A Satirical Note for Social Reform

A Satirical Note for Social Reform.

By: MICC Lifetime member #001

Sometimes it is true: the pen can be mightier than the sword. As such, by far and away the best example is a satirical note devised by George Cruikshank (1792-1878), the great British illustrator of the 19th century, the note that has come to be known as the “Bank Restriction Note”.

Some 20 years ago, the A.N.A. Museum acquired by donation a unique and unusual lot of related numismatic artifacts: a forged Bank of England £1 note; an example of Cruikshank’s “Bank Restriction” satirical note; the original pen-and-ink sketch from which the note was made; and a newspaper clipping of a statement given by him two years before his death as to the effect the note had on the public.

One of the forged notes that inspired Cruikshank to design his political message

At the time this forgery was passed, the penalty for doing so (knowingly) was transportation to Australia or even death. In a way, it’s strange there would be such a strong protection for notes while there was none for the Bank in the matter of their silver “dollar” tokens. We can only believe it was a matter of social degree: the hoi-poli the normal users of banknotes, and lesser mortals the silver and copper coins. The Bank of England notes were very easy to forge – and the simplistic design was continued for decades more; but while the public could be (and frequently were) fooled, the Bank itself was seldom taken in. Their notes were printed in books and as each was issued, it was cut from the decorative stub with a wavy line by hand and both the note and the stub given the same serial number. When returned for redemption, the note would be compared with the cut stub and was genuine only if it matched. But wear and tear might just render this cut line ineffective and in this case, the Bank had a second anti-counterfeiting device: given stacks of notes were pierced by extremely sharp needles, the number and pattern of which varied, and a specimen of this piercing kept and recorded. Dubious notes could be compared with the specimen, the numbers and pattern of the perforations expected to match exactly.

Cruikshank’s original pen-and-ink drawing used to design the “Bank Restriction Note”;
the other drawings were for an edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales he was working on at the time.

George Cruikshank was a London illustrator of books and issuer of satirical engravings – a sort of combination political cartoonist and employee of Mad magazine. According to his own recollections many years later, he was shocked one morning in 1817 or ’18 when he came across eleven persons hanging from the gibbet at Newgate Prison, two of whom were women. Upon enquiring as to their offence the young Cruikshank was informed it was for passing forged £1 notes. Cruikshank was only too well aware of how the poorer class could be duped into doing so: forgers habitually sent them off to taverns and such for small purchases, awaiting the change. If caught, the passers became “unknown” to the forgers. Practically every apprehended forged note required a guilty party; the word of a “gentleman” taken at face, that of a “street person” scarcely at all.

The shocking scene and the unfairness behind it sent the young Cruikshank into a rage. His home was close by the prison and within ten minutes, he had completed the sketch for the proposed satirical note. It so happened that at that very moment, he received a visitor in the person of his friend, William Home, a reform-minded publisher. Home was much taken with the sketch and practically pleaded with Cruikshank to allow him to publish the finished “note”. Cruikshank acquiesced in this and the subsequently displayed notes set off brisk sales (and even a riot that the London “police” had to suppress in front of Home’s printing office).

Cruikshank’s “Bank Restriction Note”. The £ sign is formed from a noose rope; Britannia is shown devouring a baby while the bodies of dead and dying form the border of the cartouche; the four ships denote transportation as do the “stub design” of leg-irons. The note is signed by “J. Ketch”, Jack Ketch being the current vernacular for the hangman. 

Until his death in 1878, Cruikshank firmly believed his satirical note had been the direct cause of major social reform: specie payments by the Bank of England were resumed; £1 notes no longer printed; and hanging for minor offences were abolished.

There’s no doubt Cruikshank’s note was a contributing factor, especially insofar as it was a reflection of public feeling, but the times were also propitious. (1) The Bank of England had never asked for specie suspension – that had been ordered by the British Treasury. The government was afraid of a gold outflow from England but, as things turned out, that was the case except it was the government itself that sent it as military costs and subsidies to wavering foreign governments during the Napoleonic Wars. Not to put too fine a point on it, Prime Minister Peel forced loans from the Bank of England that at one time exceeded £11-million! (2) As the Royal Mint had been overhauled and the war over, the government cast about for means to keep the Mint employed – including the striking of large issues of gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns. One-pound Bank of England notes were, of course, direct competitors, so it was decreed that no banknote of less than £5 be issued in future. This held true right up until WWI. (3) The penalty reform was simply a reflection of public feelings, the minor riot in front of Home’s office just one manifestation; Peel, socially-minded anyway, was simply releasing some of the pressure from a dangerous situation. Even so, there were counterfeiters executed as late as 1834.

All the same, the Bank Restriction Note is quite an artifact.

Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-02, Issue-02