Paper Money

Recovered bank notes from WWI offered in Noonans sale

This 1-rupee note that had been aboard the S.S. “Shirala” in 1918 sold for £8,000 ($10,190 U.S.).

Image courtesy of Noonans

The British India Steam Navigation Company steamer, S.S. Shirala set sail from London bound for Bombay (Mumbai) on June 29, 1918. In addition to 213 passengers and 100 or so crew members, the steamship was carrying, according to several sources, 5,000 tons of cargo consisting of small luxuries such as wine, marmalade, and mail for the British community in India, war material including armored cars, munitions, and binoculars, diamonds, ivory elephant tusks, and a consignment of recently printed 1-, 5-, and 10-rupee bank notes.

On July 2, the ship reached the English Channel. Lying in wait was U-boat Oberleutnant zur See Johannes Lohs and his submarine, UB57. At 5:12 p.m., Lohs fired a single torpedo into the Shirala’s port side. When water from the impact explosion ran onto the hot boilers in the engine room, a secondary explosion occurred, and Captain E. G. Murray Dickenson gave the order to abandon ship. Although all 200 passengers survived, eight crew members who were in the engine room at the time of the explosion perished.

Since the Shirala sank in shallow water, some of its cargo washed up on the southern English coast. Included were notes in all three denominations. The 5- and 10-rupee notes were unsigned, waiting to become legal tender once signatures were affixed by officials at the Indian Currency Office. The unsigned notes would never be signed. The 1-rupee notes, from the 1917 issue, were already legal tender. According to research by Rezwan Razack, published by Todywallah Auctions, the notes that washed ashore had serial number prefix letters A, K, L, M, and R. Since notes with these prefixes were already in circulation, all such pieces were withdrawn.

Most of the notes were recovered and subsequently destroyed by the authorities, who printed new ones to replace them. Research published by India Times reveals that The Pioneer Mail of Allahabad reported on Feb. 6, 1920, that various examples were presented at the Currency Office in Rangoon by local banks, some of them with forged signatures. Other notes, albeit a small number, were kept by their finders. It is most likely that the three auctioned by Noonans in London on May 29 were from such finds.

Two 10-rupee notes dated 25 May 1918 were expected to sell for £2,500 to £2,600 each. Each was described as superb quality original paper, one about Extremely Fine, the other Very Fine to Extremely Fine. Noonans’ Thomasina Smith speculated that their excellent paper quality was because they must have been in the middle of a tightly bound bundle, so did not contact sea water. Their hammer prices were £6,500 and £5,500 respectively, or about $8,280 and $7,000.

The 1-rupee note offered was called Extremely Fine and with superb original paper. Even in the finest condition, the price for this issue commonly stays below $1,000. Estimated at £200 at £260, it sold for £8,000 ($10,190 U.S.).

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