Imperial Paper Mills

By 1928, the Imperial Paper Mills had a weekly output of 2,000 tons of newsprint and covered an area of fifty acres freehold. It was one of two paper mill works within the same mile stretch of the Thames' southern bank. The second was that of Bowater Paper Mills, Ltd, which was located just upstream in neighbouring Northfleet, having been built on land purchased by that firm in 1914. Both of these operations were badly bombed in air raids during World War II. In one bombing raid in 1940, the Imperial Paper Mills lost twelve of its fourteen papermaking machines. The majority of the western buildings were bombed out, as was part of the main eastern wing, leaving just the skeletons of the side walls. Two new papermaking machines were manufactured for the mill in 1946 to partially replace those lost during the war, and the western buildings were mostly rebuilt during the 1950s. However, bomb sites, particularly a large gaping hole in the eastern wing of the mills, remained right until the end.

In 1956, the Imperial Paper Mills took delivery of another fireless locomotive built by Andrew Barclay, Works No. 2373. When commissioned into service, this became "Imperial No. 1", and the engine wore a standard all-over green livery as per that applied to its older stablemates. Although no fireman was required, these engines were still manned by two people: one was the driver and the second was the pointsman. The latter, as the name suggests, operated the point levers and, additionally, was responsible for coupling/uncoupling wagons.

On 1st April 1961, the Imperial Paper Mills were acquired by the Reed Paper Group. This company had earlier purchased the Empire Paper Mills at Greenhithe in August 1952 and also operated a large complex in Aylesford, near Maidstone.

The adjacent Gravesend West branch closed completely on 25th March 1968. The line had ceased to serve passengers on 3rd August 1953, but had remained open for goods traffic. A physical connection with the Imperial Paper Mills was in existence to the end, although it is not clear if this was genuinely in regular use up until the closure of the branch. The track around the former terminus station was lifted in about 1973, which coincided with layout rationalisation at the mills. Of the five sidings which bordered with the branch line at the eastern end of the site, three were lifted. Additionally, the continuous straight which ran in-between the water's edge and Clifton Marine Parade was removed and its site built on, and that line which ran along the mills' western-most perimeter was also taken up.

In 1971, the Empire Paper Mills at Greenhithe dispensed with its steam locomotives fleet in favour of diesel shunters, as did the mammoth cement works at Swanscombe. However, the Bowaters Paper Mills, Northfleet, and the Imperial Paper Mills continued with fireless steam locomotives. The end of steam at the Imperial Paper Mills and, presumably, the closure of the internal railway network, occurred in 1978 (your author cannot find any references to diesel locomotives ever taking over for the last few years). In this year the youngest of the fireless locomotive fleet, "Imperial No. 1" (Works No. 2373) of 1956, was donated to the National Railway Museum. Steam at the Northfleet Paper Mills came to an end in 1979, when Bowaters withdrew its very last operational steam locomotive from service. Also built by Andrew Barclay & Sons this engine is, happily, still with us, and can be found as a static exhibit at the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway, another ex-Bowaters operation.

Sadly, the end was nigh for paper operations at Gravesend. In 1980, Reed Paper Group awarded a £100,000 contract to Vanguard Engineering to dismantle and ship 2,100 tons of paper-making equipment from the Imperial Paper Mills, Gravesend, to Ontario, Canada, where the company had a large operation. Closure of the mills was finally enacted in June 1981.

Imperial Paper Mills' "Fireless" Locomotive Fleet

Builder Year Built Works Number Mills Fleet Number/Name
Orenstein & Koppel 1911 4708 Marion
Orenstein & Koppel 1912 5900 2
Andrew Barclay Sons & Company, Ltd 1916 1471 2*
Andrew Barclay Sons & Company, Ltd 1917 1496 3
Andrew Barclay Sons & Company, Ltd 1956 2373 Imperial No. 1**

Fireless locomotives known to have worked at Imperial Paper Mills, Gravesend. *Thought to have been renumbered after the withdrawal of the original Orenstein & Koppel No. 2.**Preserved.


Photograph 5: On the right of this south easterly view, the pointsman walks in front of "Imperial No. 2" as it heads towards the wharf. On the left, a somewhat grubby No. 3 is seen being recharged with steam. Note that both locomotives have pipes at the head of their reservoirs, which allowed them to be plugged into any of the charging points around the mill to be refilled with pressurised steam. A headlight was also provided on the top of the reservoir of each locomotive. © David Glasspool Collection


Photograph 6: A southward view shows the gap between the main eastern and western wings of the mill, within which pulp was stored in large stacks flanking the railway lines. As per that external storage area over the eastern side of the mill, the pulp was stacked using travelling cranes which ran on rails supported upon a lattice framework. Our old friend, "Imperial No. 2", is seen on the left - it seems that it has sustained a couple of heavy blows to the front casing of its reservoir. © David Glasspool Collection


Photograph 7: No. 2 once again, this time passing over the level crossing on its journey to the wharf. On the far right, a brand new Austin 1300 is in evidence (belonging to one of the management, perhaps?). © David Glasspool Collection