Living History: Frogmore Paper Mill
Frogmore Paper Mill, near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, is the world’s oldest mechanised paper mill. The mill, which still produces paper, is now operated by the Apsley Paper Trail, a charitable trust “founded to conserve the unique industrial heritage of this site in Hemel Hempstead”.
Sadly, in January 2022, a fire on site caused extensive damage to the mill’s visitor centre, resulting in its closure to the public until a new centre can be built. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the mill itself was undamaged.
For many years, the mill has been a valuable source for teaching schools, students and visitors about paper making and Britain’s industrial revolution, of which Frogmore Mill is very much a part. It is hoped that it will once again perform this valuable role in the not-too-distant future. Until then, we wanted to share a brief history of this important site and encourage you to pay a visit when it reopens its doors.
A Brief History Of Paper Making
While the first paper is known to have been made in China in 105 CE, it would be another thousand or so years before paper making came to Europe, and about 1,500 years before it was made in Britain on any significant scale.
Prior to industrialisation, paper was made by hand using techniques little changed for centuries. The first paper mill in England was built in Hertfordshire in the late 1400s on the site of an old watermill – many of the paper mills that followed were also built on the site of old mills, usually corn mills dating back at least until the Domesday Book (1086). Frogmore Paper Mill was one such mill: it was named in a charter of Ashridge Monastery in the 13th century and may well have been a corn mill at the time of the Domesday Book. It later operated as a fulling mill before being converted to a paper mill by 1774.
By 1800, there were 430 paper mills operating in England and Wales and around a further 50 in Scotland, all producing paper by hand.
Hertfordshire’s Gade Valley, where Frogmore Mill is located, is “the birthplace of paper’s Industrial Revolution”. It was in 1803 when the Fourdrinier brothers decided that Frogmore Mill would be the ideal location to install and test the world’s first mechanised paper machine, based on Frenchman Nicolas-Louis Robert’s idea for a continuous paper machine.
The area’s close proximity to London, clear chalk streams and main turnpike road, as well as to the Hertfordshire section of the Grand Junction Canal (later to become known as the Grand Union Canal), saw it become home to several paper mills and leading brands of paper, many of which are still recognised today, including Basildon Bond, Croxley Script and Red and Black. Today, Frogmore Mill is the only one that remains.
The Role Of Frogmore Mill In Britain’s Literacy
The laboriousness of the paper making process meant paper was expensive. Paper was also made from rags, which were often in short supply. As a consequence, books were a luxury available only to the rich. When Frogmore became the first paper mill to be mechanised, it helped to make paper more affordable and therefore – when coupled with mechanisation of the printing process – more accessible to the masses, thereby helping to support increased literacy levels and playing a significant role in the country’s social history as well as its industrial history.
Recycled Paper Is Not A New Thing
In 1890, the grand sounding British Paper Company was formed to make paper from wastepaper at Frogmore Mill. Its primary output was “laminating ‘middles’, an inexpensive, bulky product used as the middle of a laminated card” , such as postcards. The British Paper Co added to its portfolio, producing ticket papers for the growing public transport market and for cinemas.
The British Paper Co continued trading until 2000, at which point Apsley Paper Trail took over operation of the site and opened it to the public.
Frogmore Mill Today
Despite the recent fire, Frogmore Mill is still making unique papers using a 1902 Fourdrinier paper machine, which was built as a training machine and originally located at Bury College. Unlike modern paper making machines that are usually encased and operating at high speed, this Fourdrinier operates much more slowly, making it ideal for demonstrating the mechanised paper process to visitors; it’s also a wonderful piece of living history.
Supporting Frogmore Mill
Frogmore Mill is an important part of Britain’s industrial heritage, but it requires continual fundraising to survive. While they are planning to create a temporary exhibition space and visitor centre that is hoped will open its doors later this year, they are also raising funds to rebuild the visitor centre.
If you would like to donate to Frogmore Mill’s fundraising campaign, visit this link.
Read more about Frogmore Mill and the history of paper making.