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Shame that the penny's dropped; PETER DUTTON muses on rise and decline of an old friend that we no longer value very highly.

THE latest addition to our currency - the plastic fiver - prompted thoughts about the earliest - the penny piece.

These days the penny is well past its prime and probably works the shortest shift of all our coins. It's given by shops in small change, isn't much used for purchases, gets popped into the charity box, taken by the charity to the bank and reissued to shops to stock their tills.

The British penny, like many other things, started life in ancient Rome.

The basis for their currency was the libra - a pound weight of silver. It didn't exist as an actual coin. Their everyday coins were the denarius, 240 of which were made from one pound weight of silver, and the as, meaning one. The denarius got its name because it represented 10 as. Their biggest coin was the gold solidus, worth 12 denarii. Thus there were 20 solidi to the libra.

So here we have the pre-decimal British PS.s.d., with PS1 = 20s, 1s = 12d and 240d = PS1 This system was introduced to Western Europe by Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (743-819 AD) and swiftly adopted in England by King Offa of Mercia. It replaced a whole range of local currencies. (When Julius Caesar invaded Britain over 700 years earlier he noted that the currency was iron bars, which could either be traded on or put to use.) The origins of the names 'penny' for denarius and 'shilling' for solidus are uncertain but similar words exist in German and other northern European languages. Penny may come from the older word 'pawn', meaning 'pledge'.

The British penny, like the Roman, was made of silver for most of its life. But like all coins made from precious metals, it suffered from a perennial problem - the relation between the face value of the coin and the market value of what it was made from. This still applies to the sovereign - nominally PS1 but with a market value fluctuating with the price of gold.

Pennies were routinely shaved, clipped or even washed in a solvent to collect silver for melting and selling on as bullion. Various monarchs tried various ways to stop this, ranging from designs which would reveal tampering to stiff punishments for offenders - originally the amputation of a hand but, from the reign of Henry V, the death penalty. They didn't work because it was difficult to identify the offenders.

Although the figure of 240 silver pennies to the pound remained constant, their value as bullion varied.

Monarchs and governments tinkered with the definition of the pound weight and with the purity of the silver to boost their coffers, particularly in time of war. The 'official' pound weight varied over time between 350g and 455g and the purity of the silver fluctuated, rarely returning to the original 92.5% and sometimes as low as 50%.

After 1797, pennies were no longer made from silver, apart from those minted for special purposes - such as the Maundy Money purse, a traditional gift from the Monarch to the 'aged poor', still presented. (Incidentally, the use of any silver in any regular British coin ended in 1947.) The new pennies were made of copper, which is why we refer to small change as coppers. But the market value of copper steadily increased and after 1860 the penny was made from bronze.

The penny spawned other coins below the shilling.

First was the groat, worth 4d, introduced in 1351. It had a chequered life, being discontinued then reintroduced from time to time and sometimes being demoted to 3d.

The sixpenny piece was introduced in 1551. The slang 'tanner' is thought to derive from the name of the Chief Engraver at the Royal Mint in the late 18th century.

There followed the halfpenny and the farthing, yielding to the practice of cutting pennies into halves and quarters for small transactions. The farthing survived until 1960 and the halfpenny until 1969, although it was briefly re-introduced after decimalisation in 1971, only to be withdrawn again in 1984.

In the 19th century a new silver 3d coin replaced the old groat. This became increasingly unpopular because it was so small. In 1937 a revolutionary new coin was developed - a heavy, 12-sided brass 3d. Initially, just 12 were minted, bearing the head of Edward VIII, for testing by a slot-machine manufacturer. Then Edward abdicated and the following year a revised version was issued, bearing the head of George VI. Of the 12 Edward coins, only 6 have so far been found. One of them sold at auction in 2013 for PS30,000.

The 'thruppenny bit', as it came to be called, was the first step away from the traditional form of British coins, taken further by the new decimal coins.

During the change to decimal currency in 1971, no guidance was given on how the new penny (2.4 old pennies) should be referred to in speech, presumably because it was assumed that we'd continue to say penny, pennies and pence. But people drifted into using 'pee' for all of them. Odd, since the old penny was never called a 'dee'.

This started the decline of longestablished words like tuppence, ha'penny, penny-ha'penny, and so on. (My spell-checker doesn't recognise them.) 'Six pee' and 'two pee' don't trip off the tongue quite as nicely as 'sixpence' and 'tuppence'.

Some of our old phrases are also fading away, 'Penny plain' and 'penny dreadfuls' aren't much heard of these days. The former refers to sheets of thick paper printