Making Antiquarian Paper, Part One (First published in 'The Quarterly', the Journal of The British Association of Paper Historians, number 77, January, 2011)
The following article (reproduced verbatim) comes from a copy of ‘The Paper-Maker & British Paper Trade Journal’ dated September 2nd. 1907. It was found amongst the archives of Springfield Mill at Maidstone, currently owned by G.E. Healthcare, but better known as ‘Whatman’s’ or more accurately, W. & R. Balston, a name it held for considerably more years than any other. For the uninformed, William Balston (1759 – 1849) was apprentice and protégé to James Whatman II, and somewhat peeved at that great man selling his thriving business at Turkey Mill to the brothers Hollingworth, although James Whatman made provision for William Balston to be a member of the new partnership, lending Balston £5000 to do so. William Balston eventually went on to establish his own mill, Springfield Mill, on the first of January, 1807, hence the following article, celebrating the mill’s centenary in 1907.
The article does however raise two distinct questions as to its accuracy, which I will pose in a further article in a future issue of The Quarterly. Words in square brackets are my own annotations added for the sake of clarity.
When J. Whatman [senior/ The Elder] and another gentleman, named Brookes [James Brooke], in the year 1731, purchased the mills which occupied the present site of Turkey Mill, Maidstone (the former became sole owner in 1739, and rebuilt the mills, calling them by their present name, Turkey Mills), he little dreamed, perhaps, that his name would be ineffaceably connected with the paper trade, and it would be handed down to posterity and become the surety throughout the civilised world, where paper is concerned, of all-round excellence and quality. But the reputation the Whatman papers have gained has only been attained by a close and persistent study on the part of those responsible for their production, commencing with J. Whatman, from whom they took their name, and continued right down to the present [Balston] generation. It is greatly conceded that to J. Whatman we owe the introduction into this country, probably in the late eighties of the eighteenth century [ actually c.1757], of wove papers, and to his study of the methods of the French and Dutch makers of the period, which, on his return to this country, he, no doubt, improved upon, must be attributed much of the early success with which his papers met.
It is hardly to be wondered, then, that before his death he should have given much of his knowledge in the art of paper-making to his young friend and protégé , William Balston1, the man who was to be the means of perpetuating his name, and the founder of a great firm. His first knowledge of paper-making was acquired at Turkey Mill, after which he went to Hollingbourne Mill, about five miles from Maidstone. There were, at that period, several mills in and around Maidstone situate on the River Len, and from that river they derived their driving power. The old five-vat mill at Hollingbourne, owned in the early part of the eighteenth century by Messrs. Hollingworth2 is still standing, but is now used as a corn mill. But the ambitious young William Balston was to own and work a mill of his own, and, eventually, he decided on building a mill on the site now occupied by the fine range of buildings which stand on the east bank of the river Medway, about a mile from the centre of the town of Maidstone, and known as Springfield Mill. He chose a most propitious time, the demand for paper then being greater than the supply, for we were at war with France, and the demand for ‘news’ was great, and it must be remembered that at this period (1806) the advent of the machine was of such recent date – only the year previous – that the machines had not become serious competitors with the vats. Consequently, all, or nearly all, the paper was produced by hand. Hitherto paper mills had only been built where it was possible to obtain water as a driving power, and it was looked upon as an act of rashness on the part of William Balston to select this site where, although the river flowed close by, it was impossible to use the water as a motive power. But, as events have shown, his enterprise was of the right kind, for, although there was no water available for driving purposes, the land around abounded with springs, a most important factor in the manufacture of good paper, which he was keen to realise and take advantage of, and, no doubt, it is to the propinquity of these springs that the mill owes, first its name, and much of the success which has since attended the manufacture of paper there.
With the lack of water driving power, he, therefore decided to rely solely on steam, and one of the first, if not the first, steam engines erected in the country for paper mill work was here put up. The engine, about 60 h.-p., was of the old beam type, by Watts, the first builder of this class of engine, and this same engine, with a few modern improvements, continued to do the work of the mill up to nine years ago, when a fine new engine of the machine type replaced it. Water as an aid to driving power has its advantage from an economical point of view, but when, as in those days, in most instances it was solely relied upon, when a drought or shortage occurred the mills were run very intermittently, and so, when William Balston decided to rely on steam only he showed considerable acumen, and those who were ready to laugh at his “experiment,” as they called it, soon had cause to alter their opinion of him when they saw the mill continually at work. And so, his mill being completed in 1806, it was started in January the following year with ten vats, with the right conceded by Mr. James Whatman [The Younger] of using his name as a watermark.
