“Money Was Memory For A Country and Its People” – Historical Britons On Banknotes (1970-2017)

Shakespeare showing a skull - Family Money

The History Of The British Pound (Chapter Eight)

Story Highlights:

Find out all about the historical characters who have appeared on Bank of England banknotes in this chapter with facts about:

  • How the Bank of England decides who will feature on banknotes
  • Changes in the selection procedure
  • Who has featured on sterling banknotes
  • £1 – Sir Isaac Newton
  • £5 – The Duke of Wellington, George Stephenson, Elizabeth Fry, Sir Winston Churchill
  • £10 – Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin
  • £20 – William Shakespeare, Michael Faraday, Sir Edward Elgar, Adam Smith
  • £50 – Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Houblon, Matthew Boulton and James Watt
  • Forthcoming banknotes – Jane Austen, JMW Turner

Historical British figures on banknotes

Since the issue of a £20-pound note featuring William Shakespeare in 1970, Bank of England sterling banknotes have included a variety of famous Britons on the reverse of the note.

Have you ever wondered how the Bank of England decides who should appear on our money?

We begin this chapter by looking at the criteria they use and then look back to see which historical figures have been chosen in the past and are used in the present.

As well as describing the banknotes themselves, we look at the people behind the notes – what have they offered to Britain and the world – to make them deserving of such a honour. To end, we look at the next 2 famous people who will be seen on our banknotes from 2017.

As the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney so rightly said, “Money was memory for a country and its people.”

How does the Bank of England decide who features on banknotes?

The main criteria that the Bank of England uses to judge whether someone should be on a banknote is that they should have been people who shaped British society through innovation, leadership and/or values.

Attempts are made to include people from different backgrounds and fields of endeavour. They also take into account who has already appeared on notes so that the choice reflects the diversity of British society and different disciplines.

The historical personage should be widely admired and should have made an important contribution to society and/or culture. There should also be a suitable portrait of them which can be used on the reverse of the note and this picture should be recognisable.

People who are still living can’t be featured on sterling banknotes

Finally, people who are still living can’t be featured on sterling banknotes and fictional characters are avoided.

Changes in the selection procedure

Since 2014, there have been changes in the selection procedure. Firstly, a Banknote Character Advisory Committee meets to select a field and asks the public to nominate people in this chosen field. In 2014 when they were inviting nominations for the new £20-note, the category given was the visual arts.

The Bank of England subsequently received 29,000 nominations of 590 different people working in this field including painters, sculptors, architects, fashion designers, photographers and film-makers. At this stage of the selection procedure, specialists in the visual arts joined the Committee and created a long-list.

To make a final short-list, the Bank ran focus groups to identify which historical characters would resonate strongly with Britons and whether there were any causes for concern about them. The Committee then created a short-list as a result of the feedback they’d received from the focus groups as well as in-depth historical research about all the nominees.

To make a final short-list, the Bank ran focus groups to identify which historical characters would resonate strongly with Britons.

The short-list, representing a diverse range of characters from different historical periods, was then given to the Governor of the Bank of England to make the final decision. As a result of this procedure, the artist JMW Turner was chosen to feature on the new polymer £20 note from 2020.

Who has featured on Bank of England banknotes?

16 different historical figures appeared on sterling banknotes in the period 1970-2017; 7 scientists/engineers, 3 statesmen/public servants, 2 people concerned with social reform, 2 authors, 1 economist and 1 musician.

One of the difficulties of tracing the banknotes in chronological order is that many overlap in terms of dates of issue or when they were legal tender. Therefore, let’s look at them according to the denominations of the banknotes starting with the £1 note.

The one-pound note

Colour: Green
Dates of Issue: 1978-1984
Legal Tender: Until 1988
Reverse Design: Sir Isaac Newton holding a book and also pictures of a telescope, prism and map of the solar system.

Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is known throughout the world for his work in physics, astronomy as well as mathematical calculus. He is believed to have been the most influential scientist of all time along with Einstein. However, did you know that he was very influential for the pound sterling since he held a post as Warden/Master of the (Royal) Mint? Perhaps it’s fitting that he should have been chosen to appear on the pound sterling seeing as he’d done so much to save the re-coinage of the pound (1696) from becoming a fiasco of mismanagement and fraud. He also went ‘undercover’ on the trail of coin-clippers and counterfeiters.

The five-pound note

Colour: Blue
Dates of Issue: 1971- 1990
Legal Tender: Until 1991
Reverse Design: The 1st Duke of Wellington and a battle scene from the Battle of Salamanca (22nd July, 1812)

An image of 5 pound notes, of which there have been 4 issues since 1971, featuring prominent British figures

Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was a famous Anglo-Irish military leader and statesman. During the Peninsular Wars (1807-14), he led Britain, along with their allies Portugal and Spain, to a decisive victory against the French. He’s perhaps less well-known nowadays as a politician although he served 2 terms in office as Prime Minister. Nicknamed by contemporaries the ‘Iron Duke’, he was politically conservative. Despite this, he was instrumental in defending Catholic emancipation and even fought a duel to defend his views.

Colour: Predominantly turquoise-blue
Dates of Issue: 1990-2002
Legal Tender: Until 2003
Reverse Design: George Stephenson accompanied by an engraving of the steam engine, ‘Rocket’ and the Skerne Bridge (on the Stockton to Darlington Railway).

George Stephenson (1781-1848) was an English civil and mechanical engineer. Born the son of a miner, he learnt to read and write in his spare time. He’s accredited with inventing a miners’ safety lamp independently of Sir Humphrey Davy. Called the ‘Geordie’, this lamp is believed to be where people of the North-East derived their nickname. Stephenson is called the ‘Father of the Railways’ for his work on the steam-powered railway system. In a 1829 competition organised by rival railway companies watched by thousands, his engine ‘Rocket’ achieved a record speed of 36mph.

When the original notes featuring Stephenson were released, millions had to be destroyed since the date of his death was wrong.

Colour: Green
Dates of Issue: 2002-2016
Legal Tender: Until 2017
Reverse Design: Elizabeth Fry and a picture showing her reading to prisoners in Newgate prison.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was an English prison reformer, social reformer and philanthropist. Many of her ideas were underpinned by her beliefs as a Quaker. Known as the ‘Angel of Prisons’, Fry even spent a night in prison to truly understand what the experience was like. In 1818 she became the first woman to give evidence in Parliament. Because of her work, new legislation was passed to treat prisoners more humanely. Her legacy lived on after her death; despite contemporary calls for her to return to the home, her example is said to have been an inspiration for the suffragettes.

Colour: Green-Blue
Dates of Issue: 2016-present day
Legal Tender: Yes
Type of Note: Polymer (the first ever)
Reverse Design: A portrait of Winston Churchill with pictures of Westminster and Big Ben, a background image of the Nobel Prize medal and a quotation from one of Churchill’s speeches: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was an English politician, statesman, writer and (non-academic) historian. Despite a military career and serving terms in Parliament, Churchill is best-known for his role in keeping up the morale of the British during the 2nd World War as the leader of the Coalition government. Did you know that while reporting on the Boer War, he was taken prisoner but escaped by travelling 300 miles to the Portuguese-held territory of Mozambique? He is also one of only eight people who have been made honorary citizens of the USA (1963).

Ten-pound note

Colour: Predominantly brown
Dates of Issue: 1975-1992
Legal Tender: Until 1994
Reverse Design: Florence Nightingale’s portrait along with her tending the wounded at Scutari in the Crimean War

Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was an English social reformer and the founder of modern nursing. Sent to the Crimean as a result of the outcry about the treatment of the wounded, Nightingale’s work was crucial in reducing fatalities by two-thirds. Commonly known as the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ or the ‘Angel of the Crimea’, Nightingale established both St. Thomas Hospital and the Nightingale Training School. However, did you know that she was also the first woman to join the Royal Statistical Society? In order to present statistical data to various committees, she made use of modern graphs and is accredited with inventing the polar area diagram.

