Thursday, 21 August 2008

Small Change

As I mentioned in a previous post our coins are changing. At the moment only the reverse designs are being altered and not the size, weight or composition of the coins. Over the last decade or so we have, however, seen the 5p, 10p and 50p coins reduced in size. To put our current coins in perspective though I thought I'd show you the oldest coin I own -- a 1797 George III "cartwheel" copper penny.

In 1797, England was not yet ready for the modern system of token coinage in which coins made out of non-precious metals, such as copper, nickel, zinc, aluminum, etc., circulate based on their face value, rather than their bullion backed value. So when in 1797 Matthew Bolton was granted a contract to mint copper pennies and twopenny pieces they had to be worth their face value. Given the price of copper in 1797 this meant that the penny piece was minted from 1oz of copper and the twopeeny from 2oz of copper. To give you an idea of how heavy these coins are they weigh roughly the same as eight modern 1p coins.

These coins were the first to be minted by steam power (Bolton had collaborated with James Watt when establishing his Soho foundry near Birmingham) and they were so precisely struck that forgery was almost impossible. Unfortunately my specimen isn't in very good condition so it is difficult to appreciate the workmanship of the original coins. Fortunately you can see pictures of a much better specimen on the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery website.

The coins didn't last in circulation for very long, partly because of their sheer size and weight and partly due to the rising price of copper. Many of them were taken out of circulation and melted down. Bolton's next issue was lighter and without the distinctive raised rim. Today because of their age and collectable value they are worth a lot more than their material value, which given they are made from 1oz of copper is approximately 11p.

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