OA North has been carrying out targeted pieces of research, survey and trial trenching at Ditherington Flax Mill since 2009. Attracting anyone with an interest in industrial heritage, the Ditherington Flax Mill is the oldest iron-framed building in the world, and considered by English Heritage to be one of the most important industrial buildings in the country. Such is their interest in the site, English Heritage acquired the buildings in 2005.
The flax mill was built in 1797 and remained in use until 1886, when the site was converted to a maltings for the brewing industry. The maltings finally closed in 1987, and the buildings have since stood empty and increasingly derelict. However, its future is looking more secure, as a partnership between Shropshire Council, English Heritage and the Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings recently obtained significant funding from the Heritage Lottery to reverse the decay. A small part of this budget was intended to fund a public-led excavation, which was facilitated and supervised by OA North in April and May 2013, and this has provided a welcome new dimension to our work at this wonderful site.
The excavation targeted a group of former outbuildings that were associated with an early 19th-century apprentice house, and were known from historical mapping to have included a stable and a wash house. Well-preserved structural remains were exposed at a depth of c 300mm below the modern ground surface. Several phases of development were identified, and fascinating new evidence for the water supply to the mill’s former gas plant was discovered. As is often the way with archaeology, fresh findings were discovered on the final Friday afternoon, which led to a concentrated session when we probably set a world record for the highest number of volunteer archaeologists working in a 2m by 2m area. Close co-operation, communication and consultation were the order of the day as the overlying, underlying, truncated and contemporaneous features were unearthed and recorded.
The second building, called ‘The Animal House’ for the sake of convenience, had three identifiable components annotated ‘Stable’, ‘Cow Shed’ and ‘Piggery’ on a map of 1855. Excavation revealed an earlier structure in this location that corresponded to an outbuilding shown on earlier mapping as a ‘Stable’. Four days of post-excavation work followed, during which the volunteers consolidated the archive, processed and researched the finds, and wrote contributions for the report.
An open weekend at the flax mill, which attracted nearly 2,000 visitors, provided a fitting finale to the excavation, and demonstrated the huge public interest in the site. A committed band of volunteers were hard at work for these two days, so visitors were able to view an archaeological excavation in progress.
The project truly was a public-led archaeological investigation, and was strongly supported by volunteers from the Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings and the local community, who participated in digging and post-excavation work. Pupils from two secondary schools, Sundorne and The Grange, attended for five sessions of two hours which enabled them to be involved in practical work and gain a gradual build up of historical knowledge and archaeological skills.