A Siege of Mafeking one-pound banknote that sold at Lacy Scott & Knight for £1600.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The resistance of the town of Mafeking, an overnight stop on the vital rail link between the Cape Colony and mineral-rich Bechuanaland, has gone into legend as a great game of bluff, with the burying of fake landmines, erecting of non-existent barbed wire fences and moving of the small number of cannon around each night.

But equally important for the Commander of the Rhodesian forces was the continuation of daily life for the white English community of 1200 men, women and children as well as the 1250 armed men at his disposal. Under Baden-Powell's command, the besieged population of Mafeking published a morale-boosting newspaper, made stamps for the town mail and - as normal commerce broke down - issued their own banknotes.

Siege notes are among the most tangible survivors of the Mafeking ordeal.

They were printed on ordinary writing paper in five denominations of one, two, three and ten shillings and one pound from January to March 1900 in an underground shelter. The town auctioneer Edward Ross, who penned one of the many accounts of the siege, aided in the process. He noted: "I had a little signboard made, Mafeking Mint. No Admission."

Lacy Scott & Knight offered a dozen numbered Mafeking Siege notes in near-mint condition for sale in Bury St Edmunds on December 13. The vendor had acquired them in a house clearance in Bury in the 1970s.

The simple one-, two- and three-shilling notes took the form of vouchers to be used in the canteens for a daily ration of hard-baked oat bread and horse meat. These lower-value notes carry a facsimile signature for the Army Paymaster, Captain H. Greener.

For obvious reasons these notes are the most commonly encountered, although the three-shilling note survives in lesser numbers. While a one-shilling note dated February 1900, No.B6382 provided the lowest bid at £260, a three-shilling banknote, dated January 1900 and numbered A3628, commanded £1000.

In his memoirs, Baden-Powell recalled his personal input in the design of the ten-shilling and one-pound siege notes:
"The design for the one-pound note I drew on a boxwood block, made from a croquet mallet cut in half, and this I handed to a Mr Riesle, who had done wood engraving. But the result [two rudimentary images of soldiers with cannon] was not satisfactory from the artistic point of view, so we used that as a ten-shilling note and I drew another design which was photographed for the pound note."

Several examples of both higher denomination notes were seen at LS&K. Early issues of the ten-shilling note include a typographical error: Issued by authority of Col R.S.S. Baden-Powell, Comman[d]ing Frontier Forces.

Examples sold here for up to £750 each: a later issue, No.6354, with the error corrected, sold at £350.

The blue one-pound siege note, complete with Baden-Powell's competent sketch of Rhodesian troops under the Union flag, was signed in ink by Robert Bradshaw Clarke Urry, the manager of the Mafeking branch of the Standard Bank of South Africa, and by Paymaster Greener who gave each issue of notes authority by depositing a cheque of an equivalent amount into the Standard Bank. The examples here, all in superb condition, sold for up to £1600.

In total, more than £5228 in notes and coupons was issued during the siege. However, little more than £638 worth of coupons were ever redeemed. The rest were kept as souvenirs or lost, and redemption of the notes ceased in September 1908.

Mr Ross was a prophetic fellow. "This note business is going to be a good thing for the Government as I am sure they will be worth much more than face value as curios after the siege, and people are collecting as many as they can get hold of now, to make money afterwards," he wrote at the time.

The degree of his prescience can be judged from the fact that the face value of the 16 notes sold last month was £6 14s. The total for the 16 lots was £12,500, some 1865 times the original sum.

By Roland Arkell