Pattern for the Skyscraper

Weekly Photo Challenge: Pattern

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Fractured Light by Andy McKeown, Flaxmill-Maltings, Shrewsbury May 11-12 2013

At first sight there may seem to be no connection whatsoever between Andy McKeown’s magical lightshows (Fractured Light) and the skylines of NYC, Dubai, Chicago, Hong Kong. But believe me there is. In fact there are some clues in the photo below, although they are heavily disguised by the giddy maypole effect of light streamers. Architects should spot them, though – the slender columns of cast iron.  And this is where the another kind of pattern comes in – not in the spectacle of fractured light, but in the venue. On the 11-12 May 2013 the Friends of the Flaxmill-Maltings held an open weekend so Nosy Writer and hundreds of other nosy people could look round this old industrial complex, perhaps for the last time before renovation work begins. Since the buildings have been lying derelict for decades this was something of a celebration, hence the performances by musicians, craftspeople and artists all over the complex.

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Andy McKeown’s ‘Fractured Light’ was up on the third floor of the Cross Mill, and without the entrancing light show the place would have been dank, cold and cavernous. It was originally the mill where hackling or flax dressing took place, and is part of a late eighteenth century iron-framed building – the first of its kind in the world. This is Bage’s Flax Mill in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, the place where, in 1796-7, the makings of the skyscraper began.

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Shropshire Archives

Photo: Shropshire Archives

Above is the building around the end of the nineteenth century after it had been converted into a malting factory. The main five storey block was the original flax mill. And  its connection with the Manhattan skyline?

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…a constructional frame of iron columns and beams that ever since has allowed buildings to go upwards.

As with many great innovations, the development of iron framed buildings was prompted by disaster. In 1796, linen magnate, John Marshall and Shrewsbury businessmen, Thomas and Benjamin Benyon had suffered severe financial losses when their timber-built mill in Leeds, Yorkshire, caught fire. Such fires in textile mills were all too common. Flax and cotton dust  are highly combustible, and not only were the early mills built extensively from timber, they were also candlelit. And so when Messrs Marshall and Benyon had the opportunity to develop a new flax mill in Ditherington, Shrewsbury, a fire-resistant building was what they required.  And a good part of the answer lay in an up and coming new material – cast iron.

The late 18th century was the age of cast iron. It was the revolutionary material of choice for engineers and architects of vision. In 1781 the spectacular unveiling of the world’s first iron bridge had taken place at Coalbrookdale, a few miles downriver of Shrewsbury. It was a PR stunt of breath-taking proportions: to use this untried material in such a dramatic and highly visible  setting. But it was not all bravado. There were practical considerations too: the need to span the Severn in order to make a more convenient road link between various iron works, thus replacing a treacherous ferry crossing. Then there was show-off element of achieving this with a single arch that was tall enough to allow swift passage for the sailing barges that plied the Severn from Bristol to Shrewsbury. Usually these large cargo boats had to lower their masts to go under the Severn’s many stone bridges.

At the time, then, the Iron Bridge was a new world wonder and a magnet for celebrity visitors. Coalbrookdale ironmaster, Abraham Darby III, was the man making his pitch for the utility of cast iron, egged on by business associate John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson whose works across the river from Coalbrookdale were being served by the new bridge.   When in 1795, the Iron Bridge was the only bridge to survive unscathed the massive river floods of 1795, it more than sparked the interest of Thomas Telford, ‘Father of Civil Engineering’. At the time he was also in Shropshire, working as County Surveyor. He went on to devise his own astonishing uses for cast iron, not least the Pontcyssylte Aqueduct near Llangollen in North Wales.

But if all this constructional enterprise in iron seems a bit old hat to us now, then perhaps we should try thinking of the River Severn in Shropshire as the Silicon Valley of its day. Cast iron helped drive the Industrial Revolution in all its component parts; it brought us to where we are today. 

The world’s first Iron Bridge, built by Abraham Darby III and opened in 1781. Today, it is a world heritage site and still spans the River Severn in Ironbridge, Shropshire.

While technological developments were proceeding in Shropshire, the possibilities of using iron in industrial buildings were also being explored by Derbyshire cotton spinner and architect William Strutt. He was particularly concerned to find a way to make cotton mills more fire resistant. To this end, he developed the shallow arched brick ceilings with tiled and plaster floors that his friend and fellow Derbyshire man, Charles Bage  was later to use in the Ditherington Flax Mill. He also used sheet iron to encase the mills’ timber beams to inhibit fire damage. All these measures he discussed by letter with Bage who shared his interests. And in 1776 Bage, just happened to be a wine merchant and surveyor, working in Shrewsbury.

And so as the old A-Team phrase would have it, here we have a good plan coming together. Charles Bage was engaged by Marshall and the Benyon Brothers to design their flax mill. There on the banks of the Shrewsbury Canal that Thomas Telford was just then completing, he would create a quite novel construction in iron, and since this was pioneering stuff, he decided to take nothing for granted. He set about undertaking a series of experiments to test the structural properties and strength of iron, and so established the modern discipline of structural engineering. The papers with his calculations still survive.

