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


gainsbourgPaper money – once so ubiquitous that shifting hefty amounts of it required several armoured vehicles that were nevertheless extremely vulnerable to a certain criminal element; no British TV cop series of the 70s was complete without at least one episode devoted to a ‘blag’, most of which were inspired by endless and regular real-life robberies that were inevitable when all money was physical and banks and businesses had no other way of transferring cash from A to B. Everyone carried a purse or wallet stuffed with paper as opposed to cards back before the ‘invisible money’ that constitutes so many transactions today became the norm. In many respects, it is the old-school appeal of paper money that now renders it almost quaint or, dare I say it, kitsch.

A new £5 note goes into circulation today. Not only does it have a new face gracing the flipside of Her Majesty – Sir Winston Churchill – but it is also smaller than the current model and comes in a new format; no longer bog-standard paper, but polymer. Polymer is a form of plastic that has been introduced in order to give the new fiver a lifespan longer than that commonly associated with the usual paper banknote, particularly the £5. The average fiver has just less than two years in circulation before being withdrawn and reissued, probably because it’s the most used of all the banknotes; during that period, it will be exchanged approximately 258 times. Tenners last slightly longer, around three years; just fewer than six is the average for £20 notes, whereas that rare beast the £50 note is estimated to last about 40 years. When polymer eventually becomes the standard material of which British banknotes are made, the lifecycle of the £50 note is expected to stretch to a century.

Anyone old enough to remember the old £1 note might recall the final incarnation of it, introduced in 1978; Sir Isaac Newton was on the reverse, the one and only time the lowest denomination note featured anyone other than the Queen. Considerably smaller than its predecessor – in fact, closer in size to the pre-decimal Ten Bob note – it was finally withdrawn from circulation ten years after its introduction, succeeded by the pound coin. I remember cursing the change when I lost one of the first pound coins to find itself in my wallet, surmising I’d dropped it on the soft carpet of a book shop once I realised it was gone; my theory at the time was that I’d never have lost a pound note in the same way. Possibly true, but I think I was also mourning the loss of the first banknote to vanish in my lifetime – the first banknote I had regular access to when even a fiver had a magical aura around it, the first banknote that would occasionally appear in birthday cards from generous relatives. I even preserved one in a plastic folder just before it disappeared for good. If it had been made of polymer, perhaps it might still be with us.

The need to upgrade and update banknotes in terms of design and the materials from which they’re made is a relatively recent development. As an iconic aesthetic object, the banknote has come on in leaps and bounds from the centuries when it was little more than a piece of paper with a fancy script printed upon it. The monarch’s face has only been seen on notes since 1960, though her presence is exclusive to Bank of England notes issued in England and Wales; she is noticeably absent from those issued in Scotland and Northern Ireland – though most of us in this part of the UK would find it hard to imagine such an absence. Prior to the debut of Brenda on the banknote, this aspect of the currency was a fairly anonymous-looking article. As for Great British cultural figures on the flipside, they’re an even more recent innovation.

The first non-Royal face to feature on a Bank of England note was William Shakespeare, who debuted on the £20 note on the eve of decimalisation in 1970; he held the spot for a record-breaking 23 years until finally replaced by Michael Faraday, whose decade on the note was ended by Elgar. The composer made way for the current star Adam Smith at the beginning of the 2010s, though the Scottish economist himself will be superseded by JMW Turner around 2020.

The two that stand out from childhood for me were – tellingly – on lower denomination notes, and a pair that also had a lengthy run: the Duke of Wellington and Florence Nightingale. Appearing on the £5 (from 1971) and the £10 (from 1975), these nineteenth century giants enjoyed a couple of decades on the reverse of their respective notes and became so associated with them that it was difficult to envisage anyone else in their place. But Wellington was succeeded by George Stephenson and Elizabeth Fry, whilst Nightingale was replaced by Dickens and then Darwin.

The ludicrous storm that broke when the campaign to get the face of Jane Austen on the flipside of the tenner was announced as a success unleashed some extraordinary vile bile online, which either proves a) There are a lot of nasty bastards out there; b) There are even more out there who are too thick to read books with the kind of superlative wit and expert study of human nature that Austen mastered; or c) People still care passionately about their paper money. It’d be nice to think the third of those options was the case, but I imagine the unpleasant furore probably owes more to the first two. Having said that, I have a feeling people do still care about paper money.

Whilst those with a vested interest in the alternatives are forever predicting the demise of paper money, it nevertheless soldiers on and the arrival of a new and apparently more durable version suggests it will be with us for some time to come. And I for one am quite happy with that; there’s still nothing quite like that crispy note in your hand to make you feel like you’ve won the Pools – even if you haven’t.

© The Editor