Best of British: James Cropper

Simon Eccles
Thursday, July 23, 2020

Moving with the times has helped this long-standing British mill stay on top.

Burneside Mill: James Cropper founded the mill that bears his name in 1845
Burneside Mill: James Cropper founded the mill that bears his name in 1845

There’s been a mill at Burneside in the Lake District since the 13th century. In the early 1200s a mill race was constructed on the River Kent to power a water mill to grind corn for the local manor. It was soon joined by a sickle edge grinding mill, a fulling mill (hammering raw wool to clean it), and later on there was a textile mill*. Then, 192 years ago in 1828, the production of paper began on the site. A few years later in 1845 James Cropper founded the mill that still bears his name and has been looked after by six generations of his family ever since – Mark Cropper is currently the chairman.

Today James Cropper PLC comprises three separate businesses that sell internationally: James Cropper Paper, Colourform (moulded fibre packaging) and Technical Fibre Products (advanced non-woven materials for use in aerospace, defence, fuel cells, composites, automotive and construction). It’s big on sustainability of raw materials, water and energy and has developed an innovating paper cup recycling system called CupCycling.

The company puts great emphasis on its position in the local community as well as sustainability, both summed up by its support for the Burneside Community Energy Scheme, introduced in 2013 to set up two sustainable energy projects generating hydro and solar electricity.

The closest town is Kendal, about 3km away. “All paper manufacturing takes place in Burneside,” says managing director Steve Adams. “We have sales support on the ground in Europe, Asia and North America, and technical support from our head office. More than half of production is exported, he says. “Across the group 43% of sales are generated from the UK, with 23% from Europe, 24% from the Americas, 8% from Asia, 1% from Australasia and the remaining 1% from the rest of the World.” In the year to March 2019 the turnover was £101.1m.

Premium papers

James Cropper Paper makes premium papers used for high-end products such as paper shopping bags (for the likes of Selfridges and Burberry), high-quality stationery or picture mount boards. Its standard papers include the Mill Collection (held as warehouse sheet stocks) and Made To Order ranges, which go to paper merchants, printers and converters for use in art, photography, publishing and coloured creative print applications. Bespoke options to customers include Tailor Made (papers developed to order) and Private Label (for merchants to sell as their own brands). More than 1,000 new bespoke papers are created in a normal year.

It has particular expertise in coloured papers. Everyone will be familiar with one of these: since 1976 James Cropper has produced red paper for the Royal British Legion’s annual charitable Poppy Appeal. In 2018, the centenary of the end of the first world war, the mill produced 250km of red paper for 40 million paper poppies, assembled by former service personnel in the RBLs’ own Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey.

One reason that James Cropper has lasted so long is that it has moved with the times. In the past few years as anti-plastics worries gained momentum, the mill gained favourable media coverage for its unique ‘CupCycling’ technology for upcycling disposable plastic-coated paper drinks cups. These had previously been sent to landfill because there was no economical way to separate the polyethylene lining from the paper. In 2013, the company developed a plant dedicated to removing the plastic and reusing the fibre on a commercial scale.

Working with retailers such as McDonald’s and Costa, James Cropper has implemented the infrastructure needed to collect single-use waste products and transform them into papers and packaging for the likes of Selfridges and Lush. So far more than 120 million coffee cups have been processed and there’s capacity to upcycle 500 million cups per year.

The group is now exploring the future of plastics-free packaging and has launched its Colourform moulded fibre product line. “It exists to reconcile the need for plastic-free, sustainable packaging with the desire for premium and bespoke aesthetics,” says CEO Phil Wild.

Pure water power

Paper and board making needs lots of water, and the whole point of Burneside’s 800 year industrial history is that there’s plenty of it. “Our source of water, the River Kent, originates from a spring in the fells of the Lake District which feeds into Kentmere reservoir situated at the head of water catchment,” says Adams. “All fresh water drawn from the river is conserved by water recovery systems on the machines and our water saving investments have been certified as water efficient technologies by Defra. The river is classed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest as it sustains a growing population of white-clawed crayfish and fresh water mussels, both of which are indicators of water purity.

