Paper trail to revolution: The history of Frogmore Mill

The 'wet end' of the press in 1907

The 'wet end' of the press in 1907 - Credit: Archant

Frogmore Paper Mill in Hemel Hempstead can claim to be the birthplace of paper’s industrial revolution, leading the way to an explosion of literacy and education. Oliver Pritchard reports on its past and present

The 'dry end' of the press

The 'dry end' of the press - Credit: Archant

Before the first mechanised paper machine was invented and put into practice for the first time anywhere in the world in 1803 at Frogmore Paper Mill in the village of Apsley, now a neighbourhood of Hemel Hempstead, production was a long and laborious process. Most paper was made following a method invented in China 2,000 years ago and involved cotton or linen being stretched over a mould by hand. The consequence was that paper was in short supply and expensive, putting it beyond the reach of the vast majority of people, and books were rare and costly, keeping literacy levels low.

Frogmore Mill volunteer Bev McKenna says mechanised paper production had huge implications and its legacy needs to be preserved. ‘This mechanisation led to paper and thus printed material becoming affordable, leading to an explosion of literacy, education and advancement around the world,’ she says. ‘Paper has become integral to our lives in a myriad of ways and if you extend the thought, the literacy it allowed has led to our ability today to have all the benefits of computers and mobile phones.’

Located in the Gade Valley in south-west Herts, Frogmore Mill was originally one of several water mills in the area built to grind corn. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, and an increasing demand for paper, the mill’s owners decided to diversify and converted it from agricultural to paper production.

Paper was originally made here using traditional techniques, resulting in product of differing sizes and quality. It was slow to make and expensive. As demand continued to grow and the country became more industrialised, people began looking at alternative methods of production.

A scale model of a hand-driven single vat paper press of the kind used before mechanisation

A scale model of a hand-driven single vat paper press of the kind used before mechanisation - Credit: Archant

Frogmore Mill’s journey to mechanisation began in 1799 from an unlikely source. During the Napoleonic Wars, French accountant Nicholas Louis Robert designed and patented a machine capable of making paper in lengths of up to 12 feet. Unable to secure financial backing he sold his designs to his employer, Leger Didot. Didot then approached his brother-in-law, John Gamble, who was in Paris organising an exchange of prisoners.

Seeing a business opportunity, Gamble used the designs to take out an English patent. He then secured financial backing in 1801 from Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier – who leased Frogmore Mill. The Fourdrinier brothers commissioned John Hall and later his brother-in-law, Bryan Donkin, to build the machine.

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Completed in 1803, it used a dilute pulp suspension made of shredded linen and water, which was poured on to a revolving wire mesh from which water was drained as it travelled to a press. Here it was transferred to a felt blanket and pressed between rollers which squeezed out moisture from the pulp to make it dry enough to be rolled on a reel. Finally, it was cut from the reel into sheets and hung up to dry in the same way as handmade paper.

This process cut the price of paper fourfold and meant nine workers using one machine could make the same amount of paper in 12 hours as 41 working by hand. The method, known as the Fourdrinier Process, was further refined in 1822 when steam-heated drying cylinders were added to dry the paper more quickly.

One of the two Fourdrinier presses - still producing 100 tonnes of paper each year

One of the two Fourdrinier presses - still producing 100 tonnes of paper each year - Credit: Archant

As the process speeded up, the need for raw materials increased and rags were replaced with vegetable fibre, the source of the original fabrics, or wood – the process still used to make 95 per cent of paper today. By the end of the 19th century, Britain was producing 650,000 tons of the stuff a year.

Today, Frogmore Mill is run by Apsley Paper Trail and still produces around 100 tonnes of specialist paper from its two Fourdrinier machines, both of which are well over 100 years old. The site is also an education resource and centre for children and adults, with art classes, an art gallery and papermaking, bookbinding and letterpress workshops, and is bang up to date with digital courses. There is also a start-up enterprise on the site and conference facilities.

Despite its historical significance, Apsley Paper Trail has faced an uncertain future as a plan to sell off land for housing to raise urgent funds for the charity hit bureaucratic buffers. Outline planning permission for 50 properties was initially declined by Dacorum Borough Council due to Environment Agency concerns over flood risk. After more survey work, the plan was resubmitted and approved subject to conditions in late November. The decision will mean a developer paying to the charity so-called Section 106 money, expected to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Mill visitors manager Peter Burford said, ‘We are publicly able to say that planning approval has been granted subject to a Section 106 agreement. Once this has been agreed, the trust should be able to benefit from the release of further funds to support the development of the visitor attraction.’

For more information on visiting and supporting the mill, go to

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