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This Nurse Could Be the First Black Person on a British Banknote

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The banknote debate is back up and running — this time because the Bank of England has announced that it’s changing the people featured on the £50 note. 

Representation on banknotes has been a hot topic in recent years, since the bank announced in 2013 that it would be replacing social reformer Elizabeth Fry with Sir Winston Churchill on the £5. 

The decision sparked outrage given that it meant the only historical figures honoured on British banknotes were men — except for the Queen, who features on all banknotes. 

Take Action: Tell the UK Government: Help Create a World Where #SheIsEqual

After a campaign spearheaded by activist Caroline Criado-Perez, women finally made it back onto banknotes in September 2017 — when Jane Austen replaced Charles Darwin on the £10 note. 

Now, British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole could be the first black person to feature on British currency after the Bank of England called for suggestions from the public. 

Labour MP Wes Streeting pitched the idea, telling the Telegraph: “Mary Seacole’s achievements are too often overlooked in history and yet what she did for soldiers in the Crimean War was an act of great heroism which led to her being voted the greatest black Briton.”

Seacole moved to the UK from Kingston, Jamaica, and when the Crimean War broke out in 1853 she applied to the War Office to help British soldiers who were wounded. 

Her application was rejected, so she took herself to the battlefield, and set up the “British Hotel” — a place for “sick and convalescent officers” — behind the frontlines. 

After her death in 1881, she was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit — in 1991 — and in 2004 she topped a list of 100 prominent black Britons.

Streeting also pitched the idea of Nelson Mandela, former South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary. Meanwhile, other leading candidates include Rosalind Franklin, who made crucial contributions to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA; former prime minister Margaret Thatcher; Princess Diana, and David Bowie. 

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According to bookmaker William Hill, Seacole is the “one clear favourite” for the note, which will be rolled out in 2020. 

Currently the £50 note features Matthew Boulton and James Watt, both of whom played key roles in the industrial revolution. 

Originally introduced in 1971, there are currently 330 million £50 notes in circulation — with a combined value of £16.5 billion, according to the government statement

“Our coins and notes are respected and recognised the world over and are a key part of the UK’s heritage and identity,” said exchequer secretary to the Treasury, Robert Jenrick. 

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“People should have as much choice as possible when it comes to their money, and we’re making sure that cash is here to stay,” he added. “Our money needs to be secure and this new note will help prevent crime.” 

Concerns had been raised about the £50 note being used for money laundering and tax evasion, but the Bank of England assured that the new notes would be much harder to forge. 

The decision about who to feature will ultimately be made by Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England. 

The bank also announced this week that artist JMW Turner would be replacing economist Adam Smith on the new £20 notes in 2020.