A Shiny New Penny
By Wendy Hughes
I hope all our readers, throughout the world enjoyed the festive season and I hope you will all have a healthy and prosperous New Year.
I am old enough to remember one of the highlights of the New Year, deciding what to do the new shiny old penny that ‘Santa’ had kindly put in my socking. Did I save it or put it with my other Christmas money, or blow it all on a penny chew? Big decisions for a child to make, but with the demise of the large old penny back in September 1971 have you ever wondered about the story of penny?
The penny has a vast numismatic history that could not be fully explained in a short article, but it does bring to life all those kings and queens we hear so much about in English history.
The penny is the oldest coin we have and it is the only coin that has been struck in every reign, either in gold, silver, copper or bronze since AD765. Gold nobles, pounds, sovereigns, silver crowns, half-crowns and florins have come and gone, but out humble penny has remained.
It is claimed that it was first introduced into the country by Heaberht who was King of Kent when England was divided into several kingdoms. Other sources claim that it was Offa (757-796) the King of Mercia and conqueror of Kent who made the penny popular and continued to keep up its production. The pennies that Offa produced were of a very high standard both in terms of workmanship and design.
Soon the striking of pennies spread to other regions and the penny became the accepted unit of currency for the whole of England. During this time the penny was a silver coin and it varied in size from approximately that of the present day five pence to that of the pre-decimal sixpence. It was struck by hand and was a very thin coin, but by the time the kingdoms amalgamated in AD955, pennies were being struck in many mints throughout the country and the same of the mint town began to appear on the coins, usually in an abbreviated form. From AD973 to 1066 no less that 87 towns had their own mints.
In 1180 Henry II introduced the short cross penny. These were designed by Phillip Armey who was a goldsmith from Anjou in France. As the name implies these were so called because the reverse depicted a short limbed cross which extended only to the inner circle. This design was used throughout the reigns of Richard 1, John and Henry III until 1247 when the ‘long cross penny was introduced to prevent clipping of the silver from the edges of the coin. If one end of any of the arms of the cross were cut the coin ceased to be legal tender. This penny also had the added advantage of being easily divided into halves and quarters to make halfpennies and farthings, however this custom stopped when round coins of these dominations were introduced late in the 13th century when Edward I came to the throne.
Through the passage of time the penny diminished in size and weight until it became uneconomical to strike silver and it was George III who first introduced the copper penny in 1797. These huge penny and two penny pieces became known as cartwheels because of their size. And the raised rim around the edge. The Penny contained one ounce of copper and were manufactured by machinery by Matthew Bolton at the Soho Mint in Birmingham. Although the cartwheels were minted for two years they all showed the same date 1797.
The first example of a base metal penny seems to have been struck in 1601 and this showed Queen Elizabeth I with the words ‘The Pledge of’ on the obverse. The reverse showed the value in words surrounded by a crowned Tudor Rose. The coins proved to be very unpopular as they were so easy to forge and the profit from the one pound weight of copper was 10 shillings and sixpence (52p), 12 shillings (60p) worth of pledges being coined for one shilling and sixpence (7½p) worth of metal. On the Queen’s death in 1603 these copper coins were withdrawn from circulation.
The most famous penny was of course the ‘bun’ penny so called because it portrayed the young Queen Victoria with wreathed hair coiled in a bun at the back of the head. In 1860 the copper was superseded by bronze which became the base metal for coins and the penny struck won a smaller and lighter piece of metal weighing only one third of an ounce.
This was the last major development before the decimalisation in 1971 and the last dated old penny was 1967 and this was the last time in almost two hundred years that Britannia appeared on this denomination. The old penny was retained during the change over period and could be used together with the three pence in units of sixpence (2½p). As these coins had no direct equivalent in the new money it was withdrawn from circulation on September 1 1971, seven months after decimalisation.