21st CENTURY BLUES: THE PAPER MILL

Sittingbourne’s paper-making industry dated back to the early 18th century. By 1912, Sittingbourne Paper Mill was the largest in the world employing 1,200 people. However, in more recent times, business declined leading to closure in 2007. Following the mill’s demolition in 2010, the site was excavated by Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

 

I watched through the fence as they pulled it down; the grand old paper mill, the terraced streets, the workmen’s cottages where I was born. Three generations of us worked there, proud of an industry that had fed the world’s printing presses, stoking its need for news and knowledge.

We belonged to a tradition that dated back 300 years: the papermakers; small family businesses that gradually coalesced into a great industrial enterprise, the biggest in the world with its own railway shuttling between the mill and Ridham Dock.

The water of Milton Creek ran white with our waste; its stink was our pheromone.

Even in wartime, the mill played its part, churning out disposable tanks for fighter planes.

We could always adapt to meet a challenge so, when the end came, we couldn’t believe it. Mass redundancies, P45s printed on someone else’s paper.

Then, three years later, the levelling of the mill: clouds of atomized brick and cement replaced the paper dust. They even blew up the water-tower, the only distinctive feature of an undistinguished skyline.

After that, the archaeologists moved in, stripping the surface away, revealing furnaces and floors, cellars and privies. They unearthed a battered sign: ‘Westbourne Street’ where I had grown up.

I have become history. My life in a bucket, reduced to rubble.

 

Photograph: Westbourne Street sign retrieved from a cellar. Courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust