To mark the introduction of the new polymer fiver, the Bank of England Museum has opened a new gallery tracing the changing face of the banknote. From the very earliest examples of paper money from Ming dynasty China, to Nazi forgeries intended to ruin the British economy during the Second World War, the gallery exhibits some of history’s most remarkable notes.
Filled with original drawings, notes and sketches, the ‘Banknote Gallery’ celebrates some classic designs alongside a wealth of intricate artwork, never before displayed. It demonstrates how banknote design has evolved over the centuries in countless attempts to stay ahead of the forgers, with secret markings, labyrinthine designs and complex watermarks.
Here, we take at look at some of the exhibition’s most interesting and unusual notes…
One of the very earliest paper banknotes from Ming dynasty China. (Bank of England Museum)
A 19th-century ‘flash note’. The bank holds a large collection of these notes, which are not a precise imitation of a Bank of England note, but which are close enough that they might fool someone when ‘flashed’ under their nose.
‘Flash notes’ looked enough like genuine banknotes that people would give them a second glance, being drawn into adverts for hairdressers or magical shows. The hairdressing advert pictured above contains the words ‘Bank of Elegance’. (Bank of England Museum)
This £5 note was altered to look like a £50 note. It was discovered when it was used to pay for a cow at a Yorkshire county fair in 1850.
In 1743, the ‘sum block’ – an elaborate rendering of the denomination in white letters on a black background – was introduced to make it more difficult to alter the value of a note without detection. This example proves that it was very difficult to do this convincingly. (Bank of England Museum)
Artwork for a Gooden design £5 note. Its secret security marks are highlighted in red pen. (Bank of England Museum)
A series of vignettes of Britannia, the symbol of the Bank of England, as used on the bank’s notes in the 1760s. At first glance they look identical, but if you look closely you will see there are minute differences between the vignettes for each different denomination of banknote. This was protection against the alteration of the note (a forger would have to alter both the denomination and the vignette) but also against counterfeits, where a counterfeiter would copy one note but create various denominations using the same model. (Bank of England Museum)
The master drawing for the vignette of St Cecilia and Worcester Cathedral on the reverse of the Edward Elgar £20 note, designed by Roger Withington and issued in 1999. Several of Elgar’s works, including the Enigma Variations, were first performed at Worcester Cathedral, which Elgar had a close connection with. (Bank of England Museum)
A series of development sketches for the Queen’s portraits on the banknotes of the 1960s. (Bank of England Museum)
A test print of a detail for a £5 note by Applegarth & Cowper. Multicoloured printing was in its infancy in this period, and for the firm to create a note with six distinct colours (black, blue, red, yellow, brown and green) was a huge achievement. (Bank of England Museum)
The Bank of England’s Banknote Gallery is open now and admission is free. You can find out more about the exhibition here.