Penny (British pre-decimal coin)

One old penny
United Kingdom
Value 1⁄240 pound sterling
Diameter (Bronze) 31 mm
Edge Plain
Composition (1707–1796) Silver
(1797–1859) Copper
(1860–1970) Bronze
Years of minting 1707–1970
Design Profile of the monarch (Elizabeth II design shown)
Designer Mary Gillick
Design date 1953
Design Britannia (crowned I on earlier mintages)
Designer Leonard Charles Wyon
Design date 1860

The pre-decimal penny (1d) was a coin worth 1/240th of a pound sterling. Its symbol was d, from the Roman denarius. It was a continuation of the earlier English penny, and in Scotland it had the same monetary value as one pre-1707 Scottish shilling. The penny was originally minted in silver, but from the late 18th century it was minted in copper, and then after 1860 in bronze.

The plural of "penny" is "pence" when referring to a quantity of money and "pennies" when referring to a number of coins.[1] Thus 8d is eight pence, but "eight pennies" means specifically eight individual penny coins.

Before Decimal Day in 1971 twelve pence made a shilling, and twenty shillings made a pound, hence 240 pence in one pound. Values less than a pound were usually written in terms of shillings and pence, e.g. 42 pence would be three shillings and sixpence (3/6), pronounced "three and six". Values of less than a shilling were simply written in terms of pence, e.g. eight pence would be 8d.

This version of the penny was made obsolete in 1971 by decimalisation, and was replaced by the decimal penny which had a value 140% more (referring to the fact that the old pound held 240 pence).


The kingdoms of England and Scotland were merged by the 1707 Act of Union to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. The exchange rate between the pound scots and the English pound sterling had been fixed at 12:1 since the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and in 1707 the pound Scots ceased to be legal tender, with the pound sterling to be used throughout Great Britain. The penny replaced the shilling of the pound scots.[2]

The design and specifications of the English penny were unchanged by the Union, and it continued to be minted in silver after 1707. Queen Anne's reign saw pennies minted in 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1713. These issues, however, were not for general circulation, instead being minted as Maundy money. The prohibitive cost of minting silver coins had meant the size of pennies had been reduced over the years, with the minting of silver pennies for general circulation being halted in 1660.[3]

The practice of minting pennies only for Maundy money continued through the reigns of George I and George II, and into that of George III. However, by George III's reign there was a shortage of pennies: things had got so bad that a great many merchants and mining companies issued their own copper tokens e.g. the Parys Mining Company on Anglesey issued huge numbers of tokens (although their acceptability was strictly limited).[4]

In 1797, the government authorised Matthew Boulton to strike copper pennies and twopences at his Soho Mint in Birmingham. At the time it was believed that the face value of a coin should correspond to the value of the material it was made from, so they had respectively to contain one or two pence worth of copper (for a penny this worked out to be one ounce of copper). This requirement meant that the coins would be significantly larger than the silver pennies minted previously. The large size of the coins, combined with the thick rim where the inscription was incuse i.e. punched into the metal rather than standing proud of it, led to the coins being nicknamed "cartwheels". These pennies were minted over the course of several years, but all are marked with the date 1797.[5]

19th century

By 1802, the production of privately issued provincial tokens had ceased.[6][7] However, in the next ten years the intrinsic value of copper rose. The return of privately minted token coinage was evident by 1811 and endemic by 1812, as more and more of the Government-issued copper coinage was melted down.[7] The Royal Mint undertook a massive recoinage programme in 1816, with large quantities of gold and silver coin being minted. To thwart the further issuance of private token coinage, in 1817 an Act of Parliament was passed which forbade the manufacture of private token coinage under very severe penalties.[7] Copper coins continued to be minted after 1797, through the reigns of George III, George IV and William IV, and the early reign of Queen Victoria. These later coins were smaller than the cartwheel pennies of 1797, and contained a smaller amount of copper.[5]

In 1857 a survey by the Royal Mint found that around one third of all copper coinage was worn or mutilated, often by advertisements. Two years later Thomas Graham, the Master of the Mint, convinced William Ewart Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that so large a part of the copper coinage must be taken out of circulation that it was worth introducing a whole new coinage which would be "much more convenient and agreeable in use".[8] These new coins were minted in bronze, and their specifications were no longer constrained by the onerous requirement that their face value should match the value of the base metal used to make the coin. These new coins were introduced in 1860 and a year later the withdrawal of the old copper coinage began.[8]

20th century

The specifications of the bronze version of the penny were a mass of 9.45 g and a diameter of 30.86 mm, and remained as such for over a hundred years. Pennies were minted every year of Queen Victoria's reign, and every year of Edward VII's reign. George V pennies were produced every year to the same standard until 1922, but after a three-year gap in production the alloy composition was changed to 95.5% copper, 3% tin, and 1.5% zinc, although the weight and size remained unchanged (which was necessary because of the existence by then of large numbers of coin-operated amusement machines and public telephones). Thereafter, pennies were minted every year for the remainder of George V's reign, although only six or seven 1933 coins were minted, specifically for the king to lay under the foundation stones of new buildings; one of these coins was stolen when a church in Leeds was demolished in the 1960s, and its whereabouts is currently unknown.[9]

