The History Of The British Pound
All you need to know about the coins and Bank of England banknotes currently in circulation can be found in this chapter under the headings:
- Lower denomination coins
- The (old) round £1 coin
- The new 12-sided £1 coin – Why the shape of the coin was changed, what will happen to the old coins
- The £2-pound coin – Commemorative coins
- The 2008 ‘jigsaw’ redesign of the coins (1p-£1)
- Obverse of the coins – The changing portrait of the Queen
- Current banknotes in circulation – £5 note, £10 note, £20 note, £50 note
The sterling coins currently in circulation
We use them every day to make purchases but have you ever really looked at the coins or banknotes in your pocket, purse or wallet? In this chapter we take a closer look at the coins and notes currently in general circulation; their composition, shape and size but also the symbolic pictures and designs which feature on the sterling currency. Let’s look at the individual units which make up our monetary system and be prepared to learn lessons about history (both modern and ancient), heraldry, Latin, German, Welsh, science, economics, counterfeiting and even geometry.
Let’s begin by considering each of the coins currently in use in the UK describing them in ascending order of their value. We’ll talk about their traditional designs (which are still legal tender) before describing the 2008 redesign.
Lower denomination coins
1-pence and 2-pence coins
Collectively known as ‘coppers’, the 1- and 2-pence coins are the only coins in your pocket to have remain unchanged in size since decimalisation in 1971. Both coins were made of bronze (97% copper, 2.5% zinc and 0.5% tin) until 1992 when the price of their scrap metal made their metal content more valuable than their face value. As a result, they began to be minted in copper-plated steel.
The original reverse design on the 1-pence coin is a crowned portcullis with chains; the symbol of the Palace of Westminster. The 2-pence coin shows the emblem of the Prince of Wales; a plume of ostrich feathers in a coronet with his motto written in small letters underneath ‘ICH DIEN’ (German for ‘I SERVE’).
5-pence and 10-pence coins
Made of cupro-nickel (75%, 25%), both these coins were introduced in 1968 before the official Decimal Day in order to familiarise the British public with the new coins. Originally the same size as the 1- and 2-shilling coins they were replacing, they were both reduced in size in 1990.
The original reverse design of the 5-pence coin shows a crowned thistle, which is the badge of Scotland while the 10-pence coin shows the crowned lion of England.
The 20-pence coin
Also made of cupro-nickel (84%, 16%), the 20-pence coin was first released into circulation in 1982. It is made in the shape of a Reuleaux heptagon. This geometrical shape is designed in such a way that the diameter is constant across any bisection.
The reverse design is the crowned Tudor rose dating back to the reign of Henry VII in 1485 when it was used symbolically to show the end of the Wars of the Roses and to represent the marriage between the king and Elizabeth of York.
The 50-pence coin
The design of the 50-pence coin as a Reuleaux heptagon came about because the coin was released in 1969 and there was concern that it would be confused with the pre-sterling circular half-crown (worth 2/6). Made of cupro-nickel (75%, 25%), the 50-pence was reduced in size in 1997.
The 50-pence coin traditionally features a picture of Britannia, who has been strongly identified with the British Isles since Roman times and is also the symbol of the Bank of England. On the coin, she’s depicted as seated next to a lion, is wearing a helmet, holding a trident and has placed her shield (decorated with the Union Flag) next to her. She’s also holding out an olive branch.
Since 1998, a number of commemorative coins have been issued to celebrate the anniversaries of key events in the history of Britain. These could be anything from the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service (1998) to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter (2016-17). Coin designers always choose a pictorial design to fit the nature of the event so the NHS commemorative coin shows a pair of hands over radiating lines and the Beatrix Potter one depicts beloved characters from her children’s tales such as Peter Rabbit.
The round one-pound coin
The one-pound coin was minted for the very first time in 1983 to replace the one-pound banknote. At the time there were a lot of complaints about how its weight as a coin made people’s purses and pockets heavier. The £1-coin is round with a bi-metallic composition – the outer ring is made of nickel brass (70% copper, 24.5% zinc and 0.5% nickel) while the inner ring is made of nickel-plated alloy.
Reverse designs on the round £1 coin
Since 1983 there have been 25 different formats on the back of these coins featuring the work of 9 different designers. All of the designs used have been deliberately selected to represent the 4 nations of the United Kingdom. The varying designs have been the emblems of the countries, flowers/trees, architectural sites or the coat of arms of the countries’ capitals. Let’s look at some of them.
Since 1983 there have been 25 different formats on the back of the round £1 coins featuring the work of 9 different designers.
England has been represented by the heraldic 3 lions passant guardant, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the oak tree/rose. Scotland has been represented by the heraldic lion rampant with the double tressure flory counter-flory (fleur-de-lys), the Forth Railway Bridge and the thistle/bluebell. The contribution of Wales has been depicted by featuring the heraldic dragon passant, the Menai Suspension Bridge and the leek/daffodil. Finally, Northern Ireland has been included by showing the Celtic Cross, the Broighter collar, the pimpernel; the Egyptian Arch Railway Bridge and the shamrock/flax plant.
