This history of papermaking is presented in three parts.  This third 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 continues her 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

Master and Journeymen relationships

Towards the end of the 1700s there was general unrest and agitation countrywide. Mill owners and employers were extremely concerned because the price of rags, the vital raw material, increased continuously, excise duty was raised and the work-force was becoming militant; the price of paper rose by 50% within a short period, resulting in stocking in a slump period. Equally, the employees found themselves in a worsening situation, being less able to maintain themselves and their families as ages were lowered in an attempt by employers to keep businesses afloat. The particular circumstance of the paper trade was made worse by the high level of employment in the country in general.

The Manchester mercury of 8 July 1788 reflected the unrest by reporting the combination among journeymen paper makers for an increase in wages, circulating a paper of complaints when their demands were not met. The masters tried to reassure the public by stating that the journeymen paper makers in Manchester and nearby mills earned better wages and had "more consistent employment" than most of the artificers and workmen, earning 10s 6d per week or more, according to merit. By 1800, wages in Kent were 20% higher than elsewhere in the country, but were lowered by the employers because of depressed trading.

The old way of settling a grievance had been for either side to demand a "bull ring," the master sitting on a box surrounded by his employees, a ring not broken until the dispute had been settled. Then, according to custom, beer would be provided; by the master if he called the meeting, by the work-force if it was their call. A contact of employment could be terminated by two weeks notice on either side or a golden guinea placed on the counting house table. By the turn of the century this arrangement was ineffectual, so when the journeymen began to arrive in large numbers at some mills demanding an increase in wages, sometimes attacking the millhouse in their desperation, or even threatening to withdraw their labor, the only redress was to lock them out. In 1700, the Master paper Makers petitioned Parliament to make clubs and combination illegal (the friendly societies’ forerunners of trade unions, and the grouping together of men to protest against their situation). Several acts to this effect were passed in the next two or three years. Feeling was so strong among the journeymen by 1800, that they defied the combination laws and formed the Original Society of paper makers, the first trade union of journeyman paper makers. Pressure from this quarter was so intense that the employers declared a "lock out," considered by them to be "moderately successful."

The Napoleonic wars had heightened the problems of the employees but the introduction of a machine, patented in 1803, increased competition within the trade in Great Britain and posed an immediate threat of unemployment for those making paper by hand. In a twelve hour day a machine could produce an equivalent of the output of eight vats. This machine cost approximately ₤31,500 and there was an annual license fee of ₤3380 to be paid to the inventors, the Fourdrinier Brothers, but a machine man at a weekly wage of ₤32 9s replaced the work of 32 men. This innovation not only caused considerable unemployment, but also the widespread closure of those mills which made paper only by hand. This worsening situation was then compounded by the intense trade depression following the end of the war.

United Society

Frightened by this train of events and the increasing demands for higher wages by their employees, the Master Paper Makers, already associated by county for trade purposes, met with the express intention of resisting the illegal combination of journeymen, despite the fact that they were contravening the acts for which the masters themselves had petitioned. At that meeting of 13 June 1803 at the George and Vulture Tavern, Cornhill, London, 103 Master Paper Makers representing 103 firms, operating between them some 400 vats, formed themselves into the United Society of Master Paper Makers of Great Britain under the chairmanship of William Balston, a Kent Paper Maker of Maidstone. The Kent Master Paper Makers met the following week under the same chairman to draw up a list of new working arrangements to replace the existing custom and practice – a revolutionary move that became known as the Rochester Revolution. It included:

1. Fixed rate of pay according to grade of paper produced.
2. A fixed quantity of paper to be made each day by comparing a stack of paper against a measuring post; an early form of measured day work which led to the modern incentive scheme.
3. One shilling per week to be paid in lieu where beer not provided.
4. Payment for Easter, Whitsun and Christmas days in excess of daily rate
5. Provision of alternative work if no paper making was available
6. No employment for members of clubs
7. Employment of apprentices at a minimum of one per vat.
8. Recommendation to set up a sick and unemployed fund at each mill to relieve journeymen "on tramp" (see later); master to subscribe one guinea per vat.
9. By 1803, despite the Rochester Revolution, feelings ran high among the work-force. Eventually in 1816 it was the turn of the journeymen to petition Parliament , an exercise they repeated during the next two or three years, due to the increasing distress among their numbers