The Ditherington Flax Mill, then,  was the first mill to be built from brick and iron. It was this mode of construction that led the way for the development of multi-storey, fire-resistant buildings, and whose techniques were later  adapted for the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.

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Cast iron pillar on the ground floor of the flax mill warehouse.

But this is where the story of entrepreneurial enterprise and invention takes a nasty turn. We are, after all, also talking about the growth of the factory and and the enslaving of human beings to the demands of machines and mill owners. In the 1840s there were 800 employees at Ditherington and, as time went on, more than half of the workers were under twenty years old, with some as young as seven. These were the apprentices, mostly orphans and illegitimate children despatched from parish Work Houses in order to learn a trade. At Ditherington, the conditions were reputed to be better than most mills: accommodation in the Apprentice House was strictly segregated, and the welfare and moral upbringing was overseen by a manager. Even so, working hours were long and life was tough. There were cruel and vindictive overseers who beat the children for the slightest mistake, or dipped them head first into a water cistern if they dozed off at their work.  

In 1832 there was a House of Commons enquiry into factory working conditions and Ditherington workers gave evidence. One Samuel Downe, born in Shrewsbury in 1804, told the Committee that he began work at the mill from the age of ten. Of his working hours he says:

       “We used to generally begin at five o’clock in the morning till eight at night.”

And when he was asked if he had been beaten, he said that once he had been beaten so hard that he could not lie on his back to sleep. The reason given for the brutality was  this:

      “I had never been in a mill where there was machinery, and it was winter time, and we worked by gas-light, and I could not catch the revolutions of the machinery to take the tow out of the hackles; it requires some practice, and I was timid at it.”

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Scene from one of John Marshall’s flax  mills in Leeds c.1800, much as his Ditherington Mill would have looked. (Copyright expired)

Despite such indictments, John Marshall saw himself as a benign employer. He believed that treating his workforce well meant they would work harder and yield greater profit. He thus provided ventilation and heating in the work rooms, and in time added baths and changing rooms. Also in 1834 when there were 92 child employees, they were by then allowed two two-hour sessions, morning and afternoon, for lessons.

Even so, the processing of flax on this vast scale, was a dusty, unpleasant business. The crop had to be dried, then de-seeded by threshing and combing. Then it was left to partially rot for up to three weeks so the stems could be peeled away from the useful fibre. Next this fibre was dried, separated and combed by machine and finally twisted into yarn on  spinning machines.

Throughout the 18th century, linen was a hugely important textile. In Shrewsbury flax yarn production took over from the dwindling wool industry, employing many of its skilled workers. During the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) Ditherington was supplying the yarn to make Britain’s military uniforms. But with successive generations of owners, and doubtless the growth of the Lancashire cotton industry, the mill began to fail, finally closing in 1886. Some ten years later it had a new lease of life. The five-storey building was converted into the Maltings, making malt for the brewing industry. These works finally  closed 1987, and since then this extraordinary building has been left to fall apart, despite being a Grade I listed building.

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Photo: Keith 1999 Creative Commons

This, though, is hopefully about to change. Finally, on the verge of collapse, and after much campaigning by the Friends of Flaxmill-Maltings, a partnership of English Heritage and Shropshire Council has put in a bid for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Their plans include a massive regeneration scheme, bringing environmentally friendly office and workshop space to a currently depressed part of Shrewsbury. Perhaps at last this landmark structure will have a bright new existence, and just as Andy McKeown’s light show amazed and energized the Open Day visitors, infuse its occupants with life-enhancing potential, banishing the ghosts of dismal exploitation. 

In the meantime, Nosy Writer, like many others, is rather keen on scenes of industrial decay. So here are a few shots of the Flax Mill-Maltings – pattern of bricks, timber and iron.

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The timber hoist tower was added during the Maltings phase and the ornamental capping put up to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

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For more info about the Flaxmill project: http://flaxmillshrewsbury.wordpress.com/

© 2013 Tish Farrell

11 thoughts on “Pattern for the Skyscraper

  1. Really interesting Tish, as usual. I too like industrial landscapes and buildings in photographs, though I wouldn’t like to live or work in the same over any length of time. The textures of decay are surprisingly photogenic and the scale of industrial buildings have a grandeur all their own.

    Though not new, the industrial look is a really popular interior design concept at the moment so perhaps your photos will provide some extra inspiration for decorators and designers.

    1. Yes, I’m absolutely no expert, but I think it’s too easy to forget how our built environment has shaped us, and in particular those buildings that were visited upon us, whether through the benign patronage of public works, or the tyranny of the factory. These days of course, it’s property entrepreneurs who are dictating the nature of our townscapes. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thanks for the informative history and great pictures. These old buildings could host an art community or offices for start-ups in new industries, blending the new with the old. Lots of history is Europe’s heritage and we should use it to spark creativity for our future.

    1. Yes, you are right. And in fact there have been plans to resuscitate this building in just the ways you suggest for the last 20 years. Finally something is beginning to happen -we think.

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