Edge inscriptions on the £1 coin
Have you ever really paid attention to the edges of the coin? If you look very carefully, you’ll be able to see the ‘mint mark’ – it’s a small crosslet on the milled edge of the coin and represents the Royal Mint at Llantrisant.
As well as this small cross, there are inscriptions which match the design of the coin. The most commonly used is DECUS ET TUTAMEN. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, this Latin inscription means ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ and was originally added to coins so that it would be apparent if the coin had been clipped by the unscrupulous for the precious metal.
Did you know the Latin inscription is also the motto of the Worshipful Company of Feltmakers of London and apparently aptly describes the qualities of a good hat – both an ornament (or fashion statement) and a safeguard (protecting you against the weather)?
To represent all the 4 nations, other inscriptions have been taken from the Welsh National Anthem (PLEIDIOL WYF I’M GWLAD or ‘True I am to my country’) or from the motto of the Scottish Order of the Thistle (NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT meaning ‘No one attacks me with impunity’).
The series of coins which represented the coat of arms of the capitals includes the motto of each city on the edge of the coins:
- London: DOMINO DIRIGE NOS meaning ‘Lord Direct Us’.
- Edinburgh: NISI DOMINUS FRUSTRA meaning ‘It is vain without the Lord’.
- Cardiff: Y DDRAIG GOCH DDYRY CYCHWYN meaning ‘The Red Dragon shall lead’.
- Belfast: PRO TANTO QUID RETRIBUAMUS meaning ‘What shall we give in return for so much?’
The new one-pound coin
The reverse design
Released in March 2017, the new 12-sided pound coin is also of bi-metallic composition with an outer ring made of nickel brass (76% copper, 20% zinc and 4% nickel) and an inner ring of nickel-plated alloy. The new coin is thinner and lighter than the round version but has a slightly larger diameter.
The reverse design wasn’t done by one of the Mint’s designers but was the result of a public competition which took place in September 2014. The winner was a 15-year-old schoolboy from Walsall, David Pearce, whose design features a rose, leek, shamrock and thistle bound by a crown to represent the 4 nations united under one monarch.
Why change the shape of the pound coin?
The main reason for changing the shape of the round £1 to a 12-sided coin was for reasons of security. In research carried out by the Royal Mint in 2013 it was found that 3.04% of one-pound coins were counterfeit while in May 2015 the figure was 2.55% making the £1 one of the most insecure coins in circulation. Counterfeiters use methods like casting, stamping and electrotyping to produce their fake coins. Although many are of very poor quality with differences that are visible to the naked eye, they’re often passed on by unsuspecting shoppers. After all, how often do you check your coins when you’re given change in a shop?
The Mint has incorporated a number of safety measures to deter fraudsters from counterfeiting the new coins. These include micro-lettering in the inside rim of the coin saying ‘one pound’ or the date of the minting and a latent image like a hologram, which changes from ‘£’ to the number ‘1’ when the coin is held at different angles. The coins also have an undisclosed hidden security feature called ISIS (Integrated Secure Identification System) which allow the Mint to check the authenticity of pound coins.
What will happen to the round £1 coins?
The old round £1 coins will remain legal tender in shops and businesses until October 2017, when the 12-sided coins will replace them totally. After this date, old coins can be deposited at banks although each bank will have a different date until which they will accept them. In preparation for the switch, the Royal Mint produced 600 million 12-sided coins (of the 1.5 billion £1 coins needed) in 2016 so as to be ready to meet demand. According to research carried out by Mastercard in March 2017, there are round £1 coins worth an estimated £1.1 billion still unaccounted for. You should definitely go through your old bags/purses or empty piggy-banks so that your money doesn’t end up being worthless.
The two-pound coin
Like the £1 coin, the £2 coin is of bi-metallic composition with an outer ring made of nickel brass (76% copper, 20% zinc, 4% nickel) and an inner ring made of cupro-nickel (75% copper, 25% nickel).
Although they were due to be released in 1997, they were delayed until 1998 for undisclosed ‘technical reasons’. There has been much debate over the reasons – some people claim that coin-operated machines wouldn’t accept them whilst others put forward the theory that the two halves of the coin would separate if they were mistreated i.e. thrown against a wall. It sounds rather like the urban myth that claims the two halves separate if the coin is kept in a freezer overnight (they don’t!)
Reverse design of the two-pound coin (from 1997/8)
The original reverse of the £2 coin by Bruce Rushin shows a concentric design symbolically representing technological development from the Iron Age, through the Industrial Revolution to the Electronic Age of the Internet. The central picture of interlocking gears has been criticised since there are an odd number (19 in all), which means the mechanism wouldn’t be able to turn.
Round the edge of the coin, the inscription reads ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’. This has been taken from a letter written by Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke in which he said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The redesign of the £2 coin (from 2015)
Although the composition and size remained unchanged, in 2015 the reverse design on the £2 coin changed to show a picture of Britannia. Unlike the logo for the Bank of England (which shows her full-length and seated), this version shows her up to the waist, holding the shield decorated with the Union Flag and with her trident held over her shoulder.