Unemployment and abject poverty provoked such intense feelings of frustration that by the 1820s, in the country generally journeyman paper makers along with other workers eventually rioted. They had been joined by agricultural laborers who were out of work following the introduction of a threshing machine, having had no help at all from the Government, on the night of 28 August 1830 threshing machine were wrecked in many counties. This became known as the Swing Riots. Over the next few months, in the Wye Valley of Buckinghamshire, the paper mill owners were particularly badly hit by rioting (despite the suspending of the installation of machinery and even dismantling machines) and many mills were wrecked or burned down. Following the Wycombe Paper Riots and the Swing Riots a rate was imposed by the county in order to compensate those whose machines had been smashed; but this was not popular, was difficult to collect, and had been left in the hands of the County Treasurer to disburse -–a somewhat reluctant dispenser!

The rioters eventually1 caught by the militia, tried at the Assizes, were held in Aylesbury Gaol and then in prison hulk York awaiting death by hanging. These sentences were transmuted to seven years transportation or 12-18 months hard labor in the House of Correction. One man was acquitted because he could provide witnesses to confirm he was on tramp from Dartford to Leicester seeking work, but the others left on the ship Proteus on 12 April 1831 for Hobart Town, Van Dieman’s land.

1 Special arrangements had to be made to deal with so many offenders. Judgement was passed at special assizes at Aylesbury and sentences given at the special commission, also a Aylesbury. See also the Calendar of Prisoners in his Majesty’s Gaol at Aylesbury, 10 January 1831.

The Tramping System

With increasing unemployment, journeymen became the "paper tramps,"2 (a perfectly respectable appellation in this case), forced to travel round the country from mill to mill seeking work. The union had set up an unemployment fund at each mill, collecting weekly subscriptions from men in work to be paid out in benefit. When out of work the paper maker would be provided with a certificate to go "on tramp," following a prescribed route within a set number of days, walking over 30 miles a day in some instances: from the Tovil, Turkey or Springfield Mills in Kent the paper maker could cover some 1,190 miles in 64 days with ten Sundays to rest. The certificate would be presented to the union secretary at the next mill in the evenings. It entitled the member to a "turn" at each place on the round,3 i.e. there was sufficient money for a bed, a simple meal and perhaps some tobacco, if work was not available. His family would have to survive as best they could during the ten weeks he was away, frequently on parish relief.4

Conditions were poor but receiving benefit helped the men to resist work offered below the rates agreed by the trade association. As they were obliged to call at the next mill by a set time and could only rest on Sundays, and they were constantly exposed to extremes of weather, even young men died on tramp and they were also prey to stray dogs and footpads.

However, tensions grew between those in work and those not, between large and small towns, and also between north and south, as the depression struck. Two factions had developed due to deception over trade practices and this division was exacerbated by the paper makers on tramp passing on news of the situation at other mills, and by the general feeling among fellow craftsmen.

After some years of separation, the two opposing parties, John Rankin’s Deckle and Williams Grigsby’s Star, reunited in August 1837 having settled their differences. A new card was introduced depicting two vatmen and two couchers crossed, linking hands. Yet this reunion and consequent card system was clearly not accepted everywhere, as a letter dated four months later refers to opposite parties and differential payments, or non-payments, for turns according to the type of card proffered.5

This letter of 1837, written by Napoleon Puttenham, a paper maker at Longcliffe, Yorkshire, to his brother Richard at Springfield Mill, Maidstone, Kent, and also a paper maker reflects the split among the journeymen:

"I am very sorry there is this Division in the Trade, It is A bad thing for the poor Journeymen on tramp. It hurts our feelings Very Much to see men that has paid to the trade all their lives to have no turn when they come here, I mean those who have Turkey Cards, but what can we do; we think that the Men in Work ought To have considered this before they declined giving turns to the Opposite Parties. We think that they ought to provide for the Poor Fellows in A better way. We do not give any thing to the deckle cards, we give 1s 6d to the old cards and to the stars 3s 0d each for a turn and I believe They give double turns every were (sic) in this part of the country. Please to tell Wm Grigsby we received this letter safe and that we let your Delegate Chas Martin have a Sovereign Out of our box when he was here, and that he will be so good as to place it on our account, He being afraid he would be short of Money before he reached home. We had also Mr Kirby, the delegate of the Opposition party but he met with A very cool reception here. Our Men told Him they were right down Springfield, and Grigsby’s Me, And that they should not change their Minds upon any account; that was all he got. At Settle Mill we had Robt Gould here a fortnight after he left Maidstone. He told us all the news. He came here on Saturday And stopt with us while Monday. He talked of going as low As Durham to see his sister."

The tramping system gradually came to be discredited. There seemed little point in so many tramping the country when there was very little work, and there were unscrupulous people "impersonating" (receiving bed and board without ever belonging to a union), also as local trade societies strengthened, the tramping brethren began to be accused of strike breaking, theft and abuse, and, worst of all, "working the ticket" for sixpence to avoid work. Eventually by the middle of the 19th century, the factions within the union had reunited and replaced this system with an unemployment benefit scheme, to which those in work paid accordingly to their earnings. At Basted Mill in Kent, for example, seven men drawing "first class" pay (₤1 2s 0d per week) paid 5s 6d per month to the fund.

Although unrest and difficulties were widespread throughout the country, there were pockets which somehow remained virtually unaffected. One such was the de Portal family mill at Laverstock, Hampshire, where wages were maintained at a reasonable level, the journeymen were provided with comfortable cottages6 with gardens, and in 1826, for example, they were paid ₤100 a year beer money.

However, there was still some disaffection within the union, resulting in breakaways of small groups. The United Brotherhood Union was setup in 1853 by some of those who accepted the introduction of machines and, in the north of England in 1869, skilled men from Manchester formed The Society of Paper Makers. In Scotland, demands for shorter hours and a change in working practices came later and, following a lock out by employers and refusal by them to employ union members, the unskilled and semi-skilled in both hand-made and machine-made paper manufacture founded the National Union of Paper Mill Workers in Edinburgh on 1 February 1890.

The United Brotherhood and the Society of paper Makers then amalgamated, while the Original Society of paper Makers grew from strength to strength. The 1914-18 war brought changes in many spheres and since the "modern" practices of negotiation, collective bargaining and procedure agreements have continued. Although these have been mainly concerned with wages and working conditions as conducted on a national basis, there has also been much local discussion on the same subjects plus those of dismissals and suspensions. There were also some strange problems, for instance the mystery of the missing mill manager and the dispute over the light on the mill chimney at West Hartlepool.

Today paper makers usually belong to the Society of Graphics and Allied Trades Union ’82 or to the British Paper and Board Industries Federation or the British Fibreboard packing Association.7 They are still beset by the same sort of problems, whether they are manufacturers or employees.

2 This section is based on an article by Jean Stirk entitled "The Paper Tramps" that appeared in the Journal of the North West Kent FHS (Vol 4, No 2 issue.)
3 "The Round" is a prescribed route (probably followed before the tramping system was set up formally) so it provides a useful trail when tracing a paper maker. Places of birth for children of paper makers in census returns reflect the route of the round very closely.
4 Overseers' minutes and accounts, records, may reveal the plight of the families left behind until the papermaker finds work and settlement. Examinations often give a useful biography of the family.
5 Membership cards of the journeymen's clubs (later trade unions) were nicknamed Turkey Cards, so called after the first place listed on the round, Turkey Mill at Tovil, Kent.
6 Where place of residence is given as a paper mill this usually refers to cottages on, or next to, the paper mill site let to employees, whether papermakers, millwrights, or to other occupations.
7 The Society of Graphic & Allied Trades Unions '82, SOGAT House, 274-388 London Road, Hadleigh, Essex SS7 2DE and The British federation of paper and Board Manufacturers Association, 3 Plough Place, Felter Lane, London EC4 1AL.

Index of Paper makers

This index or paper makers and their families of the British isles (but mainly England) includes details of master paper makers, journeymen and apprentices, employers and employees derived from a wide range of sources. In conjunction with this index I am attempting to draw maps showing the migration patterns from which additional information will be added when appropriate.

I shall be pleased to search for particular names in return for a stamped, self addressed envelope (or three IRCs) but would appreciate an additional second class stamp to cover the cost of cards, photocopies, etc. Any details of paper makers and their families will be welcome, but please state source, and references if possible. Write to Mrs. Jean Stirk, Shode House, Ightham, Kent TN15 9HP.

Read Part 1 of the paper making history by Ms. Jean Stirk
Read Part 2 of the paper making history by Ms. Jean Stirk

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