Monday, 10 April 2017

The Five Pound Note

I'm just preparing for a trip back to the UK. As usual I'm assembling a little bag of UK banknotes and change,  but this time I'm being a bit more careful since the current one-pound coin and five-pound note are about to be withdrawn and replaced.

The one pound coin was introduced in 1983 - until then we had the pound note, which (unlike any modern British notes) was green. And before decimalisation in 1972, there was even a note for half of one pound, the 'ten bob note' (ten shillings, 50p in modern money). It was a little smaller than the pound note, and a reddish-brown colour.

The ten-bob note still lives on, in the colloquial expression, "bent as a nine-bob note" - meaning dishonest or corrupt. "I wouldn't buy nuffin' from that lot, they're all bent as a nine-bob note". Because a nine-shilling note would necessarily be a forgery. And also it alliterates nicely.

Five pounds used to be serious money, at least for a working class family like mine, as I once saw very vivdly. I must have been about seven or eight. We were on our annual week's holiday with my grandmother in Dovercourt, close to the ancient (and still very important) port of Harwich. She'd retired to a tiny cottage there around the time I was born. It was just big enough for her, my parents and myself, my parents sleeping on what must have been a horribly uncomfortable convertible sofa (a "put-u-up") that had to be unfolded after dinner every night and restored to its daytime function every morning. To a small child it was a paradise. The beach, with its choc-ices and endless civil engineering possibilities, was short bus-ride away on the exotic green Eastern National bus. There was a ferry across the estuary to Felixstowe, with its fairground, and walks along the promenade to see the long-disused lighthouses.

We had just got off one of those green buses, on our way to the beach, when my mother gave a gasp of horror. One of those five pound notes was missing from her purse. She was sure she'd had it when we left, so it must have come out somehow during the journey. That single banknote represented most of our holiday budget. My father earned about £30 per week, as a shop assistant selling the odds and ends that went into the then-thriving East End clothing industry along with the fabric itself.

My mother wasn't given to tearful outbursts, and I don't remember her crying, but it was certainly a very stressful moment. I remember her doing the mental arithmetic to see what kind of holiday we could still have on the remaining money in her purse. She tried to reassure me that everything would be alright, but I don't think it would have been.

In desperation, she made a phone call to the bus depot which occupied a very central position on Dovercourt's main shopping street. And, miracle of miracles, someone had seen the note fall and given it to the driver, who had handed it in to the depot as he drive past. I think maybe my mother did cry then. I won't say "that would never happen today", because I think these random acts of kindness are still common enough, and people were no more honest then than they are now. But certainly it was a huge stroke of good luck.

And there was better to come. My mother jumped on the next bus into town and rushed into the garage. The rule was that the bus company took 10% of the value of any lost property, as a way to cover their costs in handling it. Getting 90% of our holiday budget back was a lot better than losing it all, but it was still a significant dent.

The man in the bus garage office said to her, "Well, rightly we ought to take ten shillings off you. But you called almost before it was handed in, so it don't seem right really." And gave her back her whole five pound note, without taking the 10% they were entitled to. Really I'm sure he just felt sorry for my  mother.

So our holiday proceeded with its intended budget after all. The fact that I still remember all these details - I can even remember where we were and what kind of bus it was (a Bristol MW or LS single decker, since you didn't ask) - speaks volumes about the impact this little incident had on a small boy at the time.