Papermaking at Tuckenhay Mill

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Past - Decline

Reference: One of Devon's Industrial Hamlets - Tuckenhay by Richard Evans (1969)

These boom years, however, did not last for very long. A picture taken inside the vathouse about 1930 shows a vatman making a sheet of paper at number six vat, numbers seven and eight appear dry and unused in the background. The picture was taken for advertisement purposes showing that efforts were still being made to obtain sufficient orders for the mill to keep going, but the whole country was in the doldrums between 1930 and 1935 and the papermakers of Tuckenhay suffered with the rest.

Stories are told of men walking the five miles into Totnes to draw the dole, spending time on their gardens, planting in spring and chasing the cabbage whites from their vegetable plots in late summer. A few found temporary employment on local farms, particularly during the harvest months but there were too many to be absorbed in this way.

The mill was the centre of life in Tuckenhay and it sponsored football teams and other social functions. Two notable occasions were the Silver Jubilee, 6th May 1935, and the Coronation, 12th May 1937 celebrations. The programme for these celebrations show that both events used the mill gates as a meeting place and list the Millbourn family well up amongst the officials. The programmes themselves appear to be printed on slightly spoiled hand-made paper. Spoilage has always been a costly problem when making paper by hand.

By 1935 the Original Society of Papermakers had been reduced almost solely to a position of wage bargaining. Their minutes for 1st October 1935 to 5th November 1935 particularly reflect this and one paragraph contains a poignant echo of their proud past.

"A large proportion of present day apprentices are non-papermakers' sons, and as such, have not grown up with the traditions of the Trade, which has done so much in the past to produce good Craftsmen. It was the pride of many papermakers' sons to be able to make and couch paper, which he had heard so much talk about, but this is not the case with the present generation."

Even during the war years this fight for a reasonable wage and conditions of service for their members continued. It reached a state where the Ministry of Labour was brought in to arbitrate in 1941. The Minutes reflect, with such wording as "The hand-made trade was a most unremunerative one" and "The O.S.P have been doing their best to keep the trade together but they could do little owing to the shrinkage of the trade," that the Original Society were fighting a losing battle.

The blow finally fell in 1947 when a resolution was passed to the effect that the O.S.P. should be wound up. Their family type members were to be absorbed into the anonymity of a larger union.

The Craftsmen at Tuckenhay were still jealous guardians of the secrets of their trade and "a ring was held on 8th October 1947 to discuss this matter". As a result, their clerk was instructed to write to the Secretary of the Original Society informing him that Tuckenhay Mill intended carrying on as Hand-made Papermakers under O.S.P. rules and did not intend to join the new union. And carry on they did.

The John Hilton Bureau was consulted and gave advice which the members followed in setting up their own union. In conjunction with it they ran their own Superannuation and Benevolent finds. Proud of themselves and of their Craft, they were used to running their own affairs in this small way. They continued to press for increased wages when necessary but now it was a local matter simply between the men and their employer.

It seems that the demand for hand-made paper was not dead. The Millbourn Blue Wove Long Ledger was the subject of negotiations early in 1951 and a new sort carrying the watermark 'OYEZ' was produced for the Law Society in 1950. The Minutes also reflect concern with the Trade itself and the welfare of its members. Position of Apprentices, the readmittance of past members and a tenancy agreement for members living in houses belonging to the mill are some of the points discussed. The Society eventually dissolved in December 1952, though the Superannuation and Benevolent sections continued to run until they were finally shared amongst the remaining members in July 1964.

The Minutes also record that the mill changed hands again in July 1951 and control passed to the present owners; a consortium of three, - Dr. Grant, Mr Harrison and one other. Changes now started to take place, one or two vats were taken out in 1953 or 1954 and a machine installed. For a few years hand-made and machine-produced papers were turned out side by side but there was difficulty in getting sufficient orders to keep the mill running profitability, though it is still proudly claimed that the Proclamation for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was read out from paper produced here.

New outlines were sought and new products considered. Filter blocks were made in addition to paper for a while. Then a demand for pulp was exploited. It was found that this could become a profitable enterprise. The decision was made that the vats must go to provide the space and machinery needed for the new venture. The last hand-made paper was produced here on 5th January 1962 - a sad day for the proud craftsmen perhaps but the mill continues to provide work and now draws its labour force from a wider area spreading as far as Totnes and Dartmouth. The pulp is required both at home and abroad. The produce of the mill os still exported to many countries and plays its parts in helping to improved the export trade figures of the nation.

The mill finally closed in August 1970.

Addendum: Richard Evans (1994)

Tuckenhay Mill, after its distinguished manufacturing past, was eventually sold in 1977 and converted by the present owner into well appointed and flourishing holiday accommodation complete with leisure facilities.