As some contrast to the class of paper now produced at the mill, it was originally built for the manufacture of printing papers, but, of course, the class or quality of printing papers then was far superior to those of today, and even into the forties of the last century, an old friend of the writer’s, still living, says he can remember seeing all ten vats on long demy. But to-day there are always nine or ten of the eighteen vats at Springfield Mill, besides others at Medway Mill, making the splendid drawing papers, Double Elephants, Imperials, Royals, etc., for which the firm have a world-wide reputation. One curious fact may be of interest to readers, that is, that when first built the mill buildings had paper roofs3, one of which was still remaining up to the time of the disastrous fire of November, 1862, which destroyed the principal part of the original mill.
With such a start it is no wonder, then, that success was at once assured, but as time went on bigger things were attempted, and the papers produced were more varied in class and character. These consisted of high-class banks, ledgers, drawings, and writing papers, all bearing the well-known water-mark “J. Whatman.” It was at Springfield Mill that Medium, hitherto made in single sheet, was first made double, or two sheets at a time4. This occurred about 1826, and its innovation caused a split among the members of “The Original Society,” which lasted several years, the section against making it double calling themselves the “Deckles,” and those who agreed to make it being known as the “Stars,” and, of course, among the later were Springfield men. Mr. Balston and the men of Springfield stuck to their side of the question, and the writer has heard that when the reconciliation took place Mr. Balston went to William Grigsby, one of his workmen, and leader of the “Stars,” and who always wore on his breast a ten-pointed star, denoting the number of vats at Springfield, and laid him down a sovereign for each point, for the men to have a little jollification. With increased trade, the firm were not unmindful of their employees, improving from time to time – as they still continue to do – the conditions under which they laboured, and the writer believes that it was at Springfield where the round chest and the mechanical press were first introduced, two innovations which did not in any way reduce the number of hands, but saved them an immense amount of labour, and enabled them to accomplish their task with more dispatch. It is, however, less than ten years ago that the first hydraulic press – a leviathan in size – was introduced.
And now we come to the time when William Balston passed from the scenes of his labours, after the successful working of the mill of 42 years: he died in 1849. To many firms the removal by death of its head comes as a calamity, especially where a phenomenal success has been attained. Such might have been the case in this instance, but the tact and wisdom which he had displayed in starting and conducting the business again showed itself by giving his two eldest sons, William, born in 1807, and Richard Elliston Phillips Balston, born in 1808, a thorough insight and education in the art of paper-making, and instead of degenerating – as businesses so often do when the moving spirit is taken away – it went on under their able management, improving by leaps and bounds. More vats and further enlargement of the buildings were found necessary from time-to-time, until the number of vats reached sixteen, and subsequently to eighteen, in addition to the four at Medway.
One of the most, probably the most, important events in the annals of the firm, was the acquirement of the right to manufacture the celebrated “Turkey Mill” papers. This carried with it the sole right to use the words “Turkey Mill” as a water-mark, in conjunction with the name “J. Whatman.” This was in the year 1859, when Messrs. Hollingworth, of Turkey Mill, removed the last of their vats and decided to manufacture their paper by machine only. It must not, however, be inferred that big papers were not made at Springfield before the purchase of the vats and the name from Turkey Mill. Already the firm, which on the death of its founder, assumed the title of W. & R. Balston, under which it is known at the present time, had begun to acquire a trade for bigger papers, Double Elephant being one of the sorts made, but there is no doubt that the firm has achieved its greatest success since then.
Then came the great and disastrous fire in November, 1862. Such a catastrophe, coming as it did at a busy period, and when the firm was well on to the zenith of their fame in the paper world, might have had far reaching effects to the detriment of their trade, and might well have appalled the most courageous and energetic of men. But they marvellously grappled with the situation, and three months after the mill was again at work. To give some idea of the tremendous amount of damage done and the work it entailed, we here give in detail the building wrecked, and also a photograph depicting the ruins. Fortunately the steam engine and buildings were not damaged, as will be seen from the photograph, although most of the buildings around it came to grief. It is the highest building with the roof intact. The following was the extent of the damage:- The whole of the ten-vat house was destroyed, the pack sale, pack presses, finishing sale, one hot house (where the fire originated), glazing room, size-parting sale, several lofts beyond the vat house, roofs off four-vat house and chest room, pert of roofs off beating and rag-boiling room – in fact, practically all that was then called the new buildings, whilst the old were saved.
