Empire Paper Mills

Better known today as an extensive housing estate on the southern bank of the Thames, this site in fact has a rich and varied history, which includes a once extensive standard gauge railway network built for a paper mill. Now completely redeveloped, the area retains no traces of this former use, but hopefully this section will serve as a reminder of Ingress Park's past.

In 1904, plans emerged outlining the construction of a paper mill complex on a twenty-four acre site at Greenhithe. This was to the east of a splendid three-storey-high abbey, built in a Gothic style in 1833 and situated amongst gardens landscaped by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. Known as "Ingress Abbey", the structure became the home of one James Harmer, a member of the City of London Council. Harmer lived there until his death in 1853, after which the Ingress Estate became the property of Captain Umfreville of the Worcestershire Regiment.

By 1905, American architect and construction engineer Joseph H. Wallace had designed a suitable layout for the paper mill, which allowed contracts with material suppliers to be formally signed in October of that year. J.B. Lingham, a Northfleet-based construction company, was awarded the contract to erect the mill, beginning such work in 1906 under the guidance of the original architect. This company was also later involved in the construction of the Britannia Cement Company’s works on the south bank of the Thames at Northfleet, in 1931.

Setting the foundations of the mill was an expensive task, for the marshy nature of the land, compounded by the fact that the site was situated immediately adjacent to the Thames, called for a layer of thick wooden piles to be driven into the ground. The piles’ timber was that of the Australian Blue Gum Tree (Eucalyptus Globulus), which produced durable and solid wood, ideal for use in construction. The first pile holes were bored on site during November 1905. Resting upon the foundations were structures totalling three million bricks, all of which were supplied by Aylesford Pottery Company at a total approximate cost of £3,500 (about £335,700 at 2014 prices). Furthermore, six-hundred tons of cement arrived on site from the nearby Johnson's Cement Works of Greenhithe, at a cost of £660 (circa £63,300 at 2014 prices).

The mill’s steelwork was originally to be provided and assembled by another separate concern which, like architect Wallace, was American. Known as ‘’Milliken Brothers’’, the company also faced the task of erecting the site’s main jetty, which eventually became part of ‘’Ingress Abbey Wharf’’. This alone was priced at £790 (circa £75,760 at 2014 prices) and, after subsequent modification once the mill had opened, extended to impressive dimensions. It reached into the Thames for 411 feet, at a width of 46 feet, and terminated within the river in a backwards "L" formation. In 1921, it was extended westwards, thus producing a "T" shaped end. The walkway itself carried three parallel-running Standard Gauge lines and the head of the pier was host to no less than four tracks, two of which were occupied by a travelling crane. The crane, of steel construction, rose up to 100 feet in height, whilst its cross-section measured 30 foot by 40 foot. Ships could dock either side of the pier head and the travelling crane was suitably fitted with swinging booms on both northern and southern elevations to accommodate this.

Milliken Brothers went into liquidation in 1907: the jetty had been completed, but the steelwork contract had yet to be fulfilled. Consequently, the steelwork task was assumed by British-based ‘’Redpath & Brown’’, a structural steel manufacturer and constructional engineering firm which had a large works on the bank of the Thames at Greenwich.

Three warehouses were installed from the outset, each measuring 200-foot by 62-foot and raising to a height of 30 feet. Land reclamation during construction of the works had made available an enlarged area, this potentially being able to accommodate another trio of warehouses of identical size. The buildings were arranged so that the conveyance of materials to the mill’s Preparation Department was as quick and efficient as possible. Adjacent to the warehouses was the powerhouse, which boasted a 255-foot high and 8-foot wide chimney. This housed eight horizontally-installed water tube boilers, which powered steam engines used to run the paper-making machinery. The steam engines were designed to run at any speed between 40 and 160 revolutions per minute.

The paper mill commenced operation on 26th December 1908, being known from the outset as ‘’Ingress Abbey Paper Mills’’. It was a part of ‘’Wall Paper Manufacturers Limited’’ and was the world’s most advanced paper mill. Furthermore, it was also the first mill of its type to be fitted with crittall iron window frames.

There were no skilled workers in the vicinity who could operate the paper-making machinery. To remedy this, the mill drafted in an experienced workforce from a sister mill in Darwen, Lancashire, to train locals. To accommodate the Lancastrians, twenty-four houses were constructed in 1907 at a total cost of £5,475 (about £517,300 at 2014 prices), these being situated along what is today known as ‘’Knockhall Road’’. Nicknamed the ‘’White City’’ as a consequence of the houses’ external colouring, more luxurious properties were procured for management grades.

When the whole operation came into use in 1908, a ½-mile-long single-track link with the SE&CR’s North Kent Line was in evidence. This line assumed a course which brought it in front of Ingress Abbey within a cutting, and entered the mill complex from the west. The connection with SE&CR metals was made east of that company's station, just before the line plunged into Greenhithe Tunnel. Through this link, materials required for the production of paper were delivered, whilst the final product could also be sent out by this route. As shown on a diagram in this section, the paper mill branch line also made an indirect connection with the rails of Whiting Cement Works, which gave access to Town Wharf at Greenhithe.

Ingress Abbey Mill made numerous grades of paper from raw materials ranging from grasses of Northern Africa to old rags converted to pulp to make the final product. Ownership of the site changed hands fairly early on, for in 1919 the operation was taken over by a consortium headed by one F.E.R Becker. However, this arrangement was short-lived and in 1922, the mill was taken over yet again, this time by ‘’Associated Newspapers Limited’’. The concern had paid a total of £734,000 for the site (£35,800,000 at 2014 prices), of which only £237,000 constituted the price of the actual buildings. As part of the takeover, Ingress Abbey Mills became ‘’Empire Paper Mills’’. At this stage, workers were on twelve-hour shifts and the mill began producing between 800 and 900 tons of newsprint each week. Good news was afoot and in 1924, management granted workers a week’s holiday each year. This was the first paper mill in the country to grant such a privilege.

The standard gauge branch line through the Ingress grounds has already been mentioned, but from the outset the paper mill possessed a 24-inch gauge electrically-powered endless cable railway. This was double-track, linked the main jetty with the mill's paper store, and upon it ran a fleet of wagons with removable tops. The latter allowed the tops of the wagons to be lowered into the holds of docked ships, filled with materials, and then hoisted back onto the chassis for onward travel within the mill. A series of sidings spurred off this network so static wagons could take refuge and not block the main tracks between the jetty and store.

Paper mill branch connection with North Kent Line and indirect link with Town Wharf. © David Glasspool

26th September 1970

0-4-0 "fireless" locomotive, built by Orenstein & Koppel in Drewitz, Germany, in 1906, is seen along the eastern perimeter of Empire Paper Mills, in steam. © David Glasspool Collection

26th September 1970

Is it a steam engine or diesel locomotive? Interestingly, it is a combination of the two. This is diesel shunter No. 3, which was a rebuild of a steam locomotive. Essentially, the boiler was replaced by a diesel engine and a square cab was fitted - all other major components, such as the frames, redundant cylinders, wheels, and smokebox, were retained. Behind is the Orenstein & Koppel "fireless" locomotive, whilst on the left are stacks of baled pulp. © David Glasspool Collection