This history of papermaking is presented in three parts.  This first article is taken in whole from the May 1990 issue of Family Tree Maker magazine.  The author, Ms. Jean Stirk, is a well-known authority on the early history of paper making in Great Britain starts the series below.

Old Occupations: The Paper Makers; April, May & June 1990 issues of Family Tree Magazine, © Jean Stirk. Reproduced by kind permission of the author and the publishers. 
Family Tree Magazine website:

The Paper Makers

The development of papermaking

The first papermakers were wasps. They chewed wood, then worked on it with their saliva and spread the resulting pulp into papery layers to form their nests.
Man first made paper in China nearly two thousand years ago and was first recorded making paper in Europe about 700 AD. There may have been a small, sporadic cottage industry in England at an earlier period but the first record of a paper maker in Britain is that of John Tate of Sele Mill, Stevenage in Hertfordshire in 1490. At this time, the product was an inferior paper of coarse quality; it was difficult to produce pure white or fine paper. Many people tried making paper, often in parallel with corn milling, but competition with Europe was intense and many enterprises failed. One paper maker is recorded as saying that he "could not fourd his paper as good cheape as that come from beyond the seaze."
Paper could be made from any vegetable matter such as wood, esparto grass, nettles, reeds, hops or rags, even from china clay; straw proved to be too brittle on its own but could be used with esparto grass. Rags were most widely used for many years but today paper is usually based on wood pulp. Top quality white paper was made from the finest white linen sand cotton rags, sometimes using trimmings from new garments, and later from esparto grass; inferior white, such as that for newspapers, might be based on inferior rag furnish. Brown paper was made mainly from cord, rope and canvas since it did not matter that the natural staining from these products discoloured the product. Best brown was made entirely from rope, white inferior browns were made from old tarpaulins oil cloth cuttings, old wagon covers, doormats and some refuse.

Endless web

During the few years before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, religious intolerance returned and many European refugees, particularly French Protestants, came to England. Many of these were paper makers bringing developed skill in paper making, a vital element in the evolution of the industry in England. By 1711 a substantial output was achieved by some 200 small mills now established in the country; this had increased to 500 mills by the end of the 18th century producing approximately 17,000 tons of paper a year, more than six times the output of 1711. Despite the acceleration in production at the end of the 17th century and early 18th century, considerable quantities of paper were imported until the outbreak of war with Spain in 1739, a situation that seriously curtailed imports.
In the first years of the 19th century, steam power was introduced into some paper mills, removing reliance on a good head of water to work the beating machines. In 1803 the Fourdrinier Brothers at Two Waters in Hertfordshire began a paper making revolution by inventing the first machine to make paper, one that could produce in it an endless web instead of sheet by sheet, a machine that could manufacture paper in varying widths and so much faster than by hand.

Locating the paper makers

Paper making is usually concentrated in certain areas (although it has been carried out in every county except Rutland) so, in searching for paper maker ancestors one needs to appreciate the factors that determined the location of paper mills.
To make good quality paper, several components had to be available in one location. Rags were the main source of materials for many years, so proximity to a city or large town ensured a good, regular supply of cast-off clothes and trimmings from clothes manufacturers. Later when esparto grass and wood pulp were substituted, having canal and rail communication within easy reach, or access to a port, became more important. There could be a conflict of interest here. A good example is that of John Dickinson, a well known paper maker in Hertfordshire; he benefited from the proximity to the Grand Junction canal to carry raw materials to the mills and transport the paper product to his customers in London and Birmingham, but he was often in dispute with the canal company because the canal drew water from the River Gade, affecting the flow on which he depended for power and pure water.
Water was vital as a power source to turn the beating machine. The power derived from fast flowing rivers or dammed streams that would produce a good head of water; and water was vital to mix with rag pulp, particularly pure water from wells, springs or unpolluted streams for the best quality paper. Using water from the head of a valley produced superlative paper but further down the valley the paper mill was situated the more inferior the quality so, at the bottom of the valley, perhaps only coarse cardboard could be manufactured. If the paper mill was situated in a narrow valley this would be a bonus, as the resulting breezes would facilitate the drying stage. Inevitably the process of making paper produced considerable amount of effluent, some of which would be cleaned or recycled, but much of which would cause problems for other people in the vicinity.
The finished product had to reach the customer as quickly as possible, so paper mills had to be near main cities or within easy reach by canal, river, rail or sea. Demand was greatest from the London market, especially from the later 1700s with the expanding production of newspapers, also for writing and printing paper. Devon paper makers shipped paper from Exeter to the Port of London and, on one occasion in 1810, tried to reclaim excise duty because a shipload of paper was lost at sea.
New paper mills were built when needed, or old ones rebuilt and extended but, as the paper making procedures required premises and equipment compatible with other processes, existing mills could often be used. Corn mills could be converted to make paper and grind corn by season, or in parallel. Old fulling mills were already installed with equipment that could be used to pummel rags for paper. Turkey Mill at Maidstone is so named because it was a fulling mill making Turkey Cloth, later converted for making paper.

