Pulp Faction

We have a couple of items in our Collections made of a now largely forgotten material called Thetford Pulp Ware.

Thetford Pulp Ware bucket used at Midland Railway stores in Oakham.

The Patent Pulp Manufacturing Co was founded in 1879. They acquired the 1878 patent granted to Edward Vickers and Edwin Knowles. This was for ‘improvement in the treatment and application of vegetable and animal pulps or fibres for the manufacture of hollow and moulded articles in imitation of leather, earthenware or papier mâché and in the construction and arrangement for machinery to be used’. The company took over a papermill in Thetford, known variously as St Audrey’s or Bishop’s Mill, to produce their products.

The main difference between papier mâché and Thetford Pulp Ware was that the pulp ware was waterproof. The chief raw material was woodpulp, jute bagging and other vegetable fibres and rags.
The material was first cleaned by boiling with lime, then shredded in rag engines for two days to form a slurry with water. Most of the water was extracted by feeding the pulp into sieve-like formers roughly the shape of the final object. Additional water was removed with a vacuum pump and finally an hydraulic press squeezed out the remaining moisture. These blanks were placed in a drying shed for one to four weeks. When dried they felt very much like cardboard, and were stamped or embossed into their final shape by powerful cam operated machines. They were then soaked in linseed oil to make them water repellent, which turned them from grey to brown and then the decoration was added using several long and varied processes. Printed paper transfers were used for decoration or for applied advertising, and a top coat of japan or lacquer was added to make them water and acid proof.

Thetford Wares display at The British Industries Fair in 1936

The company flourished and eventually increased its range of articles to over 150 items including basins, tubs, trays, flower bowls, vases, plates, mugs, baby baths, buckets and miner’s helmets.

During the Second World War supplies of raw materials were restricted, so secret papers were brought under escort from London to be shredded to make wartime products – mainly Vulcanised fuel tanks for aircraft, tank and motorcycle helmets and containers.

1958 Advertisement for Centurion helmets.

Pulpware manufacture ceased in the late 1950s due mainly to the introduction of polyethylene and polypropylene, but also due to changes in popular taste. The company continued in operation moulding Centurion motorcycle helmets in to the 21st century. The Centurion company now concentrates on the production of safety headware.

Information courtesy of Grace’s Guide (www.gracesguide.co.uk) and Norfolk Mills (www.norfolkmills.co.uk)