Origins of the Skyscraper: Historic Angles

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This detail comes from a building, which believe it or not, was THE proto-type for all our high-rise buildings. It is Bage’s Flax Mill, the world’s first iron-framed building, constructed in Shrewsbury, in the English Midlands in 1797. As with much invention, it was driven by a series of disasters, specifically the conflagration of several timber-framed textile factories. Cotton and flax dust is highly combustible, and these early factories were candle lit. The losses to the owners were considerable  (never mind the damage to the workers).  Fire resistant buildings were what they wanted. The techniques of this iron-framed brick clad mill were further adapted in the rebuilding of Chicago after the great fire of 1871.

Shropshire Archives

For more on this and the grim story of the young flax mill workers who were employed here see my earlier post: Pattern for the Sky Scraper

 copyright 2014 Tish Farrell


23 thoughts on “Origins of the Skyscraper: Historic Angles

  1. We had our mills up and running by 1789 and they were all based on English models. I think maybe we have date confusion because yours would have had to be slightly earlier if we copied you — and I know we did!

    1. Have had a check on dates. Bage’s mill went up between 1796-7. Cast iron technology for building was only proved in 1781 – also in Shropshire with the building of the world’s first iron bridge (Ironbridge) over the River Severn. So I should think your mills were timber framed following the British model. If yours had cast iron framing before 1797, the history books need re-writing. Which is always a fun prospect 🙂

      1. Very interesting Tish. I’m wiser than I was 10 mins ago. I expect you know the first cast iron and glass curtain wall building in the world is the beautiful Oriel Chambers in Liverpool which enabled building to go higher than ever with lighters materials and light. If need be, google it. I’m heading for Salop…

      2. I’d forgotten about the Oriel Chambers. Was mentioned the other day by Sir Neil Cossons when he gave our Civic Soc a talk. All my cast iron knowledge I owe to him as he used to be my boss when he was director of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust – which is not these days quite what is was in his day, but still worth a visit. Happy visiting to my neck of the woods, Tony.

  2. A friend of mine who works at Shrewsbury Museum was telling me that this wasn’t actually the first iron frame building. It was one of the first, and I think it’s the oldest surviving but there was at least one before that no longer exists. I can’t remember it’s name though I’m afraid. Sorry. 😦

    1. Ah-ha! You’ve jogged my memory, but not enough to come up with a name. I have an inkling there was an early one in the Chatham dockyard. Interestingly, Sir Neil Cossons, ex director of Ironbridge and the Science Museum, was still sticking to the Bage’s First story only a few weeks ago. Where’s an industrial archaeologist when you want one?

      1. I’ll email my friend at Shrewsbury Museum and get back to you once I know.
        To be honest if you google “oldest iron framed building” you do come up with a mass of search results for the Flax Mill, or as it’s locally referred to The Maltings.

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