By Dr. K. A. Rodgers
Victoria, Empress of
Image by Bassano,
ex Wikimedia Commons.
Paper money tells something of a
nation's story. Successive issues provide commentary on a country's
evolution. The tale told is by no means restricted to economics.
Different note issues reflect changing political circumstances and
societal attitudes. They may echo triumphs or disasters, conquests
or defeats, strife or stability. It is this way with the issues of
India and of British India in particular. The story these notes
hold is one being heard by a new generation of collectors in the
Indian sub-continent as they reclaim their history.
Bank of Bengal on the Hoogly River,
Calcutta c. 1908-1919. Library of Congress, Washington.
These - and other - collectors will
be spoilt for choice when Spink's September banknote catalogue
makes its appearance. Barnaby Faull's serendipity has been working
overtime. He has secured a fabulous hoard of historic Indian paper
out of Singapore. Not only will this allow gaps to be plugged in
many a collection, but it also contains a few delightful discovery
notes, items unknown until now in any catalogue. There are
specimens, low serial numbers, sequential runs, and, if India
doesn't warm your cockles, a good smattering of colonial and
post-colonial issues from Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon. But this
section of the catalogue will be dominated by notes from the
Imperial India 101
The British Raj was established
over the Indian sub-continent in 1858 in the aftermath of the
Indian Rebellion of 1857 aka the Indian Mutiny aka India's First
War of Independence. As the dust settled, the British Government
moved peremptorily to transfer rule holus bolus from the British
East India Company to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria.
Along with a total reorganization of the Indian army, India's new
masters implemented a complete makeover of the civil administration
including its financial systems. Twenty years down the track
Benjamin Disraeli enthroned Queen Victoria as Empress of India.
Lest there be any confusion, the
British Raj extended over all of present-day India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh, as well as Aden, Upper and Lower Burma, British
Somaliland, Singapore and the Persian Gulf's Trucial States. It is
little wonder that Queen Victoria's Governor-General gloried in the
title of Viceroy of India.
One significant aspect of the
financial reforms was the introduction of a single uniform note
issue for the country fully backed by the new government. It was a
first for India.
India's Early Paper Money
Paper money had been introduced to
India in the late 18th Century, around the time Europe's colonial
powers were picking over the spoils of the once mighty Mughal
Empire. At this time, India's once powerful banking community lost
its dominant position. It was successfully challenged by new agency
houses, many of whom established local banks with state patronage.
Most of these institutions issued their own paper currency.
Typical of these issues were those
of the General Bank of Bengal and Bahar, set up in 1773 with a most
modern mix of state and private capital. Although it was wound up
two years later, its government backing ensured it was both
successful and profitable.
The Bank of Hindostan was
incorporated in 1770 by the agency house of Alexander and Company.
It survived three panic runs only to collapse during a commercial
crisis in 1832.
The official support for these
banks ensured their notes met with general approval and enjoyed
wide circulation. Even greater acceptance of paper money came when
issues were introduced by the Presidency Banks. The Presidencies
were administrative units of the East
India Company. They established banks via government charters.
Such were the intimate relationships they enjoyed with government,
these banks were in effect quangos. Major players included the Bank
of Calcutta, later the Bank of Bengal, established in 1806, the
Bank of Madras (1843) and the Bank of Bombay (1868).
Early note issues were denominated
in star pagodas and/or sicca rupees, both currencies of the East
India Company. Later issues were primarily in rupees. The Bank of
Bengal notes are among the most extensive and best known. There
were three distinct series: uniface, commerce motif, and Britannia
motif. Early issues included Rs 10, 16, 20, 50, 100, 250, 500 and
1000, based on 16 sicca rupees to each gold mohur.
