Ditherington Mill: Apprentice House, 1812

Image: Apprentice House built within the Ditherington Mill complex in 1812.

Image from: Shropshire Archives

The building of a second apprentice house suggests that the numbers of parish apprentices employed by John Marshall at Ditherington increased in number. It cost £3,329 when it was built in 1812.

Ditherington Mill: Apprentice House, c 1800

Image: Rear view of the apprentice house for Ditherington Mill at 56-59 St Michael’s Street, Shrewsbury.

Photograph by: Nabi Heydari (April 2003)

The building was constructed from the same bricks that were used for building the original mill in 1796-1797. The house was known at one time as Ann’s Hill after Simpson’s daughter.

Ditherington Mill: Apprentice House, c 1800

Image: Front and side view of the first apprentice house for the Ditherington Mill for Marshall, Benyon and Bage at 56-59 St Michael’s Street, Shrewsbury.

Photograph by: Nabi Heydari (April 2003)

Before June 1800 an apprentice house near to the factory was constructed by John Simpson. Documentary records show that the mill employed parish apprentices as early as April 1802. An apprentice indenture of Mary Parsons survives for the parish of Prees in Shropshire which states that she was taken on to learn how to manufacture linen yarn.

Children who were orphaned or born illegitimate were supported by the ratepayers in individual parishes under the Poor Law. Many of these children were “apprenticed” to factory employers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries so that they could learn to support themselves. They often lived in specially designed hostels called apprentice houses. They survive in many locations. One of the best known was part of the cotton factory complex belonging to the Greg family in Styal, Cheshire. The 1808 account of Ditherington Mill refers to the employers’ ‘humane and judicial attention to the health and morals of the numerous young persons….’   It is not possible to provide a direct description of the working or living conditions of parish apprentices in the factory. They were probably employed in processes which involved separating and cleaning flax fibres prior to spinning.

Ditherington Mill: Clerks’ House

Image: Former house for clerks at Ditherington Mill, now 55 St Michael’s Street, Shrewsbury.

Photograph by: Nabi Heydari (April 2003)

By 1800 a house for clerks employed at Ditherington Mill had been built by a Scottish migrant to Shrewsbury, John Simpson (1755-1815), who was employed as clerk-of-works at the newly built St Chad’s Church. Simpson subsequently worked with Thomas Telford on his civil engineering projects. He also built the first apprentice house near Ditherington. The house was built from the same bricks which were used for building the main mill of 1796-1797.

Ditherington Mill: Industrial Housing

Image: Terraced housing built between 1830 and 1850 on St Michael’s Street, Shrewsbury, probably by private speculators, close to the Ditherington Mill complex.

Photograph by: Nabi Heydari (April 2003)

Marshall, Benyon and Bage first leased buildings for some of their employees in 1797 near to the factory. In later years small groups of dwellings were built.

Barrie Trinder has analysed 1851 census data for the area around Ditherington. Employees by the mid-19th century lived all over Shrewsbury and not just in the streets near the mill. 377 flax workers lived in the streets close to the complex. Most were young. 207 or 55% were aged under 20 and 133 or 33% were under 16. Men predominated amongst employees over the age of 30, but there were more female workers amongst those between 16 and 25. The proportion of boys and girls was roughly equal for those under 16.

It does not seem likely that Marshall, Benyon and Bage or the Marshalls after 1804 created anything resembling a “factory community” on the model of Cromford in Derbyshire, Styal in Cheshire or New Lanark in Scotland. They did, however construct buildings for their parish apprentices and clerks.

Ditherington Mill: Blacksmith’s Shop and Stables

Image: Blacksmith’s Shop, Ditherington.

Photograph by: Nabi Heydari (April 2003)

The evidence provided by brickwork suggests a date before 1805 for the construction of the blacksmith’s shop (right) and stables (centre).  These two buildings show that large factory complexes provided more than units for manufacturing goods. Employees at the blacksmith’s shop were likely to conduct minor repairs to machinery and iron which was used in the construction of Ditherington Mill. They would also shoe the horses from the stables next to the shop. Given the considerable traffic in goods to and from the mill, horses were an essential means of transport, despite the presence of the Shrewsbury Canal.

Ditherington Mill: The Engine House

Image: Cross Section of the Engine and Boiler House for Messrs Benyons, Marshall and Bage, 20th May 1797 (Boulton & Watt pf 5. 136).

Image from: Birmingham City Archives

Engineering drawings survive in the Boulton and Watt papers in Birmingham City Archives which give the dimensions of the steam engine and its location within the Engine and Boiler House. The boilers were coal fired. A second drawing, dated 29th April 1797 not reproduced here, provides a cross section of the boilers, (Boulton & Watt pf 5. 136).Coal was easily obtainable via the Shrewsbury Canal (see section 2).

The engine house has been substantially altered since 1797. Marshall replaced the engine by an unknown make in 1811, alterations were made to the building in 1853 and another steam engine was purchased in 1874-75.

Ditherington Mill: Cross Building

Image: Prefabricated cast-iron roof in the Cross Building, Ditherington.

Image from: Shropshire Archives

The cross building was completed in 1803 and was connected with the north end of the main mill. Heckling or hackling was conducted in the upper floors of this building where raw flax was separated into short and long . The building was not constructed to be totally fireproof. No lighting or heating was provided on the upper floors. Its iron-framed construction was similar to that of the main mill and it contains fireproof staircases. Charles Bage probably designed this building as his letters show that he was deeply interested in the nature and problems of iron roofs.

Ditherington Mill: Windows

Image: Surviving window opening in Ditherington Mill.

Image from: Shropshire Archives

Cast iron window frames were manufactured in Shropshire in the late 18th century. Barrie Trinder argues that none of the original cast-iron windows survive. Most of the window bays were reduced in size or blocked completely when the factory was turned into a maltings after 1886.

Ditherington Mill: Doors and Fittings

Image: Metal door, Ditherington.

Image from: Shropshire Archives

Doors, windows and other visible fittings at Ditherington were of iron. These doors look as if they were made from iron, but they are wood covered in tinplate and probably date from between 1849 and 1855.

Ditherington Mill: Internal Structure, Tie Beams

Image: Details of tie beams, Ditherington Mill.

Image from: Shropshire Archives

The mill is supported by brick arches which run along each of the floors. The photograph shows the tie-rods which were made from wrought iron.

Ditherington Mill: Internal Construction, Top Floor

Image: Top floor of the main building, Ditherington.

Image from: Shropshire Archives

Each floor of the building is constructed in a slightly different style. The top floor has one line of pillars. Some of the beams rest on wooden plates in the eastern wall. The barrel vaulting is steeper on this storey than on other floors.

The Ditherington Industrial Complex

Image: View of the main mill from the east showing the Shrewsbury Canal and the single-storey building built by William Jones after 1896 when the building became a maltings.

Photograph by: Nabi Heydari (April 2003)

Ditherington Mill was built in 1796-97 by a partnership, Marshall, Benyon and Bage to spin flax. John Marshall and Thomas (1762-1833) and Benjamin Benyon (1763-1834) were successful industrialists. Charles Bage (1751-1822) had a deep interest in the structural properties of iron. He designed the mill and was responsible for its innovative methods of construction. The hazard of fire was a common problem in eighteenth century factory buildings. They used candle light and inflammable materials in their production processes, so the partners aimed to create a mill which would be fire-proof. In 1796-1797 the use of iron as a construction material in buildings was not new, but Ditherington was the first completely iron-framed mill and became an ancestor of similar and larger structures that were built over the next two centuries. Ditherington is an early version of the modern skyscraper. It has outlasted the original purpose for which it was built.

A number of buildings were added to the complex after 1797. These included two iron-framed structures, the Flax Warehouse (1804-05) and Cross Building (1811-12). A new engine house was built in 1812 for a new 40 horse power engine. An apprentice house and clerks’ house were built outside the factory before 1800. In 1805 the blacksmith’s shop was built and a second apprentice house was constructed inside the mill complex in 1812. In subsequent years a number of alterations were made.  Although working-class terraced homes were built in streets next to the factory in the nineteenth century, there is little evidence that this was part of a strategy to provide accommodation for mill workers.

In 1896, Ditherington Mill was purchased by William Jones (1832-1923), a local businessman who adapted the buildings for malting. He added a huge malt kiln and replaced the steam engine boilers on the eastern side of the building with a single-storey structure which extended the floor space available for malting. William Jones and Co. went bankrupt in 1933-34 and was administered by the Alliance Insurance Company. In 1948, the building was purchased by the Birmingham brewers, Ansells, which in turn became part of Allied Breweries. Malting ended at Ditherington in 1987. Its huge size and unique construction have limited its potential for redevelopment.

The Ditherington Mill Industrial Site, Shrewsbury

Image: Ditherington Mill showing the malt kiln built by William Jones following the end of flax spinning in 1886.

Photograph by: Nabi Heydari (April 2003)


Ditherington Flax Mill is a grade I listed building. It lies in a semi-derelict state on the outskirts of Shrewsbury within a site which includes Grade II* structures. It was one of Britain’s most important factories and is possibly the most significant building in Shropshire.

This article by Malcolm Dick describes the buildings that form part of the Ditherington industrial site. The author has been helped by published research by Barrie Trinder into the industrial archaeology of the mill and archival material at Shropshire Archives. Illustrations are drawn from Shropshire Archives, Birmingham City Archives and photographs by Nabi Heydari, which were taken in April 2003.

The development and history of the mill and other buildings constructed by its architect, Charles Bage (1751-1797), are explored in another exhibition in the Industry and Innovation section of the Theme part of the website:
Charles Bage, the Flax Industry and Shrewsbury’s Iron-Framed Mills