By Jureck Pütter
The Paper Mill at Guardbridge, as a working mill, producing high-quality papers of merit and note for over a century and a half, gave up the ghost, so to speak, in 2008. In its heyday, seven hundred souls, representing a score of specialized skills, laboured three shifts per day to make what amounted to thousands of miles of paper per year, which, when checked, cut, packed, and wrapped, reached the four comers of the globe.
Post Second World War, expensive exotic esparto grass from North Africa gave way to cheaper, easier-to-process, easier-to-access, European wood pulp. Relentless fierce competition at home and abroad significantly eroded profit margins. Initial major post-war expansion, technical upgrades, better marketing and increased capacity, kept the wolf at bay until the 197Os. Failure to maintain continual investment in plant and process resulted in a takeover, which, for a while, with investment, and the will to succeed, revived flagging fortunes. With the rise of the Scandinavian super efficient mills sited in the middle of vast forests of pine for wood pulp, the writing was on the wall for traditional mills.
In 2008, the Mill finally closed; this time no White Knight would ride to its rescue. My Old Man, George Pütter, of Austro-Hungarian Empire/Polish origin, came to the UK in 1940 with the Polish Army. Demobilised in 1947, he got unskilled labouring work at the Mill, as did many Poles from many different professions. And, like the others, using their pre-war education and skills, he worked his way up the ladder, from labourer to overhead craneman in the fabled grass sheds, where he delivered bales of esparto grass to the shaker shed, there to be broken apart and blown under great air pressure to the first of a series of cookers.
In fits and starts, his pre-war skills surfaced to the attention of the management. He was ‘good at numbers’. He was a graduate of the University of Lwow in Poland, taking his degree in Economics and Mathematics. His aptitude in Central European languages, together with his understanding of Economics, led to his employment by the Polish Foreign Office. He became a Diplomatic Courier, serving the Polish Embassies and Commercial Consulates in the entirety of the Balkans. He was the ‘Eyes and ears’ of his country abroad, alert to the growth of Nazi Germany’s influence in the area, and watching for the tell-tale signs of preparations for war. Working and travelling alone, he was known as the ‘Book-keeper’. In 1935, a colleague, recently married, whose wife was expecting their first child, and who worked North Africa from Alexandria to Casablanca, and wanted to be closer to home, asked my Old Man if he would be prepared to swap regions.
Always on the look-our for adventure and fresh fields, my Old Man agreed with enthusiasm. The Polish Foreign Office saw additional merit in the swap, for their Cypher Bureau, having led the breaking of the German Military’s Enigma Code, had established a distant listening post in Marrakech in French Morocco, high in the Atlas Mountains in order to ‘Follow the German Navy’ as it ventured into the Mid- and South Atlantic. The German Navy’s version of, and use of, Enigma benefited from a tighter control of usage, and implemented new changes technically and procedurally. The Polish attitude was to monitor closely the German Navy, thus keeping abreast of the latest developments. The Polish Commercial Consulate in Marrakech was the cover for the listening post, with its secure ‘room with no windows’, bathed in red light during ‘action stations’ to heighten concentration when German naval transmissions were being monitored. Coded transcripts and commentaries were collected by ‘the Book-keeper’. The work was not without its dangers, as two Polish ‘Consular Staff’ were murdered in Marrakech, in all probability by agents working for the German Intelligence service, the Abwehr.
From time to time, when the Weighman of the Guardbridge Paper Mill’s Public Weighbridge was ill, or on holiday, my Old Man, with his recognized aptitude for ‘numbers’, was seconded to the Weighbridge. It was inevitable that he would scrutinize the working of the weighbridge in order to determine any shortcomings, problems, deficiencies and the like. It was during one such ‘locum’ session that the Weighman retired. My Old Man applied for the position. With training by the Department of Weights and Measures, a Government body, he was appointed Senior Weighman. Immediately he set about reviving the moribund fortunes of the weighbridge. He had the Mill install a telephone, and equipped himself with a typewriter. He designed new ‘unladen weight (Tare) cards’, which were easy to fill out/type up, copy and archive. He laughed as he implemented a new ‘Bookkeeping’ system, to record every transaction. He built up a comprehensive Dossier on all the transport companies who used the Weighbridge, and weeded out the small firms, especially the scrap merchants, local and regional, whose traditional hobby it was to try to ‘cheat the scales’. They were identified, reported, and banned. His new regime began to attract new custom from the bigger transport companies, which valued security and accounting accuracy. He was to a large extent his own boss, the Weighbridge his own domain, his personal fiefdom.
He retired from the Mill, from the Weighbridge, at the age of 65. He had restored something of his lost professional fortunes. The keyboard of his office typewriter, he always mused, was the link to the ‘Enigma’ past. He kept a postcard of the German heavy cruiser ‘Prinz Eugen’ on his desk, a reminder, if ever he needed it, of the Polish Cypher Bureau’s exhortation, ‘Follow the German Navy!’ lf only the Mill’s management and his Transport Customers had known of his pre-war background!
The weighbridge was demolished a few years back. He rescued some of its bricks as a sentimental memento. The true story of the original Polish breaking of the Enigma code is now known. My Old Man had been there long before Bletchley Park had claimed the crown. Once known as the ‘Book-keeper’ – he ended as ‘The Weighman’.
Text & illustration, February/March 2020 © Jureck Pütter