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New bank note: Will Seacole be the first black Brit?

TRAILBLAZER: Mary Seacole (Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery/PA)

AS WOMEN’S History Month begins, campaigners and MPs have stepped up their efforts to put an historic figure from a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background on the new £50 note.

Earlier this month Bank of England governor Mark Carney said that diversity will be considered when choosing who will appear on the new note. He was responding to a letter by Conservative MP Helen Grant urging him to take action about the fact that there had never been a non-white face on a banknote.


And in October last year MPs led by Labour’s Wes Streeting suggested pioneering British- Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole should become the rst black person featured on the new note.

The decision of who will appear on the banknote will be announced this summer.
But a petition started by the social media campaign, #BanknotesOfColour has so far attracted more than 135,000 signatures.

Campaign co-lead Patrick Vernon told The Voice: “In 400 years, no person of colour has appeared on a Bank of England note. This month being Women’s History Month It’s a perfect time to highlight the contribution of BAME women like Mary Seacole to British history.”

“It is clear without public or political pressure, the Bank will continue for another 400 years in producing banknotes with no reference to BAME representation, reflecting how Britain has changed as a society.

Vernon continued: “Compared to other national or federal banks around the world, it reminds us yet again that we are not valued or respected and more evidence to future generations that our history and contribution is hidden or suppressed by this major institution”.

His fellow campaign co-lead Zehra Zaidi said: “With the Brexit landscape, it is more important than ever to value such historical and cultural ties as we embark upon a new wave of trading relationships. Moreover, such internationalism and indeed the diversity of the British workforce has given the City of London a key advantage as a financial centre.”

The Bank of England recently announced that the “more secure” polymer currency will be rolled out in 2020.

In November last year, the Bank of England asked the public to nominate a British scientist to feature on the note.

However, campaigners said the chosen gure should recognise “the contribution of ethnic minorities” to British culture. They argued that several scientists had already featured on British banknotes in the past, such as Charles Darwin (£10 note, 2000-2018), George Stephenson (£5 note, 1990-2003); Michael Faraday (£20 note, 1991- 2001) and Sir Christopher Wren (£50 note 1981-1996).

DIVERSITY PLEA: Bank of England governor Mark Carney

Furthermore, only one per cent of the bank’s list of eligible scientists were from an ethnic minority background. There are 989 shortlisted candidates for the note, most of whom are white and male.

As well as Seacole, other names that campaigners have put forward are Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim of Indian origin who was the first female radio operator to infiltrate enemy occupied France in World War II, and John Edmonstone, a freed black slave from Guyana, South America who lived in Edinburgh and taught students, including Charles Darwin, taxidermy.

Speaking about why Mary Seacole would be a good candidate, Streeting wrote: “Her sel ess persistence and interest in helping the sick and wounded, her entrepreneurial spirit and her perseverance in the face of racial discrimination against both black people and those of mixed race in the 19th century highlight precisely why she was voted the greatest
black Briton.” Lambeth and Southwark London Assembly member Florence Eshalomi
also backed the call to put Seacole on the new £50 note.

She said: “The recent announcement from the Bank of England announcing a redesign of the £50 note is the ideal and indeed historical time for the UK to pay recognition to the contributions of black women in the UK. I believe that this honour should bestowed upon Mary Seacole.”

Grant wrote in her letter to Carney: “The Bank has a duty to ensure that wider diversity is represented on our currency. As a public institution, the Bank also has a responsibility to promote and, indeed, advance equality of opportunity.”

She added: “Undoubtedly, the absence of ethnic minorities from UK banknotes also sends a damaging message that ethnic minorities are in- visible and have done nothing at all of significance in our history.”

Her call was supported by Treasury Minister Robert Jenrick, who urged the Bank of England to use someone from an ethnic minority to “ensure that wider diversity is represented”. Jenrick told the Daily Telegraph: “The new £50 note should symbolise our values as a country.”

Also supporting the letter were MPs David Lammy, Stella Creasy, David Davis, George Freeman, Kate Green, Caroline Lucas, peers Baroness Floella Benjamin, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, Lord Victor Adebowale and Lord Herman Ouseley, leading historians Olivette Otele and David Olusoga, and actors Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Art Malik and David Oyelowo.


Responding to the call, Carney said: “The Bank takes its responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, and particularly the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), extremely seriously. The members of the Banknote Character Advisory Committee are all made fully aware of the importance of consciously considering the PSED, and diversity more generally, throughout the character selection process, including in selecting the eld from which character nominations will be sought.”

Also, the Bank of England’s website states: “We want the characters who make it on to our banknotes to come from different backgrounds and fields. When selecting a new character, we take into account who has featured on notes in the past. This means that our choices can re ect the diversity of UK society.”

If a historical figure from a BAME background is not chosen this summer, bank officials have said there are no plans to issue a new note until 2030. Campaigners fear that cash transactions may be as little as 10 or 15 per cent of all transactions by then, so diverse representation may be less meaningful.

Tottenham MP Lammy said: “Public institutions such as the Bank of England must take seriously their duty to promote race equality and inclusion. After 400 years of existence, including its own connections with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Bank must move to issue future banknotes that will reflect 21st Century multicultural Britain and inspire future generations of all Britons in this new era.

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