The first country to decimalise was Russia in 1704 which introduced a currency based on 100 Kopeks = 1 Rouble. By the end of the century a decimal currency was either implemented or was actively being considered by a number of countries. e.g. America had used a decimal currency from the earliest US coins in 1792 with 100 Cents = 1 Dollar and in 1795 the French had dropped the Livre in favour of a system based on 100 Centimes = 1 Franc. More countries followed suit over the next few decades.
Unsurprisingly, in line with other countries there was a call to decimalise the currency in Great Britain and so in 1824, the MP for Staffordshire, Sir John Wrottesley, proposed a decimal currency comprising 100 farthings equal to a double shilling and 10 double shillings equal to a pound. i.e. 1000 farthings were equal to a pound which wasn’t too dissimilar from the existing 960 farthings to the pound, but nevertheless the idea was rejected by Parliament.
The next move to decimalise came in 1841 with the foundation of the Decimal Association. Its aims were the adoption of a decimal currency together with use of the SI metric system which had been introduced in France at the end of the previous century. Obviously they had some sort of impact, because this decade saw the first decimal coins struck in this country.
The first decimal coins were not made at the Royal Mint, but by the Birmingham silversmiths Marrian & Gausby in 1846. The first coins were struck in denominations of 1, 2, 5 & 10 cents, all undated. Freeman (The Bronze Coinage of Great Britain, p.186, 1985) lists two of these coins, both in brass. A10c with all detail incuse, the obverse bearing a bust of Victoria facing left and the reverse with the legend SMITHS DECIMAL CURRENCY (F811) and a 5c reverse uniface with 5 CENTS in two lines, again incuse (F812). A boxed set(?) of these initial strikings in gilt copper was sold at St. James’s auction 29 lot 157(part) on 29th September 2014 which contained 1c, 2c (x2), 5c and 10c, all with a portrait on the obverse. All pieces had a wide raised rim.
The 10c and 5c are shown below (these and subsequent images not to scale).
The legend used on the 10 cent piece caused the Royal Mint to object as they had the sole prerogative to strike currency.
Their opinion obviously won the argument as Marrian & Gausby then produced a second set of dies. The obverse now had their name added to the obverse below the bust (except on the 1 cent), while the reverse had the legend amended to SMITH ON DECIMAL CURRENCY which was applied to the field for all denominations, surrounding the value in two lines with the date 1846 below. A wide raised rim was again used except for the 1 cent which was narrow. All were struck in copper with an inverted die axis. Again they were struck in denominations of 1, 2, 5 & 10 cents, with the addition of a new denomination - One Centum. The diameters of these are 22, 29.5, 36, 41 and 27.5mm respectively. The hair detail is slightly different for all 5 denominations, most notably seen around the bun.
The Centum was struck in white metal. What its value was supposed to represent in sterling terms is uncertain. C W Peck in a footnote to p.479 of English Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum 1558-1958, 2nd ed (1964) proposed that it represented a decimal shilling of 50 cents, with a pound equal to 20 centums and 1000 cents to the pound. A concept I find difficult given the near universal acceptance of a cent being a 1/100th part of the whole. But then, with a copper 10 cents having to equal two shillings (a large silver value at the time) using a 100 cent pound, the idea of 1000 cents (or preferably milles) to the pound is justifiable.
A boxed set of these five coins formed the second part of the St. James’s lot (see above).
Although not adopted as a design for circulating currency, the question of a British decimal currency would not go away and within two years the Mint had produced its pattern ‘Godless’ florins, leading to the currency issue of the same in 1849.
Restrikes of these Marrian & Gausby pieces were made at a later date and in metals other than copper. The only attested strikings were those made in 1888 by E. Shorthouse whose letter to L Forrer in 1909 indicated that the dies were found in the late Joseph Moore’s workshop, but that only the 10c dies were fit for use, the others being completely rusted (see Peck p.479 for a more complete account). On that day a total of 9 each were struck in silver, bronze and copper. These were struck with the opposite die axis (en-medaille) and on thicker flans to avoid confusion with the originals. That leaves the question unanswered of when, where and by whom the gold, silver and white metal restrikes of the 2c and the 10c in white metal were made. Further research is clearly required.
Coin descriptions will contain references pertaining to that item. These are the main references used by collectors of their respective fields. A list of the prefixes used here is as follows:
|BCW||The Hammered Silver Coins Produced at the Tower Mint During the Reign of Elizabeth I (I D Brown, C H Comber, W Wilkinson). A detailed study of dies, punches and die pairs for Elizabethan silver coins. The definitive reference. (2006)|
|Dxxxx||British Silver Coins since 1816 (Peter J Davies). A list of silver coins struck since 1816 which includes proofs and patterns together with more detailed die varieties than ESC. (1st Ed. 1982)|
|ESC xxxx (xxxx)||English Silver Coinage since 1649 (Maurice Bull). A list of silver coins from 1649 onwards with patterns and proofs included together with a number of varieties, mainly legend or major design differences. The 6th edition published in 2015 resulted in a complete restructuring of the numbering system. We have used the revised ESC references and included those found in the first 5 editions in parentheses for collectors’ convenience. 6th Ed. 2015, (5th Ed. 1992))|
|Everson||The Galata Guide to The Farthing Tokens of James I & Charles I (Tim Everson). The best reference for this coinage. (2007)|
|Fxxx||The Bronze Coinage of Great Britain (Michael J Freeman). A list of die varieties found in the bronze coinage from 1860 which is more detailed than that found in Peck. It includes proofs and patterns. (2nd Ed. 1985, Reprinted 2006)|
|KM||Standard Catalog of World Coins (Chester L Krause & Clifford Mishler). An American reference that has become the standard reference for World Coins. Published annually with updated entries.|
|Mxxx||The Gold Sovereign (Michael A Marsh) and The Gold Half Sovereign (Michael A Marsh). A list of varieties for sovereigns and half sovereigns -2 vols. (Jubilee Ed. 2002 and 2nd Ed. 2004 respectively).|
|Nxxxx||English Hammered Coinage vol.1 c600 – 1272 & vol.2 1272-1662 (J J North). Two volumes that used to be the standard reference for hammered coinage, but have been superseded in certain areas by more detailed reference works. Still useful for identification and for the early Saxon in particular as it lists moneyers, mints and the issues they had been recorded as striking. (3rd Ed. 1994 and 3rd Ed. 1991)|
|Pxxxx||English Copper, Tin & Bronze Coins in the British Museum 1558-1958 (C W Peck). This is still the definitive reference for much of the base metal coinage of this country. It includes all the currency, proof and pattern issues known to the writer. For pre-1860 coinage, there is little alternative. This is also referred to as BMC (British Museum Catalogue). The 2nd edition was augmented with a few pages of previously unrecorded varieties in the British Numismatic Journal 1967. (2nd Ed. 1964).|
Coins of England & the United Kingdom (Spink) The Standard Catalogue of British Coins, also referred to in numismatic literature as SCBC. Published annually with updated entries. This is the reference book with the largest chronological range of British coins coupled with the number of varieties, from Celtic to the present day.
A second volume, Coins of Scotland, Ireland and the Islands is also published by Spink. It uses reference numbers in the range 5001 onwards.
Small Change I – V Farthings and Halfpennies (Paul & Bente R Withers), a series of 5 books covering halfpennies and farthings for the period from Edward I to the Commonwealth. (2003-2005).
This list of references is far from exhaustive and could be expanded to fill a complete book in itself.
However, it is worth adding a pair of references which cover the increasingly popular decimal issues:
The Identification of British 20th Century Bronze Coin Varieties (2009) and The Identification of British 20th Century Silver Coin Varieties (2010), both by David J Groom. They provide additional information for the pre-decimal coins, but more importantly, these two books provide a more detailed study of the decimal issues up to the year 2000 which is not available elsewhere.
Other useful references for collectors include the various British price guides published annually:
Coins of England and the United Kingdom by Spink (listed above)
Collectors’ Coins GB pre-decimal issues 1760 – 1970 by Rotographic
Coin Yearbook by Token Publishing
British Coins Market Values by MyHobbyStore
A word of caution is appropriate here. The values given in each volume for the same coin will vary considerably and should not be taken as an accurate figure. They are a guide only. The prices are usually given for the commonest variety only of that type and date. Prices at auction both traditional and on the internet can vary by a wide margin due to bidders either chasing the price higher in an attempt to get that ‘must have’ coin, or not bidding at all due to not being impressed with what is on offer and so again can only act as a guide to historical sales. There are no rules, only a ballpark figure that the individual will feel comfortable in paying.
An excellent reference for the novice collector of British coins is the Standard Guide to Grading British Coins – Modern Milled British Pre-Decimal Issues (1797 to 1970) by Derek Francis Allen. This is lavishly illustrated showing the reader how the various issues progressively wear. This knowledge is crucial if you are to grade correctly.