British Coinage – The Minting, Composition And Characteristics

The History Of The British Pound
Chapter Four

Story Highlights:

This chapter looks in greater depth at the minting of coins with information about:

  • Manufacturing coins
  • What coins were made of
  • The clipping of coins
  • Britannia – The personification of the British Isles
  • The characteristics of Sterling coins

The profile of British coinage – Past and present

You probably take the coins in your purse or pocket for granted but have you ever given a thought to how they are minted, from which metals and why they feature certain pictures or inscriptions? In this chapter we’ll look at various aspects of sterling coins – both past and present.

First, we’ll describe the main changes in the manufacture of coins. After we’ll consider the metals which were/are used to mint coins. We’ll also explain what coin clipping was, how it was punished and what preventative measures were taken. Finally, we’ll list the most common characteristics of sterling coins. From the monarch’s head to the inscriptions, we’ll explain what is featured on our coins and why.

Manufacturing coins

The way coins were minted throughout history reflects changes in the development of technology. Let’s see how the process changed from being a craft to the use of computers.

Hand-hammering

Until the 17th century coins in Britain were made by hand by moneyers, who were recognised craftsmen. They had to serve a 7-year apprenticeship before they were able to join their guild and work as journeymen (salaried employees). Originally all coins were struck or hand-hammered between 2 dies and the finished coin was then shaped or engraved as necessary. Attempts were made during the 16th century to mechanise the minting of coins but these efforts had limited success since the moneyers protected their craft and their monopoly jealously.

Until the 17th century, coins in Britain were made by hand by moneyers

The 1660s – Mechanisation of minting coins

Although some coins had been made by machine in the 16th century, the minting of coins didn’t become mechanised until 1662. The process involved the use of a horse-powered rolling mill to make metal fillets, which were the size of the intended coin. The striking of the coins was done by the use of a screw press which was activated by workmen pulling on the weighted end so it fell with force upon the blank disc. They were able to strike a coin every 2 seconds but the work required brute strength rather than skill.

Minting coins in the industrial age

When the Royal Mint moved from its cramped premises in the Tower of London in 1810, its nearby site at Tower Hill was equipped with the latest technology – steam-powered machinery bought from Matthew Boulton. The massive presses, operated by 10-horsepower steam engines, were capable of producing an incredible 60 coins per minute. The major disadvantage of the machinery was that it was unbelievably loud. As a result, they were replaced by smaller presses in the 1880s and 20 years later, electricity took over from steam-power.

The Tower of London, where British coinage used to be minted until 1810

Preparing for decimalisation

In preparation for conversion to decimalisation, the Royal Mint moved from London (where it had existed for well over a thousand years) to Llantrisant in South Wales in 1968.

The process of producing coins has become much more sophisticated using the latest technology. A continuous moulding process produces an endless strip of metal which is then put in a blanking press to make the discs. A large-sized plaster model used to be reproduced in metal (an electrotype), which could be scanned by a rotating cutter to copy at coin size. (This process is now computerised using a digital probe). The striking of the coins is done by a hydraulically-controlled machine, which is capable of producing 25,000 coins per hour.

What were coins made from?

Silver coins

Although we’re used to seeing our coins made of cheaper metal-based materials nowadays, the original coinage of England was silver. From the 8th century to the 13th century, silver pennies were the main coins in circulation and often they were cut to give change. Cutting pure silver was much easier since it was more malleable. It wasn’t until the reign of Henry II that pure silver was replaced by sterling silver, which was 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper and had the main advantage that it was much more durable. There was continual concern about debasement of coinage since it destroyed people’s confidence in the currency.

In 1696 all hammered silver coinage was recalled and reformed with different denominations because of ‘clipping’. The plan to rescue the currency was almost destroyed by fraud and mismanagement but Sir Isaac Newton’s personal intervention as Warden of the Mint saved the day. In the next century, an increasing lack of silver meant that half-crowns and crowns weren’t produced after 1750s and the silver sixpence and shillings stopped production for a time in the 1780s. Increasingly the British crown had to look for alternative metals to replace silver coins or to look at ways to discourage the habit of clipping. Before continuing, let’s look at what clipping actually entailed.

Summary:

Coins used to be hand-hammered by moneyers until the mid-17th century when horse-powered machines were used.

Changes in technology meant that coin-minting used steam-power and electricity before the adoption of cutting-edge digital technology from the late 20th century.

Pure silver coins were replaced by sterling silver coins in the 12th century but the debasement of the coinage was always a major concern.

Both a lack of silver and ‘clipping’ affected the currency of Britain – both its value and coins.

What was the clipping of coins?

The clipping of coins was when criminals cut off (or clipped) the edge of both silver or gold coins. If the coins were large enough, a hole could be punched out of the centre and the coin hammered flat to conceal the missing piece. They could also take advantage of the habit of cutting coins in halves or quarters (to give change) by shaving off a small slice. A variation of clipping was ‘sweating’; coins would be shaken in a bag and the fine dust it produced would be collected. Sweating was always much harder to detect because it could have been caused by the natural daily wear and tear of handling coins. Once criminals had collected enough dust/pieces, they would be melted into bars and sold to goldsmiths.

A variation of clipping was ‘sweating’; coins would be shaken in a bag and the fine dust it produced would be collected.

Measures to prevent clipping

Clipping was treated as an extremely serious offence. The reason for this is that the coinage was seen as the symbol of the country’s prosperity so anything which undermined people’s confidence in it was treasonable. It was also believed that it had economic consequences leading to higher prices, social disorder and popular unrest. Being classed as treason, the punishment for clipping or any other debasement of coinage was death by hanging; this was intended to act as a deterrent.

Milling coins (with lines or rims) and including inscriptions around the edge of coins were both measures to deter clipping since any cuts would be immediately apparent. The most popular was the Latin phrase ‘Decus et Tutamen’. This literally means ‘a decoration and a safeguard’ – it referred to the role of the inscription (although could also be a gallant reference to the monarch as well). Newton is accredited with inventing both of these initiatives against clipping.

The gradual disappearance of silver coins

The Coinage Reform of 1816 set up a weight and value ratio of silver coins as well as specifying their physical sizes although they were increasingly replaced by coins of other less precious metals. In 1920, the silver standard was reduced from 92.5% to 50% and the last silver coins were the threepence-pieces (3d) made in 1944. The problem was that their scrap value was worth more than the face value of the coins. The only coins to be produced from silver nowadays are the Maundy coins.

Gold coins

Although the gold ‘noble’ was produced in 1344 (worth a third of a pound), gold wasn’t considered as suitable for coins as silver because of gold’s higher monetary value and the fact that many financial transactions at the time would be relatively small.

The first gold sovereign was produced during the reign of Henry VII (1489) but this was replaced by the production of the guinea coin in 1663. Originally worth 21 shillings, its value was allowed to rise according to the prices of gold as a precious metal so at one point it reached 30 shillings.

At the end of the 18th century, the Royal Mint was forced to use Spanish dollars as currency but added a counterstamp to make them into legal tender.

The lack of silver reached crisis point at the end of the 18th century so the Royal Mint was forced to use Spanish dollars as currency but added a counterstamp to make them into legal tender. Despite the occasional re-issue of sovereigns and half-sovereigns in 1817, gold wasn’t really used as currency again although it is still used to make commemorative coins.

Did you know that the “Pieces of Eight, pieces of Eight” which Long John Silver’s parrot, (Captain Flint), shouts in the adventure story ‘Treasure Island’ (by Robert Louis Stevenson) is actually the Spanish gold dollar, which was worth 8 reales?

Summary:

Clipping was the process by which coins made of precious metal were cut and the pieces melted down to sell to goldsmiths.

Clipping was treated as treason and so was punishable with execution but there were measures to discourage criminals.

Silver gradually disappeared as a material for coins as there was insufficient silver and its value was higher than the face value of the coins.

Gold was used for coins of higher value but most transactions were smaller so its use is now limited to commemorative coins.

Bronze, copper and base metal coins

Edinburgh castle was the birthplace of James I, who brought about changes in British coinage

James I (formerly James VI of Scotland) was one of the first monarchs to realise that there was a demand for coins of smaller denominations made of base metals. Tin and copper farthings (worth quarter of a penny) were minted for smaller financial transactions. At the end of the 18th century a copper penny and two-penny were added. In 1860 the copper was replaced by bronze in the farthing, half-penny and penny.

The price of precious metals means that modern coins are now made of base metals. Our so-called ‘silver’ coins (whether old shillings or 10-pence pieces) are now made of cupro-nickel or nickel-brass. Even the price of bronze made coins a target for anyone who wanted to melt them down for scrap. Therefore, it has been replaced by copper-plated steel and nickel-plated steel. These coins can be picked up by a magnet, which is a source of amusement for some people as they complain about how the pound sterling has lost its value. However, it could be argued that the value of the coins is no longer held in the value of the precious metals they contain but what they represent as part of a strong recognised currency.

Now that we’ve considered the past and present manufacture of coins and what metals have been used to mint them, it’s time to take a closer look at the coins themselves. What features do coins sterling share?

Characteristics of Sterling coins

The monarch’s head

Since ancient times, the ruler’s head has been shown prominently on the obverse side of coins. In the Middle Ages, English kings were shown facing front. The Tudors were the first to have the king’s head depicted in profile and it could change from left- to right-facing profiles within a single reign. However, from the Stuarts (early 17th century), the tradition developed that the monarch should be shown facing in one direction for the entire reign and that the following monarch should be shown facing in the opposite direction. George VI (1936-1952) was always shown facing to the left so now Queen Elizabeth II is always depicted as right-facing.

Queen Elizabeth’s profile for our  coins has changed 5 times

Did you know that as Queen Elizabeth is our longest-reigning monarch, her profile for our coins has been changed 5 times to allow for her changing appearance?

The monarch’s title

Since earliest times, coins have been inscribed with the title of the monarch, often in Latin. The silver pennies of King Offa of Mercia (757-796) were simply inscribed ‘OFFA REX’ (King Offa) while the title for Queen Elizabeth is given as ‘ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSATRIX’ (Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen & Defender of the Faith). You’ll probably notice that given the size of some of our coins, this inscription is often abbreviated.

When the florin was introduced in 1849 (the first decimal coin worth a 1/10th of a pound), the inscription simply read ‘Victoria Regina’ (without a mention of God) and it caused an outcry at the time. The coins were called ‘godless florins’ and clergymen denounced them in their sermons!

The monarch’s motto

Some monarchs would choose to include a personal or general motto on their coins, usually written in Latin or French, to show their intentions as a ruler. The best example is when James VI of Scotland became James I of both England and Scotland. He chose a biblical reference for his personal motto: FACIAM EOS IN GENTEM UNAM ( I shall make them into one nation).

Summary:

From the early 17th century, coins of smaller denominations were minted and they were made of less precious metals like copper and brass.

In the 20th century precious metals were replaced by cheaper alloys since the metals were worth more than the coins’ face value.

It has always been traditional to feature the monarch’s heads on coins but there have been changes to how they are portrayed on English coins.

British coins have also always included the title of the monarch and sometimes a motto to sum up their reign and/or personal philosophy.

The mint/moneyer and the date of the coinage

Until the Royal Mint took over the monopoly of the production of coins in the 16th century, there would have been mints in most market towns of any size in England. When dies were sent to the mints, it would include both the name of the mint and its moneyer. In this way, if coinage was found to be debased with base metals, the crown was able to find out who was responsible.

The date when the coin was minted is also included. Did you know that in 2009 the Royal Mint confused their casts and for the first time, coins were released into circulation without a date? Check your 20-pence coins as it’s estimated 50,000-200,000 undated coins remain in circulation.

The Royal Shield of Arm

The Royal Arms has been featured on UK coinage through every monarch’s reign since Edward III (1327-1377). Consisting of the lions of England, the lion ‘rampant’ of Scotland and the harp of Ireland, it is now found on the reverse of the £1 coin and in jigsaw style on the other coins if they are arranged in the correct order (the last redesign of coinage in 2008).

Britannia – The personification of the British Isles

A statue of Britannia, depicted on British coinage historically

Britannia has been a popular figure since the 1st century when she was depicted as a goddess and is a symbol of British unity, liberty and strength. Originally portrayed as a war-like figure with a helmet, spear and shield, she has undergone some changes over the years. To emphasise Britain’s maritime power, the spear was replaced by a trident and she was often portrayed in or near water with a lion at her feet (the symbol of England) and the shield decorated with a Union flag.

Britannia has always been of more significance when there is a female monarch or at times of war. She has been included on the pennies minted for every monarch since 1787 and used to be on the old 50-pence coin. Since their redesign in 2008, she has disappeared for the first time in over 300 years and this led to some complaints.

Did you know that she first appeared on the farthing (quarter of a penny) and half penny during the reign of Charles II in 1672 and she was supposedly modelled after the king’s mistress, the Duchess of Richmond?

Other pictorial depictions on Sterling coins

The choice of other decorations have reflected the times when the coins were minted. Christian symbols like the cross have always been popular although it’s interesting to note how this symbolism was subverted during the years of the ‘Danelaw’ (9th- 10th centuries). The cross would be accompanied by the raven of Odin or the hammer of Thor.

Floral or animal designs have often been used to represent the flora and fauna of the British Isles. Old coinage has also used the symbolism of a crowned rose (England) being accompanied by the thistle of Scotland or the shamrock of Ireland. Other coins have commemorated notable British achievements such as the Golden Hind (Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship) being featured on the pre-decimal penny.

Summary:

The name of the mint and moneyer used to be features on English coins and in modern times, the date is included.

The Royal Shield of Arms has been featured on all coinage since the 14th century.

Britannia has been a popular symbol on British coinage (continuously from 1787-2008), representing the British Isles especially as a maritime and/or military power.

Other designs – whether crosses, flora, fauna or man-made achievements – have been chosen for reasons of symbolism and are specific to the period when the coins were minted.


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