Paper money of England and Wales

Edited by Catherine Eagleton and Artemis Manolopoulou

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Security printers to the provincial banks:

Perkins Company and the production of banknotes in 19th-century Britain

Philippa Hubbard

In the first half of the 19th century, the security printing firm Perkins and Heath produced paper banknotes for some of Britain’s increasing number of provincial banks. The firm’s success was built upon a method of printing developed by Jacob Perkins, an American-born inventor who moved to England in 1819. Perkins’ technique, known as ‘siderography’, replicated copperplate line engraving using hardened steel plates. This not only produced exquisite detail in design but also increased the security of paper money. Previously, English notes been made from hand-engraved or etched copperplates. While these processes produced high-quality reproductions, the softness of the metal necessitated frequent re-engraving as plates wore over time. Even the most talented engravers struggled to replicate original plates exactly. Identical reproductions of banknotes were crucial in preventing forgery. In the first two decades of the 19th century, British banks were plagued by persistent forgeries. Preventative measures,such as releasing new designs, took time to emerge and in the interim period forgers seized the opportunity to issue notes that could easily go undetected. As the number of private banks increased, so too did the interest in anti-forgery procedures. Perkins arrived in Britain at an opportune moment. With the technology to produce thousands of identical banknotes using hardened steel plates derived from a single master copy, he had high hopes of gaining a contract to manufacture those for the Bank of England. His firm was ultimately unsuccessful in securing this business, but it went on to provide security printing for many other provincial banks and commercial firms.

The British Museum’s collection of letters from a number of provincial banks to the Perkins printing firm provides a fascinating insight into an important period in the history of British banking. The letters attest to the popularity of the Perkins firm amongst provincial banks, who demanded paper money that reflected the high standard of their businesses and ensured greater security against counterfeiters. The letters also convey the increasing presence of provincial banks in Britain before the mid-19th century and the role their notes played in providing a business identity and the stamp of professionalism. The letters, ranging in date from the early 1820s to the 1850s, also register adjustments to Perkins’ business arrangements. While the earliest examples are addressed to ‘Perkins and Heath’, thereby acknowledging Perkins’ chief engraver Charles Heath, later correspondence refers to ‘Perkins and Bacon’, noting the addition of Perkins’ son-in-law, Joshua Bacon, who managed the administrative side of the business.

The letters to Perkins and Co. reveal a lively correspondence between the security printers and their clients over several decades. They largely concern the production of banknotes and suggest the ways in which this intersected the worlds of design, science and technology. It was typical for printing firms to send customers circulars with information on their prices and stock supply of vignettes and dies, but many of Perkins’ clients were keen to design their own notes, or at least make alterations to those supplied by the company. Some banks took full control of the design and production processes by requesting that Perkins use particular paper suppliers and produce notes of a specific style, size and shape. The success of the Perkins firm rested not only on its ability to provide increased security but also on its apparent willingness and ability to consider the individual expectations of provincial banks. The emphatic tone of many of the letters suggests the importance of banknote design during this period, both in serving a highly practical function and in communicating a business identity to customers.