Frogmore Paper Mill is the world's oldest mechanised paper mill - the birthplace of paper's Industrial Revolution. It is still a working paper mill and home to two 'fourdrinier' paper machines, both of which are well over 100 years old. Paper as we know it today first appeared in China nearly two thousand years ago. Although the word paper is derived from the papyrus used over 5000 years ago in Egypt, the two are only loosely connected. A piece of papyrus is actually a woven ‘mat’ made of many criss-crossed layers of thin strips of papyrus reed pounded together to form a thin sheet and then dried for use. It is not a form of paper. True paper is made by soaking and softening (macerating) vegetable fibres until they become individual filaments then removing the water to leave a single sheet of ‘naturally’ intertwined fibres. Although archaeological evidence suggests that a form of fused silk and paper substance was in use in China around 100 BC, the first record of true papermaking is the report to the Emperor Ho Ti of the work of a Chinese court official named T’sai Lun in 105 AD. His work to produce paper with hemp, mulberry bark, fishing nets and rags, earned him the title of patron of papermaking throughout China.
It wasn’t until the 3rd century that the secret art of papermaking began to creep out of China, first to Vietnam and then Tibet. It was introduced into Korea in the 4th century and spread to Japan by the 6th century where, during the 8th century, the Empress Shotoku undertook a massive project to print a million prayers on individual sheets of paper, each mounted in its own pagoda. Thereafter, the art of papermaking spread slowly westward throughout Asia to Nepal and then to India. In 751 the technology of papermaking began its long journey into Europe via the Islamic world when Arab warriors, at war with the Tang Dynasty, captured a Chinese caravan that included several papermakers. With their expertise, Samarkand soon became a great centre for paper production. Gradually papermakers made their way further west through the Moslem world – to Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Finally, when the Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and Portugal they brought the technology with them and so it was that papermaking entered Europe in the 11th century.
The first record of a paper mill in Europe is found in 1056 when the Moors established a mill at Xativa in Spain. After the Christian armies finally dispelled the Moors from Spain in 1224, the art of papermaking began to spread slowly throughout Christian Europe, first to Italy (1250) then northward to France (1348), Germany (1390), Flanders (1405), Switzerland (1411), Holland (1428), England (1488), Poland (1491), Sweden (1532), Russia (1576), and under Spanish influence to the new world, in Mexico (1580). It was not to be until over a hundred years later, in 1690, that the first North American paper mill was established in Philadelphia. In Europe the use of papyrus had begun to decline in the 9th century, partly replaced by imports of paper from Arab trading centres such as Damascus, but largely replaced by the use of parchment – smoothed and scraped animal skins. Although a fine material, it was very expensive and available only in limited quantities (it has been estimated that a single bible hand-written on parchment required the skins of 300 sheep).
Even when paper began to be made across Europe, its widespread use was hampered by ‘political’ problems. Partly due to its perceived Moslem origin and partly because of the influence of the wealth landowners with financial interests in sheep and cattle, a Papal Decree of 1221 declared that all official documents produced on paper were invalid. Not until the 15th century would paper begin to be widely used for all documents. When Johann Gutenburg perfected movable type and printed his famous bible in 1456, he not only spread the word of Christianity, but also sparked the first revolution in mass communication. The birth of the modern paper and printing industry is commonly marked from this date although it was to be another 250 years before western ingenuity turned the promise into a reality.
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 Henry 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.
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. 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.
The cylinder mould machine, as it was named, competed strongly with the Fourdrinier machine for many decades and was the type of machine first used by the fledgling US paper industry (1819). However, during the 20th century, the Fourdrinier became the dominant technology for fine papermaking and the cylinder mould machine is now primarily used for making boards (heavier weight papers) or, because of its superior watermark ability, for the production of high security papers. 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. Geographical changes also took place as many of the early mills were small and had been situated in rural areas. The change was to larger mills in, or near, urban areas closer to suppliers of the raw materials (esparto mills were generally situated near a port as the raw material was brought in by ship) and the paper markets. By the end of the century there were fewer than 300 paper mills in the UK but they employed 35,000 people in producing 650,000 tons of paper a year.
The increasing demands for more paper during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to shortages of the rags needed to produce the paper. Part of the problem was that no satisfactory method of bleaching pulp had yet been devised, and so only white rags could be used to produce white paper. Chlorine bleaching was being used by the end of the eighteenth century, but excessive use produced papers that were of poor quality and deteriorated quickly. The potential of wood as a source of fibre for paper had been noted, in France, by Reaumur as early as 1719 from his observations of wasps, nature’s papermakers. Little was done to follow up his work until Jacob Christian Schäffer of Regensburg published the results of his experiments in using other materials, such as sawdust, rye straw, moss and spruce wood in 1765. In 1800 Matthias Koops, working in Bermondsey, also published his work on rag substitutes. This book included five leaves of paper made entirely from wood but without a description of how he achieved it. Finally in 1844 Charles Fenerty, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, demonstrated that ‘chafed’ wood could be used for paper manufacture and, in Germany, Keller patented a wood-pulp grinding machine making the production of Mechanical wood-pulp for newspapers a practical reality.
However, mechanically ground wood-pulp was not ideal for producing fine papers so the search continued for a better means of pulping wood. The first practical alternative, the Soda Process, was developed by Burgess and Watt in 1851 working at Frogmore Mill using caustic soda to chemically pulp the wood fibres. But, without any large forest interests in the UK, little financial support was forthcoming and Burgess went to America to secure his patent in 1854. The first mill to use this process was built near Philadelphia and began operations in 1855 under the direction of Burgess himself, who served as manager of the mill for nearly forty years. An improved chemical wood pulping process, the Sulfite process, based on sulforous acid was invented by Benjamin Tilghman around 1868 and turned into a practical system first by Fry and Ekman in1870, improved upon again by Mitscherlich in 1876 and again by Ritter and Kellner in 1880. This process speeded up the ‘cooking’ time for pulp production significantly. The final commonly used chemical process for the preparation of fibres from wood was developed by Dahl in Germany in 1883. The Sulphate process is similar in many ways to the soda process, and its development was spurred by the desire to replace the unavoidable loss of soda with some material cheaper than soda ash.
The centre houses a working museum, display area, gallery, cafe and shop. Guided Tour Times: 11.15, 13.00 and 14.45. Boat Trip Times (Thursdays only April to October): 11.30, 12.30, 13.20, 14.30 and 15.30 (Please be aware that all trips are subject to numbers). The entrance to the Visitor Centre is along Fourdrinier Way, however, there is only very limited parking here (2 disabled spaces). Visitors should park in the public pay & display car park on Durrant’s Hill Road, which is only a few minutes walk from the entrance to Frogmore Mill. They have wheelchair ramps at front and rear, wide access toilets, a lift to enable access to the pulper floor and full access elsewhere. Assistance dogs are welcome. Tour guides will be happy to enhance the tour for the visually impaired.
Location : Fourdrinier Way, Apsley, Hemel Hempstead, HP3 9RY
Transport: Apsley (National Rail) then bus or 15 minutes. Bus Routes : 2, 321 and 500 (closest stop) Stop nearby.
Opening Times : Thursdays + 1st Sunday of month 11:00 to 16:00
Tickets: Adults £7.50; Concessions £6.50; Children (4 - 15) £5.50
Tel: 01442 234600