I've been lucky enough to have been given a series of photographs showing a range of scenes from J Whatman's Springfield Mill showing various departments, job roles and processes of the papermaking process.

These photographs date from various eras which can be seen in the fashions worn and the tone of the photos.

I thought it would be nice to be able to share them and add a description of the subjects.

J Whatman's Springfield Mill from the air

J Whatman's Springfield Mill




The first process in traditional papermaking was preparing rags.

Recycled linen and cotton rags were used to make paper long before trees were the main source of pulp, hence the term "rag paper".

Huge bundles of rags were bought from specialist dealers who sourced old, worn out clothing, bed linen, rope (as in "money for old rope") yacht sails etc.

Rag Sorters at Whatman's Springfield Mill

Rag Sorters at their stations next to the windows with large bundles of unsorted rags in the foreground. 

Women were employed at paper mills as "rag sorters", their job to remove all impurities such as buttons, rivets, pins, rubber and to sort them into their types; linen or cotton.

In the very early days, rag would be allowed to rot down a little (retted) to soften before further processing but retting allowed the rag to naturally heat up and was a fire hazard!

The process was modernised when washing the rags in a weak bleach solution proved to soften them enough as well as make the fibre much cleaner.

Once the rags were sorted, washed and shredded, they were placed in mechanical Hollander beaters with water which washed out the bleach and broke down the rag pieces into a much finer, porridge-looking material - rag pulp, from which beautiful paper was made.


In ancient times pulp was slowly and laboriously beaten with wooden stamping mallets powered by a waterwheel.

During the era of the industrial revolution and steam powered engines, the Dutch invented the Hollander beater, superseding stamping mallet beaters.

Hollanders clean, grind and beat papermaking fibres with adjustable revolving steel-toothed wheels in a revolving bath of water which can be drained and refilled ensuring the water is always clean, an important aspect when making good quality paper.

So effective was the Hollander beater that it is still used today by hand papermakers in an unchanged format (electric motors replacing steam driven engines of course).

Row of Hollander Beaters in Whatman's Springfield Mill

This photograph shows a bank of Hollander beaters, two of them filled with a porridge-like pulp.  

Hollander Beater at J Whatman's Springfield Mill

A Beater Man standing over his Hollanders.

In papermaking, a beater man was considered as important as the Vatman - the person who formed the sheets from the pulp.

The beater man was responsible for ensuring the fibres were the correct consistency and grade for the particular type of paper being produced that day.

For example, imitation parchment paper was made from linen fibres beaten for hours until they were made hot from through friction. Printmaking paper was made from softly beaten fibres. Get this wrong and you'll end up with rubbish paper.


Once rags had been beaten in the Hollander Beaters the pulp mix was no longer called pulp but instead "Stuff". Yes, stuff.

Stuff Chests

Stuff Chests

Once the pulp had been beaten to the correct grade and became stuff it was pumped directly from the Hollander beaters through a series of pipes to Stuff Chests. 

These Stuff Chests are large, round storage containers with a set of revolving agitating arms. The agitating arms ensure the stuff remains suspended in water and doesn't settle to the bottom of the chests and solidify.

From the Stuff Chests the stuff could be pumped into the papermaking vats where the vatman would create sheet after sheet of paper. 

Whatman 10 Vat House

Whatman's 10 Vat House. 

In a hand papermill today the norm would be to find one Hollander Beater from which the pulp or stuff would be transferred by hand directly to the vat to be formed into sheets of paper.

In its heyday Whatman was a much larger operation than this. 

In the photograph above we can see a 10 unit vat house. This means that there were ten vats where 10 Vat Men and 10 Couchers would be making paper by hand six days a week.

The vats were fed from the Stuff Chests which in turn were fed from the Hollander beaters, the material for which would be provided by the Rag Sorters.


I am unsure when this photo was taken but the guy's (awesomely magnificent) mustache suggests it was 1910 - 1930s? Any better ideas, mustache aficionados?

Drying Paper at Whatman's Sprinfield Mill

Man holding paper ready to be dried in Whatman's drying loft at Springfield Mill


Most of the paper you'll use today is machine-made on a huge roll which is subsequently cut into sheets; the drying process is carried out at as part of the production process - all by machine. It's very efficient.

In the days where paper was most commonly made by hand, one sheet at a time, all paper was dried in a loft suspended over ropes or poles or laid out on shelves of hessian sacking.


Handmade paper was/is made by a Vatman using a tool called a deckle & mould;

Whatman Deckle and Mould for paper making

This deckle and mould was used to make writing paper, two sheets at a time.

The deckle and mould is dipped into a vat (hence the term Vatman) of water and paper pulp. Whatman deckle and mould for making paper

Watermarks were created with wire shapes and letters sewn onto the mould. The raised areas meant less pulp could settle making that area of the paper thinner. 

The watermarks in this mould read: J WHATMAN, HAND MADE, 1936, ENGLAND



Staying with the Vatmen and forming sheets of paper here's a little story about something fabulously called the Contrivance - a device invented by James Whatman to make very large sheets of paper.

Whatman's pre-eminence as a paper maker was attracting considerable interest, and in 1770, the Society of Antiquaries was commissioned to make a large copper engraving of an old painting depicting Henry VIII meeting Francis I at eh Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The necessary paper had to be 49 1/4 x 27 inches - slightly bigger than the Double Elephant size which was the largest made by Whatman.

James Whatman, ever the creative problem solver wrote: "I have no doubt but a Contrivance I have thought of will enable me to make it, although that will draw on a certain expense of at least £50 for things which cannot be of use to me on any other occasion"

Whatman built his Contrivance to make Antiquarian-size paper, which took 11 men to operate. The resulting sheets were so heavy that they had to be transported to London by a small sailing vessel called a hoy. 

Four men working at Whatman's Contrivance

Jack Baily, Jack Chalcraft, Bert Aiston, Cliff Burgess - operating Whatman's Contrivance in 1937.

Side schematic of Whatman's Contrivance

Top view schematic of Whatman's Contrivance

Whatman continued to produce handmade Antiquarian size paper until 1937. If you would like to see a film of this almost magical process click here. 



When it's lifted out of the pulp/water mixture, some of the water drains through the tiny holes in the mesh and what's left over forms into a very wet sheet which is then placed or couched onto a felt blanket and the mould removed. At this point the paper just looks like a sheet of porridge. 

Another felt is placed on top of the freshly made sheet and the process is repeated time and time again, one sheet at a time.

What results is a tall sandwich (called a post) of paper sheets and felts.

At this point though, the post is mainly water which needs to be squeezed out so it's placed under a hydraulic ram which removes 90-95% of the water.  This is when the paper begins to resemble paper. 


After pressing, the paper and felts need to be parted from one another. This means removing a felt, putting it to one side and very carefully peeling the sheet of wet paper from the felt it was placed on. This is repeated until you have a pile of felts and a pile of wet/damp paper. 


Once parted, the paper needs to be dried and this is where our friend, Mr Mustache does his thing.

The damp pile of paper is taken to a Drying Loft. 

The first damp sheet is peeled off the top of the pile by My Mustache and hung over ropes (as seen in this photo) or laid flat on hessian sheets (a method used at Hayle Mill by J Green).

Paper drying guy at J Whatman's Springfield Mill

We've zoomed in on the original photo to show the rope passed through holes in a wood frame on which the paper would be hung to dry. The rope would be covered in cow hair prevented the hemp in the rope staining the damp sheets and ruining them. 

You can see Mr Mustache balancing a damp sheet on a (hidden) T-shaped device. This allowed him to handle the paper and place it over a rope or pole without touching it with his hands, thus reducing the risk of damage to the surface of the paper - it is still damp after all so very fragile. 

We don't know how he accessed the higher levels of the drying rack although we have seen taller versions of the paper hanging T tool. I'm guessing a combination of taller hangers and ladders? 

Hanging paper in a loft allowed it to dry naturally, wind passing through louvre window doors.

Force drying paper can cause the sheet to shrink unevenly thus ruining it. 


Sizing is a process which allows paints or inks to be applied to the surface of paper without blotting occurring. Unsized paper is called "waterleaf" which was very popular with printmakers for etching, not so much today though. 

After a day or two, the paper would be dry. It would be taken down from the drying racks and sent to the Sizing Room.

In the Sizing Room the sheets would be placed on an endless conveyor belt of felt and passed through a solution of gooey gelatine.


Once sized, these wet-again sheets would need to be dried again so they would be sent to the sizing loft where it would be dried again in much the same way as before.

Judging from the sheet size in this photo, this paper was made for writing or ledgers.

This being the case, it would be sized two or three times to add enough strength to the surface. This means the drying/sizing process would have to be repeated a number of times before it was sent on the sorting rooms to be graded and packed before it reached the customer.


sorting and packing paper at J Whatman's Springfield Mill

Women at the sorting and packing tables.

Not every sheet of paper made by hand was fantastic. Some had imperfections including tears, accidental inclusions (hairs, dirt etc) or were not the correct thickness or texture. 

In the papermaking industry women were responsible for rag sorting (see above), sheet grading and packing. 

The papers would be graded as:

Firsts - top grade, perfect sheets

Retree - very slightly imperfect. Normally sold 10% cheaper than Firsts

Outsides - usable areas but normally used as top and bottom sheets when packing papers in reams

Rejects - no good for anything other than repulping

Firsts were top grade papers. Retree were slightly imperfect and would be sold at about 10% less than firsts. Outsides were usable but used as the top and bottom sheets when packing papers and rejects would be sent for re-pulping. 


papermaking machine

All good things must come to an end.

Whatman ended paper making by hand in the 1950s and by the 1960s no longer made paper for art at all although there was an ill-fated 1980s relaunch producing not great mould-made watercolour and printmaking paper for a few years. 

In the 1930s, Whatman broadened their proposition and began to make filter papers for use in science. 

Until told otherwise, we believe this was the machine those papers were produced on. 


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