In 2015 the reverse design on the 2 pound coin changed to show a picture of Britannia.
The inscription around the edge reads ‘QUATUOR MARIA VINDICO’, which means ‘I will claim the four seas’. This saying has always been associated with Britannia (who’s often portrayed in/near the sea) and is a reference to Britain’s long and important maritime history.
Commemorative £2 coins
Like the 50-pence coins, there have been a number of variants of the £2 coin to commemorate different dates and anniversaries of important British historical events or achievements. These have included the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot showing crossiers, maces and swords surrounded by stars and the dates and with the edge inscription ‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November’ and the 150th anniversary of London’s Underground showing the logo of the tube and with the inscription ‘Mind the Gap!’
The 2008 jigsaw redesign of coins
The 2008 redesign of all the coins was originally intended to include only coins under the value of £1 but at the last minute it was decided to include the pound coin as an integral part of the series. This was the first wholesale change to the coinage since decimalisation.
The Royal Mint announced the design competition in August 2005 and received 4,000 entries. The winner was Matthew Dent who suggested using the Royal Arms shared across the 6 coins in jigsaw-puzzle style and later, the £1 coin was chosen to picture the Royal Shield in its entirety.
The Royal Arms is the coat of arms for the UK including the lions of England (and Wales) in the 1st and 3rd quarters; the rampant lion of Scotland in the 2nd and the harp of Ireland in the 3rd.
Controversy over the new design
One of the reasons for the controversy was that the Welsh weren’t represented. This isn’t strictly true since for historical reasons, the lions have come to represent both England and Wales (the unification with the other nations occurring much later).
The other cause for complaint was the disappearance of Britannia from the sterling coinage. The Chairman of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee pointed out that she would remain on approximately 806 million 50-pence coins which weren’t being withdrawn from circulation. However, it might not come as a surprise that the design chosen for the £2 coin minted 7 years later meant the return of Britannia.
Obverse of the coins – Changing portraits of the Queen
Have you ever noticed that the Queen always faces right on our coins? This is a tradition dating back to the Stuarts and this means that when Prince Charles becomes King, he’ll be shown facing left.
Considering the longevity of the Queen’s reign, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that her portrait on the obverse of our coins also has to be updated. In fact, it has been changed 4 times since decimalisation. The following artists have been responsible for depicting the Queen:
- 1971-1984: Portrait by Arnold Machin of the Queen wearing the Girls of Great Britain Tiara
- 1985-1997: Portrait of the Queen wearing the George IV State Diadem designed by Raphael Maklouf
- 1998-2015: Portrait of the Queen wearing the Girls of Great Britain Tiara by Ian Rank-Broadley
- 2015+ : Portrait by Jody Clark
Depending on the space on the coins, the Queen’s title will also be given although this Latin inscription may be abbreviated. You might see Elizabeth II D.G. REG. or DEI GRATIA REGINA meaning ‘By the grace of God, Queen’ and F.D. or FIDEI DEFENSOR meaning ‘Defender of the Faith’.
Current banknotes in circulation
Now that we’ve considered all the coins you’re likely to find in your possession, let’s look at the banknotes and what they can tell us about our country.
The five-pound note
Introduced in 2016, the five-pound note featuring Winston Churchill is the first polymer banknote. The picture on the back of the note represents scenes from Churchill’s life. The view of Westminster represents his years as both a Liberal and Tory MP as well as his two terms as Prime Minister (1940-45, 1951-55). The hands on Big Ben show 3 o’clock which is the time when he made one of his most famous speeches to the House of Commons (13th May 1940); a quote from the speech is included on the note “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. There is also a background image from the citation given when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1953).
The ten-pound note
The £10-pound note features the naturalist Charles Darwin and he was selected because of the contribution he made to the natural sciences. Along with his portrait, there are pictures representing his life: the HMS Beagle (on which he travelled on a 5-year voyage around the world), a hummingbird and flowers seen under a magnifying glass. There were complaints about the inaccuracy of including hummingbirds since Darwin developed his Theory of Natural Selection from his observation of finches and mockingbirds.
The twenty-pound note
Adam Smith, who features on the £20-pound note, was chosen because of his contribution to economics. Along with his portrait, there’s a picture of a pin factory, which represents how division of labour can be beneficial in increasing output. To emphasise the point, there is a quotation from his book, ‘The Wealth of Nations’: “…and the great increase in the quantity of work that results.”
The fifty-pound note
The current £50-pound banknote is the first time that the honour of being on a note has been shared by 2 people. They are Matthew Boulton who was an industrialist and entrepreneur and James Watt, the scientist. They are shown together since in 1775 they went into partnership to develop and market steam engines. Along with their portraits, there’s a picture of the Whitbread Engine, produced in 1785 for the brewing company and a picture of the Soho Manufactury, outside Birmingham, which was a pioneer in mass production rather like a modern-day assembly line.