THE POUND IN YOUR POCKET

Just a few months on from the introduction of a radical little fiver that still seems strange, our wallets and purses are poised to receive another fresh face today via the arrival of the new-look £1 coin; the soon-to-be obsolete regular quid coin will cease to be legal tender in October. Although designs have occasionally altered in terms of what features on the reverse, the shape of the coin hasn’t changed since it replaced the old pound note in 1983. Now, however, the Royal Mint has decided to break with the familiar and go for the unfamiliar – or has it? The innovation is…wait for it…a twelve-sided coin! A twelve-sided coin? Er…they’ve already done that before.

Yes, anyone over a certain (pre-decimal) age might recall a long-gone coin known colloquially as the threepenny bit; it was worth 3d in old money, and from the late 1930s onwards, minted with the distinctive twelve sides it remains remembered for. I have a full set of £sd coinage and one factor that can’t be denied when comparing the collection to contemporary coins is how much heavier they seem than their decimal successors, the threepenny bit included. It makes one realise why braces were compulsory for holding up trousers; a pocketful of pre-decimal coins must have been a severe test on the strength of elastic.

For the first few years after decimalisation, many were convinced it was little more than a ruse to raise prices as the populace struggled to calculate what items should have cost in ‘old money’, convinced they were being ripped off. Coming just a couple of years before Britain joined the Common Market, some saw the introduction of decimal currency as symptomatic of changes being made by the powers-that-be without consulting the people. Perhaps there should have been a referendum? As a consequence, while ever pre-decimal generations outnumbered those with no memory of £sd, the old coinage maintained a sentimental grip on the nation’s psyche.

The farthing was the first familiar member of the £sd club to disappear from circulation in the decade leading up to decimalisation; a tiny bronze object slightly bigger than a modern-day 5p and (from 1937) boasting the famous picture of a wren on its reverse, four farthings made up an old penny and in today’s money one farthing would be the equivalent of between 2 and 7p. Last minted in 1956, the farthing ceased to be legal tender as of 1960. Having a coin that was only worth a quarter of a penny was deemed an unnecessary burden on shoppers and shopkeepers, not to mention bus-conductors confronted with a handful of them when pressing some snotty-nosed Ealing Comedy kids for payment on the top-deck.

More or less the same size as a modern 2p, the halfpenny coin adopted the Golden Hind as its most recognisable reverse image the same year the wren first appeared on the farthing, though the halfpenny as legal tender lasted nine years longer than the sibling it ranked two places above in the currency charts. The old penny itself was larger than any coin in current usage and bore the iconic portrait of Britannia; the reason Britannia switched to the new 50p coin in the countdown to Decimal Day was allegedly due to a public outcry over the loss of the nation’s symbolic heroine from the penny, though 1d still disappeared for good in February 1971.

The sixpence was earmarked for obsolescence on Decimal Day, though the star of the traditional nursery rhyme became the subject of a tabloid campaign to save it in an early example of newspapers adopting patriotic fervour when a symbol of Olde England faces the chop. Amazingly, the campaign worked and the sixpence remained legal tender until 1980. As a decimal child in the 70s, I remember the sixpence, though I found its name confusing when a grandparent handed one over for an outing to the sweetshop in that it wasn’t actually worth six new pence, but 2½p. With the one shilling and two shilling coins sharing the size and monetary value of five and ten new pence respectively, they too continued to be legal tender in the immediate decimal era until finally ceasing to be so as remarkably late as 1991, twenty years after decimalisation.

The threepenny bit joined the old halfpenny, penny and half-crown coins down the decimal plughole, though it was the only one of the £sd family to bear such an odd design, making it instantly missed the moment it vanished. Perhaps the team behind the new pound coin were old enough to remember it and decided to revive the distinctive shape for the generations who never knew its distant predecessor – or maybe they figured it won’t be long before it’s worth about as much. The 50p and 20p coins both stand out as unusual deviations from the standard circular coin shape, but the twelve-sided design seems undeniably fresh, especially to anyone too young to remember the threepenny bit (your humble narrator included).

Of course, technology today being the smart-arse it is means the new £1 coin can’t simply be just a coin; it apparently contains several security precautions that have been added to prevent it from being a victim of the counterfeiter. One in forty of the existing pound coins are thought to be counterfeits, so its successor boasts some secret ingredient inside the coin that can only be recognised when electronically scanned, though the Royal Mint isn’t saying what. Not that most of us would notice the fake from the Real McCoy; most new coins tend to resemble Monopoly money when we first handle them, anyway, and their value has a habit of diminishing to more or less the same.

© The Editor