There is once again a paper-mill in Norfolk, over sixty years after the last of the old mills closed. This new mill belongs to the German firm Palm Paper, and is a huge facility just to the south of Kings Lynn on the Great Ouse river. It produces 450,000 tonnes of newsprint a year, and it is one of the largest paper-mills in the world. This is a far cry from the first paper-mill in Norfolk which opened not many miles away from Kings Lynn in 1695. This was converted from a fulling mill (for the treatment of woollen cloth) in Castle Rising. This was known as the Upper Mill to distinguish it from another one further downstream on the Babingley river. There are records of five mills (including wind-mills) in Castle Rising, although not all were working at the same time. There was no printing industry in Norfolk until the early 18th century and although a certain amount of writing paper was required this first mill probably made paper used in pressing cloth or wrapping paper.
The next paper-mill in Norfolk was also converted from a fulling mill – a popular choice as the water powered hammers used to beat the cloth could easily be converted to making pulp for paper. This was in Taverham, a small village on the river Wensum about five miles outside Norwich. It opened in 1701. From the first it advertised itself as making ‘paper suitable for printing’ although there was then no printer to make use of it. Lacking this essential industry, Norwich was obviously keen to attract a printer, and this they soon did in the person of a young craftsman from London called Francis Burges. The capital in London and the two university towns of Oxford and Cambridge were the only places where printing had been allowed until 1695, when Parliament refused to renew the Licensing Act which controlled printing. Bristol had been quicker off the mark than Norwich in setting up a printing office, but the City was not far behind, and it was Norwich that produced the first newspaper outside London.
During the 18th century a number of paper-mills were active in Norfolk. A few miles away from Taverham the mill at Lyng (also on the river Wensum) had a paper-mill that was operated by the same partnership as Taverham mill. A few more miles upstream from Lyng another mill at Swanton Morley, and to the north-east the mill at Oxnead on the river Bure also made paper. To the south of Norwich on the river Tas the mill at Stoke Holy Cross made paper until it was taken over by the Colman family in the early 19th century as their main mustard mill. With all these mills producing paper around the city of Norwich there must have a healthy trade among rag merchants, as old rags were the raw material that they all relied upon. There was a paper-mill at Sheringham that may have used old sails and ropes from the shipping industry to produce a lower quality paper.
The paper mill at Thetford was able to gather rags from the Ouse basin, and this material was brought up to the town by barge. This we know from a court report where a number of men were prosecuted for stealing from a barge involved in transporting rags to the town. The first reference to paper making at Bishop’s Mill in Thetford dates back to 1735, and the pulp mill in the town did not finally close until circa 1955. The paper mill at Oxnead closed in the 1820s (although it briefly reopened as a paper-mill in the middle of the 20th century), that at Castle Rising in the mid-nineteenth century and the mills at Lyng, Swanton Morley and Sheringham at around the same time. Although no longer required for producing paper these water-mills were still a useful source of power, and most were converted to corn milling. Taverham paper mill was an exception, and when this mill closed in 1899 it was left derelict. Most of the structure was demolished in the first half of the 20th century, only the former canteen block remaining today.
A late-comer to the paper-milling business was the city of Norwich. Carrow paper-mill in King Street was erected in 1874/8, and the cardboard it produced was used for packing the goods made at Carrow Works, mainly laundry starch, blue and (naturally) mustard. It had closed by the mid twentieth century. Another Norwich mill was St Miles mill near Oak Street bridge. In 1890 this was a steam mill. All across the country steam was taking over as the power to drive paper manufacturing. Today electricity is the power used in all forms of industry including paper-mills.
Although water has long ceased to be the power source, large amounts of water are still needed to produce the pulp paper is made from, so all paper-mills are located by a river. Once the chemical process for breaking down wood into pulp had been perfected, this became almost the sole source of fibre used in the industry. Only highly specialised products like artists’ paper still used rags. The softwood was imported from Scandinavia and the most successful paper-mills were located on river estuaries, where the ships could unload their cargoes of logs. For hundreds of years, until the late nineteenth century, the industry had relied exclusively on recycled material. At first this raw material was in the form of linen rags; once the mills round Manchester began processing Indian cotton this material became the principal source of rags. Factory waste from cotton mills was also recycled in paper-mills. In the 19th century demand for paper exceeded the supply of recyclable rags, and this produced a bottleneck in the system. Esparto grass from North Africa was used as an alternative to rags, but it was the use of wood pulp which eventually solved the problem. Although in the first instance wood is a virgin raw material, once used the paper can be recycled up to eight times. This brings us neatly back to Kings Lynn and to Palm paper. One hundred percent of their production is made from recycled newsprint.