A few pennies of Edward VIII exist, dated 1937, but technically they are pattern coins i.e. coins produced for official approval, which it would probably have been due to receive about the time that the King abdicated.[10]

Pennies were not minted every year of George VI's reign. Pennies minted in 1950 and 1951 were for overseas use only. One 1952 penny, believed to be unique, was struck by the Royal Mint. The worldwide shortage of tin during the Second World War caused a change in the alloy in 1944 to 97% copper, 0.5% tin, 2.5% zinc, but this bronze tarnishes unattractively, and the original 95.5% Cu, 3% Sn, 1.5% Zn alloy was restored later in 1945.

Because of the large number of pennies in circulation there was no need to produce any more in the 1950s, however a large number of specimen sets were issued in 1953 for Elizabeth II's Coronation. At least one 1954 penny was struck, apparently for private internal purposes at the Royal Mint, but it was not until 1961 that there was a need for more pennies to be minted, and production continued each year until 1967, and afterwards (as pennies continued to be minted with the date 1967 until 1970). The 97% copper, 0.5% tin, 2.5% zinc alloy was used again for the 1960s pennies. Finally, there was an issue of proof quality coins dated 1970 produced to bid farewell to the denomination.

Dates Composition Mass (grams) Diameter (mm)
1707-1796 Sterling (92.5%) silver 0.5 12
1797 Copper 28.3 36
1798-1859 Copper 18.8 34
1860-1922 Bronze (95% Cu, 4% Sn, 1% Zn) 9.4 31
1925-1943, 1945-1954 Bronze (95.5% Cu, 3% Sn, 1.5% Zn) 9.4 31
1944, 1961-1970 Bronze (97% Cu, 0.5% Sn, 2.5% Zn) 9.4 31



The original reverse of the British penny is the same as the reverse of the pre-1707 English penny, a crowned letter I, surrounded by the inscription MAG BRI FR ET HIB REG. The obverse features the left-facing portrait of Queen Anne, surrounded by the inscription ANNA DEI GRATIA. George I and George II coins also have a crowned I on the reverse, and busts on the obverse. George I pennies have GEORGIVS DEI GRA inscribed on the obverse and MAG BR FR ET HIB REX date on the reverse. George II pennies have GEORGIVS II DEI GRATIA inscribed on the obverse and MAG BRI FR ET HIB REX date on the reverse.

During George III's reign three different obverses and five different reverses appeared on the penny. No silver pennies were minted at all between 1800 and 1817. The first obverse, showing a right-facing bust of the king, with the inscription GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA, was used in 1763, 1766, 1770, 1772, 1776, 1779, 1780, 1781, 1784, and 1786; the second obverse, showing an older bust of the king and the same inscription, was used in 1792, 1795, and 1800, while the third, laureated bust of the king with the inscription GEORGIUS III DEI GRATIA date was used in 1817, 1818 and 1820. The first reverse, used until 1780, showed the crowned "I" in high relief, with the inscription MAG BRI FR ET HIB REX date across the crown; the 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 onwards, showed the crowned "I" with the inscription BRITANNIARUM REX FID DEF date.


The "cartwheel" penny was minted in copper, with a weight of 1 oz and a diameter of 1.4 in.[5] The obverse features a right-facing portrait of George III, and incused into the rim are the words GEORGIUS III·D·G·REX. The initial K appears on the lowest fold of the drapery at the base of the effigy, indicating that the design is the work of the German engraver Conrad Heinrich Küchler.[5] The reverse shows the left-facing seated figure of Britannia, with a trident held loosely in her left hand, and an olive branch in her outstretched right. There are waves about her feet, with a small ship to the left and a Union Jack shield below and to the right. Above, on the rim, is incused the word BRITANNIA, and on the rim below the image is incused the date 1797. The reverse was also designed by Kuchler.[5] The word SOHO appears next to the shield, indicating that the coin came from the Soho Mint.[4]

The obverse of George IV's penny shows a highly regarded left-facing laureated head engraved by William Wyon after the king expressed a dislike for the one engraved by Benedetto Pistrucci for use on the farthing, inscribed GEORGIUS IV DEI GRATIA date, while the reverse shows a right-facing seated Britannia with a shield and trident, inscribed BRITANNIAR REX FID DEF. The pennies of King William IV are very similar to his predecessors', also being engraved by William Wyon. The king's head faces right, inscribed GULIELMUS IIII DEI GRATIA date, while the reverse is identical to the George IV penny.