The Raj Takes Over
Three years after taking over, the
Raj introduced the Paper Currency Act of 1861. This gave the
Government a monopoly on note issue throughout the Raj. The
Presidency banks, as did all private banks, now lost their right of
issue. They were now required to act as agents for the Secretary of
State for India in the issue, payment and exchange of new
Government of India promissory notes. In return these banks were
given free use of Government balances. A major problem existed in
the redemption of these notes over the vast expanse of the Indian
sub-continent. This was in a day and age when all notes needed to
be presented at their office of issue in order to be paid out.
Sending notes back from one bank to another presented a serious -
and expensive - security concern. This matter was addressed by the
long proven procedure of cutting any non-local note presented for
payment in half and sending one portion by post to its office of
issue. When confirmation of receipt was received the other half was
dispatched by post. Eventually a long-suffering clerk would have
the tedious job of reuniting and pasting the two halves together to
allow payment to be completed. This had long been the normal
practice among banks of issue in England, especially provincial
banks. This somewhat clumsy process was speeded by the
establishment of Currency Circles - defined regions where
individual notes issued by any one bank branch in a Circle would be
accepted as legal tender and duly paid out by all other banks
within the same Circle.
First issue of the Raj: Victoria
Green Underprint Series
Red Underprint Series
In the first instance, it was the
task of the Presidency Banks to set up and administer these
Circles. As their number increased, the Government slowly took over
management of the note issue in its entirety. By 1867 all agency
agreements with the Presidency Banks had been terminated.
Management of the paper currency was now vested in mint masters,
accountants general and, eventually, controllers of currency
Portraits vs Underprints
Establishing any new note issue, let alone one in an area of the
size controlled by the Raj, requires considerable detailed
planning. First and foremost, the note issue itself must be
satisfactory. In India, the British turned to what they knew worked
well and developed a Victoria Portrait Series based loosely on the
then current Bank of England notes.
These first notes were uniface and
printed on hand-moulded paper manufactured at the Laverstock Paper
Mills aka Portals. This is the mill built by Henri Portal that had
been making paper for BoE notes since 1727. The paper indeed shows
similarities to that used for the old BoE white fiver. The
watermark consisted of wavy lines and carried two signatures, the
denomination, and the words GOVERNMENT OF INDIA, RUPEES.
The first notes were issued in 1861
and included denominations for Rs 10, 20, 50, 100, and 1000. There
was no Rs 5 issue and no such notes would appear until 1872.
However, a previously unknown Rs 5 specimen dated 26 March 1858 and
printed on Portals' paper surfaced last year. If nothing else, it
shows the British Government took their time to get this first note
issue right. The date places its preparation in the year the Raj
was established and three years prior to the passing of the Paper
The pre-Raj note issues had
conditioned Indian businesses and the general public to the use of
paper money. The new notes were quickly accepted and given the
ultimate accolade of being rapidly and widely counterfeited.
These forgeries saw the Portrait
series withdrawn and replaced in 1872 by a second uniface series
also printed on moulded paper. This so-called Underprint Series
carried a coloured underprint, guilloche (geometric lathe)
patterns, and, initially, four language panels. Subsequently, this
green series was replaced by a red series with eight language
panels. The wavy line watermark was still there but it now included
a manufacturer's code that subsequently provided some confusion in
dating these issues. This new series saw release of the first Rs 5
notes due to public demand.
As with the Victoria Portrait
notes, these new notes was at first legally encashable only in the
Currency Circle of issue, but between 1903 an 1911 all Rs 5, 10, 50
and 100 notes were declared legal tenderanywhere in India.
This series remained more or less
the same in appearance until its replacement in 1923.
Specimen 1 rupee, c. 1917, Pick
10 rupees, c. 1925, Pick 7b.
Specimen 50 rupees, c. 1930, Pick 9cs
Specimen 100 rupees, c. 1927, Pick
1000 rupees, c. 1931, NIP, cf. Pick 12.
