In 1779 Charles Cowan purchased the paper mill at Penicuik, in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, renamed it Valleyfield, and converted it to the production of white paper. In 1796 Charles’s son Alexander took over the management of the mill. The Valleyfield Mill was used as a prisoner of war camp, mainly for French prisoners, from March 1811 until September 1814, during the Napoleonic War. In 1826 Alexander Cowan opened another mill nearby, the Bank Mill, to make paper for banknotes. In the 1840s Alexander Cowan’s son Charles became partner in the firm which became styled A. Cown & Sons.
Alexander Cowan died in 1859 and Charles took control of the business. At this time the Valleyfield Mill was producing writing, drawing and printing paper, and the Bank Mill was focused on fine and super-fine paper. The papers of A. Cowan & Sons were widely sought after and were recognisable by their scallop shell watermark. In 1889 the concentration of all production to Valleyfield began and resulted in the installation of a 92 inch machine that allowed production to increase to 100 tons per week.
In 1899 Charles’s brother, Sir John Cowan, took charge of the firm. In the same year the company completed the construction of a London factory and warehouse at 24-25 Upper Thames Street. It was one of the first steel and concrete buildings to be erected in London.
Sir John Cowan also oversaw the construction of the Cowan Institute in Penicuik which opened in 1894. The Institute was a gift of the Cowan family in response to the wishes of Alexander Cowan, nearly 40 years previously, to erect a building “for recreation and instruction and the furtherance of all objects affecting the welfare of the Community.” It consisted of a large hall with a capacity for 700 peple, a library, reading rooms, gymnasium and a museum.
A. Cowan & Sons was acquired by the Reed Paper Group in 1965. In 1980 the Valleyfield Mill complex was demolished. Today, the Cowan Institute is still very much at the centre of social life in Penicuik and is well used by all kinds of community groups.