Does money grow on trees?

Explore the connection between money and trees with the Urban Tree Festival
Published on 13 May 2022

Blog 

Kirsty Parsons, Museum Officer (Exhibitions & Collections)

This week marks the Urban Tree Festival which celebrates, you guessed it, trees in urban environments. To join in the festivities, we’re exploring how trees relate to the history of banknotes and the Bank of England. 

Ming Circulating Treasure note, about 1368-98 (Bank of England Museum: 839)

Ming Circulating Treasure note, about 1368-98 (Bank of England Museum: 839)

One of the earliest banknotes in our collection is printed on paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree. This banknote was issued in China during the reign of Hung Wu (1368-1398), though China had been using paper money since the 7th century. It’s slightly larger than a sheet of A4 paper and includes a dire warning to any would-be counterfeiters:

“To counterfeit is death. The informant will receive 250 taels of silver and in addition the entire property of the criminal.”

This note even has a visual reference to the coins it slowly replaced – the image on the top half of the note shows Ancient Chinese coins that were strung together by threading cord through the rectangular hole in the middle of each coin. As you can imagine, for large transactions they were quite heavy to carry around, so pieces of paper were used to show how many coins a person had ‘deposited’ with another person. These eventually led to more formalised banknotes, backed by the government. We can see this from the seal marks that have been stamped on the note.

Mulberry trees in the Bank of England’s Garden Court

At the Bank of England this connection to early banknotes is reflected by the four mulberry trees that grow in Garden Court at Head Office in Threadneedle Street, London.

Whilst they are a reminder of where paper money began, there’s also a practical reason for planting these trees here over others – the roots of the mulberry tree are shallow, as they grow horizontally. This means they are a good tree to plant in a courtyard that has only a foot of dirt!

Wooden bowl made from the lime tree in old Garden Court, about 1920-40 (Bank of England Museum: A237)

Wooden bowl made from the lime tree in old Garden Court, about 1920-40 (Bank of England Museum: A237)

Before the mulberry trees were planted, Garden Court was home to a lime tree. The lime tree was cut down when the Garden Court moved to its current position when the building was remodelled in the 1930s by architect Sir Herbert Baker.

To commemorate the tree and the remodel, various items were made from the wood of the lime tree including an octagonal wooden bowl, with ‘Bank of England Lime Tree’ engraved on the bottom, a wooden tray and a wooden cup. All of these are now in the Museum’s collection.

£1 banknote (Series D) showing Isaac Newton, from about 1978-88

£1 banknote (Series D) showing Isaac Newton, from about 1978-88

The Bank of England has included famous faces on its banknotes since the late 1970s. But did you know one of the banknotes includes a famous tree?

From 1978 to 1988, Isaac Newton was on the back of the £1 banknote. Newton is best known as a mathematician and physicist who discovered and developed the laws of gravity and motion. His discovery of gravity in particular has made it into scientific legend. As the story goes, an apple fell on his head whilst he was sitting in the orchard of his home, Woolsthrope Manor, leading him to ask why things fall straight down and not up or sideways.

This tree is commemorated on the last £1 banknote ever issued by the Bank of England. Newton is shown seated, holding his book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy) and above his head is apple blossom from the apple tree that made him famous.

It just goes to show that trees can be found in the most surprising of places and are written into the history of our cities and economy. If you want to learn more about urban trees and the economy, check out our online exhibition Picture the City, which looks at how green spaces such as Hampstead Heath protect our economy.

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