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Blotting Paper and The Mill

The following information has been provided by Lt Col Julian Tyson-Woodcock who is a direct descendant of the Slade family of East Hagbourne.

I have researched the Slade family at some length, and at this stage you may be interested in two pieces that I have written about the invention of blotting paper and the business (which moved to Loudater, Bucks, not Essex!).

How Blotting Paper was Invented

“During the 1780s or 1790s, a beaterman or apprentice at the East Hagbourne Mill omitted to add size to the paper stock, one day, and the finished paper was consequently rejected. Later, when the Excise Officer wrote on the paper, the ink was immediately absorbed in all directions, producing a feathering effect. The Excise Officer pointed this out to William Slade, (William Russell Slade (1766-1801), who quickly realised that this paper would absorb surplus ink from the surface of a properly sized piece of paper which had been written upon.”

“Grasping the commercial possibilities of the workman’s mistake, Slade stopped the repulping of the faulty batch of paper. He instructed that it should be packed, labelled and sold as blotting paper- the first time in history that blotting paper had been made and sold as a commercial product. (Philip Tyson Woodcock, (great great grandson of William Russell Slade, Managing Director T B Ford Ltd, “The History of T B Ford Ltd 1960”, unpublished).

Dr J W Walker relates an alternative story. “A workman at the East Hagbourne Mill accidentally spilled sulphuric acid on a batch of finished paper, thus negating the properties of the paper sizing. The paper immediately acquired the same absorbent qualities of unsized paper, which were quickly recognised by Slade.(William Russell Slade (1766-1801).” (Presumably, the incident took place at the same period as the story above). (Dr J W Walker – article in the Reading Mercury 7th Jan 1932 “The History of North Berkshire”. This appears to have been abstracted from the entry on East Hagboume in the Victorian County History of Berkshire, 1906).

The final story is related as follows. The italics are mine.

“Blotting paper was first made by John Slade (1797-1862), youngest brother of William Smart Slade. John Slade ran East Hagbourne Mill (from 1824 to 1845) and lived in Aston at Croft House, (only from 1845); He had a paper mill called Hagbourne Mill (sic), (not so, all the data points to the fact that his brother, William Smart Slade, owned the mill and John ran it whilst his brother was running Upper Clatford Mill, Andover, Hants, from 1817 to 1831. William later owned and ran Hurstbourne Priors Mill in Hampshire, from 1831 until his death in 1845.)

“One day one of his workmen forgot to put the size into a quantity of paper that was in the process of being made and it was all thrown aside as waste. Happening to want a piece of paper to make a note, Mr. Slade took a piece of the spoilt paper and found that it ran and blotted because the unsized paper absorbed the ink, and the idea struck him that absorbent paper might be made. He very soon put blotting paper on the market, and it proved so popular that Hagbourne Mill became too small for the increasing business.
Mr. Ford, (Thomas Burch Ford 1817-1892), who, in 1850, had married John Slade’s niece, Elizabeth Slade (1826-1911), daughter of William Smart Slade in 1850), removed the business to Spalisley Mills, Hants.” (Incorrect; T .B. Ford took over the East Hagbourne Mill in 1855 and moved the business to Snakeley Mill, Loudwater, Bucks at the end of 1858) (Unknown Guide to East and West Hagbourne, published c.1910).

The general thrust of all the stories is similar, but the dates of the original occurrence vary between about 1780 to 1840. My own interpretation is that the omission of the size/spilling of the sulphuric acid took place in about 1795. Blotting paper was subsequently manufactured commercially and became increasingly available to the general public by the early 1800s. Although. I describe these events later on; I feel that William Smart Slade’s decision to expand the paper making business by leasing first, the Upper Clatford Mill and subsequently the Hurstbourne Priors Mill, was triggered by the increasing demand for the blotting paper. It is my view that William Russell Slade can claim to be the ‘discoverer’ of blotting paper.

Julian Tyson- Woodcock Jun 2000

The Mill

The Slades had been papermaking at the East Hagbourne mill since the 17th Century, when John Slade (1595-1654), a Berkshire farmer, converted his water driven grain mill into a paper mill. William Russell Slade (1766-1801), William Smart Slade’s father, is reputed to have invented blotting paper at the East Hagbourne mill in the late 18th century. After that date, the manufacture of blotting paper became an increasingly important element in the Slade’s business. William Smart Slade expanded the business, and leaving his mother, Nanny Slade (1772-1824), and later his brother John Slade (1797-1861) to run the East Hagbourne Mill, he leased another mill at Upper Clatford, near Andover, Hants from 1817-1831 and later at Hurstbourne Priors, near Whitchurch, Hants, from 1831-1845.

The Fords were yeoman farmers and settled in the South Stoke area of Oxfordshire in the 17th Century. By the beginning of the 18th Century they had moved to Goring and Streatley. Thomas’s grandfather, William Ford (1763-1855) had become a bricklayer and builder. He moved to Reading where he married Frances (Fanny) Stevens in 1789 and where his son John Ford (1790-1847) was born. John set up his own building business in 1823. Thomas Burch Ford was his third son and became a solicitor’s managing clerk and later qualified as a solicitor. In 1850 he married Elizabeth Slade (1826-1911). Elizabeth was the daughter of William Smart Slade (1791-1845), a papermaker, from East Hagbourne, Berkshire, and who also had a mill at Hurstbourne Priors, Hants.

Thomas’s marriage to Elizabeth Slade triggered a dramatic career change for him. After the death of William Smart Slade in 1845, the family blotting paper manufacturing business had largely passed to his son William Slade (1827-1860).

In 1855 Thomas Ford bought out the Slade blotting paper business at East Hagbourne and rented the East Hagbourne paper mill from his brother in law, who in turn, rented another paper mill at Bagnor, near Newbury. Thomas proved to be a successful businessman and his new career prospered. However, his brother in law, William Slade, was dogged by failure and ill health and his business ventures collapsed, culminating in him being declared bankrupt in late 1858. This meant that the East Hagbourne mill, owned by William Slade, had to be vacated by Thomas Ford and sold to meet William Slade’s debts.

Although Thomas would have had the opportunity of buying or leasing the East Hagbourne mill from William Slade’s creditors, he decided to move to bigger and better premises.

Two suitable mills became available at Loudwater, Bucks and on 18th March 1859, he signed a 21-year lease on Snakeley Mill and Treadaway or Overshott Mill in Loudwater. These mills were already paper mills, but the machinery and other assets were also much more up to date. Clearly, the Loudwater operation had enormous advantages over Hagbourne. Not only was there waterpower but Snakeley also possessed a small steam boiler, which powered the steam drying rollers. Moreover there was a Foudrinier paper machine, which could make paper on a continuous web, instead of each sheet being made separately by hand, which was the only method at Hagbourne. These two advantages enabled Thomas to become competitive and increase his output.