The study of the history of paper and its making involves a very wide range of specialist areas. Harry Dagnall has written extensively on several related aspects of the history of paper usage and some of his earlier books have become standard works on particular subjects, including for example, John Dickinson & his Silk Thread Paper, The Evolution of British Stamped Postcards & Lettercards and Creating a Good Impression: Three Hundred Years of the Stamp Office and Stamp Duties.
With his latest book, also destined to become a standard work, Dagnall has ventured where no other historian of paper and papermaking has dared to tread. In 1835 Parnell stated that "The laws regulating the collection of it [Customs and Excise Duty] are so scattered and confused as to render it almost impossible for a manufacturer to have a perfect knowledge of them." But Dagnall has managed to outline with remarkable clarity the mechanics of the Acts of Parliament which imposed the various Customs and Excise Duties. He shows how those acts were administered and how the heavy hand of the Excise tried to prevent even a single sheet of untaxed paper leaving a mill. So onerous were the restrictions that William Gaussen, Balston's associate, said that "The whole system of the Excise is so vexatious that I think no man would go into the [papermaking] trade if he knew what he would be subject to."
This complexity is what Dagnall has explained and his work will be immensely valuable to any historians studying British taxation. Since the destruction of the Customs and Excise records, it will be never be possible to delve further into the economic and financial aspects of the various taxes on paper than Coleman's work of the 1950s. But Dagnall elucidates so many other aspects of this complex subject, such as the effects of this taxation on the running of the mills, and the protection it offered against foreign competition for the British Paper Industry. He also gives important lists of paper sizes and types, reflecting the growth of the industry, as well as showing why and when papermakers had to date their watermarks.
But, above all, the most fascinating story Dagnall tells is that of the struggle of the authorities to prevent fraud. The lot of an Excise Officer could not have been a happy one, caught between the hostility of the mill owners and the weight of a government bureaucracy bound by its multitude of complex forms and requirements. Dagnall's account of the changes made in ream labels proves the value and importance of these taxes on knowledge to successive governments. The methods of printing these multi-coloured is another aspect of paper history never covered in such depth before. His research into these labels and the duty stamps is the most authorative work on this subject and indeed the whole book will be a vital source and reference for many other aspects of papermaking history beyond taxation.