One can hardly imagine that in the short space of three months it was possible to re-start the mill; but it is, nevertheless a fact, and a souvenir exists in the offices of the firm today, in the shape of a splendid clock, which cost over £50, which was presented by the work people as a mark of their appreciation of the efforts of the firm to re-start the mill under such trying conditions. From that time down to the present the firm have continued to make improvements, both with regard to the inside and the outside appearance of the mill, until it is now practically a new mill. It occupies a site of about ten actress, six-and-a-half of which are covered by the buildings. It has a frontage to the river Medway of about 300 yards, but many of the large and important buildings are hidden from the public view when passing along the river tow-path. It lies some distance from the Sandling road, from which a private roadway leads to the mill. The intervening space is covered with well-grown trees, so that it is difficult to obtain a really good photograph or view. There are twelve large lofts for drying purposes, and the sizing department contains four machines and one “tub.” The finishing and glazing room is a fine building, of about 120 ft. by 90 ft., over which is the sorting and picking room, and of the other principal rooms the ten-vat house is worthy of mention, being about 100 ft. long by 30 ft. wide. The beating room and chest room are proportionately large, there being nine washers and beaters in the former and six large chests in the latter. The rag-cutting and sorting rooms are also fine, well-lighted buildings, and the big square building in the foreground of the photograph is principately [sic] used as a storage for rags. This brief description conveys but a small idea of the extent and completeness of the place.
The death in 1882, of Mr. William [the eldest son of the founder] and, in 1888, of Mr. Richard E.P. Balston [the second son of the founder] was not only a great loss to the paper trade, but also to the town of Maidstone, and especially to the parish which adjoins the mills, that of St. Paul’s, for it is to their generosity that the church, a splendid fabric, costing several thousand pounds, and the fine range of schools, owe their existence. Their straightforwardness and integrity, their unostentatious mode of life, both in and out of the business, gained for them the respect of all with whom they came in contact, both rich and poor alike, and marked them out as two of that old school of gentlemen traders rarely met-with today, who have helped to build up the commerce of the British Empire to the position it has now attained.
Mr. R.J. Balston, eldest son of R.E.P. Balston, then became the head of the firm, a position for which he was well fitted, for he had an excellent training in the 32 years which had elapsed since he first entered the firm, at the age of 17. But Mr. Balston did not remain long as an active head of the firm, preferring the life of a country gentleman, and relegating the duties of looking after the interests of the firm to his sons, three of whom are now actively connected with it. Born at Springfield, Maidstone, March 5th. 1839, and educated at Eton, from whence, in 1856, he came straight into the business, he was married in 1862 to Miss E.P. Robinson, daughter of Major Robinson, of Lydd, Kent, and has had a family of thirteen sons and daughters. In 1884 he was made a Justice of the Peace for the county, and ten years later was made High Sheriff and D.L. for the County of Kent. He takes a keen interest in all things appertaining to agriculture, and was last year President of the East Kent Agricultural Society. He is an enthusiastic sportsman, and perhaps there is nothing he enjoys more than to entertain a party of his friends to shoot through the covers of the estate surrounding his residence at Bilsington, a few miles from Ashford, in East Kent. Since becoming the owner of this estate he has restored the old priory, and now spends much of his time there. “Springfield,” his Maidstone residence, he had built some fifteen years ago to take the place of the old residence with the same name, and where most of the Balstons first saw the light of day. It is a splendidly built mansion, with a fine view overlooking the Medway, and standing in a park about halfway between Springfield and Medway Mills. Mr. Balston was for some time the owner of a steam yacht but, preferring sailing to steam, he purchased the Oimara at one time a famous Clyde racing cutter, and made many long cruises in her. He is an authority on the birds of Kent, and we learn that a book will shortly be published which deals with this interesting subject, and much of the information to be given therein will be on the authority of Mr. Balston. He practically retired from business about eleven years ago , and, as stated above, relegated the active duties to his sons, and his workpeople now see little of him. But on the occasion of the recent centenary celebrations, when an illuminated address was presented to him on behalf of the employees of the two mills, and when Mrs. Balston entertained the latter in the grounds adjoining “Springfield,” he did his best to encourage all to enjoy themselves, and showed himself to be what he is, a sympathetic and considerate employer, and a genial English gentleman. The photograph of the employees, taken after the address had presented, shows Mr. Balston with Mrs. Balston and Miss Balston, his sister, and many members of his family, in the centre of the group5.
