The Love of Bank Notes by John Swain


In normal times we handle it every day. Money, they say, makes the world go around. Others see it as the root of all evil. These days we are using less coinage but an increasing use of cards, however bank notes make us feel good if we have plenty in our wallet.

Basingstoke is the headquarters of Thomas de la Rue, the world-famous producer of bank notes, and Foyle Park resident and Probus Club of Basingstoke member, John Swain, was employed in that specialised printing industry all his working life.

Leaving grammar school at 16 he followed his father into the printing trade and undertook an apprenticeship of five years as a camera operator. On becoming a journeyman he joined security printer Bradbury Wilkinson in New Malden and as John says “learned about making security documents and how to spot and prevent forgeries.”

Bradbury Wilkenson Press
Security Printing at Bradbury & Wilkinson in 1980s

Despite operating in a tightly controlled secure environment it was noticed that some Travellers cheques began to go missing. Despite stringent checks on employees at entry and exit of the factory it was only by spotting which member of staff was enjoying exotic holidays and had a new car they discovered he was simply using a Royal Mail post box in their reception to send an envelope to his home.

An intended advancement to head up their photographic studio did not proceed as the company was taken over by Thomas de la Rue, but instead he become the general manager of the New Malden plant.

“All I had to do was to reverse a deficit of £12 million which in five years turned into a profit of £2 million.”

410_2-1024xautoMoving to Basingstoke in 1990 to head up a new, large photographic and proofing department was a continuous learning curve as the printing of the latest style of notes can involve over fifty security features as well as three different printing processes with visible and invisible fluorescent inks and holographic images.

Numbering Boxes used on both sides of currency

Moving from water marked cotton-based papers, made by their Overton mill, to the latest polymer substrate is not as new as one might think. Back in 1970 Bradbury Wilkinson produced the Isle of Man £1 notes on plastic but then discovered that the ink came off if a note was accidently left in clothes put in a washing machine. Eventually, after over two decades of research, the problem was solved, but by an Australian printer.

Latest Currency Press can simultaneously print six colours both sides of a sheet.

Visiting overseas De La Rue production facilities became a regular occurrence for John and after one trip he was stopped by a Customs officer at Heathrow. On this occasion the standard documentation he carried failed to impress the officer and as currency printing plates and ink looked suspicious the officer demanded the plate box and ink be opened. It was explained that it contained specialist fluorescent ink that was also indelible and should, on no account be touched. Of course, the officer got ink on his fingers and made the situation worse by using a tissue to spread it over his hands.

John smiled at this recollection. “That was a good few years ago, so I guess it has worn off by now.”

Loads of money. The finished product.