Despite digital growth the promissory note persists

With an increasing number of contactless payments being made, and the popularity of using mobile phones for managing money, it is easy to wonder whether the paper (or, nowadays, plastic) banknote still has a future.

Yet despite the growth in electronic transactions, the amount of printed currency continues to rise. Today there are more than 3.6 billion Bank of England notes in circulation –nearly 14% more than in 2014 – an indication, perhaps, that the printed promissory note will be with us for a while yet.

It was the need for a circulating medium that was less cumbersome than heavy coins that led the Chinese to introduce paper currency in the seventh century. Described by Marco Polo in 1289 as being printed on “dark grey paper” these early Chinese notes were made from mulberry bark. 

In Europe, paper banknotes were first issued by Stockholm’s Banco in 1661. Three decades later, the Bank of England issued its inaugural paper notes in 1695. Originally handwritten, the Bank was issuing printed notes by 1745. For as long as there have been printed banknotes there have, however, been those who have attempted to counterfeit our currency.

Fakes and forgers 

Forgery was particularly rampant in the late 18th century when, for the first time, the Bank of England issued low-denomination notes that were handled by people who were unaccustomed to paper currency and often illiterate. They were the natural victims of forgers. In 1789, for example, Bells Weekly Messenger reported the arrest of three men in Dublin caught printing fake one guinea notes. Their equipment, including a copper plate printing press, engraving tools, and apparatus for making watermarks and paper, was confiscated. In the same year, The London Chronicle detailed the arrest of a man tendering a forged Scottish guinea note. The man was searched and the printing plate was discovered under his clothing bent to the shape of his calf. 

The proliferation of regional banks in the early 19th century gave rise to a huge variety of different banknotes. By 1810 Britain had more than 700 ‘country banks’ each issuing its own locally engraved notes with designs that were simple and easy to fake. 

Forging banknotes was a capital offence, but despite the death penalty counterfeiting was widespread. In 1817 there were 28,412 forgeries reported, probably only a small proportion of those in circulation, and between 1797 and 1829 Britain sentenced over 700 people to death for forging banknotes. The numbers shocked the nation and led to calls for the abolition of the death penalty for forgery and the introduction of less easily copied notes. 

Since then, the makers and issuers of paper money have understood that printed banknotes need to inspire confidence, and their main concern has been to make forgery as difficult as possible. It is this need for security that has driven not only the design and production of banknotes but also the substrates upon which they are printed. The quest for security starts with a practically inimitable sheet of paper.

From paper to polymer 

In 1697, Rice Watkins and Thomas Napper of Berkshire made the first ‘special’ paper for the Bank of England using a mould with an exclusive watermark made by Alexander Merrial. Criticism of its quality led to Henri Portal, a French Huguenot refugee working in Hampshire, to produce for the Bank a harder paper of better texture and with a clearer watermark. One hundred years later, in 1797, following a serious outbreak of forgery, William Brewer, a watermark mould-maker from Kent, approached the Bank with a new watermark to replace that made by Portal. His innovative waved and cross-lined emblem, which also incorporated the denomination, was introduced in 1800. A year later, an Act of Parliament made this watermark unique to Bank of England paper. 

Further suggestions were made for increasing security – that silk threads could be embodied in the paper (a device adopted by some European countries) and that coloured paper be used instead of white. Both ideas were rejected. The latter on the grounds that possible variations in the official colour might actually make imitation easier instead of more difficult. In 1818, a Government Commission investigated several proposals for the prevention of forgery. One suggestion was for using three very thin sheets of paper of which the middle one was to be coloured by stencils. The papers would then dipped and pressed together to dry as a single sheet. This was rejected on grounds of cost. Later, John Smith, a die-sinker, designed a shaded watermark that was adopted in 1854. In 1917, Portal & Co, whose lineage extended back to Henri Portal, produced a newly invented mould-made paper, which was sized and indistinguishable from hand-made paper, but with the advantage of giving a larger sheet. The paper was used for treasury notes and was widely adopted for security printing. 

Today, Portals is a standalone business again, after British banknote manufacturer and security printer De La Rue sold a majority stake in the company to private equity investors earlier this year. It continues to produce paper for the nation’s currency using a three dimensional mould-made watermark which is the foundation of paper banknote security across the world. As Portals explains, however, the security of banknote paper “should not rely on just one feature” and that the inclusion of “threads, fibres, covert features, iridescent and foil stripes” all combine to augment the security of the paper. 

The need for additional security features was first recognised by the Bank in 1940 when metal threads were introduced into the paper for £1 and 10-shilling notes. Portals’ latest advancement is Textmark, a process by which paper security is strengthened through the integration of “personalised bright and dark text into the chosen watermark design”. The visibility of the watermark is retained but the ‘underlying technology is complex, making it more difficult for the counterfeiter to copy.’

