Britain’s First Commercial Paper Mill

Britain’s First Commercial Paper Mill

Mercers and their trade

Though the once thriving market town of Hertford declined after the Conquest, this does not mean that nothing of note happened here.  Hertford’s claim to fame is that it had the first recorded commercial paper mill in Britain.

Britain’s First Commercial Paper Mill

Making paper out of the fibres of vegetable plants was first invented by the Chinese.  They tried – unsuccessfully – to keep the process a secret.  There is a story that at Samarkand some prisoners of war, who happened to be paper makers, spilled the beans in 751 CE.  Whether this is true or not, the secret got out and the technique was first adopted by the Muslims.  They brought it further west and eventually it reached the Moorish regions of al-Andalus and Sicily.  On the Iberian Peninsula, the paper industry was established in Xàtiva, in today’s province of Valencia, in the 10th century, if not earlier. [i]   From here it spread to France, where a paper mill is documented at Troyes in 1338.  From Sicily via Italy the technology reached Germany, and in 1389 the first mill opened in Nürnberg.

In Europe, paper was made from rags, mainly hemp ropes and linen cloth, which needed to be collected, sorted into types of fibre and colour and then taken to a paper mill.  White paper, which was used in printing, could only be made from white fibres, for example old sails and old clothes, because there were no bleaches to remove colours.

Johannes Gutenberg had developed the printing press in the 1440s and 50s in Mainz.  It was an immediate success and quickly spread all over Europe.   With it the demand for paper increased tremendously.   By late 1476, William Caxton, a mercer, had established his printing business in Westminster, the first in Britain.[ii]  However, he had to import all the paper he needed from Italy and France via the Netherlands. This brought John Tate on the plan.

John Tate was (probably) the son of a mercer and sometime mayor of London, another John, and was born in approx. 1448.   He followed in his father’s footsteps, did an apprenticeship with the Mercers’ Company and eventually traded in his own right, mostly in fine cloth.  Tate was also involved with the Merchant Adventurers, who were controlled by the Mercers’ Company, on the continent, where he might have picked up the idea of making paper.

He was married to Elizabeth Marshall and they had three sons, John, Robert, and Thomas.  As he was later to describe himself as “of Mincing Lane”, it seems likely that he inherited his father’s house in that street.  John Tate snr had died in 1478.

It is probable that Caxton and Tate knew each as they were both mercers.  A letter sent in 1466 to Caxton was signed, among others, by a J. Tate.[iii] Though given that our John was only about 18 years old at the time, it might be more likely that this was his father.

Setting up a paper mill is not something which can be done overnight. Until a mill is fully operational the process takes a lot of time and organisational skill:

  • Find the right spot. There had to be fast-flowing water to drive the machinery.  However, as water was also an essential ingredient, it had to be the right quality of water.  For making paper you need “soft” water.
  • The site should not be too far from a large town, as popular sources for white fibres were old sails and old clothes. The closer you were to large numbers of people throwing out old clothes the better.
  • Once he had found a suitable site, he had to negotiate a lease and equip the mill with the necessary machinery.
  • Find skilled staff. It is unlikely that Tate had the time to do an apprenticeship as a paper maker, so he must have employed people who were experts in the trade.  And these must have been hired on the Continent, as there wasn’t another paper mill in Britain.  In addition to the paper making staff, he would have needed skilled staff to maintain the machinery.
  • It is clear that such a long process would take deep pockets, as it involved high expenses, before there was any chance of any money coming in.

The London mercer John Tate decided that Hertford suited his needs best.  There is the river Lea and its tributaries, which had for a long time supplied the power for several flour mills.  This could be used to power the machinery, and presumably also had the right water quality.  In addition, the Lea offered easy means of transport to London.  Tate set up shop by adapting a former flour mill, Sele Mill, on the River Beane.  It is located to the north, well outside the medieval town, so that the noise and smell would not be a nuisance to the inhabitants.  The Domesday Book had recorded three mills in Hertford.  It is generally assumed that Sele Mill was one of them.

It is not known, exactly when Tate started to set up the mill or when production began.  Some people have claimed that his watermark has been found on documents dating to the 1470s and 1480s, but the first verified document is only from 1494.  The document is a printed reissue of a bull of Pope Innocent VIII giving permission for the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.  By then, Tate’s mill must have been well established to be chosen to supply the paper for this project.

The following year the paper mill was awarded a substantial contract.  Wynkyn de Worde printed an English translation of the De proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomaeus Anglicus.  Each copy of the book has 478 leaves and it ran to 500 copies. In the colophon de Worde states that the paper of this book was made by John Tate’s paper mill.

