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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
The five pound question: Who is Elizabeth Fry?
Elizabeth Fry on the new five pound note
Clue, Fry's the one in the middle
Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry is the new face of the English five pound note. Though undoubtedly a member of the great and good, is she a slightly obscure choice for this rare honour?

Overhauling its stable of promissory notes, the Bank of England was perhaps keenly aware of the need to address the gender imbalance caused by the loss of the Florence Nightingale "Series D" 10 in 1990.

Florence Nightingale from the old 10 note
Can Fry hold a candle to the lady with the lamp?
Quaker philanthropist and penal reformer Elizabeth Fry - also a distant relative and "inspiration" to the Crimean War nurse - was selected to go on the five pound note and end a decade during which the only woman on our paper money was the Queen.

The bank's Court of Directors opted for "the angel of the prisons" from a shortlist headed by novelist Jane Austen, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust.

Though the directors have thrown the occasional screwball - the far-from-famous bank governor Sir John Houblon graces the current 50 note - most previous selections have tended to be household names.

Fry, Elizabeth Fry

Indeed, most of those to have featured on a note come from that elite club where only a surname need by uttered for instant recognition. Shakespeare, Darwin, Wren, Wellington and Dickens, to partially name but a few.

Fry does not, yet she undoubtedly fulfils all the criteria set by the bank to judge the noteworthy. Her contribution to society has "stood the test of time".

After visiting London's notorious Newgate prison in 1813, the banker's daughter became not just the UK's most important woman penal reformer, but Europe's chief campaigner for inmates' rights.

Elizabeth Fry, as seen in a wallet near you
Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer:
  • 1780 Born 21 May in Norwich, England to a Quaker banking family
  • 1800 Marries London merchant Joseph Fry, a member of the Quaker chocolate-making dynasty
  • 1813 Visits Newgate Gaol. Disgusted by the conditions, Fry campaigns for reform
  • 1817 Founds association to help women inmates, calling for the sexes to be separated and female warders
  • 1845 Dies at Ramsgate having brought about penal reform across Europe
  • "Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal," declared Fry, at a time when prisons were more overcrowded dungeons than redemptive institutions.

    Aside from her great works and exemplary life, Fry also left behind the other key prerequisite to featuring on a banknote - enough portraits from which the bank's artists can knock up illustrations for the printing plates.

    The Bank of England denies suggestions that Fry is not a famous enough figure to deserve the rare accolade of going on a note.

    "Fry is one of the most famous daughters of Norwich," a bank spokeswoman told BBC News Online," and the Quaker Society of Friends sees her very much as an important figure."

    Eudora Pascall, of the Society of Friends, says Fry is "one of the classic figures". "I think she's actually quite well known and we're pleased that she is receiving this recognition."

    Even if Fry is not a household name, going into pockets, purses and wallets across the country may do the trick.

    Notable people

    So is it the role of bank notes to publicise somewhat neglected historical figures?

    Prior to adopting the euro, it was the widely-held view that Germany's Bundesbank picked some slightly obscure people not to raise their profile, but, according to bank note expert Barnaby Faull, because "many people in their recent history are not the sort of figures anyone would want to see on notes - especially people in Europe".

    Sir John Houblon, from the 50 note
    Guess Houblon?
    Fry is certainly not a controversial choice for the five pound note - she balances the science and cultural achievements of Darwin and Elgar - and redresses the quite shameful male-bias of the current note series.

    But has the Bank of England - which is planning no new notes in the near future - missed an opportunity to reflect the UK's diversity? Are our bank notes the preserve of yesteryear's white and wealthy?

    "Charles Dickens [now being phased out on the 10] was not wealthy as a child," a bank spokeswoman told BBC News Online.

    "We choose historic figures and the selections should be seen in that historical context."

    Who do you think should be celebrated on our bank notes? Send your comments and suggestions using the form below. Here's some of your comments so far:

    George Formby should be finally recognised for his contribution to popular culture and to the war effort. As the only UK citizen ever awarded the Order of Lenin by Stalin, his gormless toothy grin would speak volumes to the downtrodden people of the UK.
    Mark Greenwood, UK

    We've had artists, bankers, reformers and scientists; how about computer people?

    would be my choice.
    Thomas, England

    Ada Lovelace, an analyst and mathematicial extraordinaire and a friend to Charles Babbage. She is acknowledged as the first person to recognise the potential of his analytical engine for flexible problem solving and has been called the founder of scientific computing.
    Sally, UK

    How can there be a male bias on bank notes - don't they ALL feature the Queen? I hope one day they will use Jane Austen and I would also like to see Emmeline Pankhurst - maybe a nice family scene with Christabel and Sylvia?
    Emma, UK

    Perhaps narcissists would appreciate mirror foil?
    Dan Sheppard, England

    Percy Shaw, famous son of Halifax and inventor of the Cat's Eye road safety device. The number of lives his invention has saved and will continue to save surely makes him worthy of appearing on the nation's banknotes.
    Pete Biggs, England

    Tony Blair would be my choice. It would certainly safeguard sterling's future. I couldn't imagine dear old Tony disposing of anything that bore his likeness!
    Peter Yates, UK

    I think Brunel has long been over looked and should have been used for the last 10.
    David Rawlins, UK

    I would love to see someone alive on a note and my choice would be Stephen Hawking.
    Doris Watson, UK

    Send us your comments:

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