Just three portraits of the Queen were used on the penny in the whole of her reign: the Young Head (used from 1838 to 1859, with rare copper issues from 1860 - the 60 is struck over 59), designed by William Wyon (who died in 1851), whose eldest son Leonard Charles Wyon (1826–91) designed the bronze coinage of 1860 with the second ("bun") head (1860–1894 with scarce issues of the farthing in 1895), and finally the Old Head (or "veiled head") designed by Thomas Brock which was used on the penny from 1895 to 1901. Unlike the silver coinage, the Jubilee Head was not used on the bronze coins.

The first obverse showed the Young Head of the Queen, facing left, with the inscription VICTORIA DEI GRATIA with the date beneath the head; this obverse was used (with a slight alteration in 1858) until the end of the copper penny issue in 1860. Copper pennies were issued for all years between 1839 and 1860 except 1840, 1842, 1850, and 1852. The reverse of the coin for the whole of this period was similar to the William IV issue, with a seated right-facing Britannia holding a trident, except that most years the head of the trident was ornamented; the inscription read BRITANNIAR REG FID DEF.


The reverse of the bronze version of the coin, designed by Leonard Charles Wyon, is a seated Britannia, holding a trident, with the words ONE PENNY to either side. Issues before 1895 also feature a lighthouse to Britannia's left and a ship to her right. Various minor adjustments to the level of the sea depicted around Britannia, and the angle of her trident were also made over the years. Some issues feature toothed edges, while others feature beading.

Over the years, various different obverses were used. Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth II each had a single obverse for pennies produced during their respective reigns. Over the long reign of Queen Victoria two different obverses were used, and the short reign of Edward VIII meant no pennies bearing his likeness were ever issued.

The bronze penny was first issued with the so-called "bun head", or "draped bust" of Queen Victoria on the obverse. The inscription around the bust read VICTORIA D G BRITT REG F D. This was replaced in 1895 by the "old head", or "veiled bust".[11] The inscription on these coins read VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP.

Coins issued during the reign of Edward VII feature his likeness and bear the inscription EDWARDVS VII DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX FID DEF IND IMP. Similarly, those issued during the reign of George V feature his likeness and bear the inscription GEORGIVS V DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX FID DEF IND IMP.

The obverse of the Edward VIII proof penny shows a left-facing portrait of the king (who considered this to be his better side, and consequently broke the tradition of alternating the direction in which the monarch faces on coins — some viewed this as indicating bad luck for the reign); the inscription on the obverse is EDWARDVS VIII D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP.

George VI issue coins feature the inscription GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP before 1949, and GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX FIDEI DEF thereafter. Pennies were rarely minted during the early reign of Elizabeth II, but those minted for the coronation in 1953 feature the inscription ELIZABETH II DEI GRA BRITT OMN REGINA F D. Regular minting of pennies was resumed in 1961. Pennies minted after this date bear the inscription ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA F D.

Pennies by period



Note: The mintage figures where "H" or "KN" follows the year relates to coins minted with that particular mint mark. "H" refers to the Heaton Mint, and "KN" to the King's Norton Mint, both of which were contracted to mint supplemental pennies on occasion.[19]

See also


  1. "Penny". Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. "The Pound Scots". Scottish Archive Network. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
  3. "Penny". Royal Mint Museum. Retrieved 10 May 2014.
  4. 1 2 George A. Selgin (2008). Good Money: Birmingham Button Makers, the Royal Mint, and the Beginnings of Modern Coinage, 1775-1821. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-11631-2.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 "The cartwheel penny and twopence of 1797". Royal Mint Museum. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  6. Pye, Charles (1801). A Correct and Complete Representation of All the Provincial Copper Coins, Tokens of Trade, and Cards of Address, on Copper: Which Were Circulated as Such Between the Years 1787 and 1801 (Second ed.). Birmingham: M. Young. p. 4.
  7. 1 2 3 Hocking, William John (1906). Catalogue of the Coins, Tokens, Medals, Dies, and Seals in the Museum of the Royal Mint. London: Darling & Son Ltd. pp. 327–343.
  8. 1 2 Christopher Edgar Challis (1992). A New History of the Royal Mint. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-24026-0.
  9. [a:// "1933 penny"]. Royal Mint Museum. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  10. "Edward VIII". Royal Mint Museum. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  11. "Victorian Penny". Royal Mint. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  12. "George IV coins". Coin database. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  13. "William IV coins". Coin database. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  14. 1 2 3 "Victoria coins". Coin database. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  15. "Edward VII coins". Coin database. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  16. "George V coins". Coin database. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  17. "George VI coins". Coin database. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  18. "Elizabeth II coins". Coin database. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  19. Sweeney, James O. (1981). Numismatic History of the Birmingham Mint. Birmingham: Birmingham Mint Ltd.
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