Sir John Evans Centenary Project - image background is marbled paper from one of John Evans's books John Evans Numismatic Society Medal 1899

Sir John Evans the Papermaker

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Plaque at Dickinson's mill
The plaque commemorating John Dickinson's mill at Apsley Mill

John Evans started working in the Dickinson paper mill, owned by his uncle and godfather John Dickinson, in April 1840 when he was 17. John Dickinson's own son, also John, had no wish to work in his father's business. John Dickinson and his remaining family - his wife Ann and grown up children John, Frances and Harriet (four of his five sons had died young) - had just moved from Nash Mills House, near Hemel Hempsted, which was now lived in by his partner Charles Longman, to a new house, 'Abbot's Hill'. It was there that the young John Evans arrived from Boxmoor station to a 'tepid welcome from his aunt and her elder daughter'. He started work the following day at Nash Mills: 'I go down to Nash Mill every morning at about seven and come back at some time between six and ten' he wrote to his mother (Time and Chance).

He stayed with the family for a few weeks until his lodgings in the village were ready. At first he found himself rather lonely and without much in common with his host family. He also found it very hard to think of his older brother, Arthur, wasting his time at Oxford whilst he worked hard at the mill. John had been denied a university education despite his evident abilities.

On his marriage to John Dickinson's daughter, Harriet, John became a junior partner in the firm. Evans had worked extremely hard for the previous ten years and continued to do so for the rest of his working life. (More about John Evans's early life and marriages)

obituary Papermaker's Association
Obituary from the Papermaker's Association

Ultimately John Evans became a central figure in the British paper-making industry. He took out a number of patents, including some for the production of envelopes, ornate paper and paper napkins. He also introduced esparto grass as a raw material for paper-making as an alternative to rags, which were becoming more difficult to source. He was deeply involved in organising the trade organisations and was a founding member of the Paper Makers' Association.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, paper was still being made by hand, as had been since the Middle Ages. Papermaking was traditionally a slow process with each sheet being made in a mould and then hung up to dry - but it did produce beautiful paper. In 1798 a French worker, Louis Robert, devised a new process in which the paper was made by pouring the diluted pulp onto an endless web of wire constantly moving forward and shaking gently to drain the liquid. (Joan Evans used this phrase as the title for her book The Endless Web in 1955).This new invention was brought to England and patented on his behalf. Subsequently the Fourdrinier brothers bought the patent and set up the first machine bearing their name at Frogmore Mill in 1804.

Apsley Mill today
Apsley Mill today
Frogmore Mill sign
The sign on the fence for Frogmore Mill
Frogmore Mills
Frogmore Mill today

John Dickinson invented and patented in 1809 a rival process: his endless web was of felt passing round a roller. Dickinson also patented a machine for cutting and planing the paper, and in 1807 a new cartridge paper (which was an anti-smoldering paper for use in canons during the Napoleonic War) made by mixing linen and woollen rags. In 1809 he purchased his first mill, Apsley Mill - an old corn mill - at Hemel Hempstead. Less than two years later, Dickinson purchased his second mill, Nash Mills, half a mile from Apsley, where he installed his newly developed process for making paper continuously in large quantities. He built his third mill in 1826 on the River Gade at Home Park, a mile downstream from Nash Mills. Croxley Mill was another built by him in 1830 on a site between Watford and Rickmansworth; this site made paper and card.

The raw materials were sourced outside Hertfordshire. Dickinson wanted to keep the pure waters of the River Gade for the high-quality finished products. A further paper mill at Sunderland was owned by Thomas Routledge, situated at the old Ford works at Hendon. This mill prepared the esparto grass from Spain and the pulp was shipped (from Hendon dock) down to Dickinson's mills. (More about John Dickinson & Co Ltd).

The factory at Hillsborough, Belfast produced finished paper and card goods. John Evans acquired objects from the north of Ireland whilst visiting Belfast on mill business. Williams Arthurs from Ballymena and Robert Day from Cork were his main contacts. (View some of the objects John Evans collected from Ireland)

Even rich papermakers, like John Evans, found the need to economise on paper. This letter held in the John Evans archive at the Ashmolean Museum was from Harriet Dickinson at Abbots Hill to John Evans dated 9 March 1890 - 'My Dearest old Jack ............. from your loving Harriet'. They married in September of that year.

staff trip to Aspley
Staff from the Ashmolean Museum sitting on the steps of Nash Mills House on a visit to Apsley, Frogmore and Nash Mills, 31 August 2007.
(Courtesy of Apsley Paper Trail)
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First page of letter from Harriet Dickinson to John Evans 9th March 1890
First page of letter from Harriet Dickinson to John Evans 9th March 1890
Second page of letterfrom Harriet Dickinson to John Evans 9th March 1890
Second page of letterfrom Harriet Dickinson to John Evans 9th March 1890

Further References / Links:

Joan Evans, Time and Chance: The Story of Arthur Evans and His Forebears (1943)

Joan Evans, The Endless Webb, John Dickinson & Co. 1804-1954 (1955)

See also the chapter by Jill Penwarden and Michael Stanyon in Sir John Evans (1823-1908). Antiquity, Commerce and Natural Science in the Age of Darwin, ed. Arthur MacGregor (2008)

Apsley Paper Trail has details of Evans's paper manufacturing interests.

Alison Muir '18th century paper makers of North of Ireland', Familia (Ulster Historical Foundation) (2004)