Why the new £10 pound note?

A new £10 note is entering circulation. Kirsten Levermore asks, ‘what’s the point?’


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of …an updated tenner.”

The Bank of England yesterday allowed the public to greet their updated £10 note, featuring it’s “new” face: English novelist, Jane Austen. The author, whose fictions including Pride and Prejudice and Emma are still widely read today, was a faithful documentarian of social practices and norms of the 19th century.

But what is the point of a new £10 note to begin with?

Austen’s impact

Choosing to introduce the note from Austen’s burial place at Winchester Cathedral, and on the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, says one key thing: press surrounding the updated £10 note should be centred on the author, and the author’s inclusion.

A possible reason for this is because Bank of England wishes to make a statement about gender diversity: Austen is one of only three female non-Royals deemed significant enough to grace a UK bank note (the other two, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry, have since been replaced by male faces).

I question this motive though, as the move has not come without public pressure; on hearing Fry’s image was to be replaced with that of Winston Churchill, a +35,000 strong petition was presented to Bank of England, and even politician Ed Miliband weighed in on the controversy, highlighting the numerous British women in science and society over the centuries who have gone unrecognised thus far.

In addition, the Bank has come under further scrutiny regarding the choice of image of Austen: not an original portrait from the time, but a “prettier” publicity portrait made several years after Austen’s death. In Austen’s own words, “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.”

It doesn’t say much, given the world’s tendency to airbrush marketing images, nor does it speak to the Bank of England attempting to become gender diversity champions.

Ed: On the topic of inclusion, one excellent feature of the new £10 is that the note has been made with a tactile feature on the top left hand corner to aid the visually impaired – that is a strong message for inclusion, even if it has been underplayed by media so far.

A second reason for the choice of Austen could be the Bank of England’s hope to cast a light on literature and the importance of reading. Support for this theory is in the choice of historical figure – a novelist as opposed to a scientist, for example – and in the quote chosen to feature on the new design. From Austen’s most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley’s words, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” jump out.

If the reading message was the aim, however, the Bank has failed somewhat; Caroline Bingley in fact had no passion for reading, and said it only to impress a prospective suitor.

So, maybe not.

A matter of practicality

In a recent paper, the Bank highlighted the fact that the £10 is the oldest in circulation and, if you have had the misfortune of having to dig around in a pocket for a £10 note, you will know that they are too light to trust to a loose grip and tear at even the slightest tug. Add to this that current notes are thought to last just 24 months, and the change is welcomed by many.

Speaking from the launch of the new note, Bank of England governor Mark Carney explained, “The new £10 will be printed on polymer, making it safer, stronger and cleaner.”

These practical features all seem like very good improvements.

However, the new £10 notes have a fatal error, and it’s one Bank of England has made before: like the polymer-based £5 note released last September the new notes are not vegan-friendly, containing a level of animal fat drawn from beef and sheep. Tallow, the name of this substance, was coincidentally part of the family of materials commonly used to make candles in Jane Austen’s time, likely lighting her writing desk on dark nights and winter days. At this point replacing the substance could potentially cost the taxpayer £10 million.

Thus, the journey to practicality may not have been seen through to the end.

Rescue plan

This is, of course, not the first time a country has updated part of its currency. It is, however, one of the first times the UK has triggered such changes whilst in a fragile economic position – namely Brexit.

There is a romantic notion that making a currency invalid suddenly could swell the British economy by prompting a rapid spending spree a la Danny Boyle film, Millions (in which the pound is being replaced by the euro and all pound currency will be invalid as of Christmas Day, triggering an almighty Christmas shopping trip for the entire country).

It’s a powerful idea on the days UK news is haunted by the questionable soundness of their economy.

If you’re wondering if a “national spending spree” is far-fetched, consider the most recent currency changes with which the UK has been faced:

  • A nationwide marketing campaign preceded the May 2017 discontinuance of the paper £5 notes (created in the same style as the new polymer £10), urging people at every Tube stop, bus stop and newspaper centrefold to either spend or bank their old notes.
  • The race is on to spend the ‘old’ £1 coin before the vending machines, bank tellers and the baristas stop accepting them. By the end of October, all £1 coins issued before 2016 will ‘cease to be legal tender’ and thus, no possibility of spending or exchange.

The notion of introducing a new currency form to buoy an economy is also supported by a key design element of the new note: its numerous anti-counterfeit features.

Counterfeiting is a problem in the UK, with last year seeing a whopping £7.4 million worth of counterfeit notes removed from circulation. If these new notes are indeed safer, this is a great opportunity for the UK to stabilise inflation and the devaluation of the pound.

Whatever the true purpose of the update, the new £10 can really only be welcomed; it will last longer, a country’s economy will remain further intact, and there’s an inspirational member from an underrepresented community on it. And, with a planned issue date of 14th September 2017, the Bank has so far amassed a stockpile of more than 275 million notes (at a cost of £24 million) – so it’s too late to turn back, now.