When the Bank of England announced in April of this year that Winston Churchill would be depicted on Bank of England notes, this pronouncement unleashed a swirling controversy in the UK which highlighted a noticeable lack of British women represented on Bank of England banknotes. Michael Alexander of the London Banknote and Monetary Research Centre spoke to Victoria Cleland, the Bank of England’s head of Notes division about the concern which came about and what the Bank was doing to remedy the dilemma head on.
In April, the Bank of England announced to the delight of many, that the image of Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister most noted for leading the UK to victory during World War II – would grace the reverse of the upcoming “F” series £5 note, scheduled for issue in 2015. Following the announcement, there was a genuine outcry about how, with the elimination of Elizabeth Fry, the current personality on the present “E” series £5 – there would be no women represented on Bank of England notes. Such was the controversy that there were online petitions organized, a staged presentation of the printed petition was delivered to the Bank by several women portraying famous British personalities such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison and even Boadicea. So emotive had the subject become that the out-going governor Sir Mervyn King assured the public during his last day on the job that 19th century author “Jane Austin was “waiting in the wings” – an unexpected comment by any standards. Newly appointed Governor Mark Carney purposely touched on the subject during his first press conference to assure all those listening that the Bank will address their concerns and on the 24th July, just two weeks into the job, he and the head of the Notes department made the announcement regarding Jane Austin and her new place on the reverse of the forth-coming “F” series £10 note. The selection process for personalities which are included on the reverse sides of Bank of England banknotes is as I’ve been told, an on-going process and I asked Victoria Cleland, head of notes at the Bank of England about this and other challenges which BOE banknotes are currently facing and just how much change we can expect with a new governor at the helm.
Victoria, who has headed the Notes division since March 2010, has worked at the Bank for nearly 20 years, following studying PPE at Oxford. She has held a range of positions whilst at the Bank including private secretary to the deputy governor for financial stability and worked on the team that worked on the resolution of the Northern Rock banking crisis. We spoke at length about the process of introducing a new note and the behind-the-scenes less often focused on when a new note is released for circulation.
As someone who routinely writes about banknotes, I was myself taken aback to see campaigns emerging so quickly about this situation which turned out to be so emotive. Much of my surprise came as not all of the reverse personalities for the “F” series had been announced. As it finally emerged, Ms. Austen was given this honor of being featured on the £10 note, to be released no earlier than 2017.
On an ugly side to this on-going story, the campaigner who organized the petition and spoke up for greater female representation on the country’s notes was herself – viciously targeted online and also personally by bullies and trolls who had made life-threatening comments to her. So ugly were these threats that Scotland Yard had to be called in to liaise with social media sites in order to trace where these threats were coming from and I’m pleased to say, arrests were made.
When we learned that Sir Winston was to be included on the yet-to-be-released £5 note scheduled for 2015 (and many say that this honor was long overdue) it was this very announcement which sparked off the mainstream controversy. However, to assume that the Bank of England wouldn’t include a woman in the “F” series was perhaps a little too speculative on the part of the campaigners and petitioners which may have been “overkill” though well intentioned. As it turned out, the significant effort from campaigners proved to have “jumped the gun” as the Bank obviously and already had intentions to include Jane Austen – perhaps from the start of the planning of the “F” series. Had it been my choice, I’d have gone “one better” by reprising the innovative concept and foresight of the £50 note and I’d have included two women of distinction in similar fashion. My choice would have also utilized the personality of Jane Austen but also Emmeline Pankhurst – representing two centuries of women who changed the perception of women in society, though from different times and in very different ways. The controversy seems to have thankfully died down so it’s just a matter of the notes eventually entering circulation. In the meantime, read my conversation with Victoria Cleland… I hope it will offer a little more insight into the actual process and shed more light on the changes to come!
MA: The news about the inclusion of Winston Churchill– on the upcoming £5 banknote was greeted with positive enthusiasm, can you tell our readers was this decision an easy one insomuch as he was one of the country’s greatest wartime leaders?
VC: It’s always a very difficult decision, deciding on the next personality because we’re fortunate in the UK to have so many people to choose from and… we need to keep in mind getting the right balance between the different fields, backgrounds and experiences, sometimes we will choose from people in the Arts or Science and to get that balance is important. I think once we chose Winston Churchill, the name almost spoke for itself – it was great to see how many people welcomed the choice. With Churchill, we got the great statesman, a Nobel Prize winner for his writings – and an artist so, in this respect, you can say we covered many fields. I might add that the Nobel prize (he was awarded) will also feature in the actual design.
