The history of the Bryan Donkin Company dates back to 1803 when Donkin (1768-1855) built the first practical continuous paper making machine in the world.
A born engineer and a man of seemingly endless talent and ingenuity, over the span of his career Donkin would turn his attentions to subjects as diverse as pen design and food preservation, to steam engine and gas valve design.
A Northumbrian by birth, Donkin began his engineering business in Bermondsey, London, but the company made the move to Chesterfield, Derbyshire, in 1902, beginning a long-standing connection with the town.
The Bryan Donkin Company archive is held at Derbyshire Record Office, Matlock.
Site of gas valve manufacturer, Bryan Donkin Valves Limited, part of the global AVK Group of Company, Chesterfield, Derbyshire
‘Mr Enslie’s process for making Ivory Paper’, from a notebook belonging to Bryan Donkin (1819) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Early forms of paper had been made from the treated skins of sheep, goats and calves, or papyrus. By the eighteenth century most paper was made by hand from cotton rags. Turned to pulp, each sheet of paper was made in a mould, stacked between felts and placed under a press and the water squeezed out, pressed again, and hung up to dry – a laborious process.
Plan of "The Original Fourdrinier Paper Machine For Making Endless Paper" (1808) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office
In 1801 Donkin was entrusted with the construction of a prototype of a paper-making machine, originally designed by the Fourdrinier brothers, but which they had failed to perfect. Donkin took manufacturing premises at Bermondsey, London, in 1802, thus starting the enterprise that became the Bryan Donkin Company.
Printing machine by Donkin and Company (1814) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Donkin later undertook the creation of a new printing machine, in partnership with Richard Mackenzie Bacon, the proprietor of the Norwich Mercury newspaper. The partners were granted a patent for their new machine in 1813 and in 1814 it was successfully trialled by the Cambridge University Press publishers. This drawing was used to promote the Donkin and Bacon machine.
Photograph of pen nibs (c1950) by Unknown and Photograph, possibly from an exhibition, showing examples of pen nibs produced by Bryan DonkinDerbyshire Record Office
For at least 1300 years people in Britain wrote with pens made from birds’ feathers. The tip of the feather was cut into a point with a slit to help the ink flow. In March 1808 Donkin was the first to bring out a patent for a steel pen.
Advertisement for "Donkin's Patent Pens" (1808) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office
The advertisement for the pen stated: 'The principle on which these pens are constructed combines at once the elasticity and freedom of the quill with the durability of a metal point'.
Though popular, Donkin knew there were greater profits to be made in his other work and so in 1811 he auctioned off the rights to his patent.
Photograph of tin can produced by Donkin, Hall and Gamble (circa. 1990) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office
Keeping food fresh in the 19th century was a challenge. Drying, pickling or preserving were the main ways in which people kept their food from deteriorating. After experiments with glass and stone bottles, Donkin found metal cans to be the best containers for long term food preservation.
Recipe for tinning iron (1810) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office
By September 1812, Donkin, working with his brother in law John Hall and J.H. Gamble, began production of their tin can. The enterprise was a huge success and by late spring 1813 the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble were supplying preserved food to the British Admiralty.
Counting machine (1819) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Up until 1819 bank notes had been numbered by hand, a process which had become impracticable. Donkin’s new ‘counting machine’ counted the number of revolutions of any machine, by means of a series of notched ratchet wheels and clicking levers. Its simplicity, accuracy and effectiveness in counting and recording revolutions to the tens of thousands earned it the nickname ‘tell-tale’.
In 1820 Sir William Congreave patented a compound-plate printing machine designed to solve the increasing problem of counterfeiting of bank notes. By producing a complicated duel-coloured engraving, the so called ‘Rose engine’ lathe, would make it extremely difficult to forge designs. As with his previous successes, Donkin perfected the engine design, which would later be used to create plates for labels and postage stamps.
Vice-President of the Royal Society of Arts, and Chairman of the Committee of Mechanics, Donkin played a leading role in the founding of what became the Institute of Civil Engineers. A Fellow of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of sciences, he was well respected in the field of engineering, being friend and advisor to the likes of Thomas Telford, Marc Isambard Brunel and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Catalogue of engineering products (1900) by Bryan Donkin Company LtdDerbyshire Record Office
By his death in 1855, Bryan Donkin & Co had designed its first gas valves, products for which the company would become known worldwide. To this day, and still based in Chesterfield, Bryan Donkin Valves Limited, part of the global AVK Group of Companies, continues to manufacture equipment for the gas industry and in 2018 the company celebrated the 250th anniversary of the birth of its founder.
Special thanks to Dr Maureen Greenland and Russ Day, authors of Bryan Donkin: The Very Civil Engineer, 1768-1855, Phillimore Book Publishing, 2016