By the end of the 18th century the new industries being pioneered in Britain were creating more and more demand for paper upon which the write the records of commerce, promote the new products and educate the people using and producing them. 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 Louis-Nicholas Robert, an accountant at the French paper mill of Essonnes, had invented and 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.

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.