Erikka Askeland: England in dark ages on bank notes

THERE’S a brouhaha brewing at the Bank of England over bank notes. The governor, Sir Mervyn King, is retiring and one of his last acts before taking full advantage of his Aston Villa season ticket was to announce the design of a new fiver.

The note will feature Sir Winston Churchill, who as a subject of significant historical merit isn’t at all controversial. But what has got up the noses of some is that Britain’s wartime prime minister will replace social campaigner Elizabeth Fry – the only woman honoured with representation on English banknotes. Except the Queen, of course. But she is there only by dint of being the reigning monarch, whereas the rest take pride of place on the nation’s currency for being eminent in their field, those who have been angered argue.

Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez recently tried to ding the Bank with a legal challenge over scrapping the historic female figure using the Equality Act. Having been rebuffed with typical Old Lady of Threadneedle Street froideur, she has instead launched a petition on her website,, which at the time of writing had more than 27,000 signatories.

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Perhaps Fry being axed is because the 18th-century Quaker’s tireless work to improve the lot of the poor and prisoners is out of step in these austere times where so much emphasis is placed on the difference between “skivers” and “strivers”. But she is in rare company, too. The only other woman to have made it onto an English banknote was Florence Nightingale.

The campaigners argue that the “all-male line-up on [English] banknotes sends out the damaging message that no woman has done anything important enough to appear” to which they add: “this is patently untrue”. They ask, where are Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft or Rosalind Franklin – whose X-rays became the basis of Watson and Crick’s hypothesis on the structure of DNA?

Perhaps they should come to Scotland, where bills are still graced by not just one but two eminent women.

Look closely at a Scottish tenner and yes, that’s a woman. Her name is Mary Slessor. You are forgiven if you have forgotten that she was a pioneering Edinburgh missionary. The second of seven children, she spent most of her life in Africa where she single-handedly ended the belief, seemingly widespread among some tribes, that twins were evil and should be put to death. The other, on a £50 note, is female medic Elsie Inglis – another pioneer who became one of the first women to be licenced by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh. Not that I have occasion to see, let alone hold, a £50 note that often these days.

Of course both of these memorials to great women are produced by the Clydesdale Bank, one of the three banks licensed to print paper money in Scotland.

The Clydesdale is clearly a little more freewheeling in its approach to design. My sister, who was in Scotland on a visit recently, looked at one of her notes and with disgust in her tone asked why it had a spider on it. The £20 bill features Robert the Bruce, and it commemorates the famous story of how the Scottish king prevailed against the odds inspired by the tireless efforts of a spider weaving her web.

Perhaps the Clydesdale’s creativity in putting interesting images on paper money is because it is owned by National Australia Bank. Australia, as the song goes, is the place where “women glow and men plunder”. Not that you would want to see that on a tenner.

Other Scottish banks like to take some leeway with their notes, too. In 2005, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a limited edition fiver featuring golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

He was the only person, after the Queen, to have their mug printed on a banknote and still be alive. It is true that many consider Nicklaus to be the most successful golfer of all time. But frankly, he was a man best-known for battering a ball around a manicured lawn with a stick. The question has to be asked if there might have been found someone more important to commemorate. Such as a woman, perhaps?