The New Fiver: The Latest Weapon in the Bank of England's War on Counterfeiters

By James O Malley on at

From today the cash in your wallet is going to start looking slightly different, as the new £5 note officially enters circulation. The note is significant not just because it is 15 per cent smaller, or because it features Winston Churchill grimacing back at the bearer, but because it is made of a new type of polymer that should make it harder to copy than any note previously.

To find out more about the new new note, its security features and a little bit about where it came from, I paid a visit to the Bank of England Museum, which has just re-opened one of its galleries in order to tell the story of the new note. I was lucky enough to speak to curator Jennifer Adam to find out more.

Raising Money

When you first hold one of the new Fivers, the first thing you’ll notice is that it feels slightly different in your hand, because of the new polymer. “We speak about paper money but its not paper money at all; its polymer, its printed on plastic”, Jennifer explains.

“Other countries have been issuing polymer notes for some time now but this is the bank's first foray into issuing polymer banknotes. But as much as it seems like a weird departure, it's actually a natural progression: the history of banknotes has always been about making them hard to copy, and one of the best and the most effective ways to do that is to make the material hard to copy.

Read more – Here's the Reason Why You Can't Photocopy Money

“So whether that's making a piece of paper with a really complicated pattern, or graduating to a type of polymer where you can do this with very intricate see-through windows, combined with things like the different coloured foil pictures and reflective bits and pieces and the colour changing bits, all of that comes together to make a really, really powerful, robust hard to counterfeit banknote.”

What’s also great from a security perspective is that polymers are particularly hard to make. Copies of the new note aren’t something a talented and malevolently intentioned artist could knock-up in their bedroom; it requires a huge industrial process for manufacturing. And hiding a massive counterfeiting factory is going to be a lot harder for the bad guys to do.

The production process is also complex. The polymer actually starts out transparent, and is initially covered in white ink, with a transparent window left for added security (so the window isn’t cut later - it’s an integral part of the note). The window is a particularly good security feature, as it is basically impossible to create using paper. From this point “gravure” print methods, in which the text and images are engraved on to to the note are used, with ink filling the bumps created by the engraving. The foil and holograms are also added using these “intaglio” methods. What’s astonishing is how detailed the design can be. Over the transparent ‘window’ is a line-drawing of the Elizabeth Tower (aka Big Ben) and on one side of the lines are gold; on the other side they are silver.

Finally on top of all this comes the relief printing, in which ink is pressed down so hard it slightly pops off the note. If you run your finger over the Queen’s face (er…), you can feel it has a small 3D-style effect.

But what of the one security feature that I was surprised hadn’t been mentioned? I’ve hazy memories of being told many years ago that beards are always good on banknotes, because hair is hard to accurately copy. So Charles Darwin on the soon-to-be-retired tenner is surely perfect. So is it annoying that Churchill is not only beardless, but bald?

“You might have a point there!”, Jennifer says, “because if you look at figures like Charles Darwin, Elgar and his resplendent moustache, these are very intricately detailed portraits, and if you're relying on purely printed detail you want a detail that's hard to copy and things like that help. But no single feature is going to keep the banknote safe; it's a combination of the strip and the foils and the design and the print together”.

Jennifer describes all of these different security elements as jigsaw pieces, which when combined make the new Fiver hard to copy. So it seems as though basically, counterfeiting the new note is going to be really, really hard.

But this does raise the question: why not change the notes completely? Why does the new Fiver still look like the old notes? Couldn’t the Bank of England go for something wildly different, which could be even more secure? Why not make the note look like a magic-eye puzzle with a tonne of holograms? It turns out, there’s a good reason why it isn’t quite so simple.

“It's got features which are familiar to us, so it's kind of in the style of the 20 and 50 and follows that family”, Jennifer told me.

Similarly, the new note uses the same old portrait of the Queen. “Money is all about trust, really. And it's not worth anything if you don't trust it”, she explained. So the goal is also to create a new note that people still immediately assume is credible.

Breaking The Bank

Anti-counterfeiting features actually go back much further than you might expect. The Bank’s collection contains one banknote from 1368 that was used in Ming-dynasty-era China. The design features images of coins collected together on a string (they had a hole through the middle), as they were what the notes were designed to substitute. But also stamped on top is a firm warning: “DEATH TO COUNTERFEITERS”.

The Bank of England similarly soon cottoned on to the need to protect its notes. The first banknotes were little more than that - notes - with just a signature on that would “promise to pay the bearer”, however much gold the note promises. According to Jennifer, the first security features were unique marbling patterns, which couldn’t be easily replicated. But while this works for the Bank of England itself, this was no good for people trading notes, which is why the first watermarks were introduced.

Read more – The Business Behind Fake Hollywood Money

It is thought that perhaps anti-counterfeiting technology came of age during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. Britain was flooded with counterfeit notes, so the Bank had to take security more seriously.

Since then, new technologies have been gradually introduced into the production process. In the 1920s, multicoloured printing and two-sided designs were introduced; the Queen’s portrait was added in the '60s (yes, really that late). In the '70s, the Bank started adding historical figures on the back.

“It's a bit of an arms race really”, Jennifer explains. “Colour printing and photocopying increased in accessibility during the '90s, which is when you started to see more holograms on banknotes as those things are difficult to replicate. You can't just print a hologram, so things develop as kind of the technology to produce them comes into being and that goes for both the Bank and for counterfeiters unfortunately.”

And this continues to today, with the introduction of polymer notes.

Giving Counterfeiters A Run For Their Money

So what next for our banknotes? When I suggested adding RFID, Jennifer very politely told me that it was completely unworkable. So what is being planned? Though plans have been announced for replacing the current £10 with a new one featuring Jane Austen, and then the £20 with JMW Turner, the bank is rather more tight-lipped about what security features will be added in future (perhaps I should have expected it). “We need to maintain a certain degree of secrecy about the process and design, because what we're trying to do is make them hard to copy, as a key part of keeping the money supply safe and secure.”

Sorry, counterfeiters. You’re going to have to figure out that one for yourselves.

The new Fiver enters circulation from today and will, by May next year, fully replace the old note.

The Bank of England Museum at its Threadneedle Street HQ is open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, and is totally fascinating.