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Prior to the invention of the papermaking machine in the late-18th century, all paper was manufactured by hand using relatively unchanged processes and techniques that originated in China more than 2000 years before. The new technology reduced costs by an order of magnitude and increased production to the extent that new sources of cellulosic fiber from wood had to be found and exploited. Machines led to the closure of hundreds of handmade papermills in the United Kingdom alone, as well as the loss of thousands of jobs because many of the smaller hand operations could neither compete against larger machine enterprises nor afford the cost of installing machines.
But a few mills continued making paper by hand and against economic logic not only survived but flourished. By 1900, about 104 vats remained in production in the U.K. (by 1907, the remaining hand papermill in the United States, a specialty department in a large machine mill, closed).
The Green family's Hayle Mill in Maidstone, Kent, is one English mill that defied all the odds and continued to produce paper by hand, sheet by sheet, until production ceased in 1987, almost two centuries after the first commercially viable fourdrinier machine was trialed at the Frogmore Mill in Hertfordshire. That it outlasted its competitors at a time of rapid industrial change and how it survived decades of political upheaval, economic collapse, and successive wars makes for a fascinating story.
As well as chronicling six generations of the Green family of papermakers, who faced bankruptcy, amongst other trials and tribulations, before making a success of their business, Hayle Mill covers the history of British papermaking, the growth of the industry in and around Maidstone, Kent, once referred to as the “Paper City” of the country, with a concentration on 19th-century production and techniques. Subjects also included are as diverse as the impact of the Crimean War and the call for unimaginable amounts of ammunition (cartridge) paper, the repeal of the “Tax on Knowledge,” the search for alternative fibers, and the complicated security requirements of currency papers, whereby Hayle Mill made money to make money.
As the century drew to a close, a renewed interest in hand-crafted artifacts resulted in a growth in the market for artists’ and other papers made in the traditional manner as well as the founding of the Original Water Colour Paper & Arts Co. in 1895. By the end of the First World War, production of artists’ papers comprised 25% of Hayle Mill’s business. Over the 20th century, Hayle Mill steadily gained a reputation for its range of fine handmade papers for use by watercolorists, fine printers, calligraphers, and conservators.
Hayle Mill is based on Maureen Green’s doctoral dissertation “Hayle Mill: How a Small Papermaking Company Thrived in the Nineteenth Century Using Traditional Techniques which Were Being Superseded by New Technology in the Mainstream Paper Industry,” which in 2013 won the coveted Hasted Prize awarded by the Kent Archaeological Society.