The journeyman at work

Entry into paper making was well controlled. The number of apprenticeships was limited, and usually related to the number of vats operated in a mill. It took seven years to learn the skills and judgement involved in paper making, and both parties were subject to the usual constraints: the master was to instruct the apprentice in "the mysteries of paper making" and look after his general welfare, while the apprentice was required to work hard, learn his trade and behave himself, "not play cards, dice tables...haunt taverns or play houses." Frequently apprenticeships were arranged for children of paper makers (from the age of fourteen years), keeping the mysteries of paper making within families in the trade. Apprenticeship indentures1 and records of a tax on apprentices2 give useful information of paper makers. Other workers were also needed, in supporting occupations, to produce the final product.

1 Apprenticeship indentures should be dated and include the name and date of birth (or age) of the apprentice, the name of his father and place of residence, sometimes the occupation of the father, also the name, trade and residence of the master. Such indentures that have survived may be found in family papers or in Local Studies Sections or County records Offices.
2 1710 Stamp Duty imposed on Apprenticeship Industries. Apprenticeship Books 1710-1811 at Public record Office, Kew (IR1 and IR17) Ts 1710-1811 (index 1710-1774) at Society of genealogists. Records give name and residence of apprentice (the father to 1750) and the name, residence and trade of master.

The rag house

The paper mill was divided into several working areas. In the rag house, women and children sorted rags into different grades and sometimes needed to cut or tear them up. In 1719 a visitor to a rag house referred to the raw material as "rags mostly from straggling persons." This manhandling of old and dirty materials, including refuse, in close quarters for long hours inevitably led to illness among the workers. There was a general fear of plague in the mid-1600s but the employees needed the work.
The rags were then left to ferment to soften them before being boiled in caustic soda to clean them. In 1765 James Whatman of Maidstone experimented by adding a blue pigment ot the rags to overcome the yellow tone of the paper. This was replaced by a bleaching process added once chlorine had been discovered in 1790. John Larking of East Malling, Kent, was one of the first to use this. Men and boys dealt with this stage in the preparation room ad their health suffered at times from the chemical fumes and from handling strong chemicals.
The resulting pulp, with a measured amount of water added, a milky-looking substance now called half-stuff, would be kept warm during pummelling in a large trough and agitated by a pole, or potching stick, replaced after the end of the 18th century by a mechanical paddle called a hoag. It was the beater’s job to judge how hard to beat the material, according to the quality of the paper required. If the paper was to be coloured, the appropriate mineral, or pigment, would be weighed and put into the cockbag (a piece of felt or heavy linen set in a handled frame) with a little pulp then dipped into the half-stuff and squeezed to enable the colour to filter out.
Towards the end of the pummelling process alum (aluminum sulphate) and soap were added to size the paper, now called stuff. In 1740, a new machine was introduced, called a Hollander, to beat the rags, or vegetable matter to produce pulp; its rotating, interlocking bars soon replaced the stamping machines that, themselves, had succeeded manual thumping with pestle and mortar.

The Vatman

In the next room the stuff was put into a vat where the paper makers, dressed in strong white calico bib-aprons and hats, fashioned by custom out of stiff paper, began work. The vatman (working with two moulds) held a mould with both hands, dipped it into the vat with a downward slant towards himself to immerse one third. He then lifted it to the horizontal, shook the mould in both directions for the fibres to interweave and a wave to run across the mould, then shook in the other direction to shut the sheet to achieve an even layer to a required thickness; his skill was to form fibres into a sheet before the water drained away. The mould was a rigid framework of wood covered by fine copper wire mesh through which the pulp was strained leaving a pattern of laid lines. By the late 1700s James Whatman of Maidstone, Kent, had achieved the first "wove" paper, i.e. without a pronounced wire mark; wove wire mesh had replaced the original pattern of wire laid closely side by side. To contain the pulp evenly within the mould a detachable raised frame was added, called a deckle.
Double Elephant and Antiquarian size moulds were too heavy for one man so two vatmen had to match their skills to wield these and produce good sheets of paper. From time to time the coucher would take over from the vatman to give him a rest; this was called a change out. If the vatman lost his "shake" and could not regain it after an agreed absence for rest he might never work again. It was heavy work and a long twelve hour day so it was customary for the employer to provide beer as refreshment.

The Coucher

The coucher worked closely with the vatman; apart from working "change out," he took the mould from the vatman and turned it over onto a piece of woolen felt to release the sheet of paper, covering it with another piece of felt, alternating paper and felt until he had a layered pile called a post. This pot was handed to the pressman who put it into a screw press to squeeze out surplus water. Each sheet was separated by the layer and pressed to achieve the required graining before being hung up to dry on a line made of cow hair in an airy loft or drying room; later paper was laid out on hessian to dry instead of being hung. Next the paper was sized in gelatine made from boiling down hides (or in starch), the sheets separated and dried again.
In the Salle, the name given to the room where the finishing took place, the sheets were inspected then glazed by being rolled between metal plates, to be made up into reams (480 sheets – before decimalisation) ready for packing and dispatch.

Read Part 2 of the paper making history by Ms. Jean Stirk
Read Part 3 of the paper making history by Ms. Jean Stirk

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