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It is an astounding fact that Britain's first commercially successful paper-mill was established on the River Darent in Dartford as early as 1588. This paper-mill was set up by John Spilman ( Spielman), a German entrepreneur who became 'Goldsmyth of our Jewelles ' to Elizabeth I and James I. Spilman was a hard-nosed businessman whose mode of operation would have the modern-day Monopolies Commission in a state of terminal apoplexy. In essence, he manipulated the favour and patronage of successive monarchs to ensure that he had a virtual monopoly of the paper industry.

The history of writing materials has a long and interesting pedigree stretching back at least 5,000 years. The Mesopotamians wrote on thin clay tablets. Later, the papyrus reed which grew in the delta of the River Nile provided a superior writing material. The Chinese were busy experimenting with the manufacture of paper made from mulberry fibres in the first century AD. It was not until the 8th century that the basic technique of paper -making spread into the Islamic countries and from thence into southern Europe. Early records show that paper-made mainly from linen rags was being manufactured in several European countries by the 13th century.

The earliest paper was called 'cloth parchment', but it often contained wood and straw in addition to cloth. All these raw materials were beaten to a fine pulp and mixed with water. Sheets of paper were then pressed out, dried and hardened. The development of newspaper in the 17th century prompted the invention of primitive machines for the production of individual sheets of paper. In the 19th century demand for paper was unsatiable - for packaging food, for recording business transactions, and, as more and more people became literate, for printing books and newspapers.


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Spilman's Tomb
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In 1588 Spilman was granted a Crown lease of two mills in the Manor of Bignores at Dartford (probably close to what is now Powder Mill Lane), situated on the fast flowing River Darent. The mills appear to have been owned by Spilman earlier as he had already undertaken expensive repairs and alterations costing an estimated £1,500. It is not clear whether John Spilman himself knew anything about the techniques of paper-making, but he was able to finance the employment of skilled German paper-makers at Dartford. The newly constituted paper-mill of Dartford was the first mill in England to produce good quality white paper on a commercially viable basis. It was a sight to behold, one of the town's earliest tourist attractions!

Spilman's Dartford mill was the subject of 352 lines of poetry written in 1588 by Thomas Churchyard and dedicated to Sir Walter Raleigh. The acutely long-winded doggerel includes the first description of paper-making ever to appear in print. The mill seems to have been a prominent and impressive 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
So see what things are wrought, by cunning skill,'

Churchyard's poem gives some indication of the paper making process employed at Dartford :

'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 loud 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

The Dartford-based mill was granted extensive monopoly powers which were often the subject of dispute. A patent dated February 1589 granted Spilman the monopoly of buying or dealing in linen rags, old fishing nets and leather shreds '… fitt for making all sorts of white paper. Nobody else was permitted to build a paper-mill without Spilman's consent. All persons were forbidden to make any paper in any mills'…alreadye made erected or used for broune paper mills' save with the licence and assent of Spilman.


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Telegraph Paper Mills, Dartford
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In July 1597 Spilman was granted a new patent for 14 years which confirmed his monopoly and granted him and his deputies power to search any premises where they suspected rags or paper were being hidden. Spilman's water-tight monopoly was designed to stop other mills attempting to make highly-prized white paper.

It is clear that there was some diversification of product at a later date, for in 1617 Spilman was making a new and pleasing kind of playing card.

John Spilman was knighted by James I at Dartford. The knighthood was probably granted as much for his activities as court goldsmith and jeweller as for his contribution towards the evolution and development of England's paper industry.

Sir John died in 1626 and is commemorated in Holy Trinity Church with a tomb which incorporates coloured effigies of himself and his first wife Elizabeth Mengel, daughter of a Nuremberg merchant. She died in 1607 at the age of 55. He had several children by his second wife Katherine who survived until about 1644. On the left hand side of the Spilman tomb is a commemorative tablet erected by the Legal Society of Paper-Makers, who in 1858 paid £58 towards the tomb's restoration.

Some 37 paper mills existed in England between 1588 and 1650, most were involved with the production of inferior quality brown paper. The trend towards the production of white paper came later after Spilman's monopoly was broken. Dartford and paper-making are synonymous. Much of the town's prosperity and growth in the 19th and early 20th centuries can be attributed to the success of the local paper industry which formerly employed large numbers of local people, both in the town itself and in the surrounding villages.

Next topic: Augustus Applegath


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