MA: The announcement was made only days after the funeral of Baroness Thatcher, and Churchill was a hero of hers, was the announcement in any way connected to or – delayed due to her death? The note isn’t scheduled for issue until 2016 anyway, why make the announcement now?
VC: The timing was completely coincidental. It takes a long time to plan such events in terms of making sure we have the right people in place so the date for the announcement had been in the Bank’s diary for a long time. Now, why did we announce it so far in advance? We tend to announce our plans for banknotes well in advance. The announcement for the Bolton – Watt £50 note was made about two and a half years in advance and in Sweden for example, their Central Bank announced their plans and personalities for inclusion in an entirely new series in 2011 for launch & issue in 2015. So, it is quite common to do this and in one way, it’s beneficial because it stops leaks and speculation particularly on who will be included on the notes such as Churchill when you’re trying to secure copyright (for artwork & images).
MA: The Bank of England has come under fire recently due a noticeable lack of women featured on the reverse sides of the notes, so I’ll ask first, would Baroness Thatcher for instance, ever be considered and what is the time-frame between a notable person passing away and their being considered for inclusion on the notes?
VC: There isn’t any set time-frame but one of the criteria that we have is making sure that someone has made a lasting contribution or enduring benefit. That typically means that we have to wait for a certain period after that person’s passing to see how this has been assessed – for this, there really is no set time-frame for the process. We will also look at a list of names which the public can contribute to and this list is on the Bank of England’s website. This is a list where the public can nominate persons who they’d like to see on the reverse sides. There’s quite an assortment of personalities but, we have drawn the line to exclude fictional characters.
MA: Given the surprising level of dissatisfaction which has arisen that a woman was not chosen for the £5, how likely is it that the Bank will specifically make a point of choosing a woman for the £10 denomination..? I believe the cause has now become a national campaign by one organizer…
VC: I think it’s important to say that at the time of the announcement (of the £5 note) a lot of people were very supportive of the choice for Churchill but, you’re right – there are a number of people who are very concerned that because we mentioned the change was likely to be the £5 note, that it meant that Elizabeth Fry was being removed. As you know, Florence Nightingale was on the reverse of the older £10 note (D series) but this didn’t mean that the denomination was exclusively reserved for the inclusion of women personalities. On the newer “E” series, Elizabeth Fry was brought onto the £5 note – we need to be careful with linking specific denominations to one gender. We have a lot of people to choose from. With the selection for the £5 note, there were a number of women who were also considered during the process. We also chose as a contingency or “back-up” and that person was a woman. But, I can’t say who that was… sorry! Women are very much in our minds when we’re looking at the new banknotes and the Bank will continue to consider the representation of women in the new designs whenever we’re thinking of new personalities.
MA: Another recent petition was in favor of computer pioneer and World War II code-breaker Alan Turing. I believe the online petition supporting his inclusion received over 27,000 signatures. Does the Bank of England ever reconsider their choice when strong public opinion comes to their attention?
VC: Certainly when choosing a note, what the public is saying is one consideration, this is why we have the list on the website and where the public can nominate. This is where WE can see what or who the public want. With so many to choose from, I don’t think we’ll ever choose someone where the whole of the UK says “yes, that’s my number one choice.” With Churchill, he was voted one of the greatest Britons a number of years ago and that alone made a lot of people happy. We change the reverse personalities each time we revise or change the notes. If Alan Turing isn’t on the next note this time, it doesn’t mean he won’t be considered, it’s not a “one-shot” game… it’s a constant process and change also depends on the development of technology, the quality of the notes – there’s a lot which goes on to influence our decisions.
MA: I’ve brought up the subject of polymer notes with the last and current Chief Cashier and both have indicated that a polymer note would not be issued under their watch but as the new Governor is very much a proponent of polymer does this new mean that the Bank of England might have to re-think this – the Chief cashier seems to have made some conciliatory comments in this regard recently…
VC: I haven’t yet had the pleasure to meet our new Governor (interviewed before the start of Governor Carney’s tenure) and in this respect, it would be difficult for me to pre-empt what his plans are. I think from my point of view the most important thing is that the next set of notes are as counterfeit-resilient as they can be. We have a program of research & development by our team of Scientists whose main task is to determine what are the best security features and we have been looking at different substrates – including hybrids of polymer and paper. Our team have been looking at these alternatives for a number of years but we haven’t made any decisions as yet.
MA: In a switch direction, I’d like to ask if you can describe your duties here at the Bank of England, your title is “Head of Notes” What would you list as one of your most important functions and which function or task could you easily do without?
