Symbolic women

Before 1975, the only women to appear on banknotes were symbolic or allegorical figures.
The first portrait of a woman appeared on a Bank of England note in 1975. Before this women had only appeared on banknotes as symbolic or allegorical figures. These idealised women represented the nation, embodied military victories and symbolised literary and musical inspiration.

1699

The first Britannia on banknotes

Britannia, the female personification of the British Isles, has featured on every printed Bank of England note.

This is the earliest example in our collection. She holds a shield and olive branch and watches over a ‘bank of money’, symbolising the wealth of the nation.

Bank of England, running cash note, 24 January 1699, I/008

Bank of England, running cash note, 24 January 1699, I/008

1854

A new Britannia

In this version of Britannia, the ‘bank of money’ resembles a beehive, symbolising industry and cooperation.

This version was designed by artist Daniel Maclise (1806–1870). It appeared on every British banknote from 1855 to 1956.

Daniel Maclise, design for Britannia, c.1854, D0871

Daniel Maclise, design for Britannia, c.1854, D0871

1957

Britannia in colour

Not every version of Britannia was publicly well-received. This helmeted version was included on the first coloured £5 note.

Although the note was generally admired, Britannia was criticised for having too much hair, looking too severe and lacking a body.

Stephen Gooden, design for Britannia, c.1953, 1975/35/53

Stephen Gooden, design for Britannia, c.1953, 1975/35/53

1963

A 1960s Britannia

In 1963 Britannia was reimagined for the new £5 note.

The Daily Telegraph commented that she was ‘a likeable young lady … though not very regal’. In fact, this younger version of Britannia was modelled on the designer’s daughter, illustrator Phillida Gili. 

Reynolds Stone, design for Britannia, 1961, 1981/030/020

Reynolds Stone, design for Britannia, 1961, 1981/030/020

1971

The goddess Victory

Britannia is not the only symbolic figure to have appeared on our banknotes.

This image of the Roman Goddess of Victory is on the 1971 Duke of Wellington £5 note. She symbolises Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

Harry Eccleston, design for Victory, c.1969, 1998/076

Harry Eccleston, design for Victory, c.1969, 1998/076

1991

St Cecilia

Women have been used to symbolise the literary or musical achievements of men.

Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians. An image of her was included in the foreground of this design for the £20 note featuring composer Edward Elgar.

Roger Withington, design for St. Cecilia, c.1990, 1999/091

Roger Withington, design for St. Cecilia, c.1990, 1999/091

2016

The Muse of Poetry

Calliope, the Greek Muse of epic poetry, has  featured on one of our notes.

Winston Churchill won the Nobel Medal for Literature in 1953. The medal features in the background of the Winston Churchill £5 note. Ovid referred to Calliope as the ‘Chief of all muses’.

Nobel Medal for Literature

Nobel Medal for Literature

Since 1797

The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

Even the Bank of England itself is symbolised by a woman, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.

The nickname first appeared in a print by James Gillray in 1797. The cartoonist personified the Bank of England as a distressed elderly woman fighting off the grasping hands of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt.

James Gillray, Political Ravishment: or, The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger, 1797, 1983/161

James Gillray, Political Ravishment: or, The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger, 1797, 1983/161

This page was last updated 25 October 2018
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