Almost 225 years to the day it first opened, the magnificent Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings will once again open its doors again following a £28 million, eight-year restoration project by Historic England.
We’ve been waiting so long to see what all that National Lottery money has achieved, so it was a joy to finally have a peek inside this ‘grandparent of skyscrapers’, the world’s first iron-framed building.
Externally, the flaxmill, built in 1797, is truly deserving of its place in the canon of national heritage treasures, with its jaw-droppingly huge facade, soaring roof, and crown-topped, timber-clad jubilee tower (it used to be known as the ‘Dragon on the Hill’ owing to its serrated roofline and steam-powered spinning machines).
On the inside, there is so much history to tell. Experience makers Mather & Co, of Wilmslow, have done a great job of bringing it to life in a new exhibition ‘The Mill’, within the limited ground floor space (the upper four floors are given over to office space).
I had hoped for a gambol around the original factory floors, which might have given an internal sense of perspective - or some kind of grand, augmented reality installation to transport us back to the height of the Victorian industrial revolution, and the hiss, spit and rumble of the steam-powered spinning and scutching machines. There is a small multisensory AV experience in the old Engine House, featuring sensory effects of the engines and machinery, but it’s not quite the whiz-bang, immersive experience I had imagined.
What we have instead, however, is an impeccably well thought-through interpretation by the same team that created the new Downton Abbey exhibition, the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, the National Football Museum in Manchester, Quarry Bank industrial heritage site and many more.
They have worked wonders with limited space to tell the story of more than two hundred years of history. There’s a lot to say; about the engineering genius of the building in its own time, about industrial processes; about social change; about the marvellous new restoration and ground-breaking green energy applications.
At the height of production, more than 800 men, women and children working 15-hour shifts under the flaxmill roof, engaged in the hugely labour intensive processes of turning flax into linen through retting, scutching and hackling; in their footsteps, from 1897, came the maltsters who soaked the barley, and spread it along the huge factory floors until it began to germinate, raking it with malt ploughs to dissipate the heat. It would then be loaded into the kiln for drying, in readiness for the brewer.
Wandering around the exhibition, you’ll learn about the rats and the cats who roamed the floors and the servicemen who dubbed it the ‘Rat Hotel’, garrisoned here during the Second World War. You’ll also hear memories of the folks who worked and lived there; men such as Alan Griffith, 81, of Harmer Hill, who worked in quality control, testing the malt and the barley, until 1976 and has been helping exhibition designers understand the malting process: “We used to have a competition catching rats,” he says. “They would come out of the big Victorian sewers and guys would get their shovels out.”
Astonishingly, Alan says, even as recently as the 1970s, the workers were given two pints of beer a day: “Imagine operating machinery or doing the electrical wiring on two pints. You wouldn’t hear of that today!”
Giant, neon signs link to exhibition themes: ‘Town and Transformation’, ‘Engineering and Build’, ‘People and Process’, ‘Adaptation and Change’ and ‘Legacy and Impact’. Visitors are dazzled with style on entry - it’s a symphony of bright colours and branding. Exhibition designers have even created a bespoke font based on the external lettering of the buildings on site, called ‘Edifice’, which is a nice touch, as are the beautiful, illuminated stems of barley.
There’s a lot to take in, but the text-based panels are interspersed with interactive touch tables and other playful hands-on activities, snippets of audio, floor projections and a large 3D model of the main mill, showing activities inside the mill through the ages. Children should enjoy building their own structures from giant bricks in the ‘Workshop of Ideas’, set to inspire engineers of the future.
“The important thing is getting families talking and working together as they move through the exhibition,” says Sarah Clarke, MD of Mather & Co exhibition consultants. “We wanted to appeal to everyone, not just those people who might typically go to a heritage site.”
There’s so much to catch the eye, and to spark conversation, at every turn - it’s definitely worth a visit. And by paying your entry fee, you’ll be playing your part in preserving this extraordinary building for future generations.
It’s good to note that the new Turned Wood Cafe (so named as it is in the old woodturners workshop), is not behind the pay barrier. You can enjoy coffee, cakes or light lunches there Weds - Sun from 9am to 5pm, and browse the gift shop too and it’s heartening to see that over 50% of the products have been sourced from local suppliers.
The Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings Mill exhibition is open to the public from September 10. Tickets cost £7.50 for adults, £5 for children (age 5- 17), under 5s free, or £23 for a family. Timed entry slots are available 10am to 5pm from Friday - Sunday.
Book tickets HERE
- Following the sad death of HM The Queen, it has been decided that the Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings will still open as planned this weekend, however, as a mark of respect, the opening celebrations and activities have been cancelled. Historic England has indicated that ticket holders are able to reschedule their tickets for another time if they wish.