Illuminating the past – Enhancing the present – Inspiring the future

Sittingbourne Paper Mill

A series of investigations, funded by Essential Land plc, has been completed on part of the former Sittingbourne Paper Mill site just north-west of Sittingbourne town centre.  The work revealed a fascinating glimpse of the history of the area from prehistoric times up until the mill’s very recent demolition in 2010.

The first stage of works began in December 2011 on the area of the site to be redeveloped as a new supermarket and petrol station. Twenty-one evaluation trenches were opened, a complicated process due to the intense industrial use of the site over the last two centuries. As the mill expanded and paper-making technology advanced, it was often adapted and on occasion parts had been destroyed by fire and rebuilt. All this resulted in considerable ground disturbance. A complex sequence of terracing, massive concrete foundations, walls, old service trenches and pipes were revealed under the concrete floors of the modern mill, the floors themselves a half metre thick in places.  Despite these obstacles, the evaluation was successfully completed early in 2012, revealing that some zones had not been completely disturbed. Consequently more widespread excavation took place in four separate areas (A to D) and was completed at the end of March.

Cutting evaluation trenchesCutting evaluation trenchesMachine stripping of Area A

The creek and its associated watercourses would have attracted human occupation from prehistoric times, and some evidence of this was recovered from the site. Roman finds in Sittingbourne (on Roman Watling Street) and the Milton Regis area to the north is well known, represented by cemeteries, particularly one close to the site south of Milton Creek and east of its tributary stream at Crown Quay.  Milton Regis may have originated as a villa regalis from the sixth century AD, possibly developing on Milton Creek as a trading harbour. Its potential importance is indicated by a large number of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in the vicinity, some richly furnished (see The Meads).  Two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are recorded close to the southern and eastern bounds of the site, whilst a knife from the period has been found within its limits, possibly originating from a funerary context, or brought downstream and deposited in river silt.

The site is at the head of Milton Creek and three streams once flowed through the area. These would have influenced the placing of the earliest mill. The Sittingbourne Stream, ran through its centre and though none of these former watercourses are still extant, groundwater, (and perhaps a relic of the Sittingbourne Stream), is piped through the site from south of the railway.

Milton Creek today1800 mapTithe map

The earliest mill buildings on the site are probably depicted on a surveyor’s field drawing for the first edition Ordnance Survey.  Dating to around 1800, the plan shows at least one large building, just south-west of the present main road (Mill Way) at the foot of an extensive mill pond.  The tithe map of 1841 shows a similar building in this position with at least four ancillary buildings (although the mill was still only a fraction of its later nineteenth-century extent).  Trenches positioned to locate possible remnants of these early mill remains were not entirely successful due to the mass of modern concrete in this area and in some places the depth of modern deposits, but indications were that this part of the site may have been substantially terraced away.  Most of the rest of the site is shown as open fields or orchards at this time, with the town of Sittingbourne as little more than ribbon development along the main road.

The long history of the paper mill is a complex story. Two full assessments of the site and its buildings were undertaken prior to its demolition and its most recent owners, m-real, published a short history to mark the mill’s closure. Here, a brief outline will help illustrate the archaeological discoveries.

‘Papermen’ or paper-makers are recorded in parish records from the early 1700s and on a map of Kent dated 1769 the site appears as ‘Papper Mill’.  Various paper-making families are documented as owners of the mill during the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century new paper-making technology was probably introduced by Edward Smith. This was the system invented by Frenchman, Louis-Nicholas Robert, who had taken out a patent for a continuous paper-making machine in 1799 (previously paper had been manufactured in single sheets).   An improved version of this machine was eventually devised in England under the auspices of the stationer Henry Fourdrinier (the machinery was henceforth known as the Fourdrinier Machine) and it is likely that Smith was using such machines in the 1830s.  By the late 1850s however, the mill had been closed for some years and fallen into disrepair.  The reasons for this decline are unclear. Fire or problems with new paper-making technology may have played some part.

The founder of the modern mill was Edward Lloyd, a nineteenth-century newspaper magnate who acquired the Sittingbourne mill to satisfy his business’s increasing demand for paper, just after another fire in 1863.  He expanded the mill to the south.  In addition, plans of the mill suggest that during the 1870s terraced housing was being developed on streets laid out immediately to the east of the works.  Probably built by Lloyd for his millworkers, the streets were named Lloyd Street, Westbourne Street and possibly Mill Street.  Virtually all of these terraces were demolished in the mid 1960s and the roads concreted over during the final decades of the mill’s operation.

By 1887, the mill was operating with the latest technology of the time, with four paper-making machines in the No 4 mill (on the site of the ‘Old Mill’).  Further extensions to the mill occurred during the last decade of the century, particularly a new boiler house with eight boilers and a 110ft high chimney.

When Edward died in 1890 his son Frank took over the business. Further mill buildings were constructed (No 2 mill, a power house and the main offices).  Devastating fires occurred in 1900 and 1905, but although the damage was great, the mill was speedily repaired and brought back into operation, and further expansion took place between 1906 and 1911 when No 3 mill was built.  Sittingbourne Mill was now one of the largest mills in the world, with seventeen paper machines and 1200 employees.

The largest area to be excavated (Area A) was in the south-east corner of the site, situated between the former Westbourne Street and the railway and crossing the course of Lloyd Street.

Area A

The earliest evidence of activity on the site (probably Bronze Age) was represented by struck flint implements and flint-working waste recovered from a very dark and at one time waterlogged infill of a shallow depression which traversed the main excavation area.  This boggy area was probably formed along a spring-line on the eastern side of and toward the head of what we now know as Milton Creek.  Large quantities of flint nodules and pebbles, which formed small ‘islands’ and paths were found to punctuate this boggy area suggesting an early form of land reclamation, probably to gain access to the watercourse which skirted its western side.  Concentrations of flint-working waste in the deposits suggested that the actual knapping of flint took place on the bank of the former watercourse and the waste flakes were thrown into the water.  Two large, flint-filled post-pits and a number of smaller post- and stake-holes were also located between the boggy area and the eastern edge of the watercourse which probably represent timber structures or platforms.

Excavating prehistoric levelsPrehistoric levels: spreads of flintThe ditch, Area A

Although little or no evidence of later prehistoric, Roman or Anglo-Saxon activity was identified, a substantial flat-bottomed ditch, which ran in a roughly north–south alignment along a slight brow or break in the slope toward the eastern end of the site, may have its origins in the later Iron Age or even Roman period.

The main phase of activity in this area dated to the medieval period and consisted of a roughly rectilinear field system consisting of drainage and boundary ditches, an area of clay quarrying exploiting a Brickearth-filled depression on the northern side of the site and a number of narrow drainage ditches which cut across the former boggy area.  Several smaller pits, post- and stake-holes were also identified; although no definite buildings or other structures dating to this time were present.  Sherds of shell-tempered pottery, animal bone, oyster and other marine shells, a few scraps of residual prehistoric pottery and flintwork were recovered from the majority of the excavated features although not in the quantities which would suggest domestic occupation in the immediate area.

Excavating the medieval pitsPotteryPart of a strap handle

The landscape was undoubtedly agricultural at this time, with the ditches probably defining narrow fields which led down to the watercourse.  This watercourse, probably an earlier extent of what is now Milton Creek, bounded the western end of the excavation and remained a major landscape feature till this time.  A rough flint cobbling and associated fence was laid along its eastern edge and a major east–west aligned ditch (probably a drain) and a number of pits and hollows were cut into the creek bank.  These features all contained dark clayey, and at one time possibly waterlogged, fills and all produced small scraps of medieval pottery and fairly large quantities of oyster and other marine shell.

These features were covered in a thick layer of colluvium or hillwash, a build-up of eroded soil caused by ploughing and other activity further upslope being deposited lower down through the influence of rain and gravity.  Worked flints and other material, including Roman pottery and a brooch, from this deposit suggest the presence of multi-period settlement further to the east, possibly in the area of the railway station.  The area remained as open fields throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods until the later expansion of the paper mill in the nineteenth century.  However, parts of the site, mostly in its north-eastern corner were undoubtedly quarried for Brickearth, as these quarries were found in a number of interventions.

Evidence for the early mill pond was found at the extreme west end of this area, where  the edge of a large feature lined with a thick layer of sticky, smelly mud overlay partially eroded medieval features.  The upper bank of this feature was pierced by numerous animal burrows as might be expected.  The millpond was canalized in the nineteenth century, probably by Lloyd, and the eastern side of this later pond was also found here, consisting of a brick wall 4.5m high.  The mill pond was gradually infilled, finally disappearing in the 1950s when the prominent water tower was built on the site.