VC: The heart of the Notes division and my role as Head of Notes is maintaining confidence in the (physical) currency, and that prime objective means maintaining their integrity which goes back again to the question of the security features. Another is ensuring the efficient & effective distribution of those notes and making sure we get the right number or quantity, the right denominations to the right place and time and this alone can be more challenging than you might think. London hosted the Olympics last year and this was going to mean a greater demand for cash – cash distributed through the Olympic route network. We worked very closely with the cash industry thinking about logistics and how to satisfy ATM’s on the Olympic route. A lot of behind-the-scenes planning was involved and, as it went ahead very smoothly. To answer the second part of your question… perhaps interviews (smiles) but of course it is important it is to spread the word, to remind the public to check their note to make sure they ARE genuine. The Bank is always looking at other things which we are best placed to do or which can be done better for example by the commercial sector. We have a very good outsourcing model with the printing of our notes to De La Rue since 2003…
MA: Yes, if I can speak of printing banknotes, there has been a question of who will win the new tender, does a new contract mean that Bank of England notes might be printed overseas or is it a requisite that they are produced in the UK?
VC: The premises (where BOE notes are printed) is still a Bank of England site, and the company De La Rue print on our site – we are actually in the process of re-tendering that contract which was recorded in the official Journal of the European Union in November 2012. The notice stipulates that all notes must be printed here in the UK. This doesn’t mean the company must be a UK-based company, it means that we will provide the facilities at the Debden printing works. The Bank of England would continue to own the site and the chosen company, who wins the tender, can use the site and produce the notes there.
MA: With the security of the nation’s banknotes in mind and given the many new and innovative and technically advanced security features which have been developed, how do you think the Bank of England’s notes stack up against other countries and if you could add something to our current notes to enhance their security, what would you add?
VC: The resilience of the banknotes is what is at the heart of what the notes division, in any Central Bank is about, this is what gets an incredible amount of attention. Our team of scientists look at the new security features and it’s their job to see if they can replicate or counterfeit them – a lot of these features are analyzed and tested. In November 2011, we introduced the new £50 note and on that note, we were looking for state-of-the-art features and introduced the motion thread. We’re already thinking about the next note and there have been a lot of developments, the motion thread is one particular feature, and there are more advanced holograms coming. It does depend on which denomination you’re using these new features on – those more transactional notes, you would want more robust features and cost is also important. So, I can’t give you a specific answer yet… it is one of the biggest decisions we ever make.
MA: You carry out cash transactions yourself over the day, and I’m sure you’ve come across and noticed some of the methods cashiers use to authenticate the notes handed to them, in your capacity as Head of notes, what’s the one thing you observe which they do incorrectly and which you’d like to correct?
VC: Well, the worst thing is when they don’t check at all! There will be others who will just take a cursory glance – it looks as though they’re going through the motions but don’t really know what they’re looking at. What I’d like is for every note to be checked and if they don’t know just what to look for, the Bank of England has a lot of information and educational material which is free of charge. In some ways, it would be great to go into a shop and see that all cashiers are checking. Ultimately, a machine is the best way for retailers to check, there are some very small ones as well as note sorting machines which check many features. With a Bank of England note, there are at least 7 or 8 security features which can be seen and checked – so the one message from me would be to look for more than just one security feature whether if it’s with the naked eye or a machine. (Any questions about current BOE notes..? read the latest information here: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/Pages/default.aspx )
MA: I was asked about Bank of England special serial numbers & matching numbers which were issued some years ago. This interview will be read by avid banknote collectors, and many would like to know why the Bank doesn’t explore this lucrative sector more. I remember there being a “light” program that issued some notes in folders and then nothing further, is this something the Bank might do again and under what circumstances would this be reprised?
VC: Although our role is making money, it’s not making profit! I don’t think we’d do something because it’s lucrative. What we have been doing for the last three note issues is to hold a charity auction. For the launch of the Bolton-Watt £50 note for example, there was an auction held at Spink – I was actually able to auction the first note and we raised about £50,000 for charity. We know that collectors desire these notes and we feel the best way to make up the difference between the face value and what buyers are prepared to pay and give that difference to charity.
MA: Lastly, as we’ve spoken about the fourth and final personality yet to be named on the notes, do you yourself have a personal favorite for that honor and if so, who and why would you include them?
VC: Even though I myself am not able to choose the note myself, I’m afraid I’d be unable to give you an answer to that question, as it might become the book-makers favorite so… tempting as it may be to answer, I think I’d better hold off! (smiles)
MA: I completely understand and on that note, no pun intended – we conclude our interview. Victoria Cleland, Head of Notes at the Bank of England, I’d like to thank you very much for your time today.
VC: You’re very welcome!
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Rosey Jeffrey, Senior Press Officer, Bank of England for all of her kind assistance with the completion of this article, it is greatly appreciated.