British coinage

From Academic Kids

This article concerns British coinage, the coinage of the United Kingdom.

For related topics see:


Current coinage

Missing image
Front and back of common coins in current circulation, £2, £1, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p and 1p

The British currency was decimalised on February 15, 1971. The basic unit of currency – the Pound (or Pound Sterling) – was unaffected. Before decimalisation there were 240 pennies in a pound, now there are 100. The new coins were marked with the wording "New Penny" (singular) or "New Pence" (plural) to distinguish them from the old. The word New was dropped after ten years. The symbol p was also adopted to distinguish the new pennies from the old, which used the symbol d.

The first pound coin was introduced in 1983 to replace the Bank of England £1 banknote which was discontinued in 1984 (although the Scottish banks continued producing them for some time afterwards. The last of them, the Royal Bank of Scotland £1 note, remained in production until 2003). A circulating bimetallic £2 coin was also introduced in 1998 (first minted in, and dated, 1997) – there had previously been commemorative £2 coins which did not normally circulate.

Every year, newly minted coins are checked for size, weight, and composition at a Trial of the Pyx. Essentially the same procedure has been used since the thirteenth century. Assaying is now done by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths on behalf of HM Treasury.

All current coins include the Latin inscription ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR in abbreviated form, meaning "Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith".

Coins and dates

A Quarter Penny coin, to be struck in aluminium, was proposed at the time decimalisation was being planned, but ended up never being minted.

Note that all Maundy coins (which originate in the pre-decimalisation era and have a different design from 'standard issue' coins) are legal tender in the UK, and so while the standard one and two penny coins originate in 1971, the oldest legal tender one and two penny coins date from 1822. Three and four pence coins are only available as Maundy Money, and a very limited number are produced each year.

Several of these coins have changed in size and design since first introduction.

Description of current British coinage
Denomination Diameter Thickness Weight Composition Edge
One penny
20.03 mm
1.65 mm
3.56 g
Copper-plated steel smooth
Two Pence
25.90 mm
1.85 mm
7.13 g
Copper-plated steel smooth
Five Pence
18.00 mm
1.70 mm
3.25 g
Cupro-nickel milled, wire or flat edge
Ten Pence
24.50 mm
1.85 mm
6.50 g
Cupro-nickel milled, wire or flat edge
Twenty Pence
21.40 mm
1.70 mm
5.00 g
Cupro-nickel smooth, seven-sided
Fifty Pence
27.30 mm
1.78 mm
8.00 g
Cupro-nickel smooth, seven-sided
One Pound
22.50 mm
3.15 mm
9.50 g
Nickel-brass milled with variable inscription
Two Pound
28.40 mm
2.50 mm
12.00 g
Inner: Cupro-nickel
Outer: Nickel-brass
milled with variable inscription

Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories

The Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories of the United Kingdom, although using the Pound, are responsible for their own economies, and thus mint their own coinage. These are in the same denominations as those of the UK, but with their own designs. Template:British Coins

Pre-decimal system

Pre-decimalisation, the Pound was divided into 240 pennies (or pence) rather than 100, though it was rarely expressed in this way. Rather it was expressed in terms of Pounds, Shillings and Pence, where:

  • £1 = 20 shillings.
  • 1 shilling = 12 pence.

Thus: £1 = 240 pence. The penny was further subdivided at various times, though these divisions vanished as inflation made them irrelevant:

  • 1 penny = 2 halfpennies and (earlier) 4 farthings (half-farthing, third-farthing, and quarter-farthing coins were actually minted in the late 1800s, but circulated only in certain British colonies and not in the UK itself).

Using the example of five shillings sixpence, the standard ways of writing shillings and pence are:

  • 5s6d
  • 5/6 (see below for the / mark)
  • 5/- for 5 shillings only, with the dash to stand for zero pennies.

This sum would be spoken as "five shillings and sixpence" or "five and six".

The symbol, £, for the pound is derived from the first letter of the Latin word for pound, the librum. This symbol is found in the Unicode table as (U+00A3), and differs from that allocated to the Turkish and former Italian unit, the lira, which derives from the same source word. That symbol is usually two-barred, and is found at (U+20A4) (although note that the British pound symbol is often written with two bars).

The old abbreviation for the penny, d, was derived from the Roman denarius, and the abbreviation for the shilling, s, from the Roman solidus. The shilling was also denoted by the slash symbol, also called a solidus for this reason. The English penny was derived from a silver coin which was in general circulation in Europe during the middle ages. The weight of this coin was originally 1/240th of a troy pound, a weight known as a pennyweight – around 1.555 grams.

The pre-decimalisation coins with exact decimal equivalent values continued in use after 1971 alongside the new coins, albeit with new names, (e.g., the shilling became the 5p coin). The others were withdrawn almost immediately but most of those that did have precise equivalents in the new system remained legal tender until they were replaced by smaller coins in the early 1990s. Pre-decimalisation shillings were used as 5ps, with many people calling the new 5p coin a shilling, since it remained 1/20 of a pound, but was now worth 5p instead of 12d. The pre-decimalisation sixpence was rated at 2½p but was demonetised in 1980.

A similar pre-decimal system operated in France, also based on the Roman currency, consisting of the livre (L) sol (s) and denier (d).


Some pre-decimalisation coins or denominations became commonly known by slang terms, perhaps the most well known being bob for a shilling, and quid for a pound. A silver threepence was a joey and the later cupro-nickel threepence was called a threepenny bit (pronounced thrup'ny bit), a sixpence was a tanner and a half crown was a half dollar. Quid remains as popular slang for one or more pounds to this day in Britain. Other popular slang terms for more than one pound include smackers and knicker.

Silver content

From the time of Charlemagne until the 12th century, the silver currency of England was made from the highest purity silver available. Unfortunately there were drawbacks to minting currency of Fine Silver, notably the level of wear it suffered, and the ease with which coins could be "clipped", or trimmed by those dealing in the currency.

In the 12th century a new standard for English coinage was established by Henry II, the Sterling Silver standard of metal – 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper used in coinage. This was a harder wearing alloy, yet it was still a rather high grade of silver. It went some way to discouraging the practice of "clipping", though this practice was further discouraged and largely eliminated with the introduction of the milled edge we see on coins today.

In 1920, the silver content of all British coins was reduced from 92.5% to 50%, with a portion of the remainder consisting of manganese, which caused the coins to tarnish to a very dark color after they had been in circulation for a significant period. Silver was eliminated altogether in 1948.

History of the penny

The penny was originally one 'pennyweight' of silver. A pennyweight is a unit of mass which is the same as 1.555 grams, or 1/240th of a troy pound. So, a penny was literally, as well as monetarily, 1/240th of a troy pound of sterling silver. The weight of this coin was instituted by Charlemagne, and the purity of 92.5% silver (sterling silver) was instituted by Henry II in 1158 with the "Tealby Penny" – a hammered coin. At this time the standard unit of currency in England was the penny.

The mediaeval penny would have been the equivalent of around 1s 6d in value in 1915. British government sources suggest that prices have risen over 61 fold since 1914, so a mediaeval sterling silver penny might be worth around £4.50 today, and a farthing (a quarter penny) would have the value of slightly more than today's pound.

For detailed information, see the series of articles starting from History of the English penny.

Historical coins

The old British system of money, which evolved from English mediaeval times, used a selection of coins known as guineas, pounds, Crowns, Half-Crowns, shillings, thruppence, pennies, halfpennies and farthings. Other currency units included a sovereign, a Half Sovereign, and the groat.

Denominations of pre-decimal coins and their years of production

Note that the value of some coins fluctuated at different times in their history, particularly in the reigns of James I and Charles I. The value of a Guinea fluctuated between 20 and 30 shillings before being fixed at 21 shillings in December 1717.
Note that these are denominations of British, or earlier English, coins – Scottish coins had different values.

Note: * = denomination issued for use in the colonies, usually in Ceylon, Malta, or the West Indies, but normally counted as part of the British coinage.

Note that the mediaeval florin, half florin, and quarter florin were gold coins intended to circulate in Europe as well as in England and were valued as much more than the Victorian and later florin and double florin. The mediaeval florins were withdrawn within a year because they contained insufficient gold for their face value and thus were unacceptable to merchants.

All British coins produced since 1662 have been milled, i.e., produced by machine; the first milled coins were produced during the reign of Elizabeth I and periodically during the reigns of James I and Charles I, but there was opposition to mechanisation from the moneyers who ensured that most coins continued to be produced by hammering.

In mediaeval times, the penny was a sterling silver coin. English silver pennies are a collectible, and are now quite rare.

See also

External links

pl:Pieniądze brytyjskie


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