Ditherington Flax Mill

Date Visited: September 2008

Another Heritage Open Day, another Herras fenced disappointment :(

Although you could go into the mill, walking into one end of a room full of scaffolding isn't very interesting, although the staff present did their best. Ultimately, why they bothered opening this place up to let people wander round the yard is a mystery to me.

History - the mill was opened as a flax spinning mill in 1797 by Benyon, Bage and Marshall. While other mills had just started to use cast iron columns, they tended to have brick vaults spanned between protected timber beams. Ditherington was different inasmuch it was a complete iron frame, the first in the world. The frame members were cast at William Hazeldine’s new foundry in Shrewsbury. Slender cast iron columns of cruciform section support cast iron beams of an inverted ‘Y’ section running across the building at each floor level. Shallow brick vaults span between these beams to form the floors, and the frame is completed by wrought iron tie bars running lengthways along the building to bind it together.

The flax business thrived and the site developed rapidly in its first years. The Ditherington site included an iron framed clax warehouse, a timber framed ‘hackling block’ for preparing the raw flax, a packing warehouse, a dyehouse and accompanying stove house, a stables and a smithy. All these buildings were built of locally fired ‘great bricks’ – unusually proportioned bricks needing only three courses per foot of height rather than the usual four, apparently produced to minimise the impact of the brick tax, which was paid per brick.

In 1804, Marshall bought out Benyon and Bage and in 1811 the original hackling block burned down and was rebuilt as the present iron framed Cross Mill. The buildings were first lit by gas from their own gasworks in 1811, nine years before the towns first gas lights. In 1812, the present apprentice house was built, by which time there were over 400 employees, many of them children.
New processes and changing markets brought further change, with a gradual concentration towards the production of thread rather than clith. The engine houses were modified for more powerful engines and in the 1850’s the present dyehouse was the Marshalls’ last major investment on site. However, the third generation of Marshalls seem not to have inherited their grandfathers business acumen: the business declined from the 1870’s and in 1886 the mill closed and the company wound up.

The mill stood empty for over ten years until 1897 when William Jones (Maltsters) Ltd bought the site and converted it into a maltings. Various buildings were converted and demolished, and other changes included laying concrete floors and installing large tanks to ‘steep’ or wet the barley. The appearance of the mill was greatly changed by blocking two thirds of the windows and reducing the size of the other third – whereas a textile mill needs big windows to light the processes within, a maltings needs a dark and controlled space to stimulate the germination of the wet barley.
In 1933 the company went into administration but continued to trade and in 1948 the site passed to Ansells Brewery. The malting business ceased in 1987, and the site has been disused since then. The site is being developed by Urban Splash, which normally means it will be converted to apartments.