First issued by the Bank of England in 1694, Banknotes were originally supposed to be used as a receipt in exchange for gold loans to the bank. Owners of Banknotes could literally take their note to the Bank of England and exchange it for the equivalent price in gold.
In fact, all British notes still have the statement “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of…” to this day.
Britain stopped using the gold standard in 1931, meaning that the right to redeem Banknotes for gold ceased. And by 1945, a metal thread had to be introduced on the £5 note following a security threat from Nazi Germany.
In this blog, we’ll explore the history of the ‘White Fiver’, why an estimated 70,000,000 of these ‘notes’ were burned and the story of one of wartime’s most over-the-top secret plots…
The Story Behind The ‘White Fiver’
The £5 note was only ever intended as a temporary measure, William Pitt, the Prime Minister at the time originally planned to take the £5 out of circulation once economic conditions improved. However, the £5 note has since become the longest serving denomination and at one point was even the highest denomination Bank of England note.
Active between 1793 and 1945, the Bank of England’s White Paper £5 note was the second variant of the denomination and became known as the ‘White Fiver‘. Much bigger than today’s equivalent (which stands at 135 x 70mm), the original paper notes were a huge 195 x 120mm.
But production of these notes was halted during World War II and a new metal thread security feature was introduced to combat counterfeiting attempts from Nazi Germany.
The largest counterfeiting operation in history, Operation Bernhard was the codename of a secret Nazi plot to destabilise the British economy. The Nazis planned to drop counterfeit notes throughout Europe to cause artificial inflation of the British pound.
In 1942, production of counterfeit British ‘White Fivers’ began behind the gates of Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Prisoners worked to perfect the process, revealing over 150 secret security marks, creating identical ink, solving the serial numbering system and printing the notes. By 1945 it is estimated that 70,000,000 notes were printed by inmates – a cache of upwards of £100,000,000.
The plot never came to fruition and at the end of the war Nazis burned huge amounts of British “currency”. But the Bank of England didn’t take any chances and withdrew all circulating notes.
Unsurprisingly Operation Bernhard, as it was known, is remembered as one of wartime’s most over-the-top secret plots.
And that’s why, over 60 years since it was legal tender, the ‘White Fiver’ remains the most famous banknote ever issued…
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Whether you love them or hate them, it’s fair to say that when the Bank of England issued the very first polymer banknotes, UK currency was revolutionised. As well as refreshing the designs of the notes, these polymer versions were considered a cleaner, safer and stronger alternative.
In 2016 it was the £5 that received the first makeover, and Winston Churchill was selected to feature on the note. Jane Austen soon followed on the £10 note and now, as chosen by the British public, renowned artist JMW Turner graces the new £20 polymer note.
But it’s not only the design that makes this note special. You see, the Bank of England have described this note as the most secure banknote yet. So, I’m of course curious to see what special security features have been worked into the design of our newest banknote…
Britain’s most secure banknote
Before the revolutionary polymer £20 came along, there were over 2 billion £20 paper notes in circulation. The sheer volume of them made the £20 note Britain’s most used, and consequently most forged, banknote.
So it’s understandable that the need to make it difficult to counterfeit was at the forefront of the designer’s mind! The result? A whole host of special features that make it harder to forge and stand out from other notes in circulation.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the security features incorporated into the design:
- Transparent windows – the foil in the large see-through window is blue and gold on the front, and silver on the back. Plus, there’s a second, smaller window in the bottom corner.
- Changing holograms – the hologram beneath the large clear pane will alternate between reading ‘Twenty’ and ‘Pounds’ depending on what way you tilt the note.
- The Queen’s portrait in the transparent window – the Queen’s portrait is printed on the window with ‘£20 Bank of England’ printed twice around the edge.
- Foil patches – a silver foil patch contains a 3D image of the coronation crown. There is a second purple foil patch which contains the letter ‘T’.
- Ultra-violet technology – under UV light, the number ’20’ appears in bright red and green on the front of the note, against a duller background.
- Raised dots – you’ll find three clusters of raised dots in the top left hand corner. This tactile feature helps blind and partially sighted people identify the value of the note.
JMW Turner design
When choosing the design for the £20 note, the Bank of England were spoilt for choice. They received over 29,000 nominations submitted by the general public. And the choice to select JMW Turner makes him the first British artist to ever feature on a UK banknote.
The note itself features Turner’s 1799 self-portrait, which is currently housed in the Tate Modern in London. And behind this you’ll notice one of his most recognisable works – The Fighting Temeraire. This famous painting is a tribute to the ship that played a pivotal role in in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The final nod to Turner in the design comes from the quote “light is therefore colour”, alongside the signature taken from his will. The quote is taken from a lecture Turner gave in 1818 and is a reference to his innovative use of light, shade, colour and tone.
What do you think about the new £20 Polymer note? Let us know in the comments!
If you’re interested…
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First issues are always valued by collectors and by owning the DateStamp™ issue you will be one of just 2,500 collectors able to forever mark the date the new £20 polymer banknote entered circulation. We have a limited number available, so click here to find out more >>
Almost 50 years ago, the ten bob note was in every wallet, purse and pocket in Britain. The 10 Shilling banknote would have been recognisable to every schoolchild in Britain, a fact that certainly isn’t the case today!
Worth the equivalent of 50p, back then it would have bought you 6 pints of beer, 10 loaves of bread, or 17 pints of milk. It’s hard to imagine a 50p going so far these days!
The 10 Shilling banknote was the smallest denomination note ever issued by the Bank of England. The denomination was first issued as a banknote by the Treasury during the First World War as an emergency currency and was then issued as a generally circulating note by the Bank of England from 1928.
However, in 1966 when the decision was made to convert Britain’s coinage to a decimal currency it sadly meant saying goodbye to the well-loved 10 Shilling Note.
Under this new system, there was no place for the 10 bob note. It was decided that the new decimal replacement should be issued as a coin, the main reason being that notes had an average lifetime of about five months so it was inefficient to keep replacing a note with such a low denomination.
As a result, the first ever 7-sided coins was introduced in 1969 – the now instantly recognisable 50p coin. The two currencies co-existed for around a year, but finally, on 22nd November 1970, the old 10 bob note ceased to be legal tender.
Almost 50 years on, the 50p is now a staple of British culture and one of the most collectable coins internationally. The 10 bob note stands as an important reminder of the pre-decimal coinage our generation grew up with and also of one of the most significant moments in the history of British currency – decimalisation.
If you’re interested…
Today you have the opportunity to own a FINE SILVER reproduction of the 10 Shilling Banknote for JUST £45. But with limited stock available, you will need to act quickly to secure this perfect piece of nostalgia…