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Early Modern

PAPER MAKING

SIR JOHN SPILMAN'S PAPER MILL AT DARTFORD

England’s first commercially successful paper mill making good-quality white paper was established on the River Darent at Dartford in 1588. That year, John Spilman, who was Court Jeweller to Elizabeth I and James I, was granted a lease of two mills in the Manor of Bignores on the River Darent close to modern-day Powdermill Lane.

  

Spilman's paper mill

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The Dartford mills appear to have been owned by Spilman at an earlier date. Repairs, renovations and alterations totalling 1500 were made to the mill buildings. They were soon converted into an efficient and impressive manufacturing plant capable of producing the finest paper ever produced in England. It is not known whether Spilman had any skills in the art of paper making, but he did have sufficient funds to employ some of Germany’s most skilled paper makers at the Dartford mill.

Spilman’s Dartford-based mill was the subject of a 325 line poem written by Thomas Churchyard and dedicated to Sir Walter Raleigh. The Dartford mill seems to have been an impressive and prominent riverside feature:

"This is so fine with workmanship set foorth
So surely built, and planted in the ground
That it doth seeme a house of some estate...
To which brave mill do thousands still repayre
To see what things are wrought, by cunning skill...
A paper mill
That now neere Dartford standeth well
Where Spilman may himself and household dwell...
The Mill itself is sure right rare to see
The framing is so quaint and finely done
Built of wood and hollowed trunks of trees
The Hammers thump and make so loude a noise
As fuller doth that beats his woollen cloth
In open show, then sundry secret toyes
Make rotten rags to yield a thickened froth
There it is stamped and washed as white as snow
Then flung on frame and hanged to dry, I trow
Thus paper straight it is to write upon
As it were rubbed and smoothed with slicking stone."

  

Sir John Spilman

Click to enlarge

A Patent dated February 1589 granted Spilman the monopoly of buying or dealing in linen rags, old fishing nets and leather shreds ‘...fit for making all sorts of white paper’. In 1617, Spilman was making playing-cards at Dartford.

John Spilman was knighted by James I at Dartford. He died in 1626 and is commemorated in Holy Trinity church with a tomb which includes coloured effigies of himself and his first wife Elizabeth Mengel. Production at the paper mill was carried on by Spilman’s son, and later by a Mr. Blackwell c.1686 and Richard Archer. By 1732, the site was being used for the manufacture of gunpowder.

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OTHER PAPER MILLS AT DARTFORD, 1500-1800

Towards the end of the seventeenth century a paper mill was erected on the River Darent a little way below the site of John Spilman’s mill. In 1698 it was in the possession of John Quelch. A Mr. William Quelch worked the mill until 1750. Having some years previously formed two separate mills on the site, William left one mill to William his son, and the other to Eleanor his daughter. John Finch inherited the business in 1797.

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