'Grandparent of Skyscrapers' now open - Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings
A brick built mill building.
Restored exterior of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings (Grade I listed Main Mill and Grade II listed Kiln) © Historic England

‘Grandparent of Skyscrapers’ now open

20 September 2022

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings is internationally important as its Main Mill is the world’s first iron-framed building (built 1796-1797) and is the forerunner to the modern-day skyscraper.   

On 10 September 2022, 225 years after the Mill originally opened, the site opened to the public for visitors to learn more about its incredible role in the Industrial Revolution and the great contribution Shrewsbury and the Midlands have made to the world as manufacturers and innovators. 
 
The complex, consisting of eight listed buildings, has been closed for the past 35 years. Following redevelopment under Historic England’s ownership with the help of architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, four of the listed buildings – the Grade I listed Main Mill, the Grade II listed Kiln and the Grade II listed Smithy and Stables – are now restored and the Main Mill is open for the first time as a visitor destination – where people can come to celebrate and explore the site’s story.   

Rooftops and a wooden tower.
View of the Jubilee Tower © Historic England

New exhibition ‘The Mill’

Created by Historic England and exhibition consultants Mather & Co, new exhibition The Mill tells the story of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings and its crucial role in the industrial revolution.  

Over its history Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings has been a place of ideas, innovation and change, constantly developed and adapted against the backdrop of revolution, technological advancement and societal change. With digital and hands-on activities for all ages, visitors can walk the floors where spinning machines whirred, flax flew, and barley was processed for beer to brew. They can discover the lives and stories of workers, engineers, soldiers and entrepreneurs who played their part in one of the greatest heritage transformations and regenerations of all time. The story of its pioneering beginnings and how its engineering paved the way for skylines across the world, the people who created the Mill and who worked there, and the campaign to save and repurpose it for future generations to enjoy, is fascinating and holds something for everyone.  

People in an exhibition.
Interior of the new exhibition “The Mill” at Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, which opened to the public on Saturday 10 September 2022 © Historic England

The exhibition is split into five themes:

  • ‘Town and Transformation’, which focuses on the development of the site and how it has influenced, transformed and helped develop the town of Shrewsbury over time;
  • ‘Engineering and Build’, which focuses on how Charles Bage designed this ‘fireproof textile mill’ through experimentation and innovation;
  • ‘People and Process’, which tells of the men, women and children at the flax mill who suffered the harsh working conditions of this early industrial factory, and the experiences and memories of the maltsters and their families after the later conversion into a maltings;
  • ‘Adaptation and Change’ explaining how the site has changed to fit with the various uses; and
  • ‘Legacy and Impact’ which details the final transformation and future legacy of the site for local people, businesses and visitors alike. 

Exhibition highlights include a large 3D mill model which reveals what happened inside the building at different points in time; an interactive touch table, physical interactives taking visitors through the process of spinning thread and the many uses of flax; a floor projection telling the story of the Maltings; audio exhibits providing the opportunity to hear from former Maltings workers and their families and those involved in the restoration project in their own words; and a large wall graphic featuring an iron truss from 1840 telling the story of how Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings was the forerunner of skylines across the world. The exhibition also features a multisensory AV experience in the old Engine House which brings the Mill’s original steam engine to life in situ and features sensory effects of the engines and machinery. 

A ‘Workshop of Ideas’ space encourages children of all ages to explore and test ideas behind the pioneering design and innovative breakthroughs behind this engineering marvel and come up with their own creative constructions. In order to make the story more accessible, two cats named Flax and Barley have also been created to guide children and families through the exhibition and around the site, posing questions and pointing out interesting facts out along the way. 

Visitors interacting with exhibits inside the new exhibition “The Mill” at Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings. © Historic England

Stories explored in the exhibition include those of former apprentice children and young workers from the Mill. This includes the Mansell family who lived at 83 Spring Gardens (right in front of the Mill) from the late 19th century, Maltster Len Grove and his son Paul who lived on site in the Apprentice House in the 1970s, and oral accounts and archive photographs of other local workers. The project has also recorded the experiences of those volunteers, specialists and craftspeople involved in the restoration of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings.  

History   

Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings’ Main Mill building was the first to have an internal frame of cast iron columns, beams and tie rods. This innovation by architect Charles Bage gave it the necessary structural strength for multiple storeys, and, as such the building is known as the ‘grandparent of skyscrapers’, paving the way for modern-day buildings such as London’s Shard, Manhattan’s Empire State Building and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. 

Following the site’s beginnings as a flax mill and major local employer for the area from 1797-1886, it was repurposed into a modern maltings, which operated from 1897 to 1987, converting grain into malt for brewing, whisky making and vinegar production. The site was also used as a temporary army barracks during the Second World War. 

Funding

£20.7 million of funding for restoration of the Main Mill and Kiln has come from National Lottery players through The National Lottery Heritage Fund. The remaining funding for the restoration of the site has come from Historic England, Shropshire Council, philanthropic donations and additional funding from the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership via its Growth Deal with Government. As well as providing important volunteer support, the Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings played a significant role in supporting the conversion of the Smithy and Stables, which were completed in 2015 thanks to funding from the European Regional Development Fund.  

The restoration of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings has been challenging and rewarding in equal measure. This is a remarkable and complex site which has involved a vast team of specialists, partners, funders and volunteers to get it back up and running. The result is that a historic building of international importance has been rescued and repurposed, from a derelict state. I am proud that Historic England has led this ambitious and challenging project to successful delivery.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive, Historic England.

This is a joyful time for Shrewsbury now the Flaxmill Maltings is open to the public, wonderfully restored and launching a new chapter as a visitor attraction and fantastic work-space – I am sure it will become a must-see destination locally, regionally and nationally.   

The transformation is testament to the tenacity of many people, tirelessly working over many years to preserve this unique part of our industrial revolution heritage, and I am delighted that we were able to join other funding partners and invest over £20 million to support this sustainable project, led by the partnership of Historic England, Shropshire Council and Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings.  Thanks to National Lottery players the pioneering Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings will continue to inspire generations to come.

Eilish McGuinness, Chief Executive of The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Next steps

Though four of the eight listed buildings on the site have been restored, the four remaining listed buildings – the Apprentice House (Grade II), the Cross Mill (Grade I), the Dye House (Grade II*) and the Warehouse (Grade I) – still need funding to bring them back to life. It is hoped that they will be restored in the coming years, once plans for how they will be used and funding to carry out the restoration works are in place.  

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