Colour: Predominantly orange-brown
Dates of Issue: 1992-2000
Legal Tender: Until 2003
Reverse Design: A portrait of Charles Dickens with a scene from his novel ‘Pickwick Papers’.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a prolific English author whose most famous novels include: ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Great Expectations’. Many written for weekly or monthly serialisations, his chapters often end on a cliff-hanger. The fact that Dickens was forced to work in a factory at the age of 12 meant that he was interested in socio-economic conditions and their effects on the working class. Even today calling something ‘Dickensian’ is a reference to his descriptions. His books continue to be filmed (and sometimes put in a modern setting) showing the universal appeal of his plots and characters.

Colour: Predominantly orange-brown
Dates of Issue: 2000-2016
Legal Tender: Until 2018? (Not been announced yet)
Reverse Design: A portrait of Charles Darwin accompanied by pictures of HMS Beagle, hummingbirds and flowers seen under a magnifying glass.

There were complaints when the ten-pound note was printed with a picture of hummingbirds since Charles Darwin developed his theory by studying finches and mockingbirds.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was a naturalist, geologist and biologist who was selected to appear on a banknote because of his contribution to science. Originally intended to be a doctor like his father, he became interested in the natural sciences at university. His big chance came when he went on a 5-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle and was given the opportunity to study the flora, fauna and geology of different countries/islands. His book ‘On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection’ was over 20 years in the making; he was pushed into publication because Wallace had come up with the same idea independently.

Twenty-pound note

Colour: Predominantly purple
Dates of Issue: 1970-1991
Legal Tender: Until 1993
Reverse Design: Portrait of William Shakespeare with a picture of the balcony scene from his play ‘Romeo and Juliet’

It’s fitting that Shakespeare should have been the subject of the first banknote in the historical personages series because he’s regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the best-selling fiction author of all time (an estimated 4 billion copies of his works have been sold). He wrote more than 30 plays, which are loosely grouped in the categories of historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances and he also penned over 150 sonnets. Did you know that Shakespeare was also responsible for inventing hundreds of new words/expressions which we still use today including courtship, bloodsucking, zany, schoolboy and bated breath?

Colour: Predominantly purple-mauve
Dates of Issue: 1991-2000
Legal Tender: Until 2001
Reverse Design: A portrait of Michael Faraday with a picture of him presenting a lecture at the Royal Institute using the magneto-electric spark apparatus.

A statue of Adam Smith, a prominent British figure who was featured on the 20 pound banknote

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was an English chemist and physicist who contributed to the study of electro-magnetism and electrochemistry. His discoveries and formulated principles underlie later scientific developments such as the invention of electric motors, transformers and generators. An incredible achievement given that he was self-taught. He invented the words electrode, cathode and ion and the word ‘farad’ was given as a measure of electrical capacitance in his honour. He was interested in a range of other topics such as environmental science as well as the teaching of science in schools.

Colour: Predominantly purple-mauve
Dates of Issue: 1999-2007
Legal tender: Until 2010
Reverse Design: A portrait of Sir Edward Elgar with a picture of Worcester Cathedral.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the most influential English composer of international stature since Purchell. As part of the Late Romanticism movement, his works led to a renaissance in English music and was achieved by a man whose father had a music shop and who taught himself to play instruments. He’s most famous for his Enigma Variations (1898-99), his concertos for violin and his choral work like the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ (which was heavily influenced by his Catholicism). His ‘Pomp & Circumstance Marches’ (1901) became the tune to ‘Land of Hope & Glory’, England’s unofficial National Anthem and always sung at the Last Night of the Proms.

Colour: predominantly purple-mauve
Dates of Issue: 2007-Present day
Legal Tender: Yes
Reverse Design: A portrait of Adam Smith with a picture of a pin factory and a quotation from Smith’s book “…and the great increase in the quantity of work that results.”

