Historical women on banknotes

Find out about the historical women on our banknotes. See how the images for the banknote designs were created.

Real-life people from the past have featured on our banknotes since 1970. The first woman appeared in 1975.

Scroll down to learn about the women chosen as main characters on notes. Discover more about the women who featured in the background and find out how the designs themselves were inspired and created.


The Florence Nightingale £10 note

The first historical woman to feature on one of our notes was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). She is known as the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale appeared on the £10 note between 1975 and 1992.

Nightingale became famous for her treatment of wounded troops during the Crimean War (1853-1856). She was called ‘the lady with the lamp’ because she carried a light with her on her night-time rounds of field hospitals.

After her return to Britain, Nightingale became a powerful social reformer. She used both her personal influence and statistical analysis to drive change.

Master drawing for the scene in Scutari hospital

During the Crimean War, Nightingale brought 38 nurses to Scutari hospital in modern Istanbul, Turkey. They went to treat soldiers who had been wounded in battle.

Nightingale was appalled by the hospital conditions. Many more patients died of disease than their battlefield injuries. She improved hygiene and nursing standards and fundraised to buy supplies and equipment. She also transformed the way the hospital was run.

In the background detail on the note you can see Nightingale with her lamp and five other nurses who are looking after patients.

Creating Nightingale's portrait

During her time in Scutari, Nightingale became famous in the press as a ‘ministering angel’ to British troops. There was great demand for her image for publication and she was a popular choice for ‘cartes de visite’, small photographs which many people collected.

The master drawing for Nightingale’s banknote portrait is based on two photographs that were taken for ‘cartes de visites’, shortly after her return to Britain in 1856.


Women at the Royal Institution

The main character featured on the £20 between 1991 and 1999 was a man: Michael Faraday. But the scene on the back of the note included a number of real-life women.

This drawing, reproduced on the banknote, shows Faraday lecturing at the Royal Institution in 1855. Women were able to join the Royal Institution and attend its lectures since its establishment in 1799, and many can be seen in the audience.


The Elizabeth Fry £5 note

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a Quaker prison reformer, social reformer and philanthropist.

When Fry visited Newgate Prison in 1813 she was inspired to improve the conditions and prospects of the women and their children, who were often imprisoned with their mothers. She also established night shelters for the homeless, supported the abolition of slavery and opened a school for nurses.

The Elizabeth Fry £5 note was in circulation between 2002 and 2016.

A portrait of Elizabeth Fry

As Fry’s reputation as a social reformer grew, so did demands for her likeness and even her signature. The banknote portrait is based on an engraving by Mary Martha Pearson (1798-1871). These engravings were signed by Fry herself, like a 1820s version of an autographed photo or celebrity selfie.

The original engraving faced to the right. Designer Emma Cook reversed the direction of the portrait to work with the overall banknote design.

Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate

Fry worked to improve conditions for the women she saw in prisons. Education was a key part of this. Fry taught women inmates knitting and needlework, so that they could support themselves honestly after they were released. She also set up schools for children who were in prison with their mothers.

At the left of this image there are other women visitors: Fry established ladies’ committees for visiting prisons, who also supported her efforts for prison reform.

Early sketches for a Jane Austen note

Novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) was first considered as a banknote character in the 1990s, when she was among the shortlist for the 2002 £5 note.

This is a board compiled in the 1990s, which drew together possible sources for the portrait and ideas for the smaller scenes on the notes. At the top left is a copy of an engraving which was commissioned by Austen’s family in 1870 for a new edition of her works.


The Jane Austen £10 note

Jane Austen appeared on the £10 note in 2017. Austen’s wit and social observation have made her one of the world's best-loved authors. Her novels give us an insight into life in the early 1800s.

Next to the portrait there is an illustration of Elizabeth Bennet, the main character in Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. The geometric pattern in the background copies the shape of the 12-sided writing table where Austen wrote so much of her work.

Banknotes in the future

So far, Bank of England notes have featured 16 different men as their main historical character, while 3 women have been featured.

Banknotes are a way to celebrate the achievements of people who have shaped the world today. In the last few years, the Bank of England has changed the way it selects new characters for its notes, so that it can show the diversity of people who have shaped British life and culture. Since 2015, characters have been chosen from a list of names suggested by the public.

Who would you like to see on your notes?

This page was last updated 17 February 2023