Today, paper notes are being usurped by polymer – a thin, flexible plastic material that lasts longer, stays cleaner and is harder to counterfeit than paper banknotes. Some countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand have completely switched to the polymer note. 

The first Bank of England note printed on polymer, the £5 featuring Sir Winston Churchill, was issued in 2016. According to the Bank polymer notes are more eco- friendly than their paper equivalents and old polymer banknotes are “turned into pellets before being transformed into new plastic items, such as plant pots”. But with concern over the environmental impact of plastic, the desirability of recycling polymer banknotes into plastic goods may well become questionable.

Customs and expectations

Next to paper, the intricacy of banknote design has been one of the most effective protections against forgery. Most banknote design was, and still is, a combination of the work of many different specialists – in lettering, portraiture, architectural drawing, vignette and the characteristic ornamentations. Many banknotes are examples of the highest craftsmanship of which papermaker, engraver, printer, typographer and designer are capable and each note represents a tour de force of technique in all its elements.

But the design of banknotes is subject to certain constraints and owes much to both user expectations and visual customs. British banknotes habitually display ornamental frames, panels and lettering in which fine detail and delicate shading are combined with bold and strong outlines to give a three-dimensional effect. These devices and conventions have been maintained partly as a matter of design tradition and partly in the continuing interests of the security needs that first engendered them. There is, therefore, a definite style for ‘security’ in the public mind and banknotes are also designed to meet this expectation. 

As recently as the 1950s, however, the design of Bank of England notes were really quite simple; unlike the currency of many other countries, which were distinguished by their complexities of design and the skill with which the various elements were arranged. Today we are accustomed to seeing images on all denominations but until 1960, Britannia was the only character to appear on British banknotes. The first note featuring Queen Elizabeth II appeared in March that year and since then several impressions of the monarch have appeared on our banknotes.

It was not until 1970 that the Bank issued its first pictorial note: a £20 featuring William Shakespeare accompanied by the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Designed by Harry Eccleston, the Bank’s first full-time artist-designer, and his assistant Roger Withington, it was the start of a series of notes featuring historical figures. Alongside the use of the portrait of a monarch or public figures, other popular emblems include representative national products, flora and fauna, well-know public buildings, and important historic events. These are included not simply to add interest or to educate, they are an important anti-counterfeiting feature, because while changes in details to borders might escape notice, people are quick to see variations in a portrait or familiar object. It is here that most forgers fail. 


De La Rue's latest security feature, Ignite

From hand engraving to digital techniques

In order to reproduce their intricate designs banknotes have, historically, relied heavily on the principle of intaglio: a tradition that remains the cornerstone of banknotes and security products. For several centuries intaglio has been used to provide not only aesthetically pleasing banknotes, but also security. It is a process that required the hands of skilled engravers to incise images on the surface of a copper or steel plate using a multiplicity of dots, lines and other marks, which collectively conveyed the impression of smooth tonal variation. The complexities in the design of just a single banknote required the hands of several skilled engravers for its execution, each engraver was a specialist in a different field – for example, lettering, portraits, borders or figures. This ensured that no one engraver could handle the whole of a banknote design singlehandedly. This division of skills posed multiple obstacles to the would-be forger and ensured that the engravers themselves were a defense against imitation. 

Today, however, according to the Italian-based Intaglio Engravers Academy, there are only six or seven master engravers worldwide whose average age is over fifty years. While the banknote industry still requires the services of engravers their skills are now migrating to digital techniques. For example, De La Rue uses state-of-the-art digital engraving technology to “capture imagery, using a technique that embodies the authentic, tactile nature of security printing”. The introduction of digital engraving techniques has opened the doors to new design possibilities. 

But while the hand engraver is increasingly rare in the world outside security printing, they are not extinct. In 2016, Birmingham-based micro-engraver Graham Short etched Jane Austen’s face into the transparent part of five of the new plastic Bank of England £5 notes. In August 2018, Short again engraved six £5 notes this time featuring the face of England World Cup footballer Harry Kane each engraved with the words ‘World Cup Golden Boot Winner 2018’ alongside the image of the Tottenham star. These notes, should you be lucky enough to come by one, are each worth £50,000. Short’s intervention is both an example of the skill of the engraver, but also an indication of the ease with which polymer notes might be tampered, should you possess the skill.

For how long these skills will be with us is a moot question. The Intaglio Engravers Academy is concerned that in the past 10 years we have lost generations of tacit knowledge, skills and techniques, and the industry has been seduced by “the dream of simplicity, speed and flexibility offered by digital technology”. 

This dream can only become a reality if “engravers have mastered the art of hand engraving and it is almost too late”.

Printing is undoubtedly a resilient and adaptable profession and rumours of its death have long been exaggerated. Printing has survived against predictions of the paperless office, and held out against the advent of television, the internet and the arrival of e-books. 

The arrival of polymer notes and digital engraving certainly provides new opportunities for banknote designers and printers and the printed promissory note will be with us for a while yet. 


© MA Business Limited 2020. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .