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historical figures


by Jonathan Callaway

The announcement by the Bank of England that they intend to introduce a new fiver in 2016 with Sir Winston Churchill on the back, replacing Elizabeth Fry, has prompted a lot of media interest in who appears on our banknotes and how these decisions are taken.  This article looks at who we have seen so far and considers who might come next.

Prior to 1928 Bank of England banknotes had hardly changed since the 18th century; they all looked like the old white fiver.  But 1928 saw the introduction of a green £1 note and a reddish-brown 10 shillings note to replace the UK’s Treasury issues.  The white fiver, meanwhile, continued to reign supreme right up to 1956.  The many higher denominations had all been withdrawn in 1944 thanks to Operation Bernhard, the massive counterfeiting operation undertaken by Nazi Germany, so until 1956 the population had to make do with just three Bank of England denominations and nothing larger than a five pound note.

The white fiver was replaced by the blue ‘Lion and Key’ five pound note, a beautiful but short-lived design replaced after only ten years.  It was only in 1960 that the Queen first appeared on a Bank of England note, accompanied on the reverse by a stylised image of Britannia.  Britannia, an allegorical female representation of Britain, had always appeared on Bank of England notes in a vignette based on the Bank’s seal.  She had also frequently appeared on English provincial banknotes in the 19th century, usually with sword and shield and sometimes with a lion at her feet in a range of poses from the frankly militaristic to the demurely feminine.  The front of the Lion and Key fiver carried a bold image of Britannia wearing a Roman helmet, an image more classical Victorian than Elizabethan.  Britannia continues to appear on every note, be it as a small vignette, in the watermark or as one of the images in the hologram security device.  Arguably, therefore, current Bank of England notes already have two females on them, the Queen and Britannia.

In the late 1960s the Bank started thinking about further changes to its banknote designs and the view was formed that introducing historical figures on them would enhance their attractiveness while giving scope to the designers to bring in more anti-counterfeiting design features. It took until July 1970 for the Bank finally to get round to putting the first historical figure on one of its notes.  The note chosen to initiate the new series was the re-introduced £20 note in a lovely design with the Queen on the front accompanied by a delightful vignette of George and the Dragon.  On the reverse we see the first in a long line of historical figures, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

It is difficult to think of a more fitting figure than our national poet and playwright to start this process but less well known is the fact that had the Bank decided not to issue a new 50 pence note to replace the old 10/- note, the honour would have gone to Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries but better known as an adventurer and explorer than as a writer (he wrote poetry).  The 50p note was scuppered when a 50p coin was introduced instead.  Shakespeare lasted 23 years on the £20 note before making way for Michael Faraday.  We will now look at all those who came after him, taking them in chronological order.  A summary at the end lists all these historical figures by denomination and date.

In 1971 the next figure to appear was the Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), who shared the back of the new £5 note with a depiction of one of his famous victories, the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro.  He lasted 20 years on the note.  The Duke was not only a famous military figure but also a former Prime Minister responsible for the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act (he was Irish born, though a Protestant) and presiding over the 1832 Reform Act.

The next figure to appear, and the first female historical figure, was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) in 1975.  She enjoyed 19 years on the back of the £10 note and her image was accompanied by a scene from the hospital in Scutari (now part of modern Istanbul in Asian Turkey) where she first came to public attention for nursing soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.  In 1856, after the war ended, she returned to Britain and went on to establish a number of training facilities for nurses.

In 1978 the last £1 note was introduced with Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) on the reverse.  This small note, known as the ‘Luncheon Voucher’ was in circulation for only ten years and was the Bank of England’s last £1 note before it was withdrawn and replaced by a £1 coin.  Newton qualifies to appear on a banknote for his most famous moment, when the apple fell on his head and he ‘discovered’ gravity. This story is however apocryphal but he did write of watching apples fall and wondering why they always fell straight to earth.  In 1687 Newton published his single greatest work, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica ('Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy') which embodied his studies on gravity.  He was by far the most eminent scientist of his day and felt by many to have been as influential on the development of physics as Albert Einstein himself.  He found time amongst his scientific research and writing to become the Master of the Royal Mint, a position he took very seriously in his pursuit of counterfeiters.

In 1981 we see Sir Christopher Wren appear (1632-1723) on the back of the newly re-introduced £50 note.  This was the first note of this denomination since 1944 and remains the highest Bank of England denomination (and is likely to stay as such, the Bank apparently deciding against issuing a £100 note on the grounds that it would give out a potentially inflationary signal and be used mainly in the cash economy).  Wren appears along with an image of St Paul’s Cathedral, his most famous creation.  Apart from being one of our most famous architects, Wren was also one of the founding members of the Royal Society and devoted much of his earlier years to the study of astronomy.