“Our focus is on efficiency in water usage and on maximising the return of clean safe water to the catchment – typically 91% is returned clean to the river downstream of the mill.”

The river also provides hydroelectricity that serves some of the mill’s power needs – reminiscent of the site’s earliest times as a watermill. “From 2013 the mill has added hydroelectric and solar energy installations under a community energy programme, the profits of which benefit environmental and social projects in our local parish of Burneside,” says Adams. The hydro scheme is a 100kW project on the Kent. It’s a low-head scheme using a fish-friendly Archimedes screw as the turbine. James Cropper is committed to buying the electricity at a guaranteed price.

In 2015 the community programme was extended to 250kW of solar panels, which now cover a fair number of the many roofs in the large factory complex.

Site expansion

Over the years the production site has expanded. The paper mill has four paper machines, and finishing capacity for sheeting, embossing, varnishing and lamination. The technical fibre division has three production machines, and an expansion plan to install a fourth line is underway. The moulded fibre division, Colourform, has six production lines.

A Technical Laboratory for R&D is located in the old village school-house at the entrance to the site and other support facilities on-site include warehousing logistics, including James Cropper’s own fleet of vehicles for UK deliveries.

As well as sustainable power, the mill places lots of emphasis on its use of sustainable fibre as a raw material. For wood, Adams says, “We use raw materials from managed forests in Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States, and Portugal, which are certified to FSC or PEFC chain of custody.” In addition, “a very small quantity of cotton fibre, the purest form of natural cellulose, used for specialist archival and conservation applications, is an annual renewable resource from the USA”.

Other raw materials are recycled. In addition to fibre from the CupCycling process, used office paper is also recycled. Then there is ‘post-industrial waste’, mainly paper offcuts. “We reuse and recycle resources where possible, not only our own waste but UK converting trimmings which are collected, categorised and re-used in papermaking,” Adams says. “Recycling the fibre from sources of industrial waste makes great use of the yield of the tree by extending the lifespan of its fibres.”

Strong survivor

James Cropper is not only one of the oldest continually operating paper mills in the UK, it’s sadly one of the last. “The decline in British papermaking came to a head in the early 1980s, not only owing to an international recession but also very high interest rates,” says Adams. “One of the reasons James Cropper has weathered this and other adversities over the years is continual investment, modernisation, and diversification. From its earliest years the company was at the forefront of new technologies, becoming one of the first paper mills in the world to make coloured paper from the first synthetic dyes.

“The latest innovations CupCycling and Colourform are driven by a strong sustainability ethos which has always been a core value at the business.”

Inevitably, we also had to ask about the impact of the Coronavirus lockdown. Adams says: “We are continuing to operate, manufacture and distribute products to our customers worldwide. We have put in place very rigorous health and safety procedures including strict social distancing, the wearing of PPE and sanitising stations throughout the mill. In addition, anybody who can work from home is doing so.

“We have of course seen a reduction in overall global demand for paper and have adjusted our production accordingly, but we are seeing encouraging signs, particularly in Asia as businesses start to reopen.”

Burneside has seen a lot of history over the past 800 years, including a fair few times of epidemic, as well as industrial revolutions (water mills were revolutionary in both senses in the Middle Ages). So it’s no real surprise that today’s emergency hasn’t stopped operations at James Cropper, thanks to huge efforts by everyone involved.

It may even help in the fight back – since 2006 it has manufactured the PaperGard range of anti-microbial paper incorporating silver ions that kill bugs. Although coronavirus doesn’t survive long on paper, PaperGard can help cut cross-contamination during handling. Taking the long view, coronavirus will hopefully be just another blip in the company’s long and distinguished history.

* For those who are interested in the long history of Burneside’s mills there’s a good online story by Duncan Hutt, here.


“Our custom Tailor Made products are what we are known for and where we excel,” says Adams. “We develop Tailor Made products for some of world’s leading brands and designers, developing unique materials. We are also proud to work with some of the world’s leading paper merchants, making bespoke ranges for them under private label partnerships.”


© MA Business Limited 2021. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .