John Roberts, Papermaker of Yorkshire: The Cumbria Connection

John Gavin

 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

The art of papermaking came to England from the continent in the late fifteenth century but its development was slow and mainly centred on London. However by the 1690's it was competing with foreign imports particularly with the production of commercial paper to meet the rising demand for pressing and wrapping textiles. Paper manufacture was a mill-based industry needing water for power and process. A waterwheel drove machinery (stampers or beaters) to convert the raw materials-linen and hemp rags—into paper stock ('stuff). A vat held the stuff suspended in water and the papermaker with dextrous dip and shake of paper-mould and deckle formed single sheets of paper. The papermaker was regarded as a highly skilled craftsman. Before the advent of the papermaking machine increased output required more vats and trained workers.

There was rapid growth in the middle years of the eighteenth century and a marked spread notably in the northern counties linked with the growth of the textile industry. The movement of papermakers suggests a partial answer to the diffusion of the technology. The Roberts family of papermakers, with North Craven connections, provides an example of the mobility of these craftsmen linking the counties of Yorkshire, Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire.

During the eighteenth century members of the Roberts' family worked in paper mills at Cockermouth, Cumberland and Crosthwaite and Milnthorpe in Westmorland, the latter being Westmorland's only port. John Roberts 1 was probably born (c.1733), apprenticed and married in Yorkshire. The earliest records are in Cockermouth, where parish registers note the births of children of' John Roberts 1, papermaker: Margaret 1765 and John 1767 at Simonscales Paper Mill. (William Wordsworth, born 1770, appears in the same records). Entries for his later children: Thomas c.1768, Ann c.1770, Joseph c.1773, although elusive, may well be found in Yorkshire.

Simonscales Paper Mill on the river Cocker made "press paper" for the wool and linen textile industry, hatmaking was an associated trade in Cockermouth. It was situated near the west coast ports and "foreign rags could be imported on easy terms." The ports were also a source for the hemp and flax ropes, sails and netting used to make coarse papers. There were two waterwheels, one drove a rag-engine for breaking down the raw materials, the second turned two glazing rollers for the finishing process. Starnthwaite Paper Mill at Crosthwaite-cum-Lyth and the Milnthorpe Low Mill had two vats one for white paper and a "brown" vat for commercial papers. The master papermakers were the Crampton family and the evidence points to the Roberts' specialising in the production of commercial papers and board.

John Roberts 11 (b.1767) was married to Tabitha, daughter of John Wroe of Leeds, and two children, William and Joseph, are entered in the Crosthwaite Baptismal registers in 1789 and '91. At this period there was a Crampton/Pennington partnership running the two mills. (William Pennington was a printer and stationer in Kendal and related by marriage.) Other members of the Roberts family worked at the Milnthorpe Low Paper Mill, one of three paper mills on the River Beela. Links were maintained at both of these mills into the 19th century a period of major change in the manufacture of paper.

By 1800 Joseph, son of John 1, was at the Bury Paper Mill. Here he married Nancy Tennant and their son John was born. The family returned to Milnthorpe where John 111 probably served his apprenticeship. He was employed at Starnthwaite in 1823 when he married Mary Long from Colton. By 1826 William Pennington jun. was bankrupt and the Starnthwaite Mill was to let. Pennington's business was taken over by a Co-partnership, Eglin, Roberts & Co making papers and pasteboards. The partners were John Roberts 111 as the master-papermaker and George Taylor Eglin responsible for bookkeeping and sales; Cornelius Nicholson and John Hudson, Printers, Publishers and Booksellers of Kendal made up the partnership.

By the 1830's the papermaking machine had become a serious competitor of the hand-made process. It was invented in France in 1799 by Nicholas-Louis Robert and its development financed in England by the Fourdrinier brothers, wholesale stationers in London. However mechanisation needed considerable capital and the acquisition of new skills. In 1832 Hudson and Nicholson dissolved the co-partnership, converted the Burneside Woollen Mill, Kendal, to paper manufacture and installed a Fourdrinier machine. The Starnthwaite mill was put out of business (with other small units in the Kendal area). Eglin Roberts & Co moved to the Ellers Mill, Ulverston and Cark; the latter paper mill probably producing stuff. The partners were at loggerheads and John Roberts' wife, Mary (1) and his father had just died. The firm failed and Eglin became bankrupt. John worked for a while as an employee of the firm that took over, leaving in 1839 to lease the Kirkoswald Paper Mill.

