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Thursday, 26 January 2012

Coins Jane Austen would have known

My butcher is a great guy, and yesterday he trotted out a couple of Georgian coins of 1797 that he had acquired to show me, a penny and a ha'penny.
What shocked me was the sheer size of them - not just the diameter, an inch or so for the  ha'penny and one and a half inches for the penny, but the thickness and the WEIGHT. Now I recall having heard that a penny used on scales to be used in lieu of an ounce weight if the ounce was lost and had raised an eyebrow over this.  Not any more.
This penny ha'penny would represent about an hour's labour in 1797. Modern minimum wage is £6-08 an hour. What would this have bought from my butcher then?
That would be just over two and a half ounces of mutton or veal;
or almost 3 ounces of beef
or just over 1 and a half ounces of bacon
or two ounces of sausages
Brings it home rather, how comparatively expensive meat was in those days; as £6 will buy meat not in ounces but in pounds.

I've put a modern penny beside them to give scale, which is about the same size as an American cent. 
Side shot of 1797 penny showing thickness, with modern penny and 1797 half penny in foreground
obverse, 1797 penny and half penny with modern penny for comparison
reverse, 1797 penny and half penny with modern penny for comparison

I've been passed a couple of pics, one of each side of a 1797 tuppeny [2d] piece dug up in a field which are less worn than the above so here they are:
You can really see the beak of a nose on George III here on the obverse. Interesting that the figure of Britannia didn't change a whole lot right up to decimalisation in 1971.


  1. The pennies were that large well into the 20th century, I do not know the current size of the coin.
    One needed reenforced pockets or a large purse to carry twenty of them.

  2. I have plenty of 19th century coins and they are nothing like that big - the oldest penny I own is 183?9[very rubbed] with the young Victoria head which is between these two coins in diameter, slightly bigger than the ha'penny; and about twice the thickness of a modern penny. The Victorian penny basically didn't change until decimalisation in IIRC 1972 [I know it did me out of my tooth fairy money when a sixpence was suddenly worth tuppence ha'penny]. The modern coin is about the size of an American cent.

  3. I have a machine stamped 2d piece from 1797 - found in a former farm yard - a great loss for the original owner of the coin. It is 3.5cm across & 3mm deep, otherwise almost identical to the larger coin shown above, union flag still visible on Britannia's shield. It was identified by the archeologists, from the Oxford Archeological Unit, who were excavating in the village.

  4. Ok, so the question that is running through my mind is: why? I'm coming up with a few explanations: to discourage counterfeit, perhaps, which was a big problem during this period, and also could be a capital crime--certainly in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, counterfeit was punishable by death... maybe into the eighteenth and early nineteenth century as well? Could unwieldy coins have also been meant to deter pickpockets? Or is this a means to convey an apprehension of value even where it did not exist?

    The cost of meat during this period stands to reason, while supply could require the importation of domestic animals for slaughter into the city environs...but how terrifying when one things of the malnutrition that was typical of the era, and the number of deaths--particularly of new mothers, their infants and small children--due to protein deficiencies...

    If you have any information on why size mattered, I would be grateful to hear it, but meanwhile, thanks for this fascinating post!!


  5. By way of explanation: the penny and two-penny coins were that size because they contained copper to the value of 1d and 2d. It was to be a further twenty years before the Government moved away from that idea - at least for copper and silver coins, enabling the size to be made much more convenient. The cartwheel coins, as they became known, were all minted with the same date and were manufactured on steam-powered machinery installed by Matthew Boulton.They are unusual not just because of their size and weight, but because the inscriptions ("legend") are incused ie cut into the surface of the coin, rather than being raised as with all previous coins. Being made of soft copper the coins are often found in a worn and hence valueless state. A coin in fdc condition ("fleur de coinage") would be worth a lot of money!
    The public disliked the coins but had little choice - apart from trade tokens issued by different tradesmen in cities all over the country, there had been no official copper coinage for many many years, and change was more usually given in silver. Here the problem was exactly the opposite - a silver penny was miniscule!

  6. Thanks Mike! I love learning new things.
    I believe the 1d was an ounce in weight? I have a vague recollection of my gran telling me her father used a hundred year old coin [that's 100 years old in around 1900] as an ounce weight as his ounce was unreliable. He was a Master Baker, so it mattered...