The Exeter Papers, Studies in British Paper History, Volume II

In 1994 a group called the British Association of Paper Historians (BAPH) held a conference in Exeter, in the south west of England. The lectures (papers) presented at that conference have just been published in a handsome informative book that deserves the attention of anyone interested in paper history.

Britain's rich history of papermaking dates back more than five hundred years, so an annual conference on such a focused subject is not so esoteric as it may seem. This volume is the second in a series called Studies in Paper History (the first book in the series, The Oxford Papers, documented the group's 1993 conference). In addition to compiling papers from the group's more recent conferences, the series may also eventually include book-length research studies. This latest publication is co-published by BAPH and The Plough Press.

Many of the papers in this collection focus on aspects of papermaking in the region locasl to the conference: Exeter and Devon. Walter Minchinton writes about the waterborne trade of paper in Devon. Using shipping records and other sources to track the volume of both paper and paper material into that part of England and, later, paper exports, his analysis shows the growth of papermaking in the area in the 19th century. Colin Harris describes the history of Stowford Mill, in Ivybridge, whose origins as a papermaking facility date back to the late 18th century. This small mill, which used rags until the 1970s, prepares specialty papers for various customers. In another paper of regional interest, Ian Maxted exerpts interesting sections from an early 20th century novel by Eden Philpotts, called Storm in a Teacup. Philpotts based his fictional work on careful research at the Tuckenhay Mill in Devon, and he accurately recorded detailed processes used by commercial hand papermakers a hundred years ago.

Maxted is represented a second time in this volume with a paper on the labourers in Exeter paper mills at the height of the local industry, in the mid-19th century. He bases his study largely on two national censuses, held in 1851 and 1861. Using statistics such as age, gender, occupation, relationship and place of birth, Maxted deduces family structures, living conditions, and the migration of paper workers to Exeter from other regions. To this detail, Maxted adds useful contextual information about papermaking in the region. Another addition to this collection also uses information from the British census from the mid-19th century. Ian Dye's text looks at papermaking information from all of the English counties, based on abstracts from the censuses of 1831, 1841, 1851 and 1861. He argues in favour of the abstracts' summary information as a useful source of trends in the growth of regional papermaking employment.

Richard Hills, author of Papermaking in Britain: 1488-1988, contributes two papers to this book: "The Origins of Thermo-Mechanical Pulp" (describing a mid-20th century process that uses heat and pressure in grinding wood pulp for papermaking) and "James Watt and Paper and Papermaking". The second essay focuses on ways in which the steam engine developer used and knew about various types of paper, as well as his invention of a steam engine that could successfully drive rotating machinery, such as that found in a papermill.

Two final papers in this collection deserve special mention. William Ravenhill relates his discovery of the true form and meaning of a watermark found on paper used by a 16th century British mapmaker, Christopher Saxton. Ravenhill cleverly (and amusingly) reveals how previous filigranologists (those who study watermarks) had failed to accurately record the correct outline of the mark and misinterpreted its meaning. [This paper will be reprinted in the Winter 2001 issue of Hand Papermaking magazine.]

The longest section of the book is devoted to a topic of perhaps the most general interest. Peter Bower (who also edited the entire collection) writes about Operation Bernhard, a project the German government undertook during World War II to forge British bank notes. Various governments have forged the currency of their enemies; this was one of the largest and most successful attempts. The fake bills were used by German spies, were paid to collaborators in occupied countries, and were also designed to be dropped over Britain in an attempt to disrupt the British economy. Most of the workers who produced these notes were Jews and other prisoners of war. Based on their recollections, Bower presents a fascinating account of how they were treated much better that the other detainees of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where they lived and worked. The director and namesake of this effort, Major Bernhard Krüger, even arranged for his workers to receive German war decorations. Of particular interest here to papermakers were the efforts spent to reproduce the watermarked paper used for the bank notes. This was only one step of the forging process, of course, but it was crucial to the subterfuge.

Operation Bernhard, coincidentally, is mentioned in Hand Papermaking's forthcoming portfolio of watermarked papers. One of the watermarked moulds used to make paper for the historic section of this portfolio came from Spechthausen, the same mill that made the paper for the wartime forgery project. Gangolf Ulbricht now owns the hundred year old mould, which features a chiaroscuro portrait of Frederick the Great. Ulbricht made the paper for this edition and describes Operation Bernhard briefly in his statement.

Michael Durgin
Hand Papermaking Newsletter, October 2001