Volume 48, Number 12, December 2011
Worth noting BACK in 2009 the Bank of England announced that the next design of the £50 note would feature the Engineers and business partners Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Following the introduction of the somewhat controversial “Adam Smith” £20 it was assumed that the new £50 would follow soon after. This was not to be and it wasn’t until October of this year that the notes were formally put into circulation. The choice of design is an interesting one—it is the first time two people have appeared on a British note as opposed to just one and of course Boulton is already famous in numismatic circles for his work with coins (having set up the Soho Mint). It is the second time engineers have featured (George Stephenson appeared on the £5) and alongside Faraday (£20) and Newton (£1) this means “science” has been far more represented than “arts” with only Dickens (£10) and Shakespeare (£20) representing writers and Elgar (£20) Music, I’ll leave it to you whether you consider Darwin (£10) to be a scientist or not (he’s considered a “naturalist” by the Bank of England) and whether Architecture (the Wren £50) is an art or a science…! Other fields have been represented on Bank of England notes of course: nursing and social reform have given us the only female figures to grace our notes so far (the Florence Nightingale £10 and the Elizabeth Fry £5) and politics/military history gave us the Duke of Wellington on the £5 back in the 1970s. The Bank themselves got a look in with Sir John Houblon, their first Governor, but he was little known outside banking/collector circles and I doubt whether many of the general public know who he is even today—even after 17 years gracing the £50! The exact way the Bank choose their historical figures is not known although it is assumed it is done by committee. But what is certain is that they have a freely available list of those persons whose names have been suggested as worthy to appear on our notes (and as they reserve the right to remove names from that published list as they see fit one can only assume that these people have actually been considered) and that makes for some interesting reading. Many who feature are those who you might expect: Samuel Pepys, Geoffrey Chaucer, Francis Drake (although not Sir Walter Raleigh), Josiah Wedgwood (who, interestingly was Watt and Boulton’s backer and fellow member of the Lunar Society), Lord Nelson, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Sir Alexander Fleming (even though he was a Scot and so like Smith would be a controversial choice to grace an English note) and Sir Winston Churchill, but others are less obvious. Included in the list are such “non-household” names as the writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equinao, wood engraver Thomas Bewick, economist David Ricardo, actor Ira Aldridge, professional rower and boat builder Harry Clasper and aviation pioneer George Caley (Cayley). Also found are a host of “celebrities” including the Beatles, David Beckham, Richard Branson, Robbie Williams and Jonny Wilkinson—even Sir Terry Wogan gets a look in. Thankfully there is no listing for Katie Price at this stage. . . . Looking at the list we can, perhaps, guess who will, or won’t be featured on our banknotes in the coming years. It is unlikely, in this “we’re all Europeans together now” era that Lord Nelson, vanquisher of the French and Spanish Navies at Trafalgar will be chosen, despite Wellington’s earlier appearance. Similarly Sir Winston Churchill may be passed over as indelicate, or at the very least politically divisive, and Sir Barnes Wallis, most famous for inventing the bouncing bombs of “Dambuster” fame stands no chance! Political considerations will probably also keep Sir Robert Peel, Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Townsend, Earl Mountbatten and Lord King from appearing, but even with party politics and all the back-stabbing surrounding that there is no reason why the first woman MP, Nancy Astor, shouldn’t be included. Indeed when you look at names such as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Browning, , Edith Cavell, Grace Darling, Emmeline Pankhurst, Beatrix Potter and Marie Stopes, you have to wonder why the relatively unknown Elizabeth Fry was chosen as only the second woman to appear on a note, and why more of the above haven’t appeared up until now. Some names clearly were included on the list to show that the Bank wasn’t entirely backward thinking, but I find it hard to envisage Sir Michael Parkinson or Sir Jimmy Saville gracing our currency and similarly cricketer Michael Vaughn might not make a short list. It is unlikely that Prince Philip, the late Queen Mother or Princess Diana will ever be featured, but others are obvious contenders. Artists such as Turner, Constable and Gainsborough cry out to have their image, and works, on a note; the daffodil design that would accompany a Wordsworth £10 would be delightful and the potential for a William Morris £5 is obvious. That all aside there are some people not on the list that I think should be: Agatha Christie perhaps? What about Lord Byron or Mary Shelley (perhaps alongside her husband?). Then there’s Captain Cook, Ernest Shackleton, William Blake, Lawrence of Arabia, Charlie Chaplin, J. R. R. Tolkien, David Livingstone, Leonard Cheshire, and a host of others. Most of those the Bank have listed will of course never appear on a note, at least not in our lifetimes and so those I’ve mentioned separately stand no chance. But think of it this way—that we are incredibly lucky to live in a country that has produced so many figures of historical importance that we have such a list to choose from. In today’s celebrity-obsessed society it is perhaps worth remembering that some of the people we admire, and who are worthy of gracing our currency, actually did something with their talents rather than just spend their time seeking more and more fame and money!
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