Coins have strange stories to tell

FIFTY years ago, decimalisation radically changed the way that the British understood money.

And as people marked the anniversary, looking back over half a century to that day in February 1971 when we exchanged pounds, shillings and pence for our new decimal currency, it encouraged a lot of them to think a little more deeply about the coins in their pocket.

The timing could hardly have been more significant, given the impact of coronavirus on our lives. While some cafes and other outlets had already gone cashless before the pandemic, the practicalities of lockdown meant people turning away from cash transactions entirely, in favour of online shopping.

For many, that meant giving up hard cash altogether, touch-card payments providing a potentially more hygienic way of buying goods rather than having to handle grubby coins and notes.

But as older people recalled the mathematical challenge of going decimal and the archive footage flashed us back to the arguments of the 1970s, the anniversary prompted a nostalgic outpouring of memories that reflect the profound importance of coins as part of our social history – and perhaps even our identity as a country.

Humans have been trading and exchanging goods for tens of thousands of years, as anthropology professor Chapurukha Kusimba explains in an article for The Conversation – whether in the form of beads, precious stones or even live cattle.

The Mesopotamian shekel emerged some 5,000 years ago and, several centuries before the birth of Christ, coins were in widespread use in Asia Minor.

Expert numismatist Lawrence Chard takes up the story in a fascinating explanation of the use of coins by Celtic tribes and the impact of the Roman invasion. The Romans even struck a coin to celebrate their conquest of Britain, although it probably never circulated here.

Flash forward to 1971 and you might be left wondering how the UK ended up with a system as complicated as pounds, shillings and pence in the first place. Blame the Franks, it seems.

Our trade links with Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire encouraged the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to copy their system of currency, which consisted of 12 deniers (pennies) to the sou (shilling) and 240 deniers or 20 sous to the libra (pound).

Our pennies and pounds were based on the fact that 240 pennyweights weighed, at least in theory, a ‘tower pound’ of sterling silver. The English penny first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as a silver coin, and the silver penny remained the primary unit of coinage for some 500 years.

MEDIEVAL MEMENTO: an Edward I silver penny PICTURE: Lara Maiklem

Down on the Thames foreshore, London mudlark Lara Maiklem has uncovered numerous coins and tokens spanning the centuries – like an Edward I silver penny harking back 700 years to the days of that true medieval king, famous for his feats in hunting, falconry and jousting, and best known for crusades, military conquest and extravagant living.

Another silver penny popped up last year in a farmer’s field in Wallingford, this time issued by Henry of Anjou during a time of civil war in the 12th century.

That’s why instead of there being 100 pennies in the pound there were 240: because pre-decimal money was based on multiples of twelve, as the Royal Mint Museum explains in its story of decimalisation.

Oddly enough Dominic Sandbrook in the Mail Online seems to blame the French for the decimal system, in an article entitled The day Britain lost its soul: How decimalisation signalled the demise of a proudly independent nation.

It was, he says, a “profoundly symbolic moment, marking the end of a proud history of defiant insularity and the beginning of the creeping ­Europeanisation of ­Britain’s institutions”.

The pound sterling, half-crown, shilling and sixpence were all, he insists, symbols of a country set apart, proud of its island status – and on that grey, drizzly day 40 years ago we lost “a little bit of our national soul”.

Hmm. Maybe not. But there’s undoubtedly a recognition that coins link us to the politics, rulers and religions of the past, providing a snapshot of the triumphs and aspirations of ancient kings and insights into the social history of different societies.

The Queen once recalled how Winston Churchill described the Thames to her as the “silver thread which runs through the history of Britain”, and down on the river’s mudbanks, Lara Maiklem has discovered more than her fair share of mementoes of Her Majesty’s predecessors.

TIME MACHINE: a selection of coins and tokens found by the river PICTURE: Lara Maiklem

Some were big silver coins dating from the reign of Mary I (c1557) to George V (1925). Others were of Roman or foreign origin, originating from “all over the Empire and brought to our cold, wet little island by soldiers and traders”.

In a recent Behind the Spine podcast she said: “The foreshore is the closest thing to a time machine: it is like reaching back, physically, with your hand, through the past and touching history and it’s magical.”

So much for ancient history. But if we have long forgotten how much a sceat or groat was worth, what about those coins that filled our pockets half a century ago – the tanners and florins, half-crowns, bobs and thruppenny bits?

All coins since the 17th century have featured a profile of the current monarch’s head. But did you know the direction in which they face changes with each successive monarch?

So the Queen faces to the right and her father George VI to the left. And so on, all the way back to Charles II and Cromwell. Except for a tiny glitch in 1936….

As tradition dictated, Victoria faced left, Edward VII right, George V left…which successfully takes us from 1837 to 1936.

But in 2016 a rare Edward VIII gold sovereign went on display which showed how the monarch broke with tradition – by demanding his profile faced in the “wrong” direction.

THE FACE FITS: Edward VIII is depicted facing to the left PICTURE: Royal Mint

Edward thought his left side, showing the side parting in his hair, was better than his right, which featured a solid fringe, and insisted this was used – although because of his abdication, the coins featuring his image never went into public circulation.

The Royal Mint was due to start striking the coins on 1 January, 1937, but production was stopped when the King stood down after less than a year on the throne in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

When the Queen’s father Bertie – formally known as George VI – came to the throne in 1936, he was portrayed facing left, the same as his father, George V – as if Edward VIII’s coins had faced right, as they should have done according to tradition.

So what of those tanners, florins and other coins? For anyone old enough to remember pre-decimal currency, here’s a mathematical poser for you. (The answer can be found here.)

It’s 1960 and a man goes into a shop to buy a treasured old book, a collector’s item which the old-fashioned shopkeeper has priced at one guinea. The man puts down a ten-bob note and rakes in his pockets for loose change. He comes up with two half-crowns, a florin, a bob, a tanner, two thruppenny bits, 11 pennies, a ha’penny and two farthings. How much more does he need to buy the book?

Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem