Paper Making at Ballymagart
by Dorothea Nicholson

Rags make paper,
Paper makes money,
Money makes banks,
Banks make loans,
Loans make beggars,
Beggars make Rags.
Anon, l8th.C.

Ballymagart Mills are situated in a valley to the west of Ballyardel Road; near the White Water River (Grid Reference J 277143). They are reached by a lane which in earlier days resounded to the rattle of horses and carts bringing flax to be scutched, and grain to be ground. In still earlier days, the carts' contents would have been quite different. Probably there would have been bundles of rags of all colours and shapes, for then Ballymagart was the site of a paper mill, the only one in Mourne.

Paper Making

Undoubtedly the first paper makers were wasps. These small insects, without the use of any equipment, nibble at raw wood and transform it, through their digestive processes, into a paste-like substance resembling paper, and use it to make their nests. The first successful human attempt to manufacture something resembling paper was made in ancient Egypt using papyrus. Paper making, as we would recognise it now however, is said to have been mastered by Ts'ai Lun. a Chinese court official, in 105 AD.

Cellulose is the basic material for making paper. All natural plant materials contain it in varying amounts; cotton contains almost 100% cellulose. In the early days of paper making, its main source was rags, of linen or cotton. An abundant supply of clean water was also essential. In the paper mill, the rags were sorted according to colour and material, and objects such as buttons and fastenings removed. The rags were then cut into suitably sized pieces, and soaked with water and allowed to ferment for some time. When rotted sufficiently, the rags were then placed in troughs, and beaten into a pulp by wooden stampers with rough iron teeth or spikes at their tips. The stampers were lifted and let fall by the passage of a camshaft, usually a continuation of a shaft from the waterwheel which powered the mill. Water was allowed to run into the troughs and this cleansed the rags; the dirty water flowed out through holes at the side of the troughs, woven horsehair screens preventing the material escaping as well.'

A second pounding took place in another trough into which fresh water was added. In a third trough, where the stampers beat the 'half stuff' as the pulp was now called, no water was added in case the pulp would be lost through the strainers. The third set of stampers was made from plain wood without metal facings. With the development of the Hollander in the 1600s, the rotting of the rags ceased in some mills, and the pounding process was accelerated through the action of metal blades which macerated the rags. By now the rags, reduced to a porridge-like consistency, were transferred to vats, some of which were originally huge oak wine casks. A pole, with a perforated wooden disc at its tip, agitated the pulp to keep it from settling out. In later times this was replaced with a mechanical paddle wheel, or 'hog'.

From here, the vat man lifted some of the pulp on a wire-mesh mould, the top of which was framed by a deckle which acted as a fence to keep the pulp in shape. He gave it a two-way rolling shake to 'throw off the wave', thereby distributing the pulp evenly over the mould and intertwining the short fibres of the pulp. A watermark could be created by sewing a wire shape into the sieve of the mould. This created a thinner layer of pulp, which when held up to the light, appeared as a transparent image.

Having removed the deckle, the vat man passed the mould to the coucher who inverted what was now damp paper onto a damp woollen felt. There were two moulds and one deckle to each vat, so allowing the vat man to form the next sheet whilst the coucher removed the other. Having done this, another felt was placed over, and the process repeated. The process of dipping and couching continued until a pile or 'post' had been made. This usually consisted of six quires, or 144 sheets, and was put into a screw lever press and as much water as possible squeezed out.

A layman then removed the pressed sheets from the felts. The paper had then to be dried, one of the most important operations of the process. The sheets were hung in 'spurs' of four or five sheets (single sheets would have wrinkled) over lines of rope covered with horse or cow hair to prevent staining the paper. Sliding wooden shutters would be been opened in the walls to allow air to circulate around the sheets. If to be used for writing paper, the dry sheets would then be sized by being drawn through a solution of gelatine, then re-dried, surfaced by a pressing hammer (later replaced by wooden glazing rolls), and packed. Other uses of paper included wall papers, linen wrapping paper (blue paper), and ordinary brown wrapping paper.

The demands for rags was intense in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. To save linen and cotton rags, Parliament decreed in 1666 that only wool was to be used for burying the dead; in one year 200,000 lbs of linen and cotton were thus saved. As late as 1855, when rags were scarce during the American Civil War, Augustus Stainwood  imported shiploads of Egyptian mummies to his mills in Maine; each had some 300 yards of linen around them.

There were many experiments, using all kinds of substances, to find a cheap and readily available substitute for the costly rags. All kinds of substitutes were tested: cabbage leaves, thistles, straw, bog grass, even potatoes. It seems strange to us that no one thought of using wood However, it was only with the invention of Keller's wood grinding machine in 1840 that its use was feasible. Within a very short time, wood was being used everywhere for making paper; not only did it replace rags, but also increased the scope and variety of papers available.

Ballymagart Paper Mill

In Bradshaw's Directory of 1819, the following men are described as paper makers at "White River" - Bernard McCullough. Owen Lappin, Bernard Galagher, Michael Hogan; William Clark Emerson is listed as "paper manufacturer". It would thus seem that paper making was in progress in the earlier part of the 19th century at Ballymagart. Life in the mill would have been anything but easy. Work probably began at 6am, ending at 6pm. The mill would have been cold, the lighting poor, and the atmosphere damp and gloomy. Great physical endurance was needed to form the sheets on the mould. The work was often monotonous and the apprenticeship long. It is said that the old paper makers could readily be distinguished by their red muscular arms and hands, and sloping backs.

By 1834, Ballymagart mill belonged to Alex McDonald, but is described as being "five years out of use"; a scutch mill seems to have been established shortly afterwards. In 1853, the property was on the market in an Encumbered Sale. Amongst the property's details is the following:

Upon the lands and premises there are now erected and standing, a corn-mill with three pairs of stones, good machinery of the most modern construction, an excellent kiln and ample storage for carrying on an extensive trade, the whole erected in 1846. The Water Wheel is 24 feet in diameter, 6 feet broad, having a fall of 20 feet, and well supplied with water in the driest seasons. The Water Wheel and principal part of the buildings being originally Intended for a different business, is well adapted for a Spinning mill, Bleach mill, Paper mill, or any business requiring a supply of pure water, either river or spring; the dwelling houses and office-houses are fit for the reception of a respectable family.

Although it would appear that the site was suited to paper making, later documentation indicates that no further paper making ever took place, only flax scutching and corn milling occurring thereafter. It is as corn and flax mills that the complex as we now know it appears. The wheel referred to above, and which powers the cornmill, has on it the inscription "1837 Alex McDonell". As this is sometime after the cessation of paper making, the "different business" referred to need not necessarily have been paper manufacture. Indeed, nothing of the original paper mill appears to have survived, a careful survey of the site suggesting that these later buildings were erected more or less on the exact spot of the former paper mill.
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