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ST NEOTS PAPERMILL

There have been river mills on this site since the time of the Domesday Book but the site of the paper mill at Little Paxton is almost certainly that of Okestubbe Mill,  the medieval corn-grinding mill belonging to the monks from St Neots Priory.  In 1799 the mill was acquired by Ousley Rowley, who was building up his St Neots estate, rebuilt and let to Mr Hobson of Eaton Socon.

Paper Mill: About

The mill is located right on the boundary with Little Paxton and mistakenly known as the Little Paxton paper mill.  On old maps, such as the one shown,the parish boundary runs along the river just north of the mill placing it just inside St Neots.  However, in recent years the parish boundary was moved along the southern tributary of the river, which now makes the site within Little Paxton.

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In 1804 the mill was leased to a firm of paper-makers, Henry and Sealy Fourdinier and John Gamble. Henry had invented a new machine that would revolutionise the industry by making a long continuous web of paper. The new machine had the dual advantage of considerably higher productivity plus production in roll form, for applications such as wallpaper printing. A patent for the new machine was granted on 24 July 1806.  However, the research and installation costs were extremely expensive.  With the first machine costing £60,000, the  Fourdiniers could only fund this amount with a mortgage, which was taken out with Mathew Toogood, a London banker.

Paper Mill: Activities

The advantages of the new machine were so great that rivals soon acquired copies and were able to undercut the Fourdiniers.  Despite the patents they proved not to be water-tight and the brothers, heavy in debt, went into bankruptcy. Toogood, now owning the lease of the mill and all its equipment in return for his loan, decided to run the mill for himself.

A Fourdrinier_Style machine from America in the 1950s.

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Despite knowing little or nothing about paper making, Toogood employed experienced paper makers and, through sound business practices, was soon returning a good profit.  In 1823 the great flood raised the river 11 feet above the normal level resulting in the machinery disappearing under 5 feet of water and 4 men being trapped inside the mill for 4 days before being rescued.  Toogood died in 1830 and the business was taken over by his 3 sons. During their management of the mill the Toogoods made some considerable improvements including the introduction of steam power units in 1851 and then again in 1861, which removed their dependency on the uncertain water power. 

An imaginary view of the mill in 1888.

Paper Mill: Activities

Sixty years of Toogood prosperity was an important factor in the growth and well being of St Neots.  The mill employed a large and varied labour force, including skilled paper-makers and women as rag-pickers.  Such was the demand for quality paper than night shift working was common.  It was sometime during this period that  the  ‘traps’  was installed at the mill.  Built primarily to enable the mill workers to get to work, it  was a raised wooden pedestrian walkway which allowed access when the road was flooded.
The river in flood and the pedestrian 'traps', now replaced by a concrete structure.

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We can only imagine the distress when in 1887 the mill as one of the main employers of the town closed, coming in the same year as the closure of the Vulcan Iron Works when the Works’ owner George Bower filed for bankruptcy.   There is no record of why the mill closed but it must have been seen as a going concern because a consortium of local business people (John McNish of Paine’s Brewery, Joseph Wilcox, W. Emery, James Paine and W. Bowyer) decided to reopen in 1888 as the St Neots Paper Mill Company Limited. In an act of great benevolence the consortium took no money from the business until it became profitable again.


Post card from 1907 showing the inlet for the water that powered the stampers that beat the rag and other fibres into a pulp and beyond the drying sheds.

Paper Mill: Activities

By the turn of the 20th century it was clear that the business would suffer without serious investment, and In 1903 the obsolete steam-powered machinery was replaced by new turbines.  All was going well at the mill until 1912 when a major fire destroyed many of the old wooden buildings.

The paper mill fire of 1912.

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 Undeterred, the mill was soon rebuilt using brick and new equipment installed.  This increase in  efficiency and effectiveness brought with it a safer working environment and considerably more profit.  By 1913 the mill was producing the finest grades of bank, writing, ledger, drawing, chart, cartridge, typing, loan and envelope papers.

The damage caused by the fire of 1912.

Unfortunately, the mill’s fortunes were short lived owing to the  economic depression of the 1920s and the mill closed in 1939.  The Second World War, however, brought with it some unexpected benefits: the paper mill at Dover had to be evacuated, and the paper manufacturers and merchants Wiggins, Teape and Co acquired the site and relocated to Little Paxton.


After the war the new owners took immediate advantage of the hole in the paper exporting market left by Japan and expanded rapidly.  Unfortunately, this did not include the Little Paxton sIte and production went into decline.  In an attempt to capitalise on new trends the mill was converted for the manufacture of nylon but this too failed and the mill closed in 1948. 

Rag Room workers at the paper mill in 1902

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Paper Mill: Activities

The lease was then sold in 1950 to Samuel Jones Limited, who specialised in making gummed, coated and impregnated papers.

From the local newspaper, 1961

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Production carried on for the next 38 years but  by the mid 1980s the company was in serious financial difficulties and after the severe floods of 1988 the mill finally closed for good.  In 2002 the site was demolished to make way for 135 apartments and houses.  

In this photo from 1967, buildings have been extended to second island and the  stream filled in.


With many thanks to the St Neots Museum and for giving permission to use the pictures.

Other references available on request.

Paper Mill: Activities
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