From 1841 the census is a source of useful information. At that date John Roberts was master papermaker at Kirkoswald, with Elizabeth, his second wife, his children-Joseph and John of apprentice age-and Nancy, his mother. Two sons were born at Kirkoswald of the second marriage: William (1843) and George (1844). Later records list the products as: paper, pasteboard, millboard, glazed paper and double small caps. The Roberts left in 1844 but were to return...

The family were back in Yorkshire for the 1851 census. The record shows them at the Mill House of Storrs Paper Mill, Sheffield(2). Nancy Roberts was head-of-household and, aged 73, was referred to as 'Papermaker'. The papermakers were her grandchildren: Joseph, John IV (listed as master in the Excise list for 1860), Thomas, and Nicholas. John Roberts 111 was in Manchester in 1854 a traveller for the paper trade. Here he married his third wife Mrs Sarah Booth a widow. By 1856 he had taken over Skipton Paper mill. In 1861 he employed eight men, 3 boys, 4 women and three girls. He was living at Raikes Houses with his wife Sarah, his stepchildren, his son William, papermaker and his mother Nancy in her 80's and infirm. Nicholas, was married to Mary Chester, a Skipton girl, Thomas and Joseph with their families were all in the family business. Henry Booth was joint paper manufacturer in 1871 and after John's death in 1875 in partnership with Nicholas,

The younger John (IV) was a commercial traveller in September 1866, based in Leeds, when he married Mary Stirke from Skipton and their first two children were born there: Herbert (1867) and John Arthur (1870). Soon after the latter event the family moved back to Cumberland and managed the Kirkoswald and Glassonby Mills in partnership with Mr Thomas W Parker. The Glassonby Beck Mill (which was the family home) had been producing pulp for the Kirkoswald Mill. A small board machine was put in and three Hollander rag-beaters. Roberts, with a staff of three men (including Edwin, his nephew), one woman and a boy, made board and punch cards for jacquard looms using jute bagging and string. Additions to the family at Glassonby Beck were Mary (c.1872), Susannah and Frank (1880).

In 1880 the Roberts' family left this small mill and returned to Yorkshire. John Roberts leased the Langcliffe Paper Mill, Settle, from Mr Hector Christie, Manufacturer at Langcliffe Cotton a mile down river. He installed a board-machine and produced Jacquard-loom cards, leather boards for the shoe trade. The mill was purchased later by his sons: Herbert, John Arthur and Frank. Langcliffe was established pre-1794 as a watermark of the owners H & T Salmon of this date and is recorded in Shelter's book. It was purchased in 1851 by John Ovington of the Skipton Paper Mill who went out of business. The nineteenth century saw revolutionary development; mechanisation of the whole process, new raw materials (including wood pulp), and power from water turbines and steam. The firm of JOHN ROBERTS & SONS (Langcliffe) Ltd, Papermakers, Corrugated Manufacturers and Converters is still working and provides a unique history of family continuity.

Family history is a feature of this study, necessarily so as the only record of some early mills is an entry in the parish register. 'Paper maker' is noted as an unusual occupation. The family events recorded, happy and sad, reveal the historical geography of the industry. Mobility is an obvious feature and the census returns show the widespread origins of the work-force. Social and economic patterns can be investigated. Marriage and the start of the family often seem to link with change. This may be the establishment of a new mill, or a major improvement, e.g. Ellers, Ulverston, possibly Cockermouth and Glassonby Beck. It may be a significant change the marriage triggering the move to the responsibilities and risks of management.

My particular thanks to all who have helped and encouraged my research with special mention for John Roberts & Sons (Langcliffe) Ltd, Papermakers and the members of the Roberts' family and Maureen Newton with the Yorkshire records.

General reference:
Shorter, A H, Paper Mills and Papermakers in England, 1495-1800, 1957
Shorter, A H, Paper Making in the British Isles, 1971
Coleman, D C, The British Paper Industry 1495-1860, 1958
Gavin, J, A History of Papermaking in Cumbria, 1600-1900, unpub.
    M Phil thesis. University of Lancaster, 1991.
    Copies in Cumbria Record Offices.

(1) Her daughter Mary was bom in 1836 at Ulverston. Married to John Dyson, a Sheffield cutler, in 1856;
      great-great-grandparents of Maureen Newton, see acknowledgements.
(2) See Schmoller, T, Sheffield Papermakers-Three centuries of papermaking in the Sheffild area, 1992, p. 110.

Cumbria Paper


Cumbria Paper