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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