Transforming Our Skyline

This England magazine – Autumn 2023

I rub the back of my neck. I’ve only been standing here for five minutes looking up at this amazing building and already I have a crick in it. But it’s worth it because this is no ordinary building. It’s known as the grandfather of all skyscrapers. Shrewsbury’s Flaxmill Maltings is the building that changed the world’s skyline.

With over 28,000 square feet of space inside, this five-storey brick building dominates north Shrewsbury’s skyline, its tallest point crowned by an intricate iron coronet. I wonder if local people standing here in 1797 also got a crick in their neck as they marvelled at this groundbreaking building.

Thanks to its National Lottery Heritage Fund £21 million restoration, the Flaxmill Maltings building looks all shiny and new again. But what makes this building so special is on the inside. That’s because it is the world’s first iron-framed building.

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings © Simon Whaley

Two local brothers, Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, commissioned the building. They’d made their fortune during the mid-seventeenth century via the Welsh Border’s prosperous wool trade but were looking to diversify because the wool trade was declining.

They invested in linens, and in 1793 they formed a partnership with James Marshall of Leeds. He was honing a new mechanised flax-spinning process in his factories, turning what was once a cottage industry into a factory operation with seven thousand spindles, and employing two thousand workers.

These new flax mills were dangerous places. Although they were often several storeys high, they were built with wooden frames and floors, and then in-filled with brick and stone. The new machinery frequently generated sparks, easily setting alight the highly combustible raw flax material. Fires frequently destroyed entire wooden-framed factories, if they weren’t quickly extinguished.

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings © Simon Whaley

Such an accident happened to one of Marshall’s mills, in which the Benyon brothers had invested, so the brothers decided they would build a replacement factory in their hometown of Shrewsbury. However, not wanting to lose their investment, they were determined that this new factory would be fireproof.

In 1796, the Benyon brothers commissioned Charles Bage, a Shrewsbury wine merchant who was also a surveyor, to design a fireproof building. This was an astute move by the Benyon brothers, because Bage had been interested in using iron as a construction material, and he’d been mixing in the right circles, too.

The end of the eighteenth century was an exciting time in Shropshire. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, having started fifteen miles away in Ironbridge. Seventeen years earlier, Abraham Darby III had built the world’s first iron bridge across the River Severn near Coalbrookdale, and in 1796, Thomas Telford helped engineer the world’s second iron aqueduct to carry the Llangollen Canal over the River Tern at Longdon-on-Tern. Had Telford built it a month earlier, he could have claimed to have built the world’s first iron aqueduct, but that accolade went to an aqueduct on the Derby Canal instead.

There’s a fascinating Exhibition inside to explore © Simon Whaley

One person Bage knew was William Hazledine, who ran an iron foundry on the banks of the River Severn at Coleham, in Shrewsbury. This became one of the largest foundries in the country and was from where Thomas Telford would later commission many of his iconic iron structures, such as the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and the Menai and Conwy suspension bridges.

The Flaxmill Maltings ground floor space is filled with an exhibition explaining the building’s history and its importance to the world. It’s a fascinating experience, with interactive touchscreen exhibits and hands-on displays where you can even have a go at threshing flax the old-fashioned way.

It’s here that visitors can see Bage’s clever design. Instead of using wood as a building’s internal structure, Bage used iron in a grid-like structure. Each floor has seventeen rows of columns, with each row containing three cast iron supports.

On top of these sat supporting cast-iron beams, which were built in two sections and then bolted together in the middle. These supported the floor above, upon which sat another seventeen rows of cast iron supports.

Remnants of its history on the side of the building © Simon Whaley

Bage had effectively created a giant Meccano kit for buildings. Examinations carried out during the building’s refurbishment revealed that this cast iron structure had twice the tensile strength of the average iron for this period.

The Benyon brothers opened their mill in 1797, just as the Shrewsbury Canal opened alongside it. Not only was this ideal to transport coal to the mill to power the factory’s machinery but it was also used to transport the finished flax produce to markets.

The Benyon’s flax mill thrived, so much so their original partner, James Marshall, bought out their share. He added further buildings to the site, many of which still survive today, turning the world’s first iron-framed building into Shrewsbury’s largest employer.

However, when the linen industry faltered at the end of the nineteenth century, the flax mill closed after ninety years of production, and the building was unused for a decade.

Jubilee Tower on Flaxmill Maltings © Simon Whaley

William Jones (Maltsters) Ltd bought the building in 1897 and made huge alterations to it. Because the building’s iron frame used relatively narrow columns, the vast amount of space on each floor was ideal for drying out barley.

However, they needed to control the humidity, the ventilation, and even the amount of light, to ensure that the barley germinated properly for the brewing process. Therefore, the large iron-framed windows needed by the flax mill workers to see their machinery were no longer needed, so they bricked these up.

This is also when they added the Jubilee Tower that now crowns the building. They built it to house hoisting machinery to move germinated barley from floor to floor and then onto the kiln for roasting. It was, rather ironically, constructed with a timber frame and clad in wood. However, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, they crowned it with an intricate and ornate iron coronet, with golden flowers, and a gold crown, and topped it with an eight-metre flag pole.

Modern malting processes meant Shrewsbury’s Flaxmill Maltings was no longer economic by the late 1980s, and so the building closed in 1987.
For a brief period during the Second World War, the army used the building as a light infantry barracks and training grounds. Displays in the exhibition show soldiers sleeping on makeshift beds on the floor, separated into rooms by corrugated iron. They weren’t the only living things in the building, though, for the soldiers affectionally referred to these barracks as the “Rat Hotel”.

Stepping outside again, I can’t help but glance up at the imposing building. I wonder if the Benyon brothers, or Charles Bage, ever considered what their endeavours would lead to. Today, the Eiffel Tower is the world’s tallest iron structure, at three hundred metres.

But Bage’s design proved that a metal-framed building was not only fireproof, it could also reach high into the sky. Had they not built this building in Shrewsbury, who knows if the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, or even the world’s tallest building, the 2,717-foot-tall Burj Khalifa would have been built? Now those really would give me a crick in my neck!

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© Simon Whaley