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.


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.