What the coins you use tell you about what has gone before
Most of us do not even notice the coins that we use every day – they are a means to an end, and making sure you have the right change is more important than how the coins look. But as you stand there in the queue with loose change in your hand waiting to pay, looking at what is on each side of the coins and when the coin was minted can tell its own story.
Nowadays, due to our Queen’s long reign, in all the coins we use in the United Kingdom we only see her. This is because she was monarch when we decimalised the British currency, when all the old coins were literally swept away overnight, substituted by new coins and denominations for us to get used to. Decimalisation occurred in early 1971, but even coins this old are not seen nowadays – it is rare to see anything older than 1980.
The new coins were unusual in that the 50p and 20p are seven sided reuleaux curves which was an innovation at that time – nothing like this had been seen in British coins before. Then the only non-circular coin was the iconic twelve-sided threepenny bit. The rest were round and usually larger than the new coins.
The old pennies were far larger and quite satisfying to hold. Our bus fare to school was fourpence which meant that all the boys in the school playground had single pennies in their pockets. When we looked at them we saw all the monarchs since Queen Victoria. The coins be in various states from the impression being barely visible to some that had survived from the 1860’s in truly excellent condition, almost new.
It was thus natural to be familiar with the Kings and Queens of England from the 19th century onwards and their order, since dates were visible on the tail side of each coin. As each monarch had taken the throne, coins with their likeness had been minted, each successive one facing the opposite way to their predecessor. The exceptions were George V and George VI who faced the same way but who were still following the trend because of the abdication of Edward VIII who was only on the throne for six months in 1936. No pennies with his likeness ever came into circulation in the United Kingdom – at least we never saw any.
Some dates were much more common than others, and everybody knew that only six 1933 pennies were ever put into circulation, making them very valuable. Everybody checked their pennies every day in case they should be lucky enough to have a 1933 penny pass through their hands; needless to say, nobody ever was.
Coins occasionally went out of circulation but you would find one or two in loose change in drawers years after they had been withdrawn. Examples were the farthing, the old halfpenny with Britannia on the tail side rather than the fully rigged ship, and the crown.
Since decimalisation everything became far more uniform, though not static. The disappearance of the pound note to be replaced by the pound coin, a rather innovative (and heavy) design was a case in point. Later the two pound coin was introduced and the new halfpenny went out of circulation.
In 2008 all the coins underwent a redesign to a standard new pattern. The higher denominations (50p, £1 and £2) have had a much bigger variability of design on the tail side to mark various national events. This is the new way in which coins tell us of history in a way that did not happen with the old British currency. New designs of banknotes have come and gone and these too have had important national figures on them.
History through coins goes back a long way. The Bank of England museum (well worth visiting) is a rich source showing the development of the currency with intriguing coins such as double-florins and groats which have long since passed out of circulation. There are also remarkable historical displays of what banknotes looked like in the 1940’s (quite different from our current coloured paper money – more like black and white paper forms promising the bearer their value). The Germans forged large quantities well enough to take in the casual observer, planning to swamp England with this counterfeit currency as a way of undermining the British war effort.
On the other side of the English Channel coins were also telling their own story. During the German occupation new currency notes and coins were minted. Many of these coins bore the swastika to bring home how France was governed during the occupation. They are also interesting because they were made of iron rather than the normal metals and alloys due to shortages of these more valuable metals during the war.
In the past decade many national currencies were swept away with the introduction of the Euro. With the current problems in what is known as the Eurozone (those countries who collectively have replaced their own currencies with the Euro) it is a real possibility that some countries will be forced to leave and revert to their own individual currencies. If this happens the reversion will not simply be a re-introduction of old currency notes and coins. New designs will appear and through them the history of the Euro’s difficulties.
This process of coinage reflecting historical milestones in the currencies minted has been going on for at least two thousand years. If we think forward a hundred years, is it likely to continue? It should in the next few decades. But I wonder whether the electronic age will succeed in replacing cash altogether, so that in the later decades of that 100 years, there will be no coins and currency notes. If that happens, the historical interest will be that physical currency that passed through individual hands was used at all, rather than that currency reflecting the times in which it was minted.