We started issuing banknotes in 1836 and still do so today. Over the last 175 years our banknotes have served our customers well and their design and security features have become increasingly sophisticated.
To find out more about our banknotes choose a datespan:
Our first banknotes
Many of Ireland's early banks depended for their survival on the issue of banknotes. Ulster Banking Company’s first banknotes were issued in denominations of £1, 25s, 30s, 35s, £2, £3, £5, and £10. The notes, printed in black and white on one side only, had a common style and size and depicted the industrial strengths of Ulster – shipbuilding, the linen trade and agriculture.
Commissioned months earlier, the notes were ready and waiting to be issued on the day we were due to open for business, 1 June 1836. In the event, we opened a month later than planned, but some of the first banknotes still featured the earlier date.
We established nine branches in Ulster during our first year of business. As branches could only accept notes they had issued, the branch name had to be printed on every banknote. Rather than having different printing plates for each branch, we overprinted unissued notes from our Belfast office with individual branch names.
Each denomination had its own serial numbers and every note was signed by the chief cashier. Careful records were kept of issued and returned notes, so that duplicated serial numbers (indicating forgery) would be spotted, and lost or damaged notes could be accounted for.
New name, new notes
In 1845, a period of financial crisis prompted new legislation to regulate the issue of notes. Ulster Banking Company became one of only six Irish banks authorised to issue banknotes. The new law allowed notes in round pounds only, so we withdrew our 25s, 30s and 35s notes.
With more and more branches opening, we switched to using notes carrying the names of all of our branches, rather than the issuing branch only. To start with, branches were listed alphabetically, but as their numbers grew, new branches were added chronologically at the end of the list. From time to time, new printing plates were made and the alphabetical order was restored.
In 1883 we changed our name from Ulster Banking Company to Ulster Bank Ltd and issued brand new banknotes. The new note denominations, which remained unchanged until the pound coin was introduced in 1983, were £1, £5, £10, £20, £50 and £100. The original motif portraying Ulster’s industrial strengths continued to feature.
In 1920 the Banknotes (Ireland) Act ended the practice of making notes payable only at specific branches. Instead, notes could be redeemed at a bank's head office. This meant there was no need to list our branches any more, just the location of the bank's principal offices. In line with this, we issued a new series of banknotes in 1920.
The need for control
In 1927, the Currency Act dramatically changed note issue in the Irish Free State. The Currency Commission was established to control note issue and coins. As a result, Irish Pounds or Punts, linked to sterling, were introduced. From 1928, the Currency Commission issued legal tender notes that included a depiction of Lady Lavery as the Irish Cailin (girl). This image was to represent the Irish spirit on banknotes for the next 50 years.
Meanwhile, Ulster Bank and other note-issuing banks were admitted to the Currency Commission as Associated Banks and their right to issue individual banknotes was withdrawn. Instead, they were allowed to issue consolidated notes overprinted with individual bank names. The agricultural scene depicted in the design led to them becoming known as 'ploughman notes', although they were never legal tender.
Double-sided notes and a central bank
In Northern Ireland, we continued to issue our own notes after 1929, and to use up old stock of £1 notes, initially overprinting them with 'Northern Ireland Issue'. New designs were soon made for all denominations with a new serial prefixing system – another measure to combat fraud.
From 1935 we started to print our banknotes on both sides. On the reverse we introduced an engraving of our head office in Waring Street as a security device. This image was later enhanced to include rays radiating from the building. All banknotes were personally signed by the bank's chief cashier until 1956. After that our new £1 and £5 notes were printed by lithograph and the design included a signature.
Meanwhile, there were further changes to the currency system in the Irish Free State, following the publication in 1938 of a report on the Currency Commission and the state of banking in the south. The main recommendations were to establish a central bank with more powers than the existing commission and to terminate the issue of consolidated notes. The Central Bank of Ireland came into being on 1 February 1943.
Ulster Bank, with five of the Associated Banks, stopped dealing in consolidated notes on 1 March 1954. Gradually the other banks followed and circulation ceased on 31 December 1956. Since then only the Central Bank of Ireland has had the right to issue notes in the Republic of Ireland.
A changed design
For 130 years the overall design of Ulster Bank's own notes had remained largely unchanged, but in 1966 the notes were fully modernised. The new designs paid homage to the industries shown on the original notes, but now also featured views of Ulster landscapes - the Mourne Mountains, the new Queen Elizabeth Bridge and the Giant’s Causeway.
The reverse of the notes was updated to incorporate the coat-of-arms and motto of Ulster Bank, surrounded by the four heraldic arms of the provinces of Ireland. New security features were also incorporated to combat forgery.
Enter the euro
For many years there had been a move in the Republic to break away from the parity link with sterling. After much debate, the Republic of Ireland joined the European Monetary System in 1978.
In the late 1980s further steps were taken to create a single European Monetary Union (EMU) with countries ending individual currency issue. The Republic of Ireland, along with ten other member states, had their currencies locked to the EMU by the European Central Bank in December 1998. But it was not until January 2002 that euro notes and coins were issued as legal tender throughout the participating EU countries. The notes were issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 euros. The designs, which were common throughout the euro zone, symbolised the openness and co-operation of the European spirit.
In 2006 we issued our first-ever commemorative banknote, celebrating the career of the great Northern Irish footballer George Best. The demand from fans around the globe for the new £5 note was overwhelming and the limited edition of one million sold out in ten days.
Later, in 2007, we gave our designs a facelift, bringing in more modern typefaces and updating our logo to include the RBS daisy wheel branding. Today we have £150 million worth of Ulster Bank notes in circulation.