James Whatman the Elder was a gentleman who inherited a tannery business that had been in the family for several generations. By James’ time (1702) it was located in the village of Loose, on the outskirts of Maidstone. He was a contemporary, a near-relative, and personal friend since childhood, of a man called Richard Harris, whose father ran the paper-mill next to the Whatman tannery. Richard Harris served his 7 year paper-making apprenticeship under his father, which doubtless included training on how to manage a paper-mill as well as the actual processes of making sheets of paper. When Richard Harris’ long apprenticeship was finished, he may have worked for his father, or at a different mill, we simply do not know. What we do know is that Richard spent several years as a paper-maker on the Continent, and closely studied the differences that had 'modernised' Dutch paper-making particularly, at that time (early1720's), which made foreign papers more desirable than Britain’s ‘native’ papers. At some point Richard Harris returned to England, and in 1733 James Whatman (the now successful Tanner of Loose) and his boyhood friend, had a paper-mill built for them at Hollingbourne, near Maidstone, Kent, as a working 'proving ground' for the improvements in the whole paper-making process that Richard had absorbed during his European tour. Whatman supplied the finance, Thomas Carter from the next village built the mill, and Richard Harris designed it to his own specifications. With some trusted paper-making friends, he set about working the mill. Thomas Carter had a daughter, Ann, whom Harris married in late 1734. For some unfathomable reason, Whatman and Harris decided to call the new paper mill ‘Old Mill’. It must be presumed that the mill was a success in every way —other than its isolated location, which may have been chosen so that Whatman and Harris could work in relative secrecy, i.e. away from the prying eyes of other paper-makers. In 1738 Richard Harris bought Turkey Mill at Maidstone, which was very old fashioned by continental standards, and totally run-down. However it was in a better location just a mile or so from Maidstone with its river connections to London, had far more waterpower from the River Len, and the property overall was considerably bigger. The old buildings were totally unsuitable to the new ways of paper-making (and in a terrible state of repair) so Richard proceeded to tear the place down with a plan to re-build it in a more modern style, to incorporate the changes that he and Whatman had perfected at Old Mill. Harris was intending to install the improvements that were to revolutionise paper-making in Britain and 'kick start’ the British paper-making revival. It is worth mentioning at this point that we are still dealing with making paper by hand, sheet by sheet and paper-making machines would not surface for another half a century, and several decades more to make them economical.
Disastrously, in 1739, Richard Harris died, aged just thirty-six years, while Turkey Mill was only three-quarters re-built. However Whatman had learned enough from Harris at Old Mill to complete the work at Turkey Mill on behalf of Harris’ widow, who Whatman subsequently married just a year after Richard’s death. By today's 'standards' this would seem indecent haste, and unscrupulous, as by marrying the former Ann Harris, James Whatman acquired Richard's estate (such was the practice at that time), including Turkey Mill which Richard had previously left to his widow. Whatman now proclaimed himself James Whatman, Paper Maker, and was no longer referred to as a tanner. It has also been postulated that perhaps James and Richard had both wooed Ann Carter, but it was Richard that won her hand, with no ill feelings between the two young men.
The business at Turkey Mill boomed, and many of the 'new' methods and equipment were copied and spread throughout the land. Ann gave birth to a son, who in the Whatman family tradition, they named James. Whatman died in 1759, leaving Ann widowed again, with a daughter from Richard Harris, and a surviving daughter and son by James Whatman. Ann Whatman continued to run the mill effectively, in her own name for two years with the help of her son, James. It was this James Whatman (the Younger) who is often referred to as 'The greatest Paper Maker in the Kingdom'. He built up an 'empire' of four paper-mills, all relatively close to each other, as well as huge personal wealth and reputation. When James married, at the age of twenty-one, his mother Ann handed the business and property over to him (including a fine house which still stands) for an annual pension, and went to live with her daughter Ann, Richard Harris’ daughter, in the West Country. But James’ wife was only able to provide him with (three) daughters, so there was no son to inherit, and his wife Sarah’s final confinement seems to have been troublesome (in today’s parlance we would say it nearly killed her!) Whatman had very good 'connections' which helped his sales immensely, and he asked one such Gentleman of his acquaintance, a former Director of the Bank of England no less, to find him a protégé, who he (Whatman) could train-up in all matters of paper-making as well as how to run a burgeoning personal estate. The how's and the why's are of no importance to our story, but Samuel Bosanquet chose a lad of twelve or thirteen years, who was despatched to Maidstone and soon became virtually part of the family. The ‘boy’, William Balston, was a quick learner and relished the opportunity of becoming a sort of general factotum for Whatman's widow and two surviving daughters upon the great man's death. Fate now puts her graceful foot in it, and Sarah Whatman, James' wife, died without giving much notice. Again, by today's standards in indecent haste, Whatman re-married, to Susannah Boanquet, the aforementioned Samual Bosanquet's niece. The Bosanquet's were of Huguenot extraction, and like many of their fellow Protestants fled France upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which had previously given religious freedom). Balston, by now a fine young man and well versed in paper-making and estate management, must have been mortified when Susannah bore James a son, who of course, they named James! William Balston was quite sanguine about the situation though, knowing it would be twenty or more years before this new James Whatman would be old enough to take-over the paper-making business, that’s just supposing that he wanted it (which in the fullness of time he certainly did NOT).
