From the article ‘James Cropper Plc – the development of a modern paper manufacturer’ by Duncan Hutt in The North West Mills Group Newsletter 45 (1995), by kind permission of the author and publisher
James Cropper Plc has been making paper at their Burneside mills (north of Kendal) since 1845, however the history of the site and its various uses can be traced back much further. It is known that there was a manorial corn mill at Burneside in the 13th century, and by 1334 it was worth 20 shillings. On the same race there was also a sharp edge or sickle mill and a fulling mill, and on the opposite bank was a fleecing mill. Both the corn mill and sickle mill were bought by the Wakefield family in about 1750. In 1760 John Wakefield built a woollen mill situated on what is now the reception car park of Croppers. This mill quickly became a very successful business bringing in about £2000 in the 1760’s.
Following the success of the woollen mill John Wakefield set about a programme of expansion and change. He converted the sickle mill to a corn mill, and included a preparation plant for his newly built cotton mill in 1770. The cotton mill was extended with the new machinery after 1770 but proved to be uneconomic due to the competition from the Lancashire mills. To make matters worse the woollen mill lost trade with Yorkshire competition and, following their war of independence in 1776, also with the American market.
In 1828 the Wakefields leased the cotton mill to Hudson and Foster who installed a second-hand paper machine. The trio also installed a machine at the Cowan Head mill, a few miles upstream from Burneside.
Cowan Head Mill was also part of the Cropper’s business complex until its closure in 1977. The history of the mill is a little less elaborate than that of Burneside. In 1735 it is known that a fulling mill existed in Cowan Head. Thomas Ashburner, a local publisher who started “The Kendal Weekly Mercury” (later “The Agreeable Miscellany”), bought the fulling mill in 1746 and converted it to make paper. James Ashburner took over the business and eventually the mill passed to the Wilson family.
In 1845 James Cropper rented the Burneside Mill from the Wakefield family, and the Cowan Head Mill from the Wilsons. In 1854 Cowan Head was bought, and in 1880 Bowston Mill, between Burneside and Cowan Head, was also purchased. Bowston Mill may well have begun life as a fulling mill, but a new building was constructed to prepare rags and ropes for the other two mills. Bowston Mill was closed in the early 1960s when waste paper rather than rags was used in the paper pulp.
The development of the Cropper’s business was not without incident. In 1886 Burneside Mill was destroyed by fire. The cost of rebuilding was high and probably resulted in the freehold acquisition from the Wakefield family. A further incident occurred in 1893 when the Cowan Mill chimney blew down killing three workers.
The history of water power at the various sites is a long one. Water power was used in part of the process of paper manufacture at Cowan Head from 1750 to the early 1970s. In 1854 a Thompson’s Patent Vortex Turbine was installed to replace the waterwheel. Alterations occurred in the 1930s, and two turbines were put in place which developed 110 and 200 horsepower. These turbines, however, did not provide sufficient power, and at a public enquiry in the 1970s the company failed to get reduced water charges from the water authority so the turbines were taken out of commission and alternative power was used. At Burneside there was a 300 hp turbine which was removed in about 1970 when the plant was modernised.
Other power was provided by the installation of Lancashire boilers in 1899 at Cowan Head, which were still in use in 1977. In 1919 a steam turbine was installed at Burneside which produced power for lighting the mill and provided electricity for the village. The possibility of supplying power to Kendal was also discussed but was ruled out. A Parsons turbine was installed in 1839 and a Metro Vickers in 1957. The Burneside plant currently uses a 6.5 Mw gas turbine. With the use of exhaust gases and a low pressure turbine a further 1 Mw is obtained.
The Cropper’s paper business is now concentrated at Burneside, but when all three mills were in use the transport problem was solved by the construction of a narrow gauge tramway linking the sites in 1879. The tramway was replaced in 1927 by a standard gauge line, built using rails captured from the Turks in the First World War. This railway was linked to the Windermere – Oxenholme branch line. The line was operated originally by a petrol engine called ‘Rachel’ which was replaced by a diesel ‘Rushton’ in 1951. The railway brought in all the raw materials, including pulp, dyes, chemicals and coal, and sent out paper products. The line was closed between Burneside and Cowan Head in 1965, but the siding to Burneside was used for coal for a few more years.
James Cropper Plc currently produces a wide range of specialist paper products, supplying about 30% in rolls and 70% as sheets. Products include packaging boxes, coloured envelopes and paper, hardback book covers, watermarked and laid papers, printing and writing papers.
The leaves we write on – James Cropper, a history in paper making : Mark Cropper, Ellergreen Press, 2004
(Page created 19/04/05)