Visited in autumn 2008 on my own and with Cozone, then revisited January 2009 with Ben Cooper.
Four generations of Fife papermakers passed through its gates, but now the stone lions couchant sit glumly on the gate pillars, and Caldwell’s Mill is empty. Emptied of paper, emptied of papermakers, and – almost, not quite – emptied of machinery. Despite its short life as an independent papermaker, Caldwell’s has its place in history as part of Inveresk Paper. Caldwell’s Paper Co. built their new mill in 1914, where the Keithing Burn flows out into the Forth. The buildings were conceived as big steel-framed brick shells, set with big steel-framed windows staring out over the big steel-framed Forth Bridge. The back of the mill, looking north towards the town, is a series of forbidding brick walls with huge extract fans set into their gables. The only relief is the white brickwork built into parapet on the west side, above the mill laboratories which spells out – “Caldwell & Co. Papermakers Ltd. - 1914”. It remained in their hands until the Great Depression came along, and the mill had to be re-financed.
The Inveresk Paper Company purchased Caldwell’s in 1928: at that time, the mill had four machines, but a fifth one was added in the same year. Following a short boom for the Scottish paper industry, the mill began a rollercoaster journey which continued for the next 70 years. Inveresk was one of the big Scottish papermakers which dominated the British paper industry, and it rose from its own ashes more than once … the paper industry took years to from recover the Great Depression – then WW2 was a quiet time due to raw material shortages, but business picked up again in the 1950’s. Caldwell’s duly expanded and in 1962, a £40,000 extension to the finishing department was announced; but by the late 1960's the company found itself in financial straits once more – and the mill laid off 85 men in September 1971. The money trouble continued until Inveresk was taken over by the American firm Georgia Pacific in 1981. The paper industry is notoriously cyclical – so despite investment in the mill by Inveresk, such as the revamped finishing plant, its fortunes swung from good to bad and back again. At that time Inveresk was a major papermaker, and it owned Caldwell’s Mill; Carrongrove Paperboard Mill and the neighbouring Stoneywood Mill, Denny (I visited Carrongrove a few months ago with Pincheck and Cuban); Westfield Paper Co., Bathgate; Woodhall Paperboard Co., Midlothian; and Lochmill, Linlithgow plus others in England.
In 1988, G-P Inveresk, as the American-owned company was now styled, invested £11.5m in a new paper machine to boost Caldwell’s output by 60 per cent, which happily created 26 new jobs. The water treatment plant was also improved – the mill used two million gallons of water each day, and large settling tanks plus a belt pressroom treated the effluent before it entered the Forth, but that didn’t cure all the problems as Hydrogen Sulphide gas was still being emitted in smelly clouds of rotten eggs. Bad times returned, again, and a number of Inveresk’s mills were closed down during another financial crisis, but Caldwell’s along with Westfield, Carrongrove and St Cuthberts in Somerset were reprieved, and became the subject of a £40m management buyout in 1990. After that came a period of growth, and Inveresk became a Scottish-owned firm again. The rollercoaster continued on its path between extremes. During the mid-1990’s, Caldwell’s had four main product lines: coloured and opaque papers; publishing and stationery grades; straw-based furnishes and special orders; plus soap stiffeners and diazo base. The “Clan Stock Centre” was also based at the mill, and offered next day delivery on many of their products. Clan was one of Inveresk’s main lines.
In 1995, Caldwell’s Mill became part of Inveresk Graphic Papers, with a vast range of paper stocks in their range – and a great deal of history behind them. For instance, the standard “Bulk Basis” method of measuring paper was invented by Henry Bruce & Sons, who were the first to make a Featherweight Antique paper. The basis was a measurement of the thickness of a pile of 160 sheets taken using special calipers, expressed as a factor of its weight. Bruce’s mill was taken over by Inveresk, and became a sister unit to Caldwell’s. Yet despite that pedigree, by the turn of the millennium Inveresk was in trouble yet again. In September 2000, Caldwell’s was forced to mothball one of its smaller uncoated paper machines, with the loss of 70 jobs. Until then, the mill had an annual output of around 35,000 tonnes of coloured, opaque and industrial papers in weights from 50-280gsm. The Fourdrinier-type papermaking machine, which produced 10,000 tonnes of coloured papers was shut down in October of that year, but that still left four other machines to meet demand. In 2000, then again in 2003, work was carried out to improve the drier sections of the No.5 machine, which was producing fine grade printing, writing and envelope papers. No.5 was the biggest machine in the mill, at closer to 4m wide than the Nos. 3 and 4 machines which were around 2250mm wide. No.5 was also far longer, with more sets of cylinders at the “dry” end.