Mr. Charles H. Balston [Great-grandson of the founder, William Balston], who is now the nominal head of the firm, is the second son of Mr. R. J. Balston, and was born in 1873, at Boxley Abbey. He was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, where he obtained his B.A. degree. It was originally intended that he should study the law for a profession, but circumstances arose which necessitated his entering into the firm, and this occurred some fifteen years ago . Mr. Charles Balston is a gentleman who would have become a force in whatever profession he had chosen to follow, and what the law lost the paper trade gained by his decision to follow in the footsteps of his fathers. It was no light not envious task for a young man to take upon his shoulders, coming as he did, practically inexperienced to the business, and as time went on, with its inevitable changes, his responsibilities grew larger. But he showed that he had the grit in him which was a characteristic of those who built up the business, and most of his time, from the early hours of the morning till evening, was spent in a diligent study of the business, and even now that his two brothers, Frank and Maurice, have entered the concern, his energy has scarcely relaxed. It can be safely said of him that he is the right man in the right place, and during the years that have gone since he entered the firm, he has gained, not only the respect and admiration of those around him, , but that, perhaps, which is more essential in the conduct of a large business, their confidence too, and while the firm is able to produce such a man to conduct their affairs, the success which has attended it for the past 100 years is not likely to receive a check. Last year Mr. Balston was appointed a J.P. for the county, and sits on the same bench as his father, that of the Bearsted Division.
In Mr. Frank and Mr. Maurice Balston, whose entry into the business is of recent date, the former January, 1906, the latter July, 1905, the firm have two young men who are not likely to allow its interests to suffer from lack of energy or enterprise. The former was born August 11th. 1880, and educated first at Cheam School, then at Etyon, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he too took his B.A. degree. He was then articled pupil for 2½ years to Messrs. James Simpson & Co., mechanical engineers, of London and Newark-On-Trent, so that he obtained both a technical and practical knowledge of engineering, a necessary and useful knowledge where a lot of machinery is used. He is also an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers. Mr. Maurice was born March 9th. 1882, and was also educated at Cheam, then went to Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his B.A. degree. He is fond of rowing, and in 1904 rowed at the head of the river for Third Trinity in the May Races. He spends most of his time in the well appointed laboratory on the mill premises, and his knowledge of chemistry is a valuable adjunct to the business.
Thus the firm has been carried on from father to son, on the same spot, and, as Mr. Balston remarked at the recent celebration, practically on the same lines for 100 years. This phenomenal success can only be attributed to the able administration of its heads, past and present, with the determination to retain the position they have gained by giving to the public the best, and nothing but the best, which it is possible for brains and a long experience to produce.
1) William Balston was apprenticed to James Whatman the Younger in 1774, J.W.the elder having died in 1759.
2) Hollingbourne Mill was actually owned by James Whatman the Elder and upon his death, by his widow and son, but he never worked it himself, and ‘habitually’ let it to other paper-makers, though not the Hollingworth’s.
3) Actually these were made of tarred paper tiles, which William Balston must have seen in use at Wolvercote Mill in Oxfordshire. According to Harry Carter in ‘Wolvercote Mill, A Study In Paper-Making In Oxford’ (Oxford University Press, 1957) these were made at Eynsham mill at that time, a little above Wolvercote Mill on the River Isis.
4) According to information given to Thomas Balston for his book ‘James Whatman, Father and Son’ (Methuen, 1957), two-sheet moulds were invented in Holland around 1690, with double Printing-Demy moulds (i.e. to make two sheets of 22” x 17½” paper on one mould) in use here from 1712. Whatman may however have been the first to make writing papers on a double mould.
5) A copy of this photograph still hangs at Springfield Mill today. The whereabouts of the illuminated address and the clock are unknown at the time of writing (Summer, 2010)