A Paper Trail

on Monday, 11 September 2017. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire Places

I was interested to read a recent news story which described scientific work to extract DNA from parchment using a non-destructive technique, giving us remarkable and unexpected source of information about the animal the page was created from. It has also proved possible to extract DNA of people who have touched or kissed the manuscripts over the years (devotional prayer books for example).

Thinking about the physical fabric of the archives led me to consider our more common archive material; paper. We see paper as a prosaic item nowadays and take it for granted, but it used to be much more valuable and remained expensive until the advent of the steam-driven paper mill.

There is limited documented evidence about paper making before the 18th century and the knowledge and skills would primarily have been shared directly between family members and master and apprentice. We have records of apprenticeships in our parish collections including Edward Hayword from Bradford-on-Avon who was apprenticed to a Gabriel Sweet, Weston, Somerset in July 1745 and a Thomas Whale from Chippenham, apprenticed to a Charles Ward, papermaker at Doncombe, North Wraxall in November 1804.

ref WSA 77/167

The process of making paper was a complex one involving many stages and can be read about in more detail in various publications including The British Paper Industry 1495-1860 by D.C Coleman available in our local studies library (shelfmark 338.476). The cellulose fibres in plant tissues were macerated and mixed with water until the fibres separated and were lifted from the water using a sieve-like screen, leaving a sheet of matted fibres on the screen’s surface. This then required pressing, drying, sizing, and finishing before it could be used as paper.

Image reproduced from The British Paper Industry 1495-1860 by D.C Coleman

We have several wills in our collection left by papermakers. These can give some indication of the kind of wealth and social standing of the profession.

In the 1792 will of John Lewis, paper maker of Yatton Keynell he bequeathed all his household goods and furniture to his wife, Mary Lewis. He also left an annuity of £8 to be paid to his sister, Elizabeth Parker, to be paid in equal quarterly instalments every year until her death. John Lewis makes it explicit that this money ‘is not liable to the debts or engagements of my said sisters husband or any other husband he may hereafter have and that her receipt alone…’ He also bequeathed to Thomas Vincent, a grocer of Calne (named as executor alongside his wife), all his real estate at Longdean and Yatton Keynell. It is pleasing given his profession that he sees fit to mention the paper that the will is written on:

“… to this my last will and testament contained in two sheets of paper set my hand and seal as follows (that is to say) my hand to the first sheet thereof and my hand and seal to the last sheet and my seal at the top where both sheets join”.

ref WSA P3/L/513

Another will belonging to Thomas Bacon, papermaker of Downton, dating to 1679 includes an inventory of his goods. These include materials and goods from the mill house including scales and weights, paper moulds and their respective values.

ref WSA P2/B/949

Paper making was never a major industry in Wiltshire. There was an increase in the number of paper mills in Wiltshire in the 18th and 19th centuries (similar to the growth in other parts of England) but most were small scale and had closed down by the 19th century. Neither was the number of people employed in the industry in Wiltshire large. The Victoria County History volume 4 suggests that the numbers probably peaked at the time of the 1901 census which records 45 men and 34 women employed in the industry.

The mills were mostly located in the north west of the county (along the By Brook) and in the south-east within 10 miles of Salisbury. The primary requirement was for a good supply of water powerful enough for the mill and of good enough quality to be used in the paper making process. A 1751 plan of Salisbury by Naish shows a paper mill east of the Cathedral:

So, next time you are looking at an archive document spare a thought for the material it is made from, whether it be paper, vellum or parchment and let it take you on a journey of discovery!

Naomi Sackett, Community History Advisor

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