch paper for regeneration for this whole area. Once the three problem buildings have been solved, the sites around it and the other historic buildings are easy for developers to move into."

The plans also allow for the line of the old canal to be re-instated: "It reveals the wharf by the warehouse which would have taken the coal off the barges and powered the boilers that powered the original mill engines.

"We think it's an important reason why the mill was situated at this point and has to be part of the master plan for the future of the project."

A pillar in the Ditherington Flax Mill
One of the pillars in the original Flax Mill structure

Andrew Patterson is the Project Director for English Heritage. He said lot had happened since English Heritage bought the building: "Local people particularly see it and don't think anything much is happening but there has been a huge amount of work."

He is keen for people to look at the plans and put forward their own ideas for the site.

He said a lot of thought had gone into a scheme which would preserve as much as possible: "Ironically 200 years ago they put in a column width which is more or less the sort of plan you would have in an open plan office."

In terms of all government funded bodies we are in a phase of particular difficulty while solutions or directions are resolved
Andrew Patterson: English Heritage

This, he said, allowed the architects to be more flexible with the space: "As much as possible, we're trying to keep it as you would see it."

Mr Patterson said the threat of extensive government funding cuts could be a problem: "In terms of all government funded bodies we are in a phase of particular difficulty while solutions or directions are resolved."

"I think all we can do with this project is...we were in any case putting a planning application in and so we will do that. This consultation exercise will take a few weeks and in the mean time we'll be thinking further about the funding and where that comes from."

Historic mill site designs viewed
18 Jun 10 |  Shropshire
Designs on historic mill's future
08 Sep 09 |  Shropshire
Forerunner of skyscraper at risk
24 Jul 07 |  Shropshire



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