British and World Paper Money (29 September 2014)

Date of Auction: 29th September 2014

Sold for £17,000

Estimate: £12,000 - £15,000

Treasury Bill, Ten Million Pounds, 8 September 2003, W 012763 on fully watermarked paper, signature of Andrew Turnbull, secretary to the Treasury, stamped cancelled at lower left, small number stamped on back, 228 x 152mm. Very light handling, otherwise good extremely fine to about uncirculated, rare £12,000-15,000


Until just over a decade ago notes such as these two were issued every week in the City under a secretive system which enabled the British Government to manage its short term borrowing policy and make sure that sufficient funds were always available to meet any net daily cash shortfall. Financial institutions tendered for Treasury Bills every Friday, specifying that they wanted the Bills on a particular day the following week. The Bills could have maturities of one month, three months, six months or a year (although no 12 months tenders were actually issued). The financial institutions bought them discounted for less than their face value, lending the money to the Government until the maturity date. They were then able to claim the full amount of the Bills from the Bank of England, so making a profit.

The Bills were often traded on to other financial institutions so the Bank did not know who held them. Bills were collected from the Bank of England by messengers on the day specified by the financial institutions and could be cashed in by whoever was physically in possession of them. It was this prospect that led to John Goddard, a 58 year-old messenger with the money brokers Sheppards, being mugged at knifepoint in a quiet side street in the City on 2 May 1990. The robber got away with 301 Treasury Bills and certificates of deposit, worth a total of £292 million. It remains Britain’s biggest robbery, far exceeding the £53 million taken in the UK’s largest cash heist at a Securitas depot in Kent in 2006.

The City of London Police and the FBI infiltrated the gang involved in laundering the Bills and eventually recovered all but two of them. One man was jailed for his part in the crime but Patrick Thomas, the petty criminal from south London who was believed to have carried out the mugging, was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head before he could be charged. What was extraordinary was that Britain’s biggest and the world’s second largest robbery was carried out by a low-level thief brandishing a knife in a London back street. Only the $1 billion theft from the Central Bank of Iraq by one of Saddam Hussein’s sons in 2003 has topped it.

Today the system run by the Debt Management Office, an Executive Agency of the Treasury, is still in place but is computerised and no longer physically prints Treasury Bills. The last Bills were produced in September 2003