Bathford Mill, near Somerset, in 1809. © Portals International
The history of the Bank of England was in part connected to Walloons and Huguenots and their shared faith, often linked within the world of finance.
The Huguenot Jean François de Portal and eight of his children had fled to these shores in about 1699 and had at first settled in Southampton. Within a few months of his arrival Jean François had moved to London. One of his sons, Henri (1690-1747), chose to remain in Hampshire. He was an ambitious young man, keen to learn in order to carve out a career for himself. He gained employment at the White Paper Making Company mill in the nearby town of South Stoneham, determined to learn all the processes involved in paper-making. Henri sought out Sir William Heathcote, a young man with whom he was to enjoy a close friendship and who was to play a key part in his career.
In 1710 Sir William, upon the death of one of his tenants, offered Henri the opportunity to obtain the lease of Bere Mill, near Whitchurch, Hampshire. Within one year of obtaining this lease Henri founded the Portal Paper Making Company. That same year, he applied for and was granted naturalised citizenship of this country. Henri, now Henry, married Dorothy Hasker of Overton and began to effectively build his business over the next few years, partly with the aid of refugee workers from France and the Low Countries. By 1718 he felt he was in a position to expand his already very successful company. Laverstoke Mill’s lease was duly acquired and the Portal Paper Making Company moved to these new premises a few miles along the River Test from its original mill. Henry’s shrewd business acumen enabled his business to evolve into one of the most successful paper-making businesses in the country, with a varied catalogue of high-quality commercial paper stock.
The first Bank of England notes were handwritten on ordinary paper purchased from a nearby stationers. This method of payment inevitably led to forgeries; the Bank would have to give some careful thought to improving the security of paper money. On 27 September 1724 a contract was signed between the Portal Paper Making Company and the Bank of England, whose Governor was Sir Gilbert Heathcote (and uncle to Sir William Heathcote), for the company to produce the first purpose-made paper for bank notes.
Within one year of this contract, the company had created the first watermarked paper for banknotes - a distinctive looped border running around the outside edge of the banknote that is still in evidence on banknotes today. To begin with, the bank awarded the printing of the banknotes to an external company. Monthly, a supply of paper would be sent in large iron-bound chests by wagon to the printer’s premises in Newbury and each morning the engraved copper plates would be drawn from the Bank of England and taken to the printing works. In 1791 the printing business was transferred to the Bank of England’s premises and continued in use until the early 1920s following the purchase and conversion of St Luke’s Hospital, Threadneedle Street. The Bank eventually took the decision to commission a specially designed printing works at Loughton in Essex, which is still in operation today.
From 1725 for almost 100 years a representative of the Bank of England, known as ‘Ye Bank Officer’, was dispatched to Portal’s Mill to oversee the making of the banknote paper. Henry Portal built a small house for his use, known as ‘Ye little white tenement next the mill’. There was a modest charge levied by Portal for the bank officer’s board and lodging - ten shillings per week - which continued to be levied until the practice of sending an official for security purposes to oversee the production was discontinued in 1819.
A commission was appointed by Parliament, known as the Congreve Commission, in 1818. Its task was to consider the best possible form of future banknotes with particular consideration to the issue of security. The Portal company was asked to produce various specimens and present these to the Commission to aid their deliberations. Naturally, this project was undertaken in great secrecy. John Portal (1764-1848), grandson of Henry Portal, issued these instructions from London to his mill in Laverstoke for one of the trials! ‘Let it be sent to me on Satturday (sic) morning by the little Salisbury Coach, first put into a thin small box and nailed down and then enclosed in a parcel of vegetables that will come from my house Satturday (sic) morn’.
From the inception of the company until 1920, all of the banknotes manufactured by the Portals were handmade banknote paper, but following the end of the First World War the Cylinder Mould Machine process was added to the company’s portfolio. A new mill was built at Overton for this process and the building, now considerably enlarged, is still the main centre for this type of production.
In 1920, the Bank of England gave Portals its permission to compete for the manufacture of banknotes for other countries.
On 15 June 1961, HM Queen Elizabeth II visited Portals Paper Limited and toured the premises to see first-hand the processes involved in creating banknote paper. She was accompanied by Sir Francis Portal, Bt., Chairman and Managing Director, and a direct descendant of the founder of Portals Paper Limited, Henri de Portal. The company motto was, and still is, ‘Makers of Good Paper since 1712’. The royal visit was to mark the company’s 250th anniversary. Queen Elizabeth II was to learn not only of the process of paper making but, in addition, of the more than 100 countries that also rely on the superior quality of the security paper produced for their own currency requirements through Portals.
A new fifty-pound note was issued to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Bank of England with the image of the first Governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Houblon, on the reverse side. If you look closely at the word ‘Fifty’ you will notice the Huguenot Cross is printed repeatedly to form a pattern within each letter, in recognition of the refugee families who aided the inception of the Bank and our banknotes.
Today Portals International produces 25 million banknotes for the world as well as 70 million passports and 60 million certificates a year.
Christopher Portal, The Reluctant Goldsmith: Abraham Portal, 1726-1809, ( Somerset,1993), pp.6-7.
Vincent Duggleby, English Paper Money. Treasury and Bank of England notes 1694-2002, 6th Edition 2002, p.175.
Sir Francis Portal, Bt.,‘The Queen visits Portals of Laverstoke’, Huguenot Society Proceedings, vol. 20 (1962), pp. 451-3.