North Kent developed during the 19th Century as an important location for the paper industry as its situation on the River Thames provided access for the transport of timber from the Scandinavian forests. The area became a focus for producing newsprint from pulp to serve the newspaper industry, mainly in London.
Carl Ekman and George Fry introduced the Ekman-Fry process of treating wood for paper making on a commercial scale at their Northfleet laboratory in the 1880s.
In 1888 Alfred Charles William Harmsworth launched a magazine called ‘Answers’ that eventually made him enough money to launch a new title called ‘Comic Cuts’ on 17 May 1890. It was the first halfpenny comic paper with cartoons and strips mainly from American publications. It was extremely popular with a readership of some 2.5 million by 1892 so Harmsworth launched a string of juvenile papers based on this and the development of new printing methods, notably roto-gravure. Harmsworth rationalised the range of publishing businesses as Amalgamated Press in 1901 based in Fleetway House, Farringdon Street, London. He went on to found the Daily Mirror newspaper and became owner of The Times. He was knighted, becoming Lord Northcliffe and died in 1922.
Amalgamated Press occupied premises on the riverside at Gravesend and traded as Imperial Paper Mills, to process the pulp into newsprint, from the early 1900s through to the 1980s when the paper industry declined locally. The bulk of the pulp came from the company’s timber forest at Grand Falls Newfoundland from 1910. Harmsworth Printers in Crete Hall Road also owned by Amalgamated Press, printed magazines and comics. The company was bought by the Mirror Group in 1959 and renamed Fleetway Printers.
The riverside site was redeveloped in the mid 1980s as the Imperial Business Estate, a mix of retail, industrial, warehouse and leisure units.
William Vansittart Bowater founded the Bowater company in London in the 1880s as a paper wholesaler and agent for the purchase of newsprint on behalf of newspaper publishers. Bowaters then developed through contacts with Alfred Harmsworth and Edward Lloyd (Daily Chronicle). Following the founder’s death in 1907, Bowaters became a limited liability private company named W V Bowater and sons Ltd. Bowaters’ first step towards becoming a paper manufacturer was the purchase of a site at Crete Hall Road, Northfleet in May 1914. World War 1 interrupted the firm’s plans and it was not until 1923 that the construction of a paper mill could be considered. As a result of problems during the construction phase, full production did not start on the site until July 1925. Bowaters’ business plan was based on rapid expansion and by the end of 1930 the company produced 22% of the total UK output of newsprint.
Wartime controls to divert resources to the war effort meant that the Northfleet Mill had to close down completely. After the war, a rapid revival of demand for newsprint appeared unlikely so the company diversified into paper packaging. This strategy continued to be effective so that by the mid 1950s the company entered into the rapidly growing tissue market. The company was taken over by the Scott Paper Group in the mid 1980s. The successful manufacture of well-known brands of tissue such as Andrex still continues on the site today by the Kimberly-Clark Corporation who acquired the company in 1995.
The Inveresk Paper Company Ltd was incorporated in 1922 in Musselburgh, Scotland, as a vehicle to bring together a number of independent paper mills. As part of this business plan the company acquired a number of businesses associated with papermaking including a trading estate in Northfleet on the site of the old British Vegetable Parchment Mills. The company was noted for the manufacture of strong ply sacks used to transport commodities such as tea, flour, sugar, potatoes, chemicals and minerals. Paper Sacks, part of the Dickenson Robinson Group, acquired the company in the early 1970s. The Swedish packaging company Korsnas in turn, acquired DRG in 1988. The site closed down as a business in the early 2000s and has now been developed as a housing estate.
Due to the importance of the area for the paper making industry, other companies were located here including Kent Kraft Mills, The Reed Paper Group and Empire Paper Mills at nearby Greenhithe.
Kent in the 20th Century edited by Nigel Yates
See also the section on this website on Famous People – Carl Ekman.