From paper to plastic!

Today’s post is by Judith from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each sharing our passion and  interest in the museum and its objects.

For more about the Money Gallery at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Ancient Worlds.

From Paper to Plastic – The History of the Five Pound Note

The Bank of England has cooked them in ovens, drowned them in red wine, stuck them in the microwave and run them through a 90°C washing machine cycle with a well-known brand of washing powder! It reckons that the new £5 plastic notes – which go into circulation on 13th September 2016 – are fairly indestructible!  They’re expected to be more environmentally friendly, last longer, stay cleaner and be more difficult to counterfeit than the notes we use now.  Just don’t iron them – but more of that later …

The new polymer £5 note being put through its paces before they go into circulation in September 2016 (Image from:

With the launch of the polymer £5 note,  it seems like a good time to take a brief look back at the history of the ‘fiver’. The transition to plastic or polymer notes is a significant departure for a central bank that has used cotton paper money since it was established more than 320 years ago.

It was not until 1694, when England desperately needed cash to bankroll King William III’s war against France that the Bank of England was established, and citizens were encouraged to exchange gold deposits for hand-written notes that promised to pay the bearer the sum of the note on demand – a familiar phrase on today’s British banknotes and one that has survived for more than 300 years.  Fixed denomination notes became the norm during the 18th century, and by 1745 they were printed  with values ranging from £20 to £1000.

The first five pound note was issued in 1793 in response to the need for smaller denomination bank notes to fund the war (which had depleted the Banks’s gold reserves). The 1793 design became known as The White Fiver and was produced in black ink on white paper. These notes were left relatively unchanged until 1945 when a metal thread security feature was introduced, mainly due to the amount of forgeries.

The simple designs of early paper money made it difficult to produce in large quantities but very easy to forge. William Booth, of South Staffordshire, was a notable forger of English banknotes, and was hanged for the crime in 1812.

The first £5 note, dated 1793 (Image from:
A forgery on display in the Money Gallery, Manchester Museum.

£5 remained the lowest denomination until 1797, when a series of runs on the Bank, caused by the uncertainty of the war, drained its gold reserves to the point where it was forced to stop paying out gold for its notes, issuing £1 and £2 notes in its place. This led MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan to brand the Bank “an elderly lady in the City who had… unfortunately fallen into bad company”, a phrase that inspired cartoonist James Gillray to coin the Bank’s nickname, “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.

The Bank of England – The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Available from
“Political Ravishment or The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in danger”,  by James Gillray. Published 22 May 1797. (Image from:

The White Fiver was removed from circulation in March 1961, four years after the release of the first double-sided and multi-coloured £5 note, which for first time had a watermark that could be viewed from both sides. After this, several series of five pound notes have been issued during the last 60 years.

The current £5 note (Series E) note, which has been revised twice and currently depicts the activist and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), was issued in 2002.

Front and reverse of the 2nd revision of the Series E £5 note currently in use today. (Images from:

So, to Britain’s First Polymer Notes …

Last year, on 23rd March 2015, in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the Forth Bridge, Scotland’s Clydesdale Bank issued Britain’s first limited edition polymer £5 note, depicting the Forth Bridge, as well as Scottish engineer William Arrol – one of the men responsible for its construction. However …

… At one minute past midnight on Tuesday next week vans will leave cash centres across the country carrying a historic cargo. About 440 million polymer £5 notes bearing a portrait of  Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) taken by acclaimed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh in Ottawa, Canada, on December 30, 1941. The note will also include a well-known Churchill quote from 1940, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” along with a depiction of Elizabeth tower, with ‘Big Ben’ pointing to three o’ clock when the speech was made.

The reverse of the new polymer £5 note will feature Winston Churchill. (Image from:

A note of caution

Although the Bank of England reckons that polymer notes have better durability and resistance than paper notes, this was in all areas except the ironing test!

So, just remember that although the new notes will be hardier, polymer is not a cure-all … they begin to melt at 120°C. A forgotten note left in a pocket and ironed will possibly melt, distort and shrink in size!

Judith Fabian

For more information:
The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street (Bank of England)

For more about the Money Gallery at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Ancient Worlds.

Read some more stories about money from the Visitor Team:
Pirate Money!
The Second Fattest Cow
A Closer Look at the Katanga Cross
A Fistful of Dollars


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