In 1794, with Balston practically running Whatman's paper-making empire, and Susannah running the household, James Whatman decided he wanted nothing more to do with industry, and would retire to the life of a Country Squire, having become exceedingly rich in property and the right sort of friends. So Whatman let it be known that he was going to sell his paper-making business. He asked a friend, Joseph Portal (another of Huguenot extraction) whose Mill became famous for making the currency papers for the Bank of England for centuries, to come and assist Whatman in valuing Whatman's paper-making Empire. Whatman and Portal decided on a value of the production for a single paper-making vat, multiplied the value by the number of vats (eight), and multiplied that by twenty for the number of years that the mills could have a more or less foreseeable future, total sum £20,000. The purchase price took little notice of the property values for the four mills, for which Whatman owned the freehold. Balston was dumbfounded, although Whatman, and especially Susannah his wife, were so enamoured with Balston that they told him there would always be a home for him within the family, and he would also be retained by Whatman to help administer his properties. But Balston was more interested in paper-making, and had even become a very competent paper-make at the vat himself. Balston was thrilled when Whatman said that he would lend him £5000 (at 5% interest) so that he could join two other local businessmen and their £10,000 each, to form a consortium and buy the paper-making business. As it was, the Hollingworth's did not have enough money for the purchase, and within days mortgaged the mills for a little over £5000. The brothers Thomas Robert Hollingworth and Finch Hollingworth knew little or nothing about the paper industry, but the three of them (i.e. Hollingworths and Balston) rubbed along reasonably well together and the business continued to flourish, especially as all of their output was watermarked J Whatman, which had become something of a gold standard for fine papers. Whatman knew of Balston’s lack of financial acumen, but he would be the junior partner to the brothers Hollingworth, and his skills at physically running the mills would consume his time rather than the financial aspects. Thus, the Hollingworths and Balston partnership was an acceptable organisation for James Whatman to sell his empire to. Further, Balston would remain living with the Whatmans in their new mansion, Vinters, so that Whatman could stay in touch with what was going on and guide Balston accordingly. Just a couple of years into his retirement however, James Whatman suffered a series of debilitating strokes and died in March 1798, leaving his wife a wealthy widow, and his children comfortably well off for the rest of their days. Balston vacated the family home out of propriety and went to live ‘in digs’ in Maidstone proper.
In due course there came about an air of mistrust among the Hollingworth-Balston partnership. Balston was doing all the work, the Hollingworths (and later a third brother was incorporated) ran rough-shod over Balston's business ideas, and Balston felt that his partners were making themselves rich on Balston’s good name within the trade. So, part way into the indentured partnership, Balston threw in the towel and struck-out on his own. The Hollingworths cared not a fig, they still had the mills, the business, the brand, the order book, the contacts, basically everything, and—they supposed— Balston had nothing. But had he? Actually, he had a close (and wealthy) friend in Susannah, the Widow Whatman; he was well known and well-liked by the customers and in the paper-making fraternity as a whole, and he had amassed £15,000 profit from his, albeit few, years in the partnership, and had already repaid the Whatman loan!
Strangely, after lots of legal wrangling on both sides, the brothers Hollingworth agreed that William Balston could continue to use the J Whatman watermark, though so would they, and as a sign of differentiation, their watermark (actually 'countermark') would bear the legend 'Turkey Mill', while Balston's would not, especially since he had no links at all with Turkey Mill any longer. Balston’s idea was to beat the Hollingworths at their own game, by making more (and he hoped, better) paper than them, and he had set his mind on his own purpose built mill with ten vats, the biggest paper manufactory in the land.