Two Banknotes Featuring Ship Engravings

by Ronald Greene 2014

In the days before the Bank of Canada assumed control of all banknote issues in Canada the chartered banks issued their own notes. To the delight of the collector, there was a wide variety of designs in use, many of were extremely attractive. A good number of banknotes featured engravings, "vignettes" as they are called, of ships or of nautical themes. This article will discuss two related designs for banknotes of the Royal Bank of Canada, one issued, the other not. The two designs evoke some fascinating maritime history.

The Ocean Liner Note of 1912

In 1912 the American Bank Note Company [ABNCo] prepared a proof of a ten dollar note for the Royal Bank of Canada which had a central vignette of a four–stack (funnel) trans–Atlantic ocean liner. This did not become an issued note and was unknown to collectors prior to its appearance at one of the early 1990s sales when the archives of the American Bank Note Company was dispersed. One immediately asks, "Why would such a lovely note be dropped after all the work to prepare a proof?" It was to answer this question that we started looking closely at the note.

The coincidence that 1912 was the year of both the design of the note and the sinking of the Titanic first led to the thought that the vignette might have illustrated the Titanic. However, a look through several references at the library of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia quickly showed that the vessel depicted was not the Titanic. We then proceeded to make a systematic search for four–stackers and discovered that there were not many – just five German vessels, eight British vessels and one French vessel.

The Four–Stack Ocean Liners

In the early 1890s Germany decided to challenge the British dominance of the trans–Atlantic passenger trade. The first vessel with four funnels, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, was launched in 1897. This vessel not only became the largest vessel afloat, it captured the Blue Riband for speed in crossing the Atlantic, taking the Riband from the Cunard line. In the next decade the Germans launched four more four–stackers which were of great size for the day, fast and luxurious. These five vessels were:

  • Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (1897) 14,349 gross tons, 655 feet long 22 knots, 1,970 passengers (558 First class, 338 second class, and 1,074 steerage)
  • Deutschland (1900) 16,502 gross tons, 684 feet long 22 knots, 2,050 passengers (450 First, 300 Second, 300 Third, and 1,000 steerage)
  • Kronprinz Wilhelm (1901) 14,908 gross tons, 664 feet long 22 knots, 1,761 passengers (367 First, 340 Second, and 1,054 Steerage)
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II (1903) 19,361 gross tons, 707 feet long 23 knots, 1,888 passengers (775 First, 343 Second, and 770 Steerage)
  • Kronprinzessin Cecilie (1907) 19,360 gross tons, 707 feet long 23 knots, 1,970 passengers (558 First, 338 Second, and 1,074 Steerage)
  • [End Note #1]

If we look at the passenger capacity we notice that these vessels all made allowance for large numbers of steerage passengers, in order to capitalize on the immigrant trade. Except for Deutschland, the above five vessels were owned by the North German Lloyd Line. The Deutschland was owned by the Hamburg–America Line. She was also the only unsuccessful of the German vessels for she vibrated terribly until she was withdrawn, re–engined and renamed Victoria Luise. In her new form she was an all first class cruise vessel, a forerunner of today’s cruise vessels.

Through performance and publicity these vessels developed such a reputation that in the minds of the public four stacks came to mean speed, comfort, and size and therefore, safety. In 1905 the British Government became alarmed about their position in the maritime trade and approached the Cunard Line to build two vessels that would be larger and faster than the Germans. They also had to have four stacks to overcome the mystique of the German vessels. This pair of vessels emerged in 1907 as the Lusitania and the Mauretania, whose size and speed returned the honour of fastest and largest to Britain. Mauretania recovered the Blue Riband, and held it until 1929.

  • Lusitania 1907 31,550 gross tons, 787 feet long service speed 25 knots, 2,165 passengers (563 First, 464 Second, and 1,138 Third)
  • Mauretania 1907 31.938 gross tons, 790 feet 25 knots, 2,335 passengers (560 First, 475 Second, 1,300 Third)

Britain’s White Star Line (although owned at the time by Americans) decided to join the fray and planned for three even more massive vessels, although their plans did not call for such high speed. These three were the Gigantic, Titanic and Olympic. The Olympic was first off the ways and was followed by the Titanic. The Gigantic was renamed Britannic following the Titanic incident. The Olympic and Titanic even carried a dummy funnel in order to give them a four–stack profile.

