The 50-pound bill, worth about $65, is rarely used in everyday life in Britain, but that hasn’t stopped Britons from trying to get their favorites to be the face of a forthcoming design of the note.
As soon as the Bank of England announced plans last weekend to redesign the bill, petitions popped up extolling the virtues of a range of worthies.
The most popular prospects offer a skewed view of the kind of figures that set British hearts aflutter. There is Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman who spied for Britain during World War II; Margaret Thatcher, the country’s first female prime minister, who remains a sharply divisive figure decades after her tenure; and an English soccer player riding an inflatable unicorn.
Decisions over who is honored on a bank note have been fraught in the past. In 2013, Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned for more women on British currency, received rape and death threats when it was announced that the author Jane Austen would appear on £10 notes. And in the United States, it is still unclear if the Trump administration will honor an Obama-era decision to put Harriet Tubman, a former slave and abolitionist, on the $20 bill.
Technically, there are none yet. The Bank of England said it would begin the formal nomination process soon, and would seek suggestions from the public.
But that hasn’t stopped people from getting a head start. The betting company Ladbrokes said that more than half the bets placed so far have been on the mathematician Alan Turing and the physicist Stephen Hawking, although the company did not say how much money had actually been put down.
Ladbrokes is offering 16-to-1 odds for Mr. Hawking, who died this year. Odds are 8 to 1 for Mr. Turing, the father of modern computing, whom Queen Elizabeth II pardoned five years ago after he was convicted on charges of homosexuality in 1952. He had previously been considered for the £10 note.
Britain’s ‘Iron Lady’
“Just one of these notes so far has featured a woman other than the queen, and in the interests of gender equality, who would be more appropriate to feature than the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom?” said Guido Fawkes, a blogger who started the petition.
If Mrs. Thatcher were to be chosen, it would be controversial: Even decades after leaving office, she remains a divisive figure in Britain. But she is worthy of consideration because “the far-reaching nature of her legacy is never disputed,” wrote Zoe Strimpel, a historian and columnist at the Sunday Telegraph.
The Children’s Writer Who Became a Spy
A campaign for Noor Inayat Khan, a writer of children’s books who spied for Britain during World War II, before being captured by the Nazis and killed at the Dachau concentration camp, has drawn wide attention.
The petition to put her on the bank note has attracted thousands of signatures and the support of Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim to be appointed to the British cabinet, and Ms. Criado-Perez.
Putting her on the note would help to highlight “positive contributions from Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities, not least one of World War II’s almost forgotten heroes, a British Muslim woman,” Zehra Zaidi, a social activist, said on the petition page.
Jonny Sharples, a 31-year-old civil servant, has set up a petition to get an image of the Leicester City soccer player Harry Maguire riding an inflatable unicorn onto the new bill.
Mr. Maguire, affectionately known as Slab-Head, became a hero for England fans during the World Cup this year after he scored a goal against Sweden. Mr. Sharples’s petition has exceeded expectations, and now has more than 40,000 signatures.
There’s one problem (aside from the question of whether unicorns exist): Mr. Maguire is not dead, and apart from the monarch, those portrayed on British notes must be deceased.
Mr. Sharples called that a “small sticking point.” He conceded that the number of signatures for his proposal did not necessarily represent who people genuinely want on the British currency.
“We’ve got nothing better to do with our time,” Mr. Sharples said. “We’re looking for any distraction.”
A review by the Exchequer of how cash is used in Britain had raised the possibility of the £50 bill being scrapped, as the note is rarely used for routine purchases and there is “a perception among some that £50 notes are used for money laundering, hidden economy activity and tax evasion.”
In October, however, the Exchequer said that the denomination would continue, but that the Bank of England would produce a new polymer note that would be harder to fake and more durable.
Not everyone is please. Vegetarians note that animal products are used to make the polymer notes.
When Will They Choose?
A Banknote Character Advisory Committee will first choose a field it wants the nominees to come from — such as science or music — and will offer a six-week nomination period during which the public can propose names. The final decision is made by the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney.
The current £50 note celebrates steam engines. It features James Watt, an engineer and scientist, and Matthew Boulton, an entrepreneur, who worked together to develop and market steam engines, which helped drive the Industrial Revolution.
The bank says that it wants nominees from different backgrounds and fields, and that they have to be widely admired, as well as having made important contributions to society and culture.
The last time the Bank of England went through this process, for the £20 note, nearly 590 people from the visual arts were nominated. The artist J.M.W. Turner was selected in 2016, and those bills will go into circulation beginning in 2020 (replacing a bill featuring Adam Smith).