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History of the British penny (1714-1901)

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History of the British penny (1714-1901)

The History of the Penny of Great Britain and the United Kingdom from 1714 to 1901 covers the period of the House of Hanover.

The Hanoverians (1714–1837)

Silver pennies

The change in dynasty did not affect the form of the design of the silver penny — a 12 mm diameter coin weighing 0.5 gram, with a right-facing bust of George I and the inscription GEORGIVS DEI GRA continuing onto the other side with MAG BR FR ET HIB REX date around the crowned "I". Pennies were minted in 1716, 1718, 1720, 1723, 1725, 1726, and 1727.

In 1727 George II ascended the throne, where he was to remain until 1760. While for the sixpence and larger silver coins an older bust of the king was used from 1743 onwards, the small silver coins continued to use a young portrait of him throughout his reign. The penny had a left-facing bust of George II and the inscription GEORGIVS II DEI GRATIA continuing onto the other side with MAG BRI FR ET HIB REX date around the crowned "I". Pennies were minted in 1729, 1731, 1732, 1735, 1737, 1739, 1740, 1743, 1746, 1750, 1752–1760. For seven of the eight years between 1750 and 1758 the silver penny was the only one of the small silver coins (1d, 2d, 3d, 4d) produced; this fact, coupled with the good condition of most pennies of those years which have come to our time, suggests that they were mainly used for Maundy money.

In the long reign of King George III, (1760–1820), the design of the silver penny changed subtly several times, with three obverses and five reverses. 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. From 1817 onwards, the diameter of the coin was reduced from 14 to 11 millimetres, although the weight remained the same.

By the start of the reign of George IV (1820–1830) the silver penny was exclusively being used for Maundy money, for which purpose it is still being coined today. For the further history of the silver penny from 1822 to date, please see Maundy money.

Copper pennies

Reverses of (left) a "cartwheel" penny of 1797; (right) a penny of 1967

As can be seen from the minting dates given below, there was a great shortage of government-issued small change in George III's reign. The situation was 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. In 1797 Matthew Boulton was authorised by the government to strike copper pennies and twopences at his Soho Mint, in Birmingham; the time was not yet right for a token coinage, so they actually had to contain one or two pence worth of copper, i.e. they weighed one and two ounces each (penny — 28.3 grams, diameter 36 millimetres). 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. (If this sounds unwieldy, compare it with the Swedish 10 Daler plate money piece of the mid-17th century, which contained 19 kilograms of copper! Unsurprisingly, Sweden became the first European country to issue paper money on a regular basis, in 1661). The obverse of the Cartwheel coinage is a rather fine laureated right-facing bust of George III, with the inscription GEORGIUS III D G REX, while the reverse showed the seated Britannia, facing left, holding an olive branch and trident with the inscription BRITANNIA 1797 — although it appears that coins were minted for several years, but all with the 1797 date.

In 1806 and 1807, another 150 tons of copper was coined into pennies at the Soho Mint, although this time the money was a token coinage with each penny only containing 18.9 grams of copper and being 34 millimetres in diameter. These were more conventionally designed coins, with a right facing bust of the king and ordinary inscription GEORGIUS III D G REX date, and the obverse showing the seated Britannia facing left, with olive branch and trident and the inscription BRITANNIA. There is one unique penny coin known which is dated 1808, but this is thought to have been a proof.

At the beginning of the Great Recoinage of 1816 only silver coins were produced. The copper penny was only minted in three years, 1825–7, and the minting of copper coins in 1825 was only authorised on 14 November of that year. The entire mintage consignment of 1827 pennies was allocated for despatch to Australia for the prison camps (Botany Bay Penal Colony). The shipment of coins (they were held in wooden crates) became badly corroded by salt water with literally only a handful surviving undamaged. Most suffered from corrosion and verdigris. It is because of this that the 1827 copper penny is extremely rare in mint state with only 2 known worldwide despite nearly 1.5 million struck.

The obverse of George IV's penny shows a rather fine left-facing laureated head engraved by William Wyon after the king expressed a dislike for the one engraved by Benedetto Pistrucci which was used 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 penny at this time weighed 18.8 grams and had a diameter of 34 millimetres.

The pennies of King William IV (1830–1837) 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. Pennies were minted in 1831, 1834, and 1837 (there is a report of a single example dated 1836, but this is regarded as semi-mythical). The small mintages of William's pennies makes finding a nice one very difficult.

"Cartwheel" twopence

At the Soho Mint, James Watt and Matthew Boulton used their steam-powered coin presses to make twopence coins in addition to the "cartwheel" pennies described above. These 2d coins weigh exactly 2 ounces (56.699 g), making them the heaviest British coins for ordinary circulation, and are approximately 41 millimetres (1.6 in) diameter by 5 millimetres (0.20 in) thick. 722,160 were minted, all bearing the 1797 date. The obverse reads GEORGIUS III • D:G • REX. and the reverse BRITANNIA. 1797.[1]


The penny of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) is one of the most intricate denominations of British coinage, with most of the varieties emerging after the switch from copper to bronze coinage in 1860.