  • Olympic 1911 45,324 gross tons, 882 feet long 21 knots, 2,764 passengers (1,054 First, 510 Second, and 1,200 Third)
  • Titanic 1912 46,329 gross tons, 882 feet long 21 knots, 2,603 passengers, (905 First, 564 Second, and 1,134 Third)
  • Britannic 1914-15 48,158 gross tons, 903 feet long 21 knots, 2,573 passengers, (790 First, 830 Second, and 953 Third)

Of these three only the Olympic had anything approaching a career. On her maiden voyage, in the late evening of April 14, 1912, in one of the best–known incidents in marine history, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. The Britannic, unfinished until the war was underway, was requisitioned for use as a hospital vessel. She either struck a mine or was hit by a torpedo in the Aegean Sea and sank on November 21, 1916.

The French, not willing to be outdone by their traditional rivals, the British and the Germans built one four–stacker, the France. She turned out to be a highly successful ship.

  • France 1912 23,666 gross tons, 713 feet long 24 knots, 2,026 passengers (534 First class, 442 Second, 250 Third and 800 Steerage)

Cunard built a third four–stacker, the Aquitania. This was the last four–stacker built for the trans–Atlantic service. She was not planned to be as fast as the line’s other two four–stackers, but she was known as a very beautifully decorated vessel.

  • Aquitania 1914 45,647 gross tons, 901 feet long 23 knots, 3,230 passengers (618 First, 614 Second, and 1,998 Third)

The only other four–stackers ever launched, were built for the South African trade. These were the Arundel Castle and the Windsor Castle of the Union–Castle Line. The building of the two Castle vessels was interrupted during the Great War and so it was not until the 1920s that they were launched.

  • Arundel Castle 1921 18,967 gross tons, 661 feet long 17 knots, 870 passengers (235 First, 360 Second, and 275 Third)
  • Windsor Castle 1922 as Arundel Castle

The Model and Approval Proof of the 1912 Ocean Liner Banknote


The Model and Approval Proof of the 1912 Ocean Liner Banknote (Photo from the Ronald Greene collection.)

A banknote model is the stage in the development of a banknote in which the elements of the design have been laid out in a format that may be offered to the client for approval. The model could be a drawing or a pasted up montage of bits and pieces of notes and vignettes. Later on, photographic models were used and today there are other means in use, such as computer-graphics. Once a model was approved by the bank officials together with any corrections or changes the next stage was engraving dies and the preparation of an approval proof. If that were accepted then the banknote would go into production. The model of the ocean liner note bore a completed vignette which would indicate that the vignette was engraved some time before. The model also carries a number of date stamps, dating from Feb. 12, 1912 to March 23, 1912, from the various ABNCo departments that had a hand in its production. It was approved for engraving on March 18, 1912. The approval proof also has a number of ABNCo date stamps, ranging from May 27, 1912 to June 17, 1912 but neither manuscript date nor initials to indicate final acceptance.

Studying the ocean liner vignette we should note that, in addition to the four stacks, the vignette shows three masts, one forward of the stacks and two astern. In the Maritime Museum of British Columbia library we looked for a match between the vessel depicted on the note and any of the fourteen possible vessels. Several of the vessels were not likely to be illustrated in the vignette, for instance, the two vessels built for the South African trade were not even being built by 1912 and had no connection to North America. Of the other twelve four–stackers, only the two German sister ships, the Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Kronprinzessin Cecilie had three masts. Furthermore, they are remarkably like the engraving, although not identical to it.


Post card mailed March 3, 1908 from New York to Miss Joanna Eckstein, San Francisco CA USA. (Photo from the Ronald Greene collection.)


Molson’s Bank $10 note of 1912. While that vignette is too small to clearly identify the ship, it is one of the German four–stackers as the funnels are grouped into two separated pairs. (Photo from the Ronald Greene collection.)

The vessels had very distinctive davits [the equipment that raised and lowered the lifeboats] and the engraving has the same unusual davits. However, some of the after superstructure is different between ship and engraving. A characteristic of the German ships was that they had their funnels arranged in two separated pairs, so that the spacing was greater between stacks two and three than between one and two or three and four. The funnels in the engraving appear to be more evenly spaced although there is a slightly greater gap between funnels two and three. There are several other small differences. But if we allow that some artistic license was taken, the engraving could easily have been based on either of these two ships.[Reference #2]

Incidentally the only other appearance of a four–stacker on a Canadian bank note of which we are aware is on the Molson’s Bank $10 note of 1912. While that vignette is too small to clearly identify the ship, it is one of the German four–stackers as the funnels are grouped into two separated pairs. That note is a product of Waterlow & Sons, of London, England.

What transpired to cause the Ocean Line design to be abandoned between the time of the acceptance on March 18, 1912, and the acceptance on December 19, 1912 of the adopted design? Incidentally only the front was changed, the note issued in 1913 used the proposed 1912 back showing the "Royal Arms". [End Note #3]

The files of the Royal Bank of Canada do not provide any answers. There are only two letters in the files of the archives department of the bank which relate to the 1912 notes and neither sheds any light on the question. Several letters and memos accompanied the lot containing the model and proof. These letters also contribute to the background but do not give us answers to the questions that we have asked.