The death knell for Caldwell’s sounded when Inveresk ran into the most serious trouble of its chequered history, and a rather unusual deal was struck with the Scandinavian paper firm Klippan, who took over the running of Caldwell’s from Inveresk for £2.5m. Someone evidently believed that a simple change of management might save the mill, even though a world paper glut was really to blame. It appears that Klippan took over the inventory and order book, but Inveresk retained the buildings and machinery. The former took control in October 2002, and they tried to streamline the business by simplifying the product range and moving products from Caldwell’s to the mills at Klippan, Lessebo and Molndal. In August 2003, after only a year as the tenants at Inverkeithing, Klippan announced they were to close Caldwell’s, with the loss of the remaining 160 jobs. The mill shut its doors, and all the machinery was returned to Inveresk. By 2006, Inveresk said that all plant and equipment at the site had been decommissioned and at least one of the Caldwell’s Mill 2250mm wide papermaking machines was sold on as a working unit.
And there began the long and painful process of scouting out Caldwell’s. Repeat visits to the area around the mill paid off in the long run, but at one point, it was depressing to visit on a Sunday afternoon and hear the hollow booming of scrappies knocking hell out of the hydropulpers, as they attempted to release them from their concrete straitjackets. Who knows whether they were there officially or not – another explorer encountered them inside the mill and felt they were more like “pikies” then anything else. However, late last year, something changed, and the mill became accessible – firstly in part, then all of it became explorable. From the empty esparto sheds and stripped boiler house, into the darkness, and the guts of the mill – past beaters and pulpers, where firstly esparto grass, then latterly hardwood and softwood timber pulp, were treated and prepared. The pulp passed from great metal drums with spinning blades – the hydropulpers – into massive “broke chests” which are deep, tile-lined tanks looking much like bigger versions of the plunge pools in an Edwardian swimming baths. The white tiles are stained green and blue and russet, attacked and discoloured by the alkalis which were used to dissolve the cellulose fibres. From there, the pulp passed through conduits to the wet end of the paper machines, where it was jetted onto the felts and began its 150 metre journey from white soup into paper.
The parallel machine halls that held machines 3, 4 and 5 are utterly devastated: the structural steel bent out of shape, tangled with sundered pipework and severed cables. Yet these spaces have a beautiful and dramatic quality of light: bright pools of sunshine flickering in rusty water, and deep shadows in the corners. High up in the gables are giant extract fans, whose blades spin freely in the wind and throw rotating shadows over the floor, like something from the film “Alien”. A brief shower of rain saw water percolating through the building, trickling down the columns from wrecked valley gutters, spilling through gaps in the rooflights. The sound of dripping water emphasised the place’s former life – a working paper mill is a damp, humid place which is never dry. From there, we travelled past the sheds which held guillotines and reelers, then upstairs to the salle where paper was checked and sorted before packaging. Beyond that, the mill offices with their leaking roofs, then the mill laboratory so reminiscent of chemistry labs at school with its laminate benchtops, a fume cupboard, and their chequerboard ceiling of hit-and-miss tiles. Outside are the freestanding buildings which housed the joinery shop, mill stores and engineering department, and always the looming presence of the mill’s chimneys, perfectly tapering brick cylinders banded with iron.
Caldwells dominates the northern approach to the Forth Rail Bridge, and each time I pass by on the train to Edinburgh now, I feel a warm glow, rather than the cold fear in the pit of your stomach when you believe you’ll miss out on a site that you hanker to see. That feeling starts to engeneder a sense of desperation, which is never good. So is exploration compulsive? Surely not … ;-)