The eastern mill pond wallDefining features near the edge of the earlier mill pond/creek

The wall foundations of the Victorian terraces and associated outbuildings along the western side of the now razed Lloyd Street were present toward the eastern side of the site.  The buildings closer to Milton Road had been completely removed during their demolition and subsequent landscaping, apart from cellars along the Milton Road frontage.  A large cellar with a coal chute was also uncovered in the north-eastern corner of the excavation area, this once belonging to the house on the corner of Lloyd and Westbourne Street.   An enamelled street sign for Westbourne Street was recovered in damaged state from this coal cellar, discarded during the demolition of the properties.  A row of small outbuildings in the rear gardens of these houses were undoubtedly privies and fed into a Victorian brick sewer that ran along the back.  These were particularly interesting as they contained late nineteenth-century domestic rubbish associated with each individual property and its householders. This refuse, probably dumped when the privies went out of use, varied from house to house; a large assemblage of clay tobacco pipes from one, masses of broken china from several and one which contained nothing.

The Victorian coal cellarWestbourne Street signVictorian privies

The assemblage of clay pipes, although not of any great age, is nonetheless interesting for its variety of forms and their provenance, although many are quite common.  Frequent motifs include oak or acorn designs, bird claws, and ribbed designs.  Most date from the 1860s and were produced into the first decades of the twentieth century.  One pipe is stamped with the mark of William Southorn & Co.  This company (and others of similar name) had been established in Broseley, near Ironbridge by the middle of the nineteenth century.  Broseley was a well known centre of clay pipe manufacture with at least three factories.  The Southorn works survive and are now part of the Ironbridge Gorge museum complex.

Clay pipe stemClay pipesChina

The best preserved part of this later Victorian and early twentieth-century period of activity was exposed in Area B, in the north-east part of the mill site.  Here, a section of the street, complete with cobbling, early tarmac surface, gutter, curb-stones and pavement was uncovered.  In addition, the foundations of two of the Victorian, two up-two down terraces were uncovered on the street’s eastern side.  These foundations were found to overlie distinctive clay quarrying strips cut to feed the extensive brick industry which flourished in this area during the nineteenth century.

Lloyd StreetLloyd Street

Areas C and D contained evidence of the site’s industrial past. Two ranges of extensive brick-built furnaces were uncovered which probably heated water to process raw materials (rags, straw, wood pulp, etc) and produce steam to power machinery and heat the drying rollers. Both ranges consisted of long furnace channels with associated flues, walkways, pipe-work and various fragments of iron tanks and other iron fittings.  These heavily-fired structures can be roughly dated from stamped firebricks used in their construction, and almost certainly relate to the Lloyd years of the mill in the later nineteenth century.  Most firebricks were made in the Midlands, Stourbridge being a famous centre of manufacture due to the suitability of the local clay and close supply of other raw materials such as coal.  Of the twenty or so different firms operating there in 1874, a number are represented at Sittingbourne, including E J & J Pearson, active from 1860 and Harper & Moores Ltd (who exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1871).  Other firebricks were made further north, such as those by the well known firm of G H Ramsay and Co, whose works were originally at Derwenthaugh, Tyne and Wear, and whose firebricks are found all over the Commonwealth.  It is hoped that further research will throw more light on the exact function and date of these impressive furnaces.

Area DExcavating the furnaces in Area DFurnace channel
Excavating the furnaces in Area CFurnaces in Area COne of the firebricks

The complex nature of these industrial structures meant that recording by conventional survey and planning methods would be expensive on time and labour. The survey firm J C White was brought in to record the furnaces using laser scanning technology, a method that has only become practical for use in archaeology during the last few years.  The laser scanner emits thousands of laser pulses a second and as it traverses the site, records the time taken for each pulse of the beam to be reflected off any solid surface, from which in turn, each distance can be calculated to a few millimetres’ accuracy.  Setting up the equipment in different locations thus allows what is termed a ‘point cloud’ to be constructed, a virtual 3D image of the solid artefact that can then be manipulated with computer software to form an accurate plan, sections or a 3D model.  Using this technology, Areas C and D were surveyed within a day.

Jon Rady and Damien Boden

Area C. Plan of furnaces from the laser scan surveysArea D, oblique image produced from the laser scan

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