Papermaking at Tuckenhay Mill

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Phillpotts - Breaking

Reference: [4] Storm in a Teacup by Eden Phillpotts (1919) - Chapter VIII

In the engine house a small, hump-backed man sat picking over the masses of wet rag brought to him by Henry Barefoot from the boilers. For, despite the sorters and the magnet, enemies to paper still lurked in the sodden rag, and the little man ran the sloppy stuff through his fingers, extracting from time to time fragments of rubber, whale- bone, pearl, and other substances.

The engine house was a lofty chamber on two floors, with windows that faced the west. Here, Ned Dingle reigned, and half a dozen men worked under him. Much happened to the rag before it came to Ned, for after its final picking, it was washed again, and broken before the beater turned it into pulp. When the little hump-backed man had passed it, the rag was set revolving with water in oval, lead-lined breakers. On one side the washer, like a steamer's paddle-wheel, churned in a bladed barrel, so that the rag was not only cleaned again, but also torn to the smallest fragments; on the other side a drum of brass wire sucked away the dirty water, while from the upper end clean water was perpetually spurting in. Round and round the rag revolved for three hours, by which time its character had changed entirely. It was, in fact, rag no more, but a substance like curds : "half stuff," or rag transformed and half-way to its final stages.

From the breakers the pulpy mass left the engine house for a time, and sojourned in the bleaching tanks beneath. It flowed down through pipes to a subterranean chamber, where the air was sharp with the smell of chemicals, and twelve great, gaping wells ranged round a narrow passage way. Here came the "half stuff" to repose on beds of Delabole slate, and endure the operations of the bleach for half a day or more. Then the liquid was drained off, the snow-white, solid masses forked out on to little trolleys, and so returned to Ned Dingle in the engine house. Again it revolved until the bleach was thoroughly washed out of it, for it is a principle of great paper making that the less chemicals, the better the pulp ; and now perfected, washed, broken and bleached, the material came to the beater for final dissection.

The beaters' engines were oval in form and resembled the breakers. They stood upon the lower floor of the engine house, and each communicated directly with the breaker above it, and the vat room far beneath. From final washing, the pulp flowed directly to Mr. Dingle, and, as before, revolved, and was churned by a paddle-wheel set with fine knives. Ned controlled it, and on his judgment depended the quality of the pulp that would presently flow down to Kellock, Knox, and the other vatmen.

He was explaining the process to a young man, who had just been promoted to his assistant from the breakers above. "It's got to meet every test that experience can bring against it, Jacob," he said. "And if it did not, I should mighty soon hear of it." He regulated the churning wheel with a footplate, and presently, satisfied that the mass, which was now like fine cream after revolving in the beating tank for many hours, had reached perfection, Ned took a test to satisfy himself.

Two hand-bowls, or dippers, he lifted, scooped up a few ounces of the pulp, then mixed it with pure water, and flung the liquid backwards from one dipper to the other, pouring off and adding fresh water until what was left in his bowl resembled water barely stained with soap. The pulp was now so diluted that it needed sharp eyes to see anything in the water at all; but Dingle, taking it to the window, set it slowly dribbling away over the edge of the bowl, and as it flowed, the liquid revealed tiny fragments and filaments all separate, and as fine as spider's thread.

The spectacle of these attenuated fibres of cotton told the beaterman that his engine was ready and the pulp sufficiently fine. The masses of rag, once linen and lace, and every sort of textile fabric woven of cotton, had become reduced to its limit of tenuity, and was now far finer stuff than in the cotton pod of its creation. It had been beaten into countless millions of fibrils, long and short, and all so fine as to need sharpest scrutiny of human eye to distinguish them.

Jacob a future beaterman followed Ned's operations closely; then he made a test himself and watched the cotton gossamer flow over the edge of his bowl.

"And next week," declared Ned, "something finer still has got to be made so fine that I shall have to borrow a pair of spectacles to see it good as my eyes are. And that's the pulp for the Exhibition moulds. It's to be a record such paper as never before was made in the world. But this is just ordinary, first class rag pulp stuff that will last till doomsday if properly handled. Now it's going down to Knox's vat."

He sent a boy to the vat room to warn Philander that a re-inforcement was about to descend. Then he sought a square shaft in the corner of the engine house, took off the lid and revealed an empty, lead-lined box, having six holes at the bottom. Each was securely stopped and all communicated with the great chests that held the pulp for the paper makers below.

He opened one hole, drew a valve from the beating engine and allowed it slowly to empty into the box. The white mass sank away out of it ; there was a gurgle and a splash of air from the valve as the engine emptied; while with a wooden rake Ned scraped the last of the pulp to the aperture, whence it ran to the box above the chests in the vat room.

"No. 4 chest is being filled, so it's No. 4 hole I've opened in the box," he explained. " Now it's all run down very quick you see, and my beater is empty."

Then the breaker above disgorged another load of "half stuff" into the beater, and after he had used a beating roll, he set the paddle-wheel going again and the new consignment revolved on its way.

Ned took a keen interest in his work and though he might be casual and easy-going in all other affairs of life, it was clear that he could be serious enough over the operations of the beater. He was very thorough and never left anything to chance. Opportunity for initiative did not enter into his labours; but the hard and fast lines of perfection he followed with keen application, and it was his fair boast that he had never sent bad pulp to the vatmen. Though a mechanical calling, Ned did not approach it in a mechanical spirit. It was his particular gift and privilege to feel a measure of enthusiasm in the craft, and he prided himself upon his skill.

Novelty now awaited him, for the pulp presently to be made would differ in quality from the familiar material. The beating it to an impalpable fineness would be his work. The pulp was also to be dyed with new tinctures, not used until now. For not only snowwhite material descended to the vat room. The dyeing was a part of Mr. Dingle's operation in many cases, and the various colours of foreign currency papers went into the stuff during its sojourn in the beaters.