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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April, 2005, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Sterling effort
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Magazine

The pound note ceased to be legal tender in England in 1988, but it seems no one told a small bank branch in Canada that. Last month, they handed over five crisp one pound notes, which have since found their way back to their birthplace. It was a homecoming, of sorts - but would anyone recognise them? And what's more, would anyone accept them?

The most common reaction to the note is incredulity: "Where," people say, "did you get those?"

The second? "Can I have one?"

Just days before leaving Canada for Britain, the five, perfectly crisp, one-pound notes landed in my purse as a token of appreciation from an old friend. He hoped they might cover the cost of a pint.

Well, they might be of some use as a beer mat, but legally, they wouldn't buy any refreshing beverages, unless the barman was nostalgic - and savvy - enough to pocket my notes and substitute coins of his own, which have been their replacement in England since, get this, 1983.

(Of course, had I tried this in other parts of the UK, I'd have been in pound note heaven, but this was London.)

My notes were more than 20 years old, yet they were so crisp a little finger licking was necessary to prise them apart. Clearly, they'd been tucked in a till somewhere and forgotten; re-appearing at the bureau de change of a suburban bank in Toronto.

Illegal tender

My generous friend was taken aback by the revelation.

"This is worse than regifting," he said, referring to the practise of passing on unwanted presents as gifts. "The notes looked so clean! And new! And BRITISH!"

Antique cash register
The moral of the story

But he saw opportunity: "Can we sell them on eBay?" .

Well, we could, but we wouldn't do very well out of it. A quick search shows one entrepreneur in Winsford selling a note for 2.84 - by the by, mine look better - and on top, he wants another three quid in postage.

Time to see if they could be spent. At my newsagent's, a packet of sweets is chosen and paper cash proffered. The cashier, who can't be much more than 20 and who always moves at a frantic pace, stops mid-transaction to stare at the green note with a young Queen on the front and an old Isaac Newton on the reverse.

"Ooh, what's this?" she asks. "Is it new?"

No, I explain, it's old, and I feel guilty, for some reason. I feel worse when I ask if she recognises it. "No, I've never seen it before. But I don't think I would have accepted it."

Love me, tender

One pound notes ceased to be legal tender on 11 March, 1988, after which they became a fiscal dodo bird. The reason for replacing them with those coins made sense: the note, Treasury records show, were becoming increasingly "inconvenient" for the public.

A pound note had a lifespan of just nine months, because, the records say, it was often kept in a pocket instead of a wallet, stuffed in with coins and keys and who knows what else. They stayed out of the banks longer, too.

"This results in dirty notes remaining in circulation for longer than they should," the Treasury said in 1985. "To maintain cleaner notes in circulation would be extremely costly."

But the pound coin can stay solid, and clean-ish, for 40 years.

My next attempt to spend these obsolete notes is at my local coffee bar. I don't want to offend anyone so I simply ask the barista what she thinks of the notes, and if she'd take them.

She is flummoxed. And after a moment she decides she can't accept them without her boss's say-so. I pay for the coffee with a fiver instead.

Tender is the night

My final thought is to try to honour the original purpose for which I'd been given these dud notes - to buy a pint.

But why risk offending the bar staff at my local, having only just befriended them? I decided it was a bad idea and chickened out.

Pound coin
What the smart shopper carries
Not that anyone would have technically lost money on the proposition. The Bank of England drew my attention to the fact that the note, at the top, says they "promise to pay the bearer on demand" so if worse came to worse, anyone could trundle down to Threadneedle Street (or, more likely, a high-street bank) and get a coin for their note.

They might be worth a bit more, dealers say, if they're in really good condition and are from important years, like the Queen's coronation. Even then, one might only be looking at a note that's worth three to five times its face value.

There is another option, as Salvi Arnold, the owner of ZMS Antiques in London, told me: "Just keep them for a few years."

That shouldn't be too hard.


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