Mervyn King, the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, handed his successor, Mark Carney, a tricky decision on Tuesday; whether to replace Charles Darwin with Jane Austen on Britain’s £10 notes.
There has been a growing controversy in Britain over who appears on banknotes ever since Sir Mervyn announced in April that Winston Churchill will replace 19-century prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on Britain’s £5 note in 2016. That decision meant no women will be featured on British notes, other than the Queen.
Portraits on the other bills include Mr. Darwin on the £10, Adam Smith the £20, steam engine inventors Matthew Boulton and James Watt on a new £50; and the Bank’s first Governor John Houblon who is on an older version of the £50 note released in 1994 to celebrate the Bank’s 300th anniversary.
More than 28,000 people have signed an online petition against the decision to drop Ms. Fry and university student Caroline Criado-Perez has launched a legal challenge under Britain’s Equality Law. That legislation requires government agencies to take equality issues into account when shaping policy and carrying out their duties.
On Tuesday, Sir Mervyn offered his first comment on the controversy during a parliamentary committee hearing. He told Members of Parliament that there was no intention of dropping women from Britain’s notes and that the bank always develops a backup note, in case there are technical problems with the first pick.
“That second figure often becomes the figure on the following note,” Sir Mervyn told the committee “The [back up] figure that we have been working with for two years, we’ve said already it’s a woman. I can tell you today it’s Jane Austen. The Jane Austen note has been up and running internally for two years. That clearly is a candidate for the 10 pound note down the road to replace [Darwin].”
Sir Mervyn said that it will be up to Mr. Carney, who becomes Governor on July 1, to decide whether Ms. Austen -- author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion – takes the spot from Mr. Darwin. He added that £5 notes with Ms. Fry will remain in circulation even when the new notes with Sir Winston appear.
“Let me assure you that there is no imminent demise of Elizabeth Fry on the banknotes and I think it is extremely unlikely that we should ever find ourselves in the position where there are no women among the historical figures on our banknotes. Jane Austen is quietly waiting in the wings,” he said.
Ms. Criado-Perez, a student at the London School of Economics, said she remained wary. “My reaction to that is that I'm not going to be placated by vague assurances; I want the bank to commit to an open and transparent decision-making process that has equality at its heart - nothing less than that is going to satisfy me,” she said Tuesday.
She added that Sir Mervyn actually made a mistake during the hearing, suggesting that Ms. Austen would replace Charles Dickens on the £10 note. Mr. Dickens is not on any note. “So that's pretty hilarious,” she said.
“My main goal is that we don't ever end up with an all-male line up and also that future decisions are guaranteed to be taken in a transparent way and under the auspices of the Equality Act,” she added.