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Show me the money

Perhaps a country shows its true colors through its bank notes. In 1928, the US Treasury Department reviewed the portraits on bank notes and concluded that “portraits of Presidents of the United States have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others.” Exceptions were made for Alexander Hamilton, Salmon Chase, and Benjamin Franklin. Changes in the faces depicted on US currency (intended for the general public) have not been made since 1928.

In contrast, portraits on English bank notes change regularly and have honored scientists, writers, engineers, musicians, social reformers, and politicians. Right now [2014], their currency honors Matthew Boulton and James Watt on the 50-pound note, Adam Smith on the 20, Charles Darwin on the 10, and Elizabeth Fry on the 5. (England does not have a 1-pound note. That denomination is a coin, shown at left.)

I had never heard of Elizabeth Fry, so, as I paid for my latte and pain au raisin at a Caffe Nero recently, I asked the young man behind the counter who the woman was on the fiver. The barista shrugged saying, “I guess she’s somebody who’s dead.”

Minutes later, as I sat upstairs with my breakfast, he came up to my table and said, “She lived 1780 to 1845 and was a prison reformer.” Had this tourist’s question just kick-started the brilliant career of a barista-turned-historian? Not sure. But Fry seemed a woman worth knowing.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Gurney was born in Norwich to John and Catherine Gurney. Her father was a partner in Gurney’s Bank, and her mother’s family co-founded Barclays Bank. The family home is now part of the University of East Anglia.

When she was 18, Elizabeth heard William Savery, an American Quaker, talk about the poor, sick, and imprisoned. She began collecting clothes, visiting the sick, and started a school to teach children to read. Two years later she met Joseph Fry (1777–1861), a banker and also a Quaker. They married in 1800 and eventually had five sons and six daughters. But, somehow in addition caring for all those children, her greatest contribution to the world was to English prison reform.

Fry told people in the outside world about prison conditions at Newgate Prison, something most people—especially those within her class—did not wish to know. In 1835, she testified before the House of Commons Parliamentary committee investigating the jails in England and Wales.

She was admired by the young Queen Victoria for her compassion and is regarded as an early feminist. After her shock at seeing the body of a young boy dead from exposure, Fry also began helping the homeless, establishing a nightly shelter in London. In 1840, she also opened a training school for nurses. Her program inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry’s nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean War (1853 to 1856).

The newest portraits on English currency are on the 50-pound note, featuring engineers Matthew Boulton (1728–1809) and James Watt (1736–1819). Boulton was a leading entrepreneur of the Industrial Revolution, developing, producing, and selling steam engines plus minting high-quality coins. Watt, a Scot, greatly improved the steam engine.

Bank note illustrations and designs change every few years in England amid much fanfare. And, as each design is brought out, the old notes have to be turned in or used by the time the new design begins circulation. Old bank notes with old portraits will not be accepted. Sometimes there is controversy about who should be honored. Newer polymer plastic notes have now replaced all the paper bank notes. The polymer notes have added security features and last longer than paper notes. (US bills are still made one company, Crane Currency, that is 75% cotton and 25% linen.) Starting in 2016, Winston Churchill will replace Fry on the reverse of the fiver. I for one will be sorry to see the old girl go.


As of 2017, the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, the ten-pound note features her image (at right). The note shows Austen’s writing desk and her brother Edward’s home.

In June 2021, the old Boulton & Watt 50-pound paper note was replaced with the Alan Turing polymer note. Turing (1915–1954) was a mathematician, philosopher, codebreaker and scientist. He died of cyanide poisoning, probably a suicide, after having been indicted for “criminal indecency” as a gay man. He received a royal pardon in 2013.

As of September 2020, the polymer twenty-pound note features English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851).

Queen Elizabeth II has been on the obverse side of all bank notes from 1960 to 2022. Now that the queen has died, King Charles III will start showing up on bank notes’ backsides.

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