British Banknotes - your guide to English and Scottish banknotes

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13 January 2019
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Banknote expert Jonathan Callaway examines the notes of the Bank of England and the three Scottish note issuing banks

Frequent travellers around the British Isles will be aware there are numerous issuers of sterling-denominated banknotes alongside the Bank of England. No fewer than eleven, in fact. While Bank of England notes circulate throughout the United Kingdom and are also regularly seen in the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, you will probably not often see the many other notes issued in Scotland, Northern Ireland or our small island neighbours unless you live outside England or Wales.

Banknotes of the Bank of England

Bank of England’s note issues clearly dominate across the UK – with about 90% of the £73bn total in circulation. All Scottish and NI issues are fully backed by sterling cash and securities deposited at the Bank and thus effectively guaranteed by them.

Bank of England notes were first issued when the Bank was founded in 1694, but they were not, as one might have expected, the first paper money to have been issued in a British territory – this prize belongs to the Colony of Massachusetts who beat the Bank by four years to issue its own paper money in Boston in 1690 (see our article on US notes on page 48).

The Bank was not the sole issuer in England and Wales until 1921, when the last of the once numerous small provincial banks gave up its note issue. Until 1928 all Bank of England notes were printed in black on white paper, with blank reverses.

White Notes were issued in numerous denominations from £5 up to £1,000. The 18th-century design scarcely changed before finally being withdrawn in 1957. Even the ‘Operation Bernhard’ forgeries of the Second World War failed to persuade the Bank to replace them, though they did withdraw the higher value notes from £10 to £1,000 as a precaution. The Nazis had hoped to destroy the UK economy by flooding the market with their forgeries but this never happened. The bulk of the many surviving forgeries were retrieved from the bottom of an Austrian lake after the war.

Why did such a simple design last so long given the ever-present threat of forgers? The answer seems to be that the Bank felt that this simplicity itself would ensure the public would become familiar enough with the notes to spot any forgeries. There were also many hidden subtleties in both the printed design and the watermark to enable experts to pick out any dodgy ones.

The Bank’s first ‘modern’ issues appeared in 1928 in the form of a green £1 and a brown 10 shillings note. These were in issue until 1960 although during the Second World War the colours were changed to combat the threat of forgeries, with the brown 10/- changed to purple and the £1 note blue and brown. In 1960 the Portrait Series notes began to be issued, the first to feature the Queen. 

A new £5 note and a re-introduced £10 note followed. In 1970 a new £20 note was issued, the first of many to carry a historical figure on the reverse. Who better than William Shakespeare to start this new trend? 

When a £50 note was added in 1981 this had Sir Christopher Wren on the back. Other famous figures included Florence Nightingale on the £10 note and the Duke of Wellington on the fiver. The last ever £1 note featured Sir Isaac Newton and was in issue until 1988 when it was replaced by a coin.

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By 1990 the Bank felt it was time to upgrade the security features and bring in a new more mature portrait of the Queen. This portrait was not greeted with universal enthusiasm but the Queen herself obviously liked it because it has appeared on every one of the Bank’s notes since then, including the new polymer £5 and £10 notes. The second Historical Series began with a £20 note with Sir Edward Elgar on the back. He was joined by Dickens and Elizabeth Fry, only the second female to appear on the notes. Finally the new polymer notes feature Churchill on the fiver and Jane Austen on the tenner.

Scotland’s banknotes

Scotland’s banknote story is very different. It started only one year after England’s when the Bank of Scotland was formed in 1695. When its bitter rival the Royal Bank was founded in 1727 the two banks went on to dominate the Scottish economy. In 1746 they were joined by a linen manufacturer turned banker, the British Linen Company. Other banks came along but the stability north of the border was in sharp contrast to the situation to the south.

While only three issuers are left north of the border, there were no fewer than ten in 1900. The total reduced through amalgamations, culminating in 1970 when the British Linen was absorbed by the Bank of Scotland. Scottish banknote designs have always been much more varied and colourful than the Bank of England’s, creating huge scope for collectors seeking something different. 

At the same time designs tended to be very conservative and many scarcely changed from Victorian times until the 1960s. For example, from 1885 to 1969 all Bank of Scotland notes used brown and yellow inks specially developed as hard to forge. The final use of this design was on a £20 note issued in 1969. It varied little from the 1885 version.

All Scottish notes of £5 and upwards were known as ‘horse blankets’ due to their large dimensions (c.210 x 130mm) and banks only started to reduce the size of their notes in the 1940s, mainly as a cost-saving measure. The Royal Bank was equally conservative and its 1832 £1 note continued with size and colour modifications until 1967. This example is a ‘square’ £1 note, also a standard size (c160 x 125mm) until the mid-late 1920s.

The Clydesdale Bank, founded in 1838, now has the largest circulation of the three surviving issuers and when they introduced their Famous Scots series in 1971 they started a trend which has since been followed by both the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank, as seen in this 1972 £5 note featuring Robert Burns, the Scottish national poet. 

Sir Walter Scott has featured on Bank of Scotland notes since 1970 – he was inherited from the British Linen Bank who had been bankers to the great man himself – while the Royal Bank followed firstly with Lord Ilay, their first Governor, in 1987, and much more recently with the Scottish novelist and poet Nan Shepherd and scientist Mary Somerville who feature on their new polymer £5 and £10 notes respectively.

Another trend started by the Royal Bank in 1992 was to issue commemorative notes. They began with a £1 note marking the European Summit in Edinburgh in 1992 and went on to issue several more £1, £5, £10 and £20 notes marking notable events and anniversaries, such as this 2002 £5 note featuring images of Queen Elizabeth.

Images: 

  • A 1914 example of a Bank of England White Note, printed in black on white paper, with a blank reverse
  • The first Bank of England £1 note with the royal portrait
  • Bank of England £20 note reverse with William Shakespeare
  • Bank of Scotland £20 note issued in 1969 but first designed in 1885
  • Royal Bank of Scotland square £1 note from 1923
  • Robbie Burns on a Clydesdale Bank £5 note from 1972