Wednesday, July 31, 2013
On the road to recovery
There will be celebrations today in Shrewsbury, with the announcement that one of its major buildings, which has been 'at risk' for years, has been allocated a large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Ditherington Flax Mill (also known as the Flax Mill Maltings) looks set for a fresh start.
This is an enormous building and was made still larger when it was converted to a maltings. The original part, the flax mill on the left built in the 1790s, contains some 30,000 square feet of factory floor ranged over five storeys. But the key thing is not the size, but the structure. It's held up by a framework of iron – not just iron columns, but iron horizontal beams and tie rods too – and this makes it the world's first fully metal-framed building.
The mill was designed by wine merchant, textile manufacturer, surveyor and engineer Charles Bage. Bage's interest in the use of iron in building wasn't surprising – the first iron bridge at Coalbrookdale was not far away, there was an iron foundry in Shrewsbury, and he was a friend of civil engineers such as Thomas Telford and William Strutt of Derby, a builder of mills who had already employed iron columns in his structures but hadn't gone the whole hog and used iron beams as well. Bage made that extra step to a full metal frame.
The advantages of this kind of building were clear – modular construction, minimal interruption of the floor space by the slender columns, and resistance to fire. The fire-resistant quality of a building made of an iron frame supporting brick walls and arches was especially attractive to mill owners, although this building was not truly fireproof – the metal would have buckled at high temperatures. Bage used cast iron and, although later engineers would later prefer wrought iron, and then steel, for structural frameworks, he had made a beginning, one which would make possible the rise of the skyscraper, and all that has entailed.
I'm pleased that this landmark building, one of countless historical industrial buildings that has lain unused because of the substantial repair and conservation costs, is now a big step further on the road to a secure future.
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There is more about the Flax Mill here.