Samuel Ramsden's Paper Mill

[Ramsdens Paper Mills, Melbourne, Victoria]

Following the death of Thomas Kenny a local flour miller named Samuel Ramsden became interested in his project and in September 1867 commenced the construction of a paper mill on the River Yarra opposite Flinders Street Railway Station, Melbourne. He purchased the papermaking machine that Kenny had imported and employed Alexander Steele and Nathaniel Kerr to set up and run the mill. In May 1868 Samuel Ramsden succeeded in producing Victoria's first paper at his newly completed mill. On 4 May 1868 "The Evening Star" newspaper published an edition of 100 copies on the first hundred sheets of newsprint produced at Ramsden's mill.

MR. RAMSDEN'S PAPER-MILL Within a few days the manufacture of paper will be commenced at Mr. Ramsden's mill, on the south bank of the Yarra, just below Prince's-bridge; and as the process is a very interesting one, the public will no doubt be largely represented in the machine-room when first the pulp begins to flow. But for the benefit of those not privileged to look on at the birth of the Victorian paper manufacture, we now propose to describe Mr. Ramsden's factory buildings and machinery, and give in advance some slight sketch of the process of manufacture there to be carried on. As to the history of the enterprise, a few words will suffice. So long as four or five years ago there was some talk about setting up a paper-mill in the colony, to use up the plentiful supply of rags then being exported to England for the use of the papermakers there, and it was in contemplation to start a company for that purpose. But nothing was done until about the middle of 1865, when the late Mr. Thomas Kenny took the matter into his own hands, and sent an order to Messrs. Bertram and Sons, of Edinburgh, for a complete set of paper-making machinery. In due course his order was executed, and the machinery delivered at Dight's Falls, beside which Mr. Kenny had commenced to erect his factory. But failing means and failing health prevented his carrying on his spirited enterprise to completion, and when death removed him the machinery remained as a somewhat impracticable asset in his estate. Again there was an attempt to set up a company to carry on the affair, but again it failed. Mr. Samuel Ramsden, proprietor of the Carlton flour-mill, then purchased the plant for about £3,000 (it had cost Mr. Kenny £8,000), and proceeded to erect the buildings necessary for the carrying on of the manufacture, which were pushed on with such energy that now, only about six months after they were commenced, manufacturing operations are about to be commenced. It is fortunate that the affair has fallen into the hands of a man of competent means and of energetic business habits, so that Victorian paper-making may be commenced under advantageous circumstances. We understand Mr. Ramsden's outlay will amount to £20,000 before a sheet of paper has been produced, and we are sure all will join in hoping that his spirited enterprise may be liberally rewarded.

The origin of the paper manufacture has never been satisfactorily traced. At a very early period the Chinese had attained to considerable skill in it, and it has been conjectured that a knowledge of their art spread into Europe in the tenth century, or earlier. The oldest known manuscript on paper bears date 1050, and for the next 200 years both manufactured paper and the Egyptian papyrus appear to have been in use, so that the advantages of the artificial over the natural paper were not very speedily recognised. The first English paper-mill of which we have trustworthy accounts was established in 1588, at Dartford, and its owner - Spielman, a German - received the honour of knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in reward of his enterprise, and a licence "for the sole gathering for ten years, of all rags," &c. But paper-mills must have been set up at least a century earlier, for Shakespeare makes it one of Jack Cade's accusations against Lord Say, in the reign of Henry VI, that he had "built a paper-mill", and one of Caxton's books, published in 1490, was printed on English-made paper. It was not until quite recently, however, that the manufacture grew into large dimensions. Paper-making was 800 years old in Europe, and between 200 and 300 years old in Great Britain, before the aid of machinery was fully enlisted on its behalf, and it is certain that without this aid production never could have kept pace with demand. The enormous consumption of paper in our own day is mainly due to the cheapness which has resulted from the use of machine in lieu of hand labour in its production; and the inventor of the papermking machine has perhaps done more for the spread of knowledge than can be claimed on behalf of any other man whom the world has seen. Some of the cheap periodicals were started for the express purpose of working off accumulating stores of paper, and the whole family of sixpenny volumes and penny numbers are the legitimate offspring of the machine in question. And it so happens that the name of its inventor is the only one that the paper manufacture has inscribed on the catalogue of successful inventors. He was one Louis Robert, a clerk in a paper-mill at Essonne, in France, when he was inspired with the idea that paper might be made in a continuous web by means of a machine, and, fortunately for the world, he had sufficient energy and purpose to work out his idea until he succeeded in actually producing a web of paper. True, it was only half an inch broad, but from it all the paper-making machines of our day have descended. In 1799 Robert obtained a patent for his invention from his own Government, and in 1801 his machine was introduced into England by the Messrs. Fourdrinier, who fared so ill with it that in the course of six years they spent £60,000 in improving it, when, failing to secure such protection as was necessary to their repaying themselves, they were obliged to seek protection in the Insolvent Court. Some female members of these enterprising gentlemen's family are now the recipients of a small pension out of the fund set aside for their reward of literary merit, which surely is well deserved, considering the benefits for which literature stands indebted to their name. Many other improvements have since been effected, and some additions made to the paper-making machinery; but M. Robert's beautiful invention stands boldly out as the main source of that enormous paper production which has covered the whole face of the earth with printed matter.

In describing Mr. Ramsden's mill, we shall begin with

THE BUILDINGS The mill premises stand upon a piece of ground held from the Government under a seven years' lease, and are substantially built of brick, on bluestone foundations and slate-roofed. One building comprises the machine and finishing room, and will be 205ft. in length when completed, by 32ft. in breadth. At right angles with this there are four houses two storeys high, of 46ft. by about 25ft., in which the earlier manufacturing processes are carried on. The engine and boiler houses and chimney-stalk adjoin, and there are two large rag stores in the yard. A commodious cottage, occupied by the manager, fronts the entrance gate. Outside the mill there is a large iron boiler standing on brick piers, into which water is pumped from the Yarra, and thence drawn off as required in the process of manufacture. To protect the works against flooding the floors have been built at an elevation of about 5ft., and the whole area of the yard is being filled in to that level by the deposit of the stuff now being removed from the Town-hall site.

THE MOTIVE POWER Two boilers, of 30ft. by 7½ft. each, with two flues, generate steam to drive the engines, boil the rags, heat the drying cylinders, and perform various other useful offices. They were made by the Langlands' Foundry Company, and comprise all the new improvements and fittings. The principal engine is horizontal and direct acting, working up to 70-horse power, with a pressure on the boiler of 60lb. This engine drives all the machinery except the paper-making machine, which has a pretty little12-horse power engine to itself, situated in the machine-house, and supplied from the steam boilers already mentioned. The wheels, shafts, and driving belts that convey the power all over the factory, are of most formidable and complicated appearance, but all seems to be well arranged and of the best workmanship.

THE RAW MATERIAL As is well known, linen and cotton rags are the material out of which paper is made; but of late the world's supply has been running short, and many efforts have been made to find a suitable substitute - only with indifferent success, however. Paper can be made of almost any kind of vegetable or woody fibre, and earthy matters have even been used when thickness of substance was required rather than quality. But the use of the latter is little better than adulteration and the straws and other vegetable materials that have been used have proved so costly to prepare that there has been little gained by them. Experiments are now being made at Mr. Ramsden's mill with New Zealand flax, and with sundry Australian grasses, with a view to testing their capabilities as materials for paper, and the hope is entertained that one excellent substitute for rags has already been discovered; but rags will be the main dependence, and of these ten or twelve tons a week will be required. So far there is no reason to fear that the supply will fall short. Mr. Ramsden has a depot in Latrobe-street, where rags are received from various parts of the country, and purchased from the gatherers. The price given is about £3 per ton for old bags, &c., and up to £8 for good linen and cotton rags.

THE HANDS Among these, the principal persons are Mr. Kerr, the manager, and Mr. Steele, the engineer, by whom the machinery has been erected. Both are intelligent men and seem highly competent in their respective walks. Mr. Kerr, we understand was the first to start the idea of making paper in the colony, and Mr. Steele came out specially to set up the paper-making machinery. When in full work, the mill will employ between sixty and seventy persons - forty of whom will be women and girls. A very short experience will qualify them for their duties. Indeed, very little skilled labour is required - only two or three trained papermakers and two of these have already been engaged. The female hands will be employed chiefly in rag-sorting - a dirty job. When they have acquired some little dexterity, they will be put on piece-work. During the past week or two there have been constant applications for employment by people of both sexes, and nearly all ages.

THE PROCESS OF MANUFACTURE Although the process of manufacture has not yet commenced at this factory, we shall describe it as if in progress, in order that our account may be the more readily understood by our readers; for to describe the several utensils and machines in an unemployed condition would convey but little information. Beginning at the beginning, then, we find bales of miscellaneous rags delivered on the floor of an upstairs room, and taken in hand by a small army of female workers, who sort them into different parcels, according to their quality. For the present, only two kinds of paper will be made at Mr. Ramsden's mill - "news" for which there is a demand in the colony far beyond the mill's power to supply, and wrapping paper, which will be made out of the rags received which are too rough for "news". There are thus only two parcels among which the raw material received at Mr. Ramsden's mill has to be distributed. Besides sorting the rags, the hands employed in this department have to look them over carefully, and remove all such foreign bodies as buttons, eyelet-holes, &c., and particularly all scraps of indiarubber. During the past few years the last-named substance has been employed in the manufacture of those elastic bands which enter so largely into the work of the dressmaker and milliner, and coming to the paper-maker in due course, this indiarubber has been the occasion of much trouble, anxiety, and cost. Not only is it extremely difficult to separate from the linen or cotton with which it has been associated, but when it escapes the vigilance of the manufacturer it produces very unpleasant consequences later on. In this room the rags are also cut into convenient sizes. Bits of sythe-blades about fifteen inches long are fixed into tables or benches and the large pieces of rag are rubbed against these and ultimately cut against their faces until reduced to the required dimensions.

From the apartment the sorted rags pass down through a shoot to the cutting-room, and are there in the first place put through a machine not very unlike a chaffcutter, in which they are reduced to patches of about three inches square; thence into a machine called a "willow," in which they are torn to pieces between two toothed drums, which card and open out the texture of the rags; and then into a "duster," which is an open-sparred cylinder of four feet diameter and twelve feet long, slightly inclined from the feeding to the delivery-end, and with spikes inside, which beats the dust out of the rags, and discharges it through the rods of which its sides are composed.

The material is then sent up-stairs, by means of an elevator, to the boiling-house, where there are three steam-tight boilers, each capable of containing a ton of rags at the stage they have now reached. These boilers are fitted with two steam-tight doors - one for charging and another for discharging - and also pipes in their bottom to drain off the liquor when the stuff is boiled enough. They can sustain a pressure of ten pounds to the inch, and are fitted with steam gauges, like ordinary boilers. The rags are boiled from six to twelve hours, according to their quality and the kind of paper to be made from them, in an alkaline lye, stronger or weaker as circumstances may demand. The chemicals are prepared in vats in the boiler-house, heated by steam from the engine-house boiler.

The maceration of the rags is the next process, and this is accomplished by very competent machines. Formerly it was effected by means of fermentation - now only mechanical means are employed. From the boilers the material is conveyed, in wheeled boxes, to the "breaking" or "washing" engines, six in number, which are oblong troughs, divided by a partition, to direct the stuff into a continuous stream; and in this trough a cylinder revolves furnished with numerous steel knives parallel to its axis. In the bottom of the trough there are a number of steel knives placed obliquely, and between these and the revolving blades the rags are triturated into filaments not exceeding one-sixteenth of an inch - in fact, as fine as may be desired - for the two sets of knives can be brought nearer and nearer to each other by depressing the bearers on which the shaft of the revolving cylinder is supported. From this engine the water is removed as fast as it is soiled, by a very ingenious contrivance. A wire gauze drum revolves in it, with a few inches of immersion, and, taking up water without letting any pulp pass through, discharges it through a hollow axle-shaft with which it is provided. There is at the same time a constant stream of clear water running into the engine, and the process goes on until the water comes away quite clear, generally in about two hours. The material has now reached the stage at which it receives the name of "half-stuff," and is removed to the "poaching-engines," exactly resembling the breaking-engine except that it is without cutting-knives, and here the bleaching liquor is applied. After remaining about an hour in this engine, the stuff passes to the bleaching boxes - stone troughs, eighteen in number, the bleaching liquor accompanying it. Here it remains from four to six hours until thoroughly bleached, when the liquor is drained off, and carefully squeezed out by means of hydraulic pressure, equal to forty tons, the liquor being reserved for future use, and so used on successive lots of material until exhausted of its bleaching properties. It is then raised in chests by means of an hydraulic lift to the upper floor and any remaining chlorine washed out of it in the beating engine, which reduces it to the condition of pulp. Here it receives any colouring matter that is to be applied, and also the size, if for printing paper, the size in this case consisting of vegetable materials prepared with soda ash. Fine writing papers are sized at a later stage, and with animal materials. In the beating engine the stuff remains for a longer or shorter time, according as the intended paper is to be fine or coarse, a screw adjustment regulating the texture of the film which results from the process.

We next find the pulp, now reduced to the consistency of milk, and resembling that substance in appearance, in two large vats occupying the upper end of the machine-house, and each capable of containing the material for 10cwt. or 12cwt. of paper. It is highly important to supply this fluid to the machine of an even consistency, and it is continually stirred up in the vats already mentioned by means of revolving agitators. From them it runs down a shoot into a well, and is again pumped into a smaller vessel, also fitted with an agitator, in which the liquor is constantly maintained at the same level by means of an overflow pipe. Again, running down from this charging vessel, the fluid is raised by means of a lifting-wheel on to a shallow trough, in which there are many divisions, or traps, to catch any sand that it may contain, and flowing over the ledge of this trough the thin pulp spreads over a brass table, called the "knotter" or "strainer," in which there are fine slits, and to which a gentle shaking motion is communicated. Through these slits the liquid passes, leaving behind any objectionable substances which had not been got rid of in the preceeding process.