Between 1839 and 1860, the penny was made of 18.8 grams of copper and was 34 millimetres in diameter. From 1860 onwards, bronze (an alloy of 95% copper, 4% tin, and 1% zinc) was used instead—the bronze penny weighed 13 ounce (9.4 g) and was 31 millimetres in diameter. This article only mentions the gross differences between different varieties of penny, but a very great number of small differences appeared, especially between 1860 and 1883.

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 bronze coinage of 1860 for the first time stated the value of the coin on the reverse. The obverse was mostly unchanged between 1860 and 1894 except for some variations in the border (during 1860 only when it was either toothed or beaded), and whether or not there was an "L.C. Wyon" between the bust and the rim. The inscription read VICTORIA D G BRITT REG F D. The reverse shows a seated Britannia holding a trident with the words ONE PENNY to either side of her, and the date in the exergue beneath her; until 1895 there was a lighthouse to Britannia's left and a ship to her right; variations in the reverse include different levels of the sea around her feet, and an "H" below the date in 1874, 1875 (very rare), 1876, 1881 and 1882 indicated that the coin was produced at Messrs Ralph Heaton's mint in Birmingham. Pennies were produced in all the years between 1860 and 1894.

For all years from 1895 to 1901 the "Old Head" bust was used, with the inscription VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP, while the reverse was similar to before although the ship was no longer depicted. The first year (1895) had two varieties, one with Britannia holding a trident 1 mm to the left of the letter 'P' in PENNY and the other depicting her holding the trident 2 mm away from the P of 'PENNY' (this variety also has NO sea behind Britannia). The latter is quite rare. The 1897 penny also has two varieties, one of which has the tide level to Britannia's left as high and another, more common, as normal. 1901 pennies were kept back as keepsakes as the Queen died on 22 January that year.


King George IV 1820-1830

Laureate Bust

  • 1825 ~ 1,075,200
  • 1826 ~ 5,913,000
  • 1827 ~ 1,451,520

George IV Mintages

Queen Victoria 1837-1901

Young Bust (W.W. on truncation)

  • 1839 ~ Only in proof
  • 1841 ~ 913,920
  • 1843 ~ 483,830
  • 1844 ~ 215,040
  • 1845 ~ 322,560
  • 1846 ~ 483,840
  • 1847 ~ 430,080
  • 1848 ~ 161,280
  • 1849 ~ 268,800
  • 1851 ~ 432,224
  • 1853 ~ 1,021,440
  • 1854 ~ 6,720,000
  • 1855 ~ 5,273,866
  • 1856 ~ 1,212,288
  • 1857 ~ 752,640

Young Bust

  • 1858 ~ 1,559,040
  • 1859 ~ 1,075,200
  • 1860 ~ 32,256

Laureate and Draped Bust - 'L.C.Wyon' (Beaded border)

  • 1860 ~ 5,053,440

Laureate and Draped Bust - 'L.C.Wyon' (Toothed border)

  • 1860 ~ Unknown
  • 1861 ~ 36,449,280

Laureate and Draped Bust (Toothed border)

  • 1861 ~ Unknown
  • 1862 ~ 50,534,400
  • 1863 ~ 28,062,700
  • 1864 ~ 3,440,640
  • 1865 ~ 8,601,600
  • 1866 ~ 9,999,360
  • 1867 ~ 5,483,520
  • 1868 ~ 1,182,720
  • 1869 ~ 2,580,480
  • 1870 ~ 5,695,022
  • 1871 ~ 1,290,318
  • 1872 ~ 8,494,572
  • 1873 ~ 8,494,200

Laureate and Draped Older bust

  • 1874 (both types)~ 5,621,865
  • 1874h (both types) ~ 6,666,240
  • 1875 ~ 10,691,040
  • 1875h ~ 752,640
  • 1876h ~ 11,074,560
  • 1877 ~ 9,624,747
  • 1878 ~ 2,764,470
  • 1879 ~ 7,666,476
  • 1880 ~ 3,000,831
  • 1881 ~ 2,302,362
  • 1881h ~ 3,763,200
  • 1882h ~ 7,526,400
  • 1883 ~ 6,327,438
  • 1884 ~ 11,702,802
  • 1885 ~ 7,145,862
  • 1886 ~ 6,087,759
  • 1887 ~ 5,315,085
  • 1888 ~ 5,125,020
  • 1889 ~ 12,559,737
  • 1890 ~ 15,330,840
  • 1891 ~ 17,885,961
  • 1892 ~ 10,501,671
  • 1893 ~ 8,161,737
  • 1894 ~ 3,883,452

Veiled Bust

  • 1895 ~ 5,395,830
  • 1896 ~ 24,147,156
  • 1897 ~ 20,752,620
  • 1898 ~ 14,296,836
  • 1899 ~ 26,441,069
  • 1900 ~ 31,778,109
  • 1901 ~ 22,205,568
  • 1835-1

Victorian mintages


  1. ^ Perkins 2008, p. 41


  • Lobel, Richard. Coincraft's Standard Catalogue English & UK Coins 1066 to Date. Coincraft. ISBN . 
  • Perkins, Chris Henry (2008). Collectors' Coins GB 2008 (35th ed.). Rotographic. ISBN . 
  • Whitmans Great Britain Pennies collection 1860-1880 and 1881-1901

External links

  • British Coins - information about British coins (from 1656 to 1952)
  • Royal Mint History of British Coins
  • Collection of copper & bronze pennies
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