Faraday’s discoveries underlie the invention of electric motors

The Scottish economist, philosopher and author, Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a representative of the Enlightenment Movement. Smith attended university from the age of 14 and developed a close friendship with the philosopher/economist David Hume. One of his most influential books was the ‘Wealth of Nations’ (1776), which is sometimes called the ‘bible’ of capitalism. He was the first to suggest production/commerce (or GDP nowadays) was the true test of a nation’s wealth rather than its gold reserves and extolled the virtues of the division of labour to increase productivity (as represented by the pin factory on his banknote).

The fifty-pound note

Colour: Predominantly green
Dates of Issue: 1981-1994
Legal Tender: 1996
Reverse Design: A portrait of Sir Christopher Wren with a plan of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Although Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1725) is best-known as the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral and for overseeing the re-building of 52 of London’s churches after the Great Fire of 1666, he started his academic career as a Professor of Astronomy. In an era when science wasn’t divided into disciplines as it is today, his interests included agriculture, light and refraction, ballistics and microscopes. As a result of his interdisciplinary interests, he became a founding member of the Royal Society in 1662. Apart from churches, he also designed the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. Did you know while he was working on St. Paul’s, Parliament withheld half of his salary in the hope he’d go faster?

Colour: Predominantly red
Dates of Issue: 1994-2011
Legal Tender: Until 2014
Reverse Design: A portrait of Sir John Houblon and an image of his home off Threadneedle Street, the premises of the Bank of England.

In honour of the 300th anniversary of the Bank of England, Sir John Houblon (1632-1712) was chosen to feature on the £50-note since he was the first Governor of the Bank of England. As a merchant, Houblon was well-known for his fair business dealings and public spirit and in recognition of the fact was awarded a knighthood in 1689. Five years later, he was instrumental in organising the financing and management structure of the Bank of England. He also served as Lord Mayor of London (1695) and Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty (1698-99).

Colour: Predominantly red
Dates of Issue: 2009-Present day
Legal Tender: Yes
Reverse Design: Portraits of Matthew Boulton and James Watt with a picture of the Whitbread Engine and the Soho Manufactury, Birmingham.

The first appearance of two people on a banknote together is of Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) was an industrialist and entrepreneur while James Watt (1736-1819) was a scientist. This was the first time that two people have appeared on a banknote together and is in recognition of the fact they set up a partnership to develop and sell steam engines (1775). Their contribution was crucial in expanding the use of steam engines from the mining/textile industries to other industries and giving impetus to the Industrial Revolution. Watt coined the term ‘horsepower’ and the metric unit of power is named after him while Boulton’s factory outside Birmingham pioneered the idea of specialisation of labour to increase output.

Forthcoming banknotes

Jane Austen

A statue of Charles Darwin, a prominent British figure who was featured on the 10 pound note

From September 2017, Darwin will be slowly replaced by the author, Jane Austen on a new £10 polymer banknote. The unveiling of the new note will be made on the 200th anniversary of the author’s death at Winchester Cathedral where she was buried in 1817.

The note will include a portrait of Jane Austen; an image of Godmersham Park (the home of her brother Edward Austen Knight); a picture of her 12-sided writing table and quills from Chawton cottage; an illustration of Elizabeth Bennett and a quotation from ‘Pride & Prejudice’: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

There had been a petition, which had collected 35,000 signatures, in the year before this announcement since with the replacement of Elizabeth Fry by Churchill, there hadn’t been one single woman on Bank of England banknotes. However, Austen has managed something unique – she will be on both the £10 note and on a £2 commemorative coin in 2017.

JMW Turner

From around 2020, the artist JMW Turner will feature on the new polymer 20-pound banknote.

The note will feature a 1799 self-portrait of the artist; a version of his painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (the ship which played a decisive role in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805); a copy of his signature from his will (which bequeathed his paintings to the nation) and a quotation from a 1818 lecture he gave: “Light is therefore colour.”

Turner beat other representatives of the visual arts on the short-list (Barbara Hepworth, Charlie Chaplin, Josiah Wedgewood and William Hogarth) because of his role as an influential British artist.


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