And John Tate the yonger Joye mote he broke
Whiche late hathe in Englond doo make this paper thynne
That now in our englyssh this boke is[iv]

Not only a lucrative order, but also a good advertisement.

We know that the paper was produced by John Tate, because he – as did other papermakers – used an individual watermark. His has been described as “an eight-pointed star or petals of a flower (or “spokes of a wheel”) set in a double circle”.[v]

Henry VII stayed at Hertford Castle in May 1498 and took the opportunity to visit the paper mill.  He seems to have been impressed by what he saw, as his Privy Purse expenses record that, on 25 May 1498, he gave a reward of 16s 8d to the paper mill.  The following year, Tate received another reward of 6s 8d.

Britain’s First Commercial Paper Mill

Wynkyn de Worde

De Worde continued to use Tate’s paper for three more books.  Some of the pages in these later books show watermarks with Tate’s wheel as well as a Tudor rose.  It has been suggested that this paper was made after the king’s visit and some of it presented to him.

Despite royal favour and de Worde’s patronage, Tate’s mill does not seem to have been an economic success.  To make a profit, the mill would have needed more customers.   It has been calculated that the four de Worde folios together would have used approx. eight hundred reams, including paper for trial and waste.  A paper mill of this size would have needed to sell much more to be successful.  It is not quite clear, when production stopped.  Paper with his watermark was used in later print runs, but that might obviously have been from earlier stocks.

John Tate died in 1507 and was buried at his local parish church in London, St Dunstan-in-the-East.  In his will he leaves some “’whit or other paper” to a Thomas Bolls of Hertford.  Stevenson suggests that he was Tate’s foreman at the paper mill.  What about the “other paper”?  It might mean that the Hertford mill also produced brown paper.  An alternative is that it was imported and stored at Hertford.  In this context it is of interest that a Robert Tate (possibly John’s son) imported one hundred bundles of brown paper in 1497.

As far as the mill was concerned, Tate instructed his executors to sell the mill with all its equipment, as well as all land belonging to it (“woods, pastures, medes”).  Even though this venture had not been the success Tate had presumably hoped it would be, it does not seem to have affected his core business as a mercer.  In his will, he describes himself as “Citizen and Mercer of London” and evidently was a wealthy man.  He left his lands in Hertfordshire and Essex to his son Robert[vi], with the exception of the paper mill as explained above.  He also made provisions to various charities in his will.

In Hertford, a street is named after him, John Tate Road, though this is at the opposite side of the town from Sele Mill.  There is also a blue plaque in the area where the paper mill was situated.[vii]

There never was another paper mill at Hertford.  In 1700, the paper mill was replaced by a new grain mill which produced a flour called “Hertfordshire White”,[viii] which seems to have been in high regard in the 18th century.

Further reading:

Hills, R.L., Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988: A Short History.  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, pp. 1-12

Hills, R.L., ‘Tate, John (c. 1448–1507/8)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online 3 Jan. 2008) [last accessed online 12 April 2019]

Janzin, M. & Güntner, J., ‚Eine kurze Geschichte des Papiers’, in: Das Buch vom Buch: 5000 Jahre Buchgeschichte.  Schlütersche Verlagsgesellschaft, 3rd edition, 2007, pp. 94-97

Stevenson, A., ‘Tudor Roses from John Tate’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 20 (1967), pp. 15-34


[i] al-Hassani, S.T.S., ‘1000 Years of Missing Industrial History’, in:  A Shared Legacy: Islamic Science East and West, ed by Emilia Calvo et al. Edicions Universitat Barcelona, 2008, pp. 67-68

Hannawi, A.A., ‘The Role of the Arabs in the Introduction of Paper into Europe’, MELA Notes, no. 85 (2012), pp. 14-29

[ii] Blake, N.F., ‘Caxton, William (1415×24–1492)’, Oxford DNB (online 3 Jan. 2008) [last accessed online 25 Nov. 2019]

[iii] Blades, W., The Life and Typography of William Caxton, vol. 1. London, 1861, p. 92

[iv] Quoted in Hills, Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988, p. 6

[v] Hills, ODNB.  The “wheel” description is in Hills, Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988, p. 7

[vi] In the ODNB entry, Hills lists Tate’s three sons, with a John in first place indicating he was the eldest.  However, when outlining the provisions of Tate’s will in Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988, the same author refers to Robert as the “eldest son” (p. 11).  This could indicate that John predeceased him.

[vii] Open Plaques.  URL: [last accessed 2 Dec. 2019]

[viii] Thompson, I., ‘Hertford’, Extensive Urban Survey – Hertfordshire (2005). Online at Archaeology Data Service, URL: [last accessed 2 Dec. 2019]

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