By Dr. K. A. Rodgers


 Victoria, Empress of India.
Image by Bassano,
ex Wikimedia Commons.

Paper money tells something of a nation's story. Successive issues provide commentary on a country's evolution. The tale told is by no means restricted to economics. Different note issues reflect changing political circumstances and societal attitudes. They may echo triumphs or disasters, conquests or defeats, strife or stability. It is this way with the issues of India and of British India in particular. The story these notes hold is one being heard by a new generation of collectors in the Indian sub-continent as they reclaim their history.


Bank of Bengal on the Hoogly River, Calcutta c. 1908-1919. Library of Congress, Washington.


These - and other - collectors will be spoilt for choice when Spink's September banknote catalogue makes its appearance. Barnaby Faull's serendipity has been working overtime. He has secured a fabulous hoard of historic Indian paper out of Singapore. Not only will this allow gaps to be plugged in many a collection, but it also contains a few delightful discovery notes, items unknown until now in any catalogue. There are specimens, low serial numbers, sequential runs, and, if India doesn't warm your cockles, a good smattering of colonial and post-colonial issues from Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon. But this section of the catalogue will be dominated by notes from the British Raj.

Imperial India 101

The British Raj was established over the Indian sub-continent in 1858 in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 aka the Indian Mutiny aka India's First War of Independence. As the dust settled, the British Government moved peremptorily to transfer rule holus bolus from the British East India Company to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria. Along with a total reorganization of the Indian army, India's new masters implemented a complete makeover of the civil administration including its financial systems. Twenty years down the track Benjamin Disraeli enthroned Queen Victoria as Empress of India.

Lest there be any confusion, the British Raj extended over all of present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as Aden, Upper and Lower Burma, British Somaliland, Singapore and the Persian Gulf's Trucial States. It is little wonder that Queen Victoria's Governor-General gloried in the title of Viceroy of India.

One significant aspect of the financial reforms was the introduction of a single uniform note issue for the country fully backed by the new government. It was a first for India.

India's Early Paper Money

Paper money had been introduced to India in the late 18th Century, around the time Europe's colonial powers were picking over the spoils of the once mighty Mughal Empire. At this time, India's once powerful banking community lost its dominant position. It was successfully challenged by new agency houses, many of whom established local banks with state patronage. Most of these institutions issued their own paper currency.

Typical of these issues were those of the General Bank of Bengal and Bahar, set up in 1773 with a most modern mix of state and private capital. Although it was wound up two years later, its government backing ensured it was both successful and profitable.

The Bank of Hindostan was incorporated in 1770 by the agency house of Alexander and Company. It survived three panic runs only to collapse during a commercial crisis in 1832.

The official support for these banks ensured their notes met with general approval and enjoyed wide circulation. Even greater acceptance of paper money came when issues were introduced by the Presidency Banks. The Presidencies were administrative units of the East
India Company. They established banks via government charters. Such were the intimate relationships they enjoyed with government, these banks were in effect quangos. Major players included the Bank of Calcutta, later the Bank of Bengal, established in 1806, the Bank of Madras (1843) and the Bank of Bombay (1868).

Early note issues were denominated in star pagodas and/or sicca rupees, both currencies of the East India Company. Later issues were primarily in rupees. The Bank of Bengal notes are among the most extensive and best known. There were three distinct series: uniface, commerce motif, and Britannia motif. Early issues included Rs 10, 16, 20, 50, 100, 250, 500 and 1000, based on 16 sicca rupees to each gold mohur.

The Raj Takes Over

Three years after taking over, the Raj introduced the Paper Currency Act of 1861. This gave the Government a monopoly on note issue throughout the Raj. The Presidency banks, as did all private banks, now lost their right of issue. They were now required to act as agents for the Secretary of State for India in the issue, payment and exchange of new Government of India promissory notes. In return these banks were given free use of Government balances. A major problem existed in the redemption of these notes over the vast expanse of the Indian sub-continent. This was in a day and age when all notes needed to be presented at their office of issue in order to be paid out. Sending notes back from one bank to another presented a serious - and expensive - security concern. This matter was addressed by the long proven procedure of cutting any non-local note presented for payment in half and sending one portion by post to its office of issue. When confirmation of receipt was received the other half was dispatched by post. Eventually a long-suffering clerk would have the tedious job of reuniting and pasting the two halves together to allow payment to be completed. This had long been the normal practice among banks of issue in England, especially provincial banks. This somewhat clumsy process was speeded by the establishment of Currency Circles - defined regions where individual notes issued by any one bank branch in a Circle would be accepted as legal tender and duly paid out by all other banks within the same Circle.


First issue of the Raj: Victoria Portrait Series


Green Underprint Series


Red Underprint Series

In the first instance, it was the task of the Presidency Banks to set up and administer these Circles. As their number increased, the Government slowly took over management of the note issue in its entirety. By 1867 all agency agreements with the Presidency Banks had been terminated. Management of the paper currency was now vested in mint masters, accountants general and, eventually, controllers of currency

Portraits vs Underprints

Establishing any new note issue, let alone one in an area of the size controlled by the Raj, requires considerable detailed planning. First and foremost, the note issue itself must be satisfactory. In India, the British turned to what they knew worked well and developed a Victoria Portrait Series based loosely on the then current Bank of England notes.

These first notes were uniface and printed on hand-moulded paper manufactured at the Laverstock Paper Mills aka Portals. This is the mill built by Henri Portal that had been making paper for BoE notes since 1727. The paper indeed shows similarities to that used for the old BoE white fiver. The watermark consisted of wavy lines and carried two signatures, the denomination, and the words GOVERNMENT OF INDIA, RUPEES.

The first notes were issued in 1861 and included denominations for Rs 10, 20, 50, 100, and 1000. There was no Rs 5 issue and no such notes would appear until 1872. However, a previously unknown Rs 5 specimen dated 26 March 1858 and printed on Portals' paper surfaced last year. If nothing else, it shows the British Government took their time to get this first note issue right. The date places its preparation in the year the Raj was established and three years prior to the passing of the Paper Currency Act.

The pre-Raj note issues had conditioned Indian businesses and the general public to the use of paper money. The new notes were quickly accepted and given the ultimate accolade of being rapidly and widely counterfeited.

These forgeries saw the Portrait series withdrawn and replaced in 1872 by a second uniface series also printed on moulded paper. This so-called Underprint Series carried a coloured underprint, guilloche (geometric lathe) patterns, and, initially, four language panels. Subsequently, this green series was replaced by a red series with eight language panels. The wavy line watermark was still there but it now included a manufacturer's code that subsequently provided some confusion in dating these issues. This new series saw release of the first Rs 5 notes due to public demand.

As with the Victoria Portrait notes, these new notes was at first legally encashable only in the Currency Circle of issue, but between 1903 an 1911 all Rs 5, 10, 50 and 100 notes were declared legal tenderanywhere in India.

This series remained more or less the same in appearance until its replacement in 1923.


Specimen 1 rupee, c. 1917, Pick 1gs.


10 rupees, c. 1925, Pick 7b.


Specimen 50 rupees, c. 1930, Pick 9cs


Specimen 100 rupees, c. 1927, Pick 10ds


1000 rupees, c. 1931, NIP, cf. Pick 12.

Emperors of India

In 1928 a currency note press was established at Nasik. From then on, more and more of India's currency requirements would be printed within the country. Over the next two decades security features would be improved including changes to watermarks, the quality and detail of the imperial portrait, and the use of multiple colours.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was formally inaugurated on 1 April 1935 in Calcutta. It took over the functions of the Controllers of Currency. Currency Offices in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Rangoon, Karachi, Lahore and Cawnpore now became branches of the Issue Department of the RBI. When George VI eventually replaced his dad as Emperor, his notes showed their issuing authority as the RESERVE BANK OF INDIA. However, until its own new notes were ready, the RBI continued to issue Government of India currency.

Following the death of George V in January 1936, a Rs 100 showing the crowned portrait of Edward VIII was prepared and scheduled for release in the summer of 1937. It is shown on p.193 of Spink's Portraits of a Prince. The subsequent abdication resulted in the first RBI note delaying its appearance until January 1938. It was a Rs 5 of George VI. This was followed by Rs 10 in February, Rs 100 in March and Rs 1,000 and Rs 10,000 in June. These new RBI notes retained similar sizes, appearances and designs to the former Government issues.


2 rupees, c. 1937, Pick 17c.


5 rupees, c. 1943, Pick 23b.


100 rupees, c. 1943, Kanpur, P 20i.


1000 rupees c. 1938, Pick 21b.


In August 1940 the Rs 1 note was reintroduced as a Government note. Again it was a war time measure. A further Rs 2 As 8 issue was contemplated but, instead, a fresh issue of the Rs 2 note was made on 3 March 1943. During the war the Japanese manufactured high quality forgeries of the Rs 10 note with a view to destabilising India's currency. This led to a redesign of this note. The watermark was changed and the profile of George VI on the front was replaced by a full frontal version. For the first time in India a security thread was introduced into a note.

With the outbreak of peace, the George VI series continued until 15 April 1947 when independence and partition came to India. Thereafter these notes continued to be issued as an ad interim measure until replaced in 1950 by issues of the new Republic of India. After some debate the vignette of the Imperial head was supplanted bythe Lion Capital of Ashoka.

In newly independent Pakistan George VI notes of the RBI continued to be used but overstamped GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN. They provided a provisional issue until the new country was in a position to release its own distinctive notes in 1948. A similar issue overprinted BURMA CURRENCY BOARD, LEGAL TENDER IN BURMA ONLY appeared in 1947 - in Burma.

Collecting Tips

Anyone starting out to try and assemble a significant collection of the notes of India - or Pakistan or Burma - should be aware that it is doubtful if any individual has managed to put together examples of all the note varieties to be found in the catalogues. Each different note type comes with different signatures and/or printed dates of issue, and, importantly, different branches of issue. Some of these are extremely scare.

Once collectors have crossed that particular numismatic Rubicon, they will find that some branch names come printed in either large or small caps (George V 100 rupees), with in different coloured serial numbers (George VI 1940 1 rupee), and even different watermarks within an otherwise identical note type (George V1 100 rupees). Even getting just one example of each denomination issued by the British Raj is a major accomplishment, but one that provides immense satisfaction when completed.

Anyone contemplating this particular journey should check out the country listings in the Standard catalog of world paper money: General issues1368-1960, Krause Publications. More detailed information can be sourced in Kishore Jhunjhunwala's Standard reference guide to Indian paper money. And do not be discouraged by spike or staple holes in banknotes from the Indian subcontinent. They are the norm.

For those that enjoy the excitement of the chase, and are quite prepared to spend a goodly segment of their life engaging in it, the issues of Imperial India present a magnificent historical challenge. Spink's September Spring sale is a great place to start. It follows other successful sales of Indian paper money by the company over the past decade. The contents of these auctions can be viewed on-line at Spink Archives.


100 rupees c. 1947, BURMA o/p, Pick 33


1 rupee c. 1948, GOVERNMENT OF
PAKISTAN o/p, Pick 1

© K.A. Rodgers 2011