The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Britain saves ‘grandparent’ of all modern skyscrapers, built in 1796

The mill near Shrewsbury, England, was the first cast-iron framed building in the world. (Steven Baker/Historic England Archive)

SHREWSBURY, England — For years, the old ghostly factory sat in quiet ruin, forlorn, moldering, home to pigeons and rats. But there was something remarkable hidden inside — and so in a feat of restoration, British conservationists have saved what they consider the “grandparent” of all modern skyscrapers.

Five stories tall, clad in red brick, Ditherington Flax Mill may bear little resemblance to the Empire State Building or the limit-stretching glass needles of modern skylines in Dubai and Hong Kong. But it was the first building to use cast-iron framing — a leap in engineering that became the rough draft for all the high-rises that followed.

“You’re looking at the DNA for every multistory metal-framed building in the world,” said Alastair Godfrey, project lead for Historic England, the conservation group that rescued the building.

It is remarkable how old this building is, Godfrey said, leading a recent tour for reporters.

Construction began in 1796 — when King George III (the “mad” one) sat on the British throne, and the upstart George Washington was finishing his second term as president of the United States.

The building was originally constructed as a mill for spinning flax, which Godfrey called “the nylon of the Georgian world,” a material that could be turned into yarn or thread.

Flax mills were profitable but risky investments. “It was a tinderbox,” Godfrey said, filled with steam-driven spinning machines that covered the floors with a combustible dust — in rooms lit by windows and candlelight, on machines lubricated by whale oil.

“One tiny mistake with a candle and, whoosh! The place would combust,” he said.

John Marshall, a hard-driving industrialist and the first of the textile millionaires, had recently lost a wood-framed mill to fire. So he and his partners, brothers Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, were looking, most of all, for a building that wouldn’t burn.

It was fortuitous that the area around Shrewsbury was home to cutting-edge craftsmen reimagining the production and use of iron. It was here that Abraham Darby pioneered the art and science of smelting iron using coke, a process that made mass production of cast iron economically viable and would be a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution. A Shrewsbury architect, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, was also behind the world’s first iron bridge, erected across the River Severn in 1779 and soon replicated across canals all over England.

To design their new mill, the partners employed Charles Bage, a surveyor who was part of the area’s circle of innovators. (Bage was also a wine merchant and novelist, for a time ran the local workhouse, and would later become Shrewsbury mayor.)

The iron work for the mill was created at a nearby forge by a man named William Hazledine, heralded as the “Arch Conjurer,” a magician in the new tech of iron.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, this building,” said Tim Greensmith, a conservation architect with Feildern Clegg Bradley Studios, who was a leader of the restoration.

“It’s amazing that they got this far with what is essentially prototype,” he said.

It is a marvel — but a subtle one. You have to know what you are looking at. On the inside, they have preserved the cast-iron columns and beams, the elegant buttressing of the mill, which is 200 feet long and 40 feet wide.

Greensmith tapped an iron column — spaced one every six feet.

“The iron columns and beams continue to do almost all the work of supporting the structure,” he said. “The iron is not decorative, but essential. We didn’t take any of the cast-iron frame away or apart. What we did is we added a bit of steel for some support, for some safety net.”

It was his opinion that the building “might have been massively under-engineered by modern standards,” but was nonetheless genius, and has proved itself by surviving.

(One of the investors in the mill was Charles Darwin’s father.)

In the late 19th century, the building evolved from Ditherington Flax Mill to Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, where barley was converted into malt for beer brewing.

After the malting operation closed, the building fell into disrepair. At one point, the structure was in such shabby shape that scaffolding had to be erected to keep it from collapsing on itself. The restoration took eight years and cost $33 million.

The restorers hope the site will now become a destination for history buffs who want a glimpse of the birth of the steam-powered, iron-forged industrial revolution. It is a building for time travelers.

The British government’s minister for arts and heritage, Stephen Parkinson, visited earlier this months and declared it “a piece of Britain’s industrial past which truly changed the world — paving the way for skyscrapers and soaring skylines across the globe.”

There is another side of the mill, too, told by the new museum on the ground level.

At its peak, the flax mill employed 800 people, at least half of them children and young women — workers with small dexterous hands. The children came from parish workhouses, some orphans, some just abandoned, and they lived in a dormitory next to the mill and served as “apprentices,” working 70-hour weeks in a Dickensian life of indentured servitude.

They were given food and shelter. They were paid no wage, given little education. One of the mill owners was considered enlightened because he instructed his foremen not to beat the children.

The apprentice dormitory is also being restored and will emphasize — as the museum does — the brutal cost extracted from the workers for these wonders of industrial engineering.