Today’s world of pre-packaged goods in shops is a world away from what Elisha Robinson found when he came to Bristol in 1844. Grocers were accustomed to weighing out quantities of food from bulk and parcelling it up in a twist of paper or in bags made by hand on the premises, as and when they had time.
Elisha came to Bristol from Blockley in the Cotswolds, where his father ran a grocer’s shop. He set up in business to supply boxes and wrapping paper to retailers. He hit upon the idea of supplying ready-made paper bags, which he made by hand at his shop, printed with the name of the shopkeeper and a stock design. The shopkeeper could choose from a range of over 500 images of an amazing variety of subjects.
The business was very successful, but it became difficult to keep up with demand. In 1860 he installed a machine to make the simpler designs of bag but complex ones had to be made by hand. This was very time consuming, so when he saw a machine in America in 1874 that could do this, Elisha bought the rights to make them in the UK.
The bag machine had been designed by Margaret 'Mattie' Knight. Born in 1838, Mattie worked from the age of nine in a textile factory. She later worked at a paper-bag factory, and designed a machine for making satchel bags (like the bags that flour and sugar come in) in her spare time, which she patented in 1871. She had to go to court to reclaim her design when a man stole it and tried to patent it first, on the grounds that a woman could not invent a machine like this! She later set up her own paper bag company in Hartford, Connecticut, and patented lots of other inventions. She died in 1914.
Elisha arranged for a Bristol engineering company to start to make the machines for Robinson's to use. In production, the machines made more than 30 times as many bags as a hand-maker. Combined with machines to make other types of bag, Robinson's became one of the biggest paper bag makers in the UK, with large factories in Redcliffe Street, Bedminster and Fishponds. Hundreds of Bristol people worked as ‘bag tacklers’ in their factories.
Robinson's also made boxes, account books and calendars and carried out colour printing. In later years they added waxed paper and plastic packaging products to their range. They merged with the John Dickinson in 1966 to form DRG, one of the biggest stationery and packaging groups in the world. The group was split up in 1989.
Robinson's machines were made by two major Bristol engineering companies, Strachan & Henshaw and Beasley French & Co. Another company, Woolley Bros, made small machines for special bags. All of them made major improvements to the design of their machines over the years and led the field. These companies struggled as the market for bags was overtaken by polythene.
Bristol people are still involved with making paper bags. AP Burt at Portishead produces over 6 million bags a day for the food and general retail sector. This includes over 1 million paper bags per week for Kentucky Fried Chicken made on Bristol-made paper-bag machines.