Possible Reasons for the Rejection of the Ocean Liner Note

Before we attempt to address this point we must take a look at the political situation and more particularly the naval build-up which prevailed in the days immediately prior to the Great War. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s plans for expanding the German Imperial Navy had been formulated in the mid 1890s. [End Note #4] The British view of the German plans was that Britain was the only country that Germany could be planning against by building up their fleet. But it was not until Sir John Fisher became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1904 that the rigidity and inertia that had stalled the British Navy were overcome.

Today, the name Dreadnought has become synonymous with a powerful battleship. More particularly the battleship Dreadnought which was launched in 1906 revolutionized warship design and thus made obsolete, with a single launching, all existing capital ships, which became known as pre–Dreadnoughts. Perhaps the most important proponent of a new radical design, in a period of intensive conservatism, had been the Italian engineer, Vittorio Cuniberti, who foresaw and advocated the need for a new type of armoured ship, which would feature stronger armour protection, faster speeds and large guns of the same size, which would bring the advantage of a single size of ammunition. Two navies, the Japanese and the American had little to lose by the obsolescence of their relatively small fleets and proceeded to plan and build such vessels.

Laid down on Oct. 2, 1905 H.M.S. Dreadnought was completed in a remarkably short time. She was commissioned in Oct. 1906. Displacing 17,900 tons, with ten 12 inch guns, an 11 inch belt of armour, and a turbine driven speed of 21 knots she was the most powerful ship afloat.

Following the launching of the Dreadnought there was a race to build modern navies. Germany stepped up its building program and Britain responded. By 1909 there were already calls within the Dominions to buy battleships for the Royal Navy – New Zealand and Australia contributed a ship each and there were calls within Canada to do likewise, although Canada did not do so. Patriotism at the time meant support of Great Britain and the Empire. Nor was the race confined to Britain and Germany. By the end of 1912, a time when Germany was widely considered to be the most likely enemy for Britain in an anticipated war, there was a total of 47 all–big–gun battleships launched and another 63 more ships of the same type being built by Britain, Germany and a dozen other countries. The Appendix is a table given by Hough showing the activity at the time. [End Note #5]

In conclusion, admitting that we are in the realm of speculation, we believe that there two main factors contributing to the decision to reject the ocean liner proof. These were the impact of the Titanic catastrophe and patriotism. The former, in view of its status as the greatest peace-time marine tragedy in history needs little more said. The latter was a complex issue built up over more than a decade leading to the World War. It is quite probable that someone realized that the engraved vignette of the proposed liner note showed a German vessel and that as such it was not an acceptable vignette for a patriotic bank to use.

The "Bellerophon" Banknote of the Royal Bank of Canada

One of our favourite banknotes has long been the Royal Bank of Canada $10 note of 1913 with the battleship vignette. The note is not rare. However, it is the vignette which has attracted us.

Almost immediately after the success of Dreadnought a first generation of ships conforming to the Dreadnought design was laid down. The Temeraire class consisted of three vessels, Bellerophon, Temeraire and Superb. These three vessels had slightly better torpedo protection than did their forerunner and their tripod masts were a great improvement. However, within two years newer designs calling for all the guns to be on the centre line of the ship and increased gun size led to ships which surpassed the earlier Dreadnoughts including these three.


The vignette on this banknote is minutely and accurately detailed enabling us to state with certainty that the vessel pictured is of the Temeraire class, and even more specifically from the absence of the bands on the funnels the ship can be identified as the Bellerophon as both her sister ships had banded stacks. [End Note #6] (Photo from the Ronald Greene collection.)

Although the class of three was named after Temeraire [End Note #7] the Bellerophon was launched first, in July 1907. Temeraire followed in August and Superb in November. The vessels measured:

  • length overall x beam x maximum draught: 526‘ x 82‘ x 29‘
  • displacement: 17,900 tons (as per Jane’s), 18,600 tons (as per Hough)
  • armament: 10 x 12 inch guns, 16 x 4 inch guns, 2 submerged broadside torpedo, 1 stern torpedo tube
  • machinery: Parsons turbines developing 21,000 Horse Power, 4 screws (propellers), 18 Babcock & Wilcox boilers, coal burning
  • design speed: 20.75 knots.

All three vessels of the class were present at the Battle of Jutland, the major naval battle of the Great War, surviving that encounter. Due to further advances in the design of battleships the ships were clearly obsolete by the end of the Great War and Bellerophon was scrapped in 1921.