We have now arrived at the most important operation of all - namely the conversion of the milk-like substance whose progress we have been following into a web of paper and long as it took to find out how to effect this, the process is exceedingly simple when seen, and as beautiful as it is simple. From that shaking table the pulp flows over on to an endless web of brass wire gauze, of 3,600 squares to the inch, which moves slowly along over brass rollers, the water gradually trickling away through the interstices in the web. By and by the pulp is deposited in the form of a thin film, when, passing over two boxes in which a partial vacuum is created, the remaining water is sucked out of it. This "exhaust" (as the workmen call it) used to be formed by means of air-pumps, but in Mr. Ramsden's machine a simpler plan is adopted. A pipe passes up from floor to ceiling at the ends of the boxes, with branches leading into them, and a jet of steam being sent through these the atmospheric air is driven out and a partial vacuum formed in both pipes and boxes. At this stage the "dandy roller" comes into play, and gives the paper what is called its "water-mark." In olden times this was a matter of some importance, and the paper was impressed with marks or symbols, such as "foolscap," "pot," &c., from which particular makes still derive their names. Now, few marks are used except the maker's name, and not always that. The "couchers" are two felt-covered rollers, one of mahogany and the other of copper, which revolve towards each other, and passing between which the half-made paper is compressed. These rollers are in contact, and their pressure can be regulated at the will of the paper-maker. Being further pressed between other rollers, the paper, now a kind of tender web, passes on to drying cylinders. These are three feet in diameter and five in number, and are heated by means of steam, becoming hotter and hotter as they advance in the order of the series. The paper is kept in contact with thier surface by means of guide rollers and an endless web of felt, which travels round the cylinders and carries the web of paper along with it. It is here that good workmen are most wanted. If through any accident the web of paper should break during the process of manufacture, only skilled hands can put the broken end to the machine again. It is here also the indiarubber creates a difficulty. If the smallest speck of it reaches the drying cylinders it melts, spreads out, and causing the web to adhere almost certainly occasions a fracture.

Three highly polished iron rollers, pressing upon each other with their own weight, and revolving in the same direction, form the "cullander," and in passing round and between these the paper acquires as much glaze as printing papers require, and is then rolled on to a cylinder in a finished condition. Nothing remains but to cut it into sheets, and pack it up for sale.

The cutting machine is a very beautiful instrument, and deserves a word of description. It can deal with a great many webs of paper at once, the one erected at Mr. Ramsden's being fitted for seven. These, on their respective rollers, being put to the cutting machine, and their ends entered all together between two revolving cylinders, the paper is drawn in, receiving in its progress as many longitudinal divisions as may be required. Then, at intervals previously arranged by means of a very ingenious adjustment, the feeding cylinders cease to revolve, and a transverse cutting knife comes down slowly and majestically, and cuts the webs across, thus reducing the webs to sheets. These are now hand-picked, when all damaged sheets are laid aside, and the remainder counted into quires and reams, and packed for the market.

In the manufacture of fine writing papers the process is slightly different in the later stages, but Mr. Ramsden's operations will be confined, for a time at least, to the manufacture of "news," for which there is a demand in the colony far beyond the power of his factory to supply. In closing this necessarily imperfect account of an important new colonial industry, we may say that Mr. Ramsden's paper-mill will well repay the trouble of a visit, and that the proprietor and his managers afford every reasonable facility for viewing the works.

"The Australasian" (2 May 1868) (Reprinted from "The Argus")

When Samuel Ramsden died in February 1877 his adjoining mills in Melbourne passed to his son, George Ramsden who ran them until 1882 when they were sold to William Brookes and Archibald Currie. In 1895 Brookes and Currie, through their agent Robert George McCutcheon, acquired the Barwon Paper Mills. They then joined with James Macdougall of the Broadford Mill to form "The Australian Paper Mills Co. Ltd.", combining the mills at Melbourne, Geelong and Broadford into the one firm.


Amcor Archives (University of Melbourne Archives, Baillieu Library, Melbourne)


Victoria "The Argus"; "The Australasian"; "The Evening Star"

Image: State Library of Victoria

© 2005-2017 Alexander Romanov-Hughes

Papermaking in Victoria to 1900  |  Back to Home Page