Near the bank of the River North Tyne a little to the north of Humshaugh stands Haughton Castle and its associated buildings. On the riverbank itself can be found the remains of an old paper mill, built by Captain William Smith, the owner of the nearby castle, in 1788. The flow of the river here is steady and strong, which is just what you’re looking for if you’re a mill owner.
It is also rather remote, which is not always good for communications – but it is good for sneaky goings-on. And, in 1793, just five years after its construction, Haughton Castle Mill was commissioned by the British government for a rather special assignment: it was instructed to produce the paper required for the printing of counterfeit French currency.
There’d been the little matter of the French Revolution, of course, in 1789, and the new revolutionary government was struggling to find its feet. One of its most controversial measures was to introduce as a new currency the ‘Assignat’, backed by the value of property seized from the Catholic Church. Obviously, the Church wasn’t too happy about this illegal seizure and they, together with what was left of the French nobility, opposed the new currency system. To add to the new regime’s woes many foreign countries began producing forged assignats to flood the market and thus destabilise the French economy. Belgium, Switzerland and Britain were at the forefront in this regard, and one of the many paper mills chosen for the project was that on the bank of the North Tyne at Haughton. Its remoteness no doubt contributed to its selection and, for around two years during 1793-95, a good deal of the paper with which the dodgy notes were made was turned out here. The printing process was carried out elsewhere, though; then the notes were sent to Flanders with the British Army.
By the many and various anti-assignat methods thus employed across Europe, the new-fangled French revolutionary currency was indeed brought down. Introduced in 1789, it devalued steadily and was scrapped in 1796. By the time Napoleon I became emperor in 1804 it was a distant memory. So you could argue that the undercover activity at Haughton Castle Mill in the 1790s helped bring the little dictator to power.
One of the moulds for making the paper notes still survives and is in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. The mill itself had fallen out of use by the 1880s, though much of the fabric of the building survives.