Local Currency: William Cook on How Regional Interests Gave Way to National Myths on Our Banknotes. (Money)

Article excerpt

What defines a nation? Nationalists thought it was language. Eurosceptics think it's money, and they are probably quite right. After all, even way back in the ninth century, when Charlemagne ruled a Holy Roman Empire whose borders bore an uncanny resemblance to the boundaries of the 20th-century Common Market, he made sure that he alone had "the right to coin", the sole authority to mint money.

But if Britain's patriotic europhobes went down to the British Museum today, they would be in for a very unpleasant surprise. Because hidden away in a corner of the west wing is a new display of old banknotes that portrays the history of Middle England's beloved pound sterling in an entirely different light.

For although this fascinating collection confirms that currency is the defining thread of nationhood, the nation it reveals is not one interwoven United Kingdom, but a patchwork quilt of independent regions that has become badly frayed around the edges.

The rudest shock for Little Englanders so fearful of the impending euro is that although the Bank of England has printed paper money since 1694, its banknotes did not actually depict the monarch until 1960. Queen Elizabeth II was the first British head of state to appear on a Bank of England note, nearly a decade into her reign. What's more, until 1921, when the Bank of England finally became the sole supplier of folding stuff, at least in England and Wales, banknotes were printed by a myriad different local banks, and featured idiosyncratic designs that were often far more parochial than national. Even today, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man still have their own notes and coins, while three Scottish and four Northern Irish banks retain the right to issue banknotes.

The intricate collage that emerges from this absorbing cross-section is not a portrait of a nation state, more a loose alliance of isolated counties, whose insular inhabitants rarely ventured beyond their nearest county town. A five pound note, printed by the Hull Banking Company, does not depict Westminster or Whitehall, but Lincoln High Street. A flyer from the Carlisle City & District Banking Company features a Carlisle cityscape, complete with castle, cathedral, factories and humdrum washing lines. Brighton's newly built Royal Pavilion is the natural choice for a Brighton Union Bank note, while the Holywell Bank chose St Winefride's Well, a holy spring named after a seventh-century nun beheaded by her thwarted suitor, to illustrate its Flintshire flyer. Provincial motifs even survived beyond the Second World War. The Clydesdale & North of Scotland Bank's 1952 pound note depicted a local beauty spot that the general manager had admired on a family holiday.

Other bygone local banknotes commemorate bygone local industries. Tin and copper mines adorn a West Cornwall Bank pound note. …