Put your money where your mouth is: diversity on the bank note

Credit: Katrina Williams

Mary Horner & Rafe Uddin
Writer & Features Editor

Following plans to put Alan Turing on the £50 note, Mary Horner and Rafe Uddin discuss the role of representation, currency, and the online backlash.

The Bank of England’s (BoE) announcement that Alan Turing would adorn the £50 note unearthed a sense of progressiveness, directed towards the LGBTQ+ community. However, several key figures, including Caroline Criado Perez – feminist activist and author of “Invisible Women: Exposing Date Bias in a World Designed for Men” – highlighted that Turing’s place on the £50 note symbolises an already-represented majority group. Crucially, the perception of the BoE as a traditionalist institution raises concerns about BAME representation and what steps the bank may take to redress this.

Turing‘s role in the solving of the enigma code proved to be a pivotal moment in the war effort, reducing the length of time it took to end the devastating conflict. Despite this, the Crown Court in 1952 found Turing guilty on six charges of “gross indecency”, and subsequently subjected him to a course of hormone injections that left him impotent, and was concurrently chemically castrated. Considering the fact that same-sex relations were only decriminalised as late as 1982, with same-sex marriage legalised in 2014, it’s evident that members of the LGBTQ+ community remained inferior in the eyes of the law for long after Turing‘s treatment.

Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Sharkey, explained that Turing’s debut on the £50 note “is a signal that we are embracing him as a national treasure“. Turing not only represents academic excellence for his work at Bletchley Park in the second world war, but also represents people of the LGBTQ+ community that were unfairly criminalised by British law. Nevertheless, Turing’s portrait on the note fails to increase the representation of BAME communities.

Limited BAME representation is especially prevalent in relation to heroism. Two female nurses separately developed the standard of healthcare given to soldiers during the Crimean war. Does this description sound familiar? For just under 20 years, Florence Nightingale (born in Italy to a British family), was given the honour of having her likeness on the £10 note. Yet Mary Seacole, a mixed-race British nurse who also worked with soldiers in the Crimean war (despite being forbidden from joining Nightingale’s nurses), has been overlooked by history. Despite overcoming bureaucratic barriers predicated on her racial background, Seacole remains near invisible in the popular discourse surrounding the era.

The Crimean war saw British, French, Russian, and Turkish forces subjected to difficult conditions on the frontline, with strategic mishaps further deepening the harsh qualities of the war. Nurses such as Nightingale had to get permission from the War Office in order to travel and work in the Crimea. Unlike Nightingale, Seacole was several times denied this right, despite her extensive knowledge and practice as a nurse. Racism and prejudice against BAME peoples were not uncommon in this era, so (in spite of the discrimination she experienced) Seacole financed her own way to the Crimea – establishing a respite hotel for injured soldiers.

Facing poverty on her return to England, Seacole dedicated her life to nursing and the study of medicine. But even in our modern society, people have objected to the celebration of her as a heroine of the Crimean war. The unveiling of the 2016 statue in London was “the first public statue of a named black woman in the UK“, but was still met with opposition from those who believed it lessened Nightingale’s accomplishments, owing to its proximity to the St. Thomas’ Hospital (a hospital Nightingale was actively involved in designing). However, this disregards the barriers Seacole faced in a fight to better serve soldiers and sick patients, having had to fight harder than Nightingale to considerably less acclaim. It remains a pity that the BoE has yet to honour Seacole, and figures like her, to showcase the contribution of BAME figures to British society.

Nevertheless, when framed alongside other central banks, the BoE appears to be more progressive in its approach to designing bank notes. Take, for example, Britain’s allies across the pond. In 1922, The United States Treasury Department stated “portraits of presidents of the United States have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others.” To this day, American notes have predominantly featured government officials (including presidents, senators, and military commanders/captains). The only underrepresented figures I found represented on a US bank note were the Sioux Chief: Running Antelope, and First Lady Martha Washington.

It’s astonishing to think that the American Treasury continues to favour presidents without looking further outwards into wider society. There has been recent outrage at the fact that Harriet Tubman’s $20 bill design (initiated by the Obama Administration) has been delayed again until proposed circulation in 2030. Tubman was not only a huge part of the suffrage movement, but she was a child born into slavery in America, who escaped and went back to save others who were in her position. She was responsible for saving the lives of approximately 300 people, 70 of whom she personally led to safety. Why then, is her heroism and selflessness being suppressed by the government?

When Trump came to power in 2016, his palpable comments demonstrated an allegiance to those against changing the design of the $20 bill. He stated “I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic, but I would love to leave Andrew Jackson or see if we can maybe come up with another denomination.” To further this insult, he mentioned that Tubman could instead be put on the $2 bill, which constitutes roughly 1% of printed monies in the US and was the denomination least in circulation in 2018. If you compare this to the British system, the decision to place Turing on a bank note seems to be a step in the right direction – a step made considerably faster than the US.

Notable BAME figures need to be recognised in an equal light to those hailing from a majority segment of the population. While Turing’s appearance on the new notes showcases a deeper acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, the fact remains that banknotes continue to feature the majority ethnic group to the detriment of BAME communities. Nevertheless, the continued fight for better representation should not diminish the progress that is being made. Ultimately, time will tell if the BoE and other western central banks will value the contribution of ethnic minority figures via representation on a bank note.