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Papermaking in the United Kingdom
The first recorded paper mill in the United Kingdom was Sele Mill near Hertford owned by John Tate. Founded around 1488, this mill was visited by King Richard VII some 10 years later and a report of it was printed by Wynken de Worde. Sheets bearing John Tate’s watermark have been found in books printed in 1494.
Other early mills included one at Dartford, owned by Sir John Speilman, who was granted special privileges for the collection of rags by Queen Elizabeth and one built in Buckinghamshire before the end of the 16th century.
During the first half of the 17th century, further mills were established near Edinburgh, at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, and several in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey.
During the first half of the 18th century, the Hollander Beater (or rag-engine) was widely introduced into the UK, replacing the stamping mills that had previously been used for pulping rags. In December 1724, Henri de Portal was awarded the contract for producing the Bank of England watermarked bank-note paper at Bere Mill in Hampshire. Portals, now part of the De La Rue group, have retained this contract ever since but production has now moved to the Overton mill. In 1757 James Whatman developed a new ‘woven’ wire fabric for his paper mould leading to his production of the first Wove paper, a significant improvement on the Laid pattern of the earlier moulds. With its straight wires, the traditional mould produced paper with characteristic ridges that did not give a clear sharp ink impression when printed. The new Wove pattern provided the solution.
By 1800 there were 430 paper mills in England and Wales and less than 50 in Scotland, mostly operating a single vat, and, of course, producing paper by hand. Total output was just 11,000 tons (an average of 23 tons per mill) and the process is estimated to have consumed 24 million lbs of rags. UK demand for paper exceeded home supply and was supplemented by imports, mainly from the continent.
The Birth of an Industry
With the country at war with Napoleon’s France, there was a shortage of labour for making paper and, in the new spirit of the age, mechanisation was the obvious answer to both this shortage and the increasing demand for more paper.
The start of the solution came from the most unlikely source, France, where Nicholas Louis Robert, an accountant at the French paper mill of Essonnes had invented and, in 1799 patented, a hand operated machine for making paper in lengths of up to 12 feet. Unable to get finance to develop his invention in France, he sold the rights to his patent to his employer Leger Didot who in turn approached his brother-in-law, John Gamble (whilst in Paris organising the exchange of prisoners) to take out an English patent and secure financial backing.
Gamble used Robert’s original French patent drawings to secure an English patent in October 1801 and secured financial support from Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, partners in the City stationery firm of Bloxham and Fourdrinier, in return for a one third interest in the patent rights.
In 1802, the Fourdriniers appointed John Hall of Dartford to construct a working machine based on Robert’s drawings and his working model that had been brought to England soon after the Treaty of Amiens brought a pause to hostilities. Progress was at first slow but once Hall’s brother-in-law, Bryan Donkin, took charge the project made rapid progress. The Fourdrinier brothers had a new engineering works built for Donkin in Bermondsey and leased Frogmore Mill in Apsley, Hertfordshire, as the site of their new paper mill in 1803 where the first, improved Robert machine was installed later that year. In replication of the hand-making process, a dilute pulp suspension was poured onto an endless wire cloth from which water was drained as it travelled along to the press section where it was transferred to a continuous felt blanket and pressed between rollers to make it dry enough to be rolled on a reel. Finally it would have been cut off the reel into sheets and loft dried in the same way as hand made paper.
Two Waters Mill
Supported by Gamble and the Fourdriniers, Donkin continued to refine the design of the machine. A new machine incorporating many new ideas was designed and engineered in Bermondsey and installed at the Bloxham and Fourdrinier, Two Waters mill in 1805. Further developments of both machines were made over the next two years and additional patents were acquired in 1803 and 1807 recognising the enormous advances that had been achieved in developing a machine that could produce good paper commercially.
In 1806 the Fourdriniers issued a public statement about the benefits of their machine. They claimed that the cost of making a Cwt of paper by machine was 3 shillings and 9 pence (19p) compared to 16 shillings (80p) by hand. Furthermore, their machine with 9 workers could produce in one 12 hour day the same amount of paper that it would take 41 workers using 7 vats to produce by hand. The cost of a 54” wide paper machine was £1,040.
It was not to be until 1822 that Donkin adopted TB Crompton’s 1821 patent for drying paper continuously over steam heated drying cylinders and the paper machine that today’s paper makers would recognise as their own – the Fourdrinier – was finally completed.
Meanwhile, in 1809 at neighbouring Apsley Mill, John Dickinson installed and patented a different kind of paper machine. Instead of pouring a dilute pulp suspension on to an endlessly revolving flat wire as in the Fourdrinier process, this machine uses a cylinder covered in wire as a mould. The cylindrical mould is partially submerged in a vat containing the pulp suspension and as the mould rotates, water is sucked through the wire depositing a thin layer of fibres on the cylinder.
By 1850 UK paper production is estimated to have reached 100,000 tons and the pattern for the mechanised production of paper had been set. Subsequent developments concentrated on increasing the size and capacity of the machines as well as finding volume alternative pulps from which paper could be reliably manufactured.