In 1990 the Bank started a new series of notes, slightly reduced in size to previous issues.  The theme of featuring a historical character on each note continued, however.  The new series began with a new fiver portraying George Stephenson (1781-1848) on the reverse.  He is seen with the Rocket, the famous steam locomotive he built and first ran on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825.  It had a top speed of an impressive 36mph.  Its success ushered in the railway age when thousands of miles of lines were built all over the UK, making a huge contribution to the success of the industrial revolution.

A year later, in 1991, a new £20 note joined the tenner, this time the featured figure being Michael Faraday (1791-1867).  Faraday was another scientist, his speciality being electromagnetism, a principle which paved the way for the development of electric motors.  He devoted much time to lecturing and instituted the annual Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution which continue to this day.  An image of him delivering one of these lectures appears alongside his portrait.

The £10 note was updated the following year, in 1992, and Charles Dickens (1812-1870) joins the illustrious list of historical figures.  Dickens is still a hugely popular author as attested to by the numerous screen and TV adaptations of his novels.  The note carries a scene from the cricket match described in the Pickwick Papers, one of his most successful novels.

In 1994 the £50 note was redesigned and a new figure appears on the reverse, Sir John Houblon (1632-1712), the Bank of England’s first Governor.  Arguably the least well-known historical figure to appear on their banknotes, he is also one of the longest-lasting, still there after nearly 20 years.

In 1999 it was decided to replace the £20 note once again, prompted perhaps by the increasing occurrence of attempts to forge the notes.  The previous £20 note had lasted just ten years and this new one, featuring Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), lasted just eleven.  Elgar is one of Britain’s most famous composers who wrote a number of popular works such as his Pomp and Circumstance marches including Land of Hope and Glory.  He made his name in the pre-First World War period with his composition Enigma Variations.

A year later in 2000 a new £10 note was issued, featuring Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  Darwin is rightly lauded for his hugely influential work The Origin of the Species, which revolutionised scientific thought and propelled Darwin into the forefront of top-ranking scientists.  It was however a controversial book in its day and even today is challenged by some religious groups.  Darwin’s beard is said to have influenced the choice of his portrait given the apparent difficulty it presented to the banknote engravers – and thus to potential forgers.  This consideration does not appear to have worked against the bald and clean-shaven Churchill.

In 2002 Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was selected to grace the reverse of a new £5 note.  She was a prominent 19th century philanthropist and penal reformer, a Quaker born into the Gurney banking family who were one of several Quaker families whose banks were merged to create today’s Barclays Bank.  Her husband was a member of the Fry family who founded the J S Fry chocolate and confectionary business.

In 2007 yet another £20 note was issued, with the first Scot to appear on an English note, Adam Smith (1723-1790).  Smith is considered by many as the father of modern economics whose work The Wealth of Nations argued in favour of free trade and the division of labour – thus providing a theoretical basis for the modern industrial factory system.  There is no sign of any of the Scottish banks wishing to reciprocate by putting an Englishman on one of their notes, and indeed the Clydesdale could rightfully accuse the Bank of England of pinching their idea – Adam Smith featured on their £50 notes from 1981 to 2009.

The most recent note to be introduced was another first, in that two figures were selected to appear on the reverse of a new £50 note in 2011, Matthew Boulton (1718-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819).  Their claim to fame was their collaboration in the development of steam engines which powered many of the factories of the Victorian industrial revolution.  They also established a coin mint in Soho, near Birmingham which supplied the Royal Mint as well as many foreign governments.

While the Bank is not easily influenced in its decision-making about who appears on its banknotes it does keep a list on its website of all the suggestions for new names made by the public.  They range from Geoffrey Chaucer to David Beckham but the latter is highly unlikely to appear if the Bank sticks to its stated criteria, that the individual must be universally recognised as having made an outstanding and lasting contribution in their chosen field – and, though not explicitly stated – be dead.

The choice of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) on the new fiver is proving not uncontroversial.  A feminist campaign group is threatening legal action under the Equality Act, insisting that the Bank reconsider its decision and choose another female figure.  The Bank is currently resisting this and is refusing to disclose how its decision was actually made, though they do say that the final decision always rests with the Governor and that a shortlist of four had been drawn up (of which only one was female).  One suspects, however, that when Darwin is eventually replaced on the £10 note they may reveal a greater sensitivity to arguments about women’s rights.  Jane Austen or Emmeline Pankhurst anyone?




Historical figure



Years in issue


Sir Isaac Newton





Duke of Wellington





George Stephenson





Elizabeth Fry




£5 Winston Churchhill
2016 Current 6+


Florence Nightingale





Charles Dickens





Charles Darwin




£10 Jane Austen
2017 Current 4+


William Shakespeare





Michael Faraday





Sir Edward Elgar





Adam Smith




£20 JMW Turner
2020 Current 1+
£50 Christopher Wren 1981 1996 15
£50 Boulton & Watt
2011 2022 11
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