Where does paper come from?

The early days

When the Domesday Book was written in AD 1086, because paper was not known in Britain, its pages were made from parchment.

What is Parchment? Parchment is made from animal skins

To make enough parchment for the pages of the Domesday book, between 500 and 800 sheep were needed.


The name ‘paper’ comes from the Latin papyrus which was made from a grass-like plant, sliced into layers and beaten into sheets. This is why many people think that the first paper was made by the Egyptians. In fact, paper had its origins in China as early as AD 105. T’sai Lun, a Minister in the Emperor’s Palace, boiled rags and old fishing nets, then beat them to make a pulp. A mat woven from bamboo strips and silk threads was stretched over a wooden frame and was dipped into the pulp. The fibres from these rags settled on the mat and water drained away to form a sheet of paper

Paper in England

The earliest reference to England’s first mill was in a book printed by Caxton in about 1490 and, in fact, its products were used for an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The mill belonged to John Tate and is supposed to have been near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. Confirmation that a certain Mr Tate had a paper mill in 1498 is provided by an entry in the household book of Henry VII. In 1588 Sir John Spielman had a paper mill at Dartford and was granted special privileges by Queen Elizabeth for the collection of rags and other fibrous raw materials.

Paper in 17th Century England

Researches have shown that in the reign of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, small mills were established near Edinburgh. Evidence also exists of a mill at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire at this time, and by the middle of the 17th century several mills apparently existed in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey.

Papermaking Process

Take a look at the video above. The film was taken in the 1930s at Bathford Paper Mill (with thanks to Portals Bathford for providing the footage). You can see men in their flat caps and braces, smoking in the machine house - certainly practices that would never be allowed today! 

Although the basic processes of papermaking have remained unchanged for nearly two thousand years paper, once made by hand in individual sheets, is now made on enormous papermaking machines (look at the picture on the right), four times the length of a cricket pitch. In one week a single machine can produce enough paper to stretch from London to New York.

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