he idea was born from the desire to stop buildings from burning down—mills, in particular. Two Shropshire brothers, Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, had made their fortune in Shrewsbury’s profitable woolen industry. However, these astute businessmen spotted the sector was beginning to decline, so they looked for alternative markets to exploit.
The British linen industry was booming, and there were several mills in Northern England expanding in order to meet demand. In their travels around England, they came across John Marshall of Leeds, who’d begun to mechanize the flax-spinning process: the process of taking raw flax and spinning the fibers into threads.
The Benyon Brothers went into partnership with Marshall in 1793, investing in several of his mills. And while business boomed, they soon learned that sparks created by machinery could easily ignite scraps of linen left lying around.
Small children were frequently employed to crawl between machinery, sweeping up any odds and ends, but this didn’t eliminate the risk completely.
And once a fire began, it was extremely difficult to stop it. Many of these mills operated over several stories, their buildings constructed from wooden frameworks, and floored with wooden floorboards. Once this caught fire, the building was doomed.
The Benyon Brothers were keen to return to Shropshire, and became aware of a site in Ditherington that would be ideal for a mill. Even better, the Shrewsbury canal was being built and would terminate right beside the site. It was the perfect place for a factory. The canal meant getting coal to power the steam engines to the site was easy, and being connected to the canal network meant exporting their products to markets across the UK and the world was easy too.
But the Benyon Brothers were reluctant to build another mill at risk of burning down. Could they build a mill out of different materials?
Charles Bage was a Shrewsbury wine merchant who dabbled in engineering, and he was experimenting with iron. At the end of the 18th century, Shropshire was going iron-mad. In 1797, Abraham Darby III constructed the world’s first iron bridge across the River Severn (which still stands today).
Thomas Telford was constructing iron-framed aqueducts, his first of which was built at Longdon-on-Tern to carry the Shrewsbury Canal over the River Tern.
All these infrastructure projects were being built with iron, so why not buildings?
Bage’s design comprised three rows of columns with cast iron beams between them. Then he used brick arches between the beams to create the floors (giving them something to rest on), and he reinforced these with iron rods. The cost of building the mill was £17,000.
The iron was cast in Shrewsbury (at the same foundry that supplied Thomas Telford with parts for the World’s first suspension bridge across the Menai Straits). This combination of brick and iron meant that the five-storey Flaxmill at Ditherington was fireproof. However, engineers also realised that the strength of the structure was capable of allowing even taller buildings to be built.
Shrewsbury’s Flaxmill Maltings is now known as the Grandfather of Skyscrapers, for it was Bage’s design that proved to the world that iron could be strong enough to support tall buildings.
The Benyon Brother’s Flaxmill opened in 1797, and their machine-processed flax was sold all over the world.
Ironically, their fire-proof building was so solid it outlived the business. The flax mill closed in 1887, remained dormant for ten years, until it was sold for £3,000 and adapted to become a maltings. This meant that many of the windows were bricked up.
During the Second World War, the building was used as barracks and a training centre for the army, before returning to use as a maltings again. Just like the flaxmill, the malting business only survived for 90 years, ceasing to trade in 1977.
As the building fell into disrepair, concerns grew as to what to do with it. Shropshire is home to the World’s first iron bridge, and that is protected by English Heritage. Something had to be done to save the World’s first iron-framed building.
In 2017, the Heritage Lottery Fund granted the project £21 million to restore it and make it fit for the 21st century. The ground floor now houses a cafe and exhibition, and the upper floors will house offices.
The Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings always has been a place of work, and it looks like that is set to continue. And thanks to the £21 million restoration, visitors can now go and visit the fire-proof building that taught the world how to build skyscrapers.
Simon Whaley is an author, writer and photographer based in Shropshire, on the Welsh Borders. His travel features have appeared in UK publications such as The People’s Friend, BBC Countryfile, Britain, Cumbria, This England, The Countryman and Coast, as well as in foreign publications, including Australia’s Great Walks, the USA’s British Heritage and Canada’s Celtic International. He’s also a regular contributor to Country Walking and since 2014 has written the Business of Writing column for Writing Magazine. As a keen photographer, many of Simon’s images have been used by the travel sections of the national press, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sun and The Independent, and appeared in many regional and national calendars.