Thursday, 13 February 2020

The old coinage 3

Let's finish off with the 'silver' coins. Actually, a hundred and twenty years ago, at the start of the 20th century, these coins did contain real silver. But it was progressively replaced with alloys that wore better, cost less to mint, and avoided the scenario where the value of the real silver in the coin exceeded its nominal value. You couldn't have a shilling worth twice that, if illegally melted down.

First, the sixpence, otherwise known as a 'tanner'. It was written as '6d'. Or when combined with shillings, as 'X/6'. where X could be any number of shillings up to 19 and even beyond. So 'eighteen shillings and sixpence' or 'eighteen and six' would be written '18/6'. Come to that, the same writing-method applied to other numbers of pennies. So 'nineteen shillings and elevenpence-halfpenny' would be '19/11½' - that's slightly more than £0.99 in decimal money.

I had a fair collection of sixpences.

The sixpence was a very popular coin. It was silvery, small, and easily put by in a big jar if you were saving up for Christmas or whatever. I imagine nearly every household popped sixpences into tins and jars, for a rainy day. It was handy for spending too. Many things cost 6d. It was the standard amount for a child's weekly pocket-money for many a long year. In the 1950s, visiting uncles and aunts would often give me 6d. Now that's a custom that's died out, giving children small amounts of money if you make a family visit! Or at least, I haven't come across it for a long time, and I never did it myself. I sometimes saved all these gifts, but more often I'd spend any cash I got at the Barry Island funfair. Not on the rides; they cost too much. On sideshows, such as throwing hoops. Or on candy floss.

The sixpence originally resembled a small shilling (next up), but in the 1920s an acorn design was introduced that lasted into the 1930s: 

Then for some reason this was abandoned in favour of the King's official initials:

Thankfully, a plant theme (the English rose, the Welsh leek, the Irish shamrock, and the Scottish thistle) reappeared for Queen Elizabeth's reign:

I ought to really like the sixpence, but I was never a fan. Perhaps it was just too popular as a coin. If you liked what the crowd liked, it was the coin for you. I instinctively discarded what the crowd liked best. I still do. But really I think that it must have had an association with something I hated, or was afraid of, though long forgotten. Perhaps something in a film. I hope that I never end up on a psychiatrist's couch, being urged to 'explore' why I have this strange aversion to sixpences! I don't want to remember. It might be something awful.

So to the shilling., also called a 'bob'. It was written as '1s' or '1/-'. Twelve pennies made one shilling, and there were twenty shillings to the pound. I amassed a good collection of shillings.

My earliest shillings still had a little silver in them. Such coins tended to wear badly, which is why I never got hold of any very old ones. Here are examples from 1920 and 1933:

Something that is not generally known is that from the later 1930s there were two kinds of shilling in circulation: one with an English design (originally showing a crown surmounted by a leopard, but later leopards on a shield), and one with a Scottish design (originally showing a lion with swords, but later a lion rampant on a shield). It was a nod to the monarch's Scottish connections. Here are examples of both kinds, and both designs.

The shilling was of course an important coin, and I liked it, mainly because it had a handy amount of value, and was very useful for many smallish purchases. But I thought the designs uninspiring.

Next, the 'two shillings' or florin. It was also called 'two bob'. It was written as '2s' or '2/-'. I haven't quite so many of those, partly because the florin had significant value and I couldn't afford to put too many aside.

I always thought it was an odd coin, as it didn't seem to fit into the old coinage scheme very well. It seemed like a precursor to decimalisation, as there were ten of them in the pound, and in fact it became the new 10p. That didn't endear the coin to me. I find it more natural to count in threes and fours, not fives and tens.

The first design I have is based on the national emblems of England, Scotland and Ireland - poor Wales didn't get its own emblem - in a saltire formation, with maces in between.

This was replaced by a design showing a large English rose, with an Irish shamrock and a Scottish thistle on either side. Poor Wales still didn't feature.

Those three florins above are all wartime coins, and once again are in almost pristine condition. As noted with my immaculate 1943 threepence, it is surely likely that these coins spent the war in a jar, as part of a nest egg for eventual victory celebrations, or to kit out the returning family hero with a new suit for his post-war job. I believe a man could buy a cheap made-to-measure suit for 50/- then. That would be only twenty-five of these florins. In our modern money, £2.50. I have no idea what men pay for a cheap suit in 2020 - I'm guessing at least £100, or forty times as much.

