History of the British penny (1714–1901)

The history of the penny of Great Britain and the United Kingdom from 1714 to 1901, the period in which the House of Hanover reigned, saw the transformation of the penny from a little-used small silver coin to the bronze piece recognisable to modern-day Britons. All bear the portrait of the monarch on the obverse; copper and bronze pennies have a depiction of Britannia, the female personification of Britain, on the reverse.

During most of the 18th century, the penny was a small silver coin rarely seen in circulation, and that was principally struck to be used for Maundy money or other royal charity. Beginning in 1787, the chronic shortage of good money resulted in the wide circulation of private tokens, including large coppers valued at one penny. In 1797 industrialist Matthew Boulton gained a contract to produce official pennies at his Soho Mint in Birmingham; he struck millions of pennies over the next decade. After that, it was not until 1825 that pennies were struck again for circulation, and the copper penny continued to be issued until 1860.

By the late 1850s, the state of the copper coinage was deemed unsatisfactory, with quantities of worn oversized pieces, some dating from Boulton's day, still circulating. They were replaced by lighter bronze coins beginning in 1860; the "Bun penny", named for the hairstyle of Queen Victoria on it, was issued from then until 1894. The final years of Victoria's reign saw the "Veiled head" or "Old head" pennies, which were coined from 1895 until her death in 1901.

Silver penny (18th century)

At the start of King George I's reign in 1714, the English penny had been struck from silver for about a thousand years. The Hanoverian dynasty in Britain began during the time that Sir Isaac Newton was Master of the Mint.[1] Newton had in 1702 considered the issuance of a copper penny, but no action was taken.[2] Silver at this time came to the Royal Mint only as the by-product of mining for other substances, and from chance deposits and windfalls—the scandal-plagued South Sea Company in 1723 was obliged to send a large quantity of silver bullion to the Mint's premises in the Tower of London. Nevertheless, so little was sent overall that MP John Conduitt, Newton's successor as Master, wrote in 1730 that since December 1701, "no silver has been imported to the Mint but what was forced thither".[1] Only small quantities of silver pennies were struck in the early years of George's reign; it and the silver twopence were unpopular in any case because of their small size.[3]

The change in dynasty did not affect the form of the silver penny—a 12 mm diameter coin weighing 0.5 gram. George's pennies had the inscription GEORGIVS DEI GRA continuing onto the other side with MAG BR FR ET HIB REX[a] and the date, around the crowned "I". The representation of George was by John Croker or his assistant Samuel Bull; they had designed the busts of William III and of Queen Anne that had appeared on earlier pennies. The Roman numeral I on the coins dated from the reign of James II, and was at first intended to denote the King's initial in Latin (IACOBUS) but was kept a Roman numeral when the twopence, threepence, and fourpence were given Arabic numerals under William III and Mary. Pennies were minted in 1716, 1718, 1720, 1723, 1725, 1726 and 1727, the last of these the date of George's death and of the accession of his son, George II.[4]

The major purpose for the silver penny in the 18th century was as Maundy money. Most silver pennies after 1727 were likely used for that purpose or for other royal largesse; the mintages were enough to provide for this, but not enough for general circulation. In some years, the Maundy money may have been composed entirely of pennies, though there are accounts of the twopence, threepence, and groat being used as well. At times, there were gaps in the dating as enough for several years was struck at once, to be held against need. There were enough silver pennies in circulation that Maundy recipients could spend their gifts. By 1727, the price of silver guaranteed that pennies were struck at a loss. When other regal coins began use of a bust showing George II as an older man in 1740–1743, the penny remained unaltered. Brian Robinson, in his book on the Royal Maundy, suggested that a new bust for a coin issued only in small quantities would not have been worth the 12 weeks' work it would have taken a Mint engraver to create new dies. In any event, between 1727 and 1816, silver cost too much for there to be much coinage of it.[5] George II's pennies had a left-facing bust of him and the inscription GEORGIVS II DEI GRATIA continuing onto the other side with MAG BRI FR ET HIB REX[b] and the date around the crowned "I". Pennies were minted in 1729, 1731, 1732, 1735, 1737, 1739, 1740, 1743, 1746 and 1750, and between 1752 and 1760. No pennies were issued dated 1733 or 1744, likely because the year in Britain still began on 25 March, and Maundy Thursday did not occur during those twelve-month periods.[6]

Four small silver coins, shown as a set and with both sides visible
Set of Maundy money dated 1800, including the silver penny (top)

Into the reign of King George III (1760–1820), the silver penny continued to be used mostly as a Maundy piece. Pennies similar to those of previous reigns, but bearing George III's head and the inscription GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA,[c] were struck in 1763, 1766, 1770, 1772, 1776, 1779, 1780, 1781, 1784 and 1786. A new bust of the King was introduced to the penny in 1792, and was struck dated that year, 1795, and 1800. The third, laureated bust of the king with an unchanged obverse inscription was on the silver penny in 1817, 1818 and 1820. George III's first reverse, used until 1780, showed the crowned "I" in high relief, with the inscription MAG BRI FR ET HIB REX.[d] A modification was made in 1781, with the relief of the central "I" on the reverse lowered, likely because part of the outline of the I had been visible on the King's head on the other side of the coin. This second reverse, used until 1786, was similar but in lower relief, the "I" being much flatter; the third reverse, used in 1792 only, was completely redesigned with a much smaller "I" under a smaller crown with the inscription running around the crown, with the same legend as before. The fourth reverse, used in 1795 and 1800 was similar to the first but with a redesigned crown. The fifth reverse, used from 1817, showed the crowned "I" with the inscription BRITANNIARUM REX FID DEF[e] and the date. From 1817, the diameter of the coin was reduced from 12 to 11 millimetres, although the weight remained the same at .5 grams.[7]

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