SOUE News Issue 7

Book Review: The Leaves We Write On

The Leaves We Write On
James Cropper: A history in paper-making
Mark Cropper
Ellergreen Press, 21 Kensington Park Road, London W11 2EU, 2004
ISBN 0 9549191 1 4

Review by David Witt

This book is the history of a family firm, founded in 1845 in the River Kent valley north of Kendal, on the fringe of the Lake District, and of how it has survived and grown in the face of foreign competition, wars, recessions and other challenges. It is not an engineering firm - they make paper - but its production relies on expensive machinery, so an appreciation of engineering has always been a key to their success. But I suspect many of our readers have an interest in industrial history and may find this story as fascinating as I did. To those involved in running family companies its lessons will be even more compelling.

How I came across the story is an interesting sub-plot of its own. In the course of looking into the family history of my maternal great-grandmother, I found that her youngest sister and brother became orphans when their father died in 1869, and for a time were in Liverpool workhouse. Then in the 1871 Census I found the sister, aged 15, with four other Liverpool girls, living in Burneside near Kendal, and working as an "envelope maker" at the local paper mill. An internet search showed that this firm was James Cropper Ltd, that it was still in existence and apparently thriving, and that the great-great-great-grandson of the founder had recently written this history of it.

The firm's founder, James Cropper, was the grandson of another James, a successful Quaker merchant of Liverpool. The Cropper-Benson partnership owned a fleet of ships, and traded with America, Russia and India in the first two decades of the 19th century, making a great deal of money. From about 1820 James senior retired from business to promote various good causes, in particular the anti-slavery movement (the British slave trade from Africa to America had been abolished in 1807, but it was not until 1834 that slaves were finally freed in the British Empire). His son John made successful investments in railways and continued the philanthropic tradition in Liverpool, but his grandson James junior was initially very uncertain as to how he was going to spend his life. But by the age of 17 he was deeply in love with his cousin Fanny Alison Wakefield, from a prominent Kendal family, and it seems to have been Wakefield influence that persuaded him to buy two paper mills in the Kent valley, one of which had originally been built as a cotton mill by a Wakefield. But a subsequent purchaser had re-equipped it as a paper mill, and sold both to the inexperienced 21-year old James for what turned out to be an excessively inflated price of £13,000 (a lot of money in 1845).

Still, he married his cousin and built a house in the village, determined to make a success of the enterprise. It did not break even until 1854, but the next 25 years were ones of growing output and respectable profits. He brought in commercial partners, leading to new customer contacts; he recruited talented staff and installed new machinery and power plant (both water power and steam). They made paper in many grades, including coloured paper, and started making envelopes, as we have seen, for which the newly established penny post was creating a big demand. Older readers will remember the little orange envelopes in which the Post Office used to deliver telegrams. Croppers got a lucrative contract to supply these. Production was largely mechanised and the girls just applied the finishing touches. In 1873 they were said to be making five tons a week of them. If this is correct it must represent something like two million envelopes a week, and some very nimble young fingers!

The growth of trade experienced by Croppers was typical of the prosperity of these years. It was largely triggered by the growth of the railways. Croppers in particular were lucky in having the Kendal to Windermere railway running right past their door. But from around 1880 to 1910, although production held up, profits did not. James Cropper gave up paper-making for politics at Westminster, and handed over the management to his son Charles. Though Charles was not quite the businessman his father was - fox-hunting was a major distraction - it was foreign competition that was the main problem. Other countries were rivalling the technical supremacy that had been Britain's earlier in the century, and only by lowering prices could sales be maintained. Many mills succumbed to imports and went out of business.

But raw material prices were falling too. Paper had formerly been made from rags. Jute and other fibres had been used too, but by the end of the century wood pulp was becoming the major source, and eased production by its more consistent properties.

In 1886 and again in 1903 Burneside mill suffered major fire damage, disrupting production for months, and in 1893 the mill chimney blew down, killing three young female employees. There were other industrial accidents too, some of them attributable to lack of proper supervision (by today's standards at least). But on the whole the firm seems to have shown care for the welfare of its employees, even if it didn't pay them very much, and labour relations were usually harmonious. It must have helped that everyone lived in the same village.

The 20th century was, for Croppers as for industry in general, a succession of booms and slumps. The two World Wars and their immediate aftermaths were generally profitable, helped by import restrictions and price-fixing agreements (not illegal in the UK until 1956). The decades immediately following both wars were ones of extensive expansion and modernisation, assisted by the company policy of putting most of their profit into reserves rather than distributing it to their shareholders (i.e. the Directors themselves to a large extent).

The 15 years from 1967 were very different. Foreign competition, in the paper industry as in others, caused massive closures and unemployment. That Croppers managed to survive when so many others went under is remarkable. They drew their horns in, but managed to avoid any compulsory redundancies. The author attributes this to their modernisation programme of the 1950s, new automated production techniques, and their diversified range of products, more specialised and "up-market" than that of many other mills. "Reducing employment costs by designing jobs out of the business" was company policy, no doubt welcome even to the employees when many of these jobs were extremely unpleasant ones. The firm continued its modernisation programme through the 1980s, "investing at the bottom of the cycle rather than at the top, so that the capacity is there when the market moves up". This policy requires some courage, and either extensive reserves or a very accommodating bank manager! It also requires the company to be independent, and several proposals for amalgamation or takeover were rejected in order to preserve their autonomy.

Another contributor to survival which strikes this reviewer is the willingness of sons to follow their fathers into the business, and in many cases to learn the trade from the bottom on doing so. Five successive generations of Croppers have been Chairman; that they were not lured by a "gentleman's education" to abandon "trade" is in marked contrast to what happened in many British firms1. Maybe it helped that the setting was rural and that the founder was in no sense a "self-made man".

I found the book a very good example of industrial history, well researched and comparable for a small firm to e.g. Scott on Vickers or Reader on ICI, larger books on much larger organisations. The author does not stint criticism of his forbears, or the firm's former practices, when appropriate. I thought a bit more on how paper is actually made would have been helpful. He describes the early hand-made process, but not how a modern machine does it. And what for instance, is a twin-wire machine?

The book has been published by Ellergreen Press, apparently a subsidiary of James Cropper plc, and seems not to have been widely publicised, which is a pity. The Bodleian's copy is in their stack, and there is none in the Said Business School's Library. But there is a lot to learn from it.

And Martha, the young envelope maker? Three months after her 21st birthday she married a young man from the village, and they moved out west to the then rapidly expanding steel and ship-building town of Barrow-in-Furness. She brought up eight children, apparently successfully, and lived to the age of 76, dying in Barrow in 1932. Maybe her descendants are there still.

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