Once Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, the design changed yet again. An even bigger English rose, with little thistles, leeks and shamrocks dancing around it - yes, leeks! At last, Wales was recognised!

Now for the larger 'silver' coins. We've come to my favourite silver coin, the half crown. Also referred to as 'two and six' and written as '2/6'. It had no decimal equivalent - there was never a 12½p coin. These were eight half-crowns in the pound, and they had real value. A lot of things could be bought for a half-crown. Two of them might cover a small box of groceries to last the week. I could only afford to collect only a few, just seven. (The three coins on the bottom row are crowns)

Why did I like the half-crown? I suppose it was its substantial feel - it was a large coin - and its strong heraldic design. It was definitely a coin worth collecting.

It was the largest British coin in general circulation. It showed the Royal coat-of-arms, surmounted by a crown; or, on the older coins, with two small crowns on either side. Being a big coin, the detail was large and deep too, and it wore well. If you carried a couple of these, you'd have your taxi fare home. I understand that the half-crown was the usual coin given at the conclusion of church services, and that after decimalisation, when the largest coin now became the florin (or the new 10p coin), the Church of England found its income had shrunk a bit.

There was a larger coin still, the crown, but it was never seen in one's change. It was the five-shilling piece. There were four in each pound. Although legal tender, crowns were too large and heavy to be convenient. They were minted for important national occasions. I have a few. This 1951 Festival of Britain crown is my favourite. It was in fact bought and put by for my arrival as a baby in 1952. So I've had it all my life.

It's a very handsome coin, thick and heavy. You can see how big crowns were: that's my adult left hand. It showed a mounted St George slaying a dragon

The old King died, and his daughter, our present Queen, came to the throne. I was a lucky child. I could have another gift - the 1953 Coronation crown:

A design reminiscent of the older florin, though with a little Welsh leek this time, and on the other side the Queen mounted. 

I have three later crowns, the 1965 Winston Churchill crown, the 1977 Queen's Silver Jubilee crown, and the 1981 Diana and Charles crown

But I'd already lost interest in coins by the mid-1970s, and just filed these away with hardly a glance. 

There were no larger coins in the old currency. Above the 2/6 coin, the half-crown, there were in practice only banknotes. The smallest of these was the brown ten shilling note, or 'ten bob note', written as '10/-'. I have one nice example. It must be from 1969, when the ten bob note was withdrawn and the new 50p coin substituted.

And that's all the old coinage covered, at least whatever could be collected from 1966 to 1971.

The green pound note itself continued into the decimal era unchanged. I have three much-used examples:

The old paper banknotes did not stay crisp and unfolded for long. They soon looked the worse for wear, and might get marked by pen, or stained, or torn, before taken out of circulation by the banks. Our modern plastic banknotes are much more likely to last a long time without major deterioration.

That pre-decimalisation pound lasted until 1978, when a smaller but more colourful pound note took its place. I have three crinkled and dog-eared examples:

Then in 2017 it was deemed time to downgrade the pound to a coin - although it was a sophisticated two-metal affair with anti-fraud surfaces, about the size of the old threepenny bit :

This time the design was dominated by the Welsh leek and Scottish thistle, with a smaller English rose and Irish shamrock on either side. Seems fair to me. 

The pound coin is still with us. It's the best of a pretty poor decimal bunch. There's a similar, but larger, two-pound coin too. It's a bit too big, in my view.

I really can't work up any enthusiasm for any of these modern coins. To be truthful, I regard the bronze 1p and 2p coins, and even the 'silver' 5p and 10p coins, as next to worthless - in effect, junk coins. The next coin up, the 'silver' 20p, just about justifies its existence for buying the occasional car park ticket, when I can't pay by phone or credit card. The 'silver' 50p coin retains some value, but it's too big for what it's worth, and I try to get rid of any that come my way. The one pound and two pound coins are the only ones worth carrying in my purse.  

Can I tell you what the designs are on any of the latest decimal coins? No, I can't. Because I don't care. I don't love any of them, and never will, because these are the tokens that usurped the historic old coinage of my childhood. 

Of course - to be more reasonable - I will agree that none of the old coins, not even the half-crown, would now have any value worth speaking about, such has been the effect of inflation. And if decimalisation had not come, I'd have witnessed the gradual death, one by one, of all of them. That could have been distressing. Perhaps it's better that they were replaced by a brand new system, in a well-organised fashion, and have since become half-forgotten museum pieces.

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