Emperors of India
In 1928 a currency note press was established at Nasik. From
then on, more and more of India's currency requirements would be
printed within the country. Over the next two decades security
features would be improved including changes to watermarks, the
quality and detail of the imperial portrait, and the use of
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was
formally inaugurated on 1 April 1935 in Calcutta. It took over the
functions of the Controllers of Currency. Currency Offices in
Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Rangoon, Karachi, Lahore and Cawnpore now
became branches of the Issue Department of the RBI. When George VI
eventually replaced his dad as Emperor, his notes showed their
issuing authority as the RESERVE BANK OF INDIA. However, until its
own new notes were ready, the RBI continued to issue Government of
Following the death of George V in
January 1936, a Rs 100 showing the crowned portrait of Edward VIII
was prepared and scheduled for release in the summer of 1937. It is
shown on p.193 of Spink's Portraits of a Prince. The subsequent
abdication resulted in the first RBI note delaying its appearance
until January 1938. It was a Rs 5 of George VI. This was followed
by Rs 10 in February, Rs 100 in March and Rs 1,000 and Rs 10,000 in
June. These new RBI notes retained similar sizes, appearances and
designs to the former Government issues.
2 rupees, c. 1937, Pick 17c.
5 rupees, c. 1943, Pick 23b.
100 rupees, c. 1943, Kanpur, P
1000 rupees c. 1938, Pick 21b.
In August 1940 the Rs 1 note was
reintroduced as a Government note. Again it was a war time measure.
A further Rs 2 As 8 issue was contemplated but, instead, a fresh
issue of the Rs 2 note was made on 3 March 1943. During the war the
Japanese manufactured high quality forgeries of the Rs 10 note with
a view to destabilising India's currency. This led to a redesign of
this note. The watermark was changed and the profile of George VI
on the front was replaced by a full frontal version. For the first
time in India a security thread was introduced into a note.
With the outbreak of peace, the
George VI series continued until 15 April 1947 when independence
and partition came to India. Thereafter these notes continued to be
issued as an ad interim measure until replaced in 1950 by issues of
the new Republic of India. After some debate the vignette of the
Imperial head was supplanted bythe Lion Capital of Ashoka.
In newly independent Pakistan
George VI notes of the RBI continued to be used but overstamped
GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN. They provided a provisional issue until the
new country was in a position to release its own distinctive notes
in 1948. A similar issue overprinted BURMA CURRENCY BOARD, LEGAL
TENDER IN BURMA ONLY appeared in 1947 - in Burma.
Anyone starting out to try and
assemble a significant collection of the notes of India - or
Pakistan or Burma - should be aware that it is doubtful if any
individual has managed to put together examples of all the note
varieties to be found in the catalogues. Each different note type
comes with different signatures and/or printed dates of issue, and,
importantly, different branches of issue. Some of these are
Once collectors have crossed that
particular numismatic Rubicon, they will find that some branch
names come printed in either large or small caps (George V 100
rupees), with in different coloured serial numbers (George VI 1940
1 rupee), and even different watermarks within an otherwise
identical note type (George V1 100 rupees). Even getting just one
example of each denomination issued by the British Raj is a major
accomplishment, but one that provides immense satisfaction when
Anyone contemplating this
particular journey should check out the country listings in the
Standard catalog of world paper money: General issues1368-1960,
Krause Publications. More detailed information can be sourced in
Kishore Jhunjhunwala's Standard reference guide to Indian paper
money. And do not be discouraged by spike or staple holes in
banknotes from the Indian subcontinent. They are the norm.
For those that enjoy the excitement
of the chase, and are quite prepared to spend a goodly segment of
their life engaging in it, the issues of Imperial India present a
magnificent historical challenge. Spink's September Spring sale is
a great place to start. It follows other successful sales of Indian
paper money by the company over the past decade. The contents of
these auctions can be viewed on-line at Spink Archives.
100 rupees c. 1947, BURMA o/p, Pick
1 rupee c. 1948, GOVERNMENT OF
PAKISTAN o/p, Pick 1
© K.A. Rodgers 2011