Oh! You Pretty Things: Exploring the Brixton Pound, London’s oddest currency

by MARINA LEIVA

Using pound notes with David Bowie’s face on them is not a space oddity in Brixton.

Jonny Rushton, 32, from the Three Eight Four bar, embraces the Brixton Pound (B£), an eight-year-old alternative currency that is interchangeable with traditional sterling. He’s even gone as far as incorporating it into one of his signature cocktails.

“With the Brixton Pound, we feel as though we can give a little something back to the community,” he said. “We give away one note on each of our Ziggy Stardust cocktails, and, in turn, our guests are donating funds to the local community just by purchasing one of our cocktails.”

Since its launch in 2009, the Brixton Pound has grown to a circulation of B£150,000. It amounts to around B£100,000 in print notes and B£50,000 through a pay-by-text system, according to Tom Shakhli, the Brixton Pound general manager.

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The currency was created by members of the community to be used exclusively in Brixton. This means that more money stays within the area instead of being spent elsewhere, and supports local business owners.

Currencies such as the Brixton Pound have the status of “vouchers”, according to the Bank of England, and in the case of the Brixton Pound, the exchange rate is one-to-one.

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The scheme not only supports local life by issuing alternative notes, but also works to strengthen a sense of community. Each purchase made by pay-by-text or the B£ app goes straight to the Brixton Fund along with Brixton businesses’ donations. This includes revenue from the pay-what-you-feel Brixton Pound Café and proceeds from the Brixton Bonus lottery.

“We are hoping to grow our Brixton Fund over the next few years so that we can award more grants to small organisations who want to do locally beneficial work,” said Shakhli.

“We’d also like to see how we can work with the larger businesses in Brixton and find ways to bind them more into the local community.”

 

Along with Bowie (B£10), the notes feature other local figures such as basketball player Luol Deng (B£5), and educationalist and historian Len Garrison (B£1).

The colourful designs are the work of Brixton artists, displaying symbolic landmarks and graffiti. This attracts tourists and art lovers alike.

However, not everything is perfect. Some business owners are considering ditching the currency because they do not know what to do with the notes when they get them.

“We don’t know whether one day this will be over and we’ll be left with Monopoly money,” said one local business owner who did not wish to be identified.

Another business owner said he normally saves the Brixton Pounds to spend on a meal with his colleagues at a local restaurant. Their last gathering did not go as planned when the restaurant that was previously part of the scheme, was reluctant to take the local currency as payment. They eventually accepted it, but it left the owner and his colleagues feeling frustrated.

According to the Brixton Pound website, the currency can be exchanged into Sterling at any time.

“We’d also like to see how we can work with the larger businesses in Brixton and find ways to bind them more into the local community.”

One of the places where it can be exchanged is at Cheques for Cash off Brixton’s Atlantic Road.

Shakhli said the confusion is often due to a lack of awareness about the currency. The Brixton Pound organisers do not have the resources for extensive publicity campaigns, but are certain that local businesses are aware of the initiative and where to find them. 

“The problem is that local currencies are often run by groups with a minimal budget, usually volunteers, and it can be difficult to produce all of the marketing materials and go and talk with everyone and explain the benefits,” he said. “They rely on goodwill and people taking a chance and trying them out.” 

Without validation from official bodies, local projects like the Brixton Pound won’t succeed, Shakhli said.

“We also obtained the support of Lambeth Council, which gave the project more credibility,” he added. “Finally, we made sure that the notes were secure and looked great, which in turn inspired trust.” 

All of the notes contain a number of security features, including watermarked paper, customised holograms and embossed numbering.

“Lambeth Council backs the Brixton Pound,” said head of communications, Lawrence Conway.

Local currencies are growing in popularity. A number of other communities have started similar initiatives, including the Exeter Pound that launched in 2015.

All photos by Marina Leiva.