H.M.S. Bellerophon was the fourth vessel of the name to serve in the British Navy. To find the origin of the name we must delve into some Greek mythology. Bellerus was a man of Corinth who was killed by Hipponous. Subsequently, Hipponus was called, "Bellerophontes" meaning killer of Bellerus. This contracted down to "Bellerophon". Hipponous, now Bellerophon, was a son of Glaucus, and a grandson of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the founder of Corinth and noted by Homer as the craftiest of mortals. He was also said to have been the father of Odysseus, hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Sisyphus incurred the wrath of the Gods and was sentenced to push a huge stone up a slope, to have it eternally slip away from him just before he completes his task. But we digress from the main story. Following the killing of his countryman, Bellerus, Bellerophon went to Proetus, King of Tiryns. Proetus’ wife fell in love with Bellerophon, but he rejected her advances. Angered, she claimed that he had made love to her against her will and she demanded Proetus kill Bellerophon. Proetus was unwilling to do this to a guest so sent him to his father-in-law, Iobates, King of Lycia, requesting that Iobates kill Bellerophon. Iobates also hesitated to do such a deed to a guest, but instead ordered Bellerophon to slay the Chimaera, a sort of Greek suicide mission.

The Chimaera was a fire–breathing monster, with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. Bellerophon sought the advice of a seer and was told to catch the winged horse Pegasus. Athena came to Bellerophon’s assistance. She gave him a golden bridle which he slipped over Pegasus’s head while the latter was drinking at a spring. Riding Pegasus, Bellerophon was able to slay the Chimaera, so Iobates sent him off on another equally impossible mission, which Bellerophon and Pegasus successfully completed. Next Iobates sent Lycian warriors to ambush Bellerophon, but he defeated them with the aid of a flood sent by Poseidon. After this Iobates decided that Bellerophon was the son of a god and instead of further attempts to kill him gave Bellerphon his daughter in marriage and made him the heir to the Lycian kingdom. Unhappily, after a time, Bellerophon felt that he was the equal of the gods and flew on Pegasus to Olympus. Offended, Zeus caused Pegasus to rear and throw Bellerophon to earth where he suffered severe injury, becoming lame and blind. The gods then hounded him into becoming a miserable, solitary wanderer until he died.


Country Built Building
Argentina 1 2
Australia 1 -
Austria–Hungary 1 3
Brazil 2 1
Chile - 2
France - 7
Germany 13 10
Great Britain 19 12
Italy 1 5
Japan 1 5
New Zealand 1 -
Russia - 8
Spain - 3
Turkey - 1
United States 8 4
Total 47 63

End Notes:

  • End Note 1. All the ships’ specifications came from William H. Miller, Jr.’s book.
  • End Note 2. By comparison the note issued in 1913, featuring the battleship vignette, is so accurately detailed that the ship can be identified.
  • End Note 3. The model for the battleship note of 1913 is initialled and dated December 19, 1912 and December 24, 1912. The notations include the instructions to "engrave die and send roll to Ottawa." The engraved proof bears an approval date of May 15, 1913.
  • End Note 4. Robert K. Massie, "Dreadnought" Random House, New York, 1991.
  • End Note 5. Richard Hough, "Dreadnought, A History of the Modern Battleship" New York 1964, p. 78
  • End Note 6. Fred T. Jane, "Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1910" [in the Maritime Museum of British Columbia library]
  • End Note 7. Some more recent references refer to the Bellerophon class rather than the Temeraire class.


  • -Catherine B. Avery, Ed., The New Century Classical Handbook, Appleton–Century–Crofts, New York, 1962
  • -Babcock & Wilcox, Water–tube Marine Boilers, London and New York, 1914
  • -Nicholas T. Cairis, Passenger Liners of the World Since 1893, Bonanza Books, New York, 1979
  • -Richard Hough, Dreadnought, A History of the Modern Battleship, MacMillan, New York, 1964
  • -Fred T. Jane Jane’s Fighting Ships 1910, London
  • -William H. Miller, Jr. The First Great Ocean Liners in Photographs. 193 Views, 1897–1927, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1984
  • -G. Maass letter of December 9th, 1991, on behalf of the Archivist of the Royal Bank of Canada
  • -Robert K. Massie Dreadnought. Random House, New York 1991

The Author: Ronald Greene is a former Chairman of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia Foundation and President of the British Columbia Historical Federation. He has a long standing interest in British Columbia history and numismatic history. He is a native Victorian, and has degrees from the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria.

To quote from this article please cite:

Greene, Ronald (2014) Two Banknotes Featuring Ship Engravings. 2014.

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