As a child at a boarding school in Reading in the 1970’s, our Sunday morning routine included an hour of letter writing. Every boy was expected to write a letter home.
Throughout my seven years there, I used Basildon Bond writing paper and envelopes. I have done so ever since. That means I have been a customer for over 50 years.
Today in the UK, Basildon Bond pads of letter writing paper and matching envelopes are still readily available, in stationers and book shops such as Rymans and WH Smiths. Basildon Bond is a now part of Hamelin Brands Limited, a French, family-owned business. However, many will remember Basildon Bond as a John Dickinson & Co Ltd product, along with Lion Brand exercise books.
John Dickinson & Co Ltd.
I have just finished reading an excellent book called “The Endless Web” by Joan Evans, published by Jonathan Cape, which tells the story of John Dickinson & Co Ltd from 1804 – 1954. The book was first published in 1955. I think my new copy of the book is a facsimile of the first edition, as the blue dust jacket still bears the price in our old, pre-decimal currency, as 32s. 6d. net.
It is quite a heavy book, in both senses. First, as befits a book about a successful manufacturer of paper, it is beautifully bound and printed on Croxley Antique Wove paper, with text set in Monotype Caslon Old Face. Secondly, it is a detailed work packed with facts and figures, names and dates, and inside stories only available from family letters and diaries and the paper mills’ records. It provides a chronological account of the rise of this company and the characters who built and ran it. The inside front cover contains a vast family tree of the John Dickinson dynasty. The author Joan Evans was John Dickinson’s great-niece and wrote the book to celebrate the company’s 150th anniversary.
I bought my copy of the book at the Frogmore Paper Mill gift shop, while away for a weekend last month, staying at Shendish Manor Hotel, in Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. Apsley had been the site of one of John Dickinson’s vast paper mills. It turns out that the nearby Shendish Manor had belonged to John Dickinson’s business partner Charles Longman, who in 1853 bought the Shendish estate on the western side of the valley in Apsley and built the house there in 1854-56.
Later, in 1936, the house and grounds were bought by the firm and opened in 1937 as the Dickinson Guild of Sport. This was a club-house for the workers and their families, with facilities for football, cricket, tennis, hockey, bowls and swimming with parks and gardens. In 1948 a new Sports Pavilion was opened.
I was keen to find some background in the book, to my favourite letter writing paper. There are a handful of references, towards the end of the period covered. In brief, in 1911 a rival company, Millingtons (founded in 1824) introduced under the name “Basildon Bond”, the first “bond” notepaper to be marketed at 1 shilling a unit. It comprised about 30% fine quality rag content. According to Joan Evans’ book, the notepaper was remarkably good value and was an immediate success. Another of Millingtons’ achievements was that in 1905 they acquired the UK rights in “window envelopes” and were their only manufacturers. I had no idea that these had been around for so long.
In 1918, Dickinsons agreed to buy Millington’s shares, in return for debenture stock and shares in Dickinsons allotted to the Millington shareholders and directors. Joan Evans writes that the Millington business “remained practically autonomous” and that Basildon Bond steadily increased in popularity, stimulated by an advertising campaign authorized in 1924. Later, she writes, in 1932 Basildon Bond was the best-selling notepaper in the UK. There was another advertising campaign in 1934.
Today, the website of hamelinbrands.com states simply that Basildon Bond is the leading brand in personal stationery in the UK, was established in 1911 by Millington & Sons, then acquired by John Dickinson’s in 1918.
The paper, 90gsm and featuring the Basildon Bond (BB) watermark is said to be of the highest quality, and the web site states that “our smooth paper allows the pen to glide effortlessly across the page, creating a more enjoyable writing experience.”
For my part, as a consumer, I can vouch that the paper is indeed smooth and pleasant to write on with fountain pens without feathering or bleedthrough. I learned that the size I now buy, is called “post quarto”, (abbreviated to “P4TO”) and is an old imperial size, (178mm, x 229mm). The pad contains 40 sheets of paper, plus a guide sheet. I tend to save the guide sheets, after the pad is finished. The current ones give an 8mm row height. I sometimes use 9mm. They used to include a sheet of blotting paper too but this seems to have been dropped. I also buy the packs of 20 matching envelopes.
I have had very little trouble using Basildon Bond paper, with a variety of pens and inks, over the years. I recall that my Waterman Carene skipped badly on the paper, as its very smooth nib could not get a grip on the equally smooth paper. But generally, the paper has served me well.
It is good to know that Basildon Bond notepaper is still available and still thriving, over 110 years since it began, albeit under different ownership now.
Visitors to Apsley can visit Frogmore Paper Mill, which claims to be “Birthplace of paper’s industrial revolution” and tours are available on certain days. Or, for some rest and relaxation and to feel closer to the John Dickinson history, you may book a stay at the Shendish Manor Hotel.