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History of the British penny (1901–1970)

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History of the British penny (1901–1970)

The penny of King Edward VII (1901–1910) is of the same technical standards as the late Victorian issues. The head on the obverse is by George William de Saulles (1862–1903), facing right, with the inscription . The reverse shows the seated Britannia surrounded by and over the date, which remained the standard design until 1970, although there is a variety of some 1902 pennies known as the low tide penny, where the sea appears exceptionally low on Britannia's leg. Pennies were produced for all years of Edward VII's reign.


King George V (1910–1936) pennies were produced to the same standard until 1922, but after a three-year gap in production the alloy composition was changed in 1925 to 95.5% copper, 3% tin, and 1.5% zinc, although the weight remained at 13 ounce (9.4 g) and the diameter 31 millimetres. The inscription around the three variations of the left-facing king's head remained GEORGIVS V DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX FID DEF IND IMP, while Britannia remained on the reverse, as before. In addition to the Royal Mint in the Tower of London, in 1912, 1918 and 1919 some coins were produced at the Heaton Mint in Birmingham, and are identified by an "H" to the left of the date, and in 1918 and 1919 some were also produced at the Kings Norton Metal Co. Ltd, also in Birmingham, and are identified by "KN" to the left of the date. Pennies were produced in 1911–1922 inclusive, and 1926–1936 inclusive bearing George V's effigy, however the 1933 penny is the greatest British numismatic rarity of the 20th century – only seven coins were minted, specifically for the king to lay under the foundation stones of new buildings; one of these coins was stolen when a church in Leeds was demolished in the 1960s, and its whereabouts is currently unknown.

History of the 1933 penny

There was no requirement for the Mint to produce any pennies in 1933 because there were already enough in circulation. Requests were received, however, for sets of coins dated 1933 to be placed under the foundation stones of buildings erected in that year, and the Mint obliged by striking a small number of coins. The result was to create a rarity that many people thought could turn up in their change. This became particularly apparent during the run up to the UK's decimalisation on 15 February 1971.

The precise number struck was not recorded at the time but it is now thought to be certainly fewer than ten and probably seven.

Surviving examples

The surviving 1933 pennies are to be found in the Royal Mint Museum, the British Museum, the University of London, three in private collections and one which was stolen – see list below.

It has been reported that one example had been placed under the foundation stone of St. Mary’s Church, Hawksworth Wood, Kirkstall, Leeds, England. Three documented examples had been placed in foundation stones of buildings erected in 1933. In September 1970, during construction at Church of St. Cross, Middleton, one of these examples was stolen by thieves who managed to remove the coin from the church's cornerstone. In response, John Moorman, Bishop of Ripon, ordered that the St Mary's Church 1933 Penny be unearthed and sold as a protective measure to prevent its theft. It was sold at Sotheby's Auction house on 24 November 1972.

The seven known examples of the 1933 penny are located in:

  1. British Museum (a 'circulation' penny)
  2. Royal Mint Museum at Llantrisant in South Wales (a 'circulation' penny)
  3. Under the foundation stone of the University of London Building in Bloomsbury, London (a 'proof' penny)
  4. One held in private hands (ex L A Lawrence, P G Smith and Mrs E M Norweb) (a 'circulation' penny)
  5. One held in private hands in the UK (ex Glendinings 1969 and in private collections ever since – a 'circulation' penny)
  6. One held in private hands (ex St. Mary's Church, Hawksworth Wood, Kirkstall, Leeds, ex Sotheby's 1972; in private hands ever since – a 'proof' penny)
  7. Whereabouts unknown, previously under the foundation stone of the Church of St Cross, Middleton – part of a 1933-year set which was stolen in August 1970 (a 'proof' penny)

Of even greater rarity, there is also a 1933 pattern penny engraved for the Royal Mint by Andre Lavillier; only four are known to exist.

Later issues

A penny of King Edward VIII (1936) does exist, dated 1937, but technically it is a pattern coin i.e. one produced for official approval which it would probably have been due to receive about the time that the King abdicated. The obverse shows a left-facing portrait of the king (who considered this to be his best side, and consequently broke the tradition of alternating the direction in which the monarch faces on coins — some viewed this as indicating bad luck for the reign); the inscription on the obverse is EDWARDVS VIII D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP.

King George VI's pennies (1937–1952) also have a left-facing bust of the king, with the inscription (to 1948) GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP, and (from 1949) GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX FIDEI DEF. Pennies were produced dated 1937–1940, and 1944–1952, although when necessary pennies were produced for the colonies in 1941–43 using the 1940 dies; the 1950 and 1951 circulation pennies were only produced for the colonies as none were needed in Britain — when collecting pennies by year became fashionable in the early 1960s it was discovered that virtually the entire 1951 production of 120,000 coins had been sent to Bermuda and considerable effort was made to buy as many specimens as possible and many wild claims were made about their investment value (currently about £30 in uncirculated grade). The worldwide shortage of tin during the Second World War caused a change in the alloy in 1944–45 to 97% copper, 0.5% tin, 2.5% zinc, but this bronze tarnishes unattractively, and the original 95.5% Cu, 3% Sn, 1.5% Zn alloy was restored later in 1945. One 1952 penny believed to be unique was struck by the Royal Mint.

The series of pennies concludes with the pre-decimalisation issues for Queen Elizabeth II. Because of the large number of pennies in circulation there was no real reason to produce any more in the 1950s, however a large number of specimen sets were issued in 1953 for the Coronation, with the obverse inscribed ELIZABETH II DEI GRA BRITT OMN REGINA F D around the right-facing bust of the Queen by Mary Gillick. In all subsequent mintings of the penny the inscription was ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA F D. At least one 1954 penny was struck, apparently for private internal purposes at the Royal Mint, but it was not until 1961 that there was a need for more pennies to be minted, and production continued each year until 1967, and after (as pennies continued to be minted with the date 1967 until 1970). The 97% copper, 0.5% tin, 2.5% zinc alloy was used again for the 1960s pennies. Finally, there was an issue of proof quality coins dated 1970 produced in the early to mid-1970s, to bid farewell to a denomination which had served the country well for 1200 years. Thereafter, with decimalisation the new penny carried a value of 1/100 of a pound.

Introduction of decimal currency temporarily inserted "new" between the number and "penny" or "pence": "five new pence", etc. Though short-lived, this addition served to regularize pronunciations. Right up to the time of decimalization, pronunciation was idiosyncratic. In standard English, an upward count in half-penny increments was pronounced as "a hayp'ny, a penny, a penny hayp'ny (or three hay'pence), tupp'nce, tupp'nce hayp'ny, thripp'nce" (or "thrupp'nce" or "threpp'nce"), and so forth. Used adjectivally, tupenny, tupenny-hay'penny, and threepenny were common. The pronunciations common today would have sounded very stilted.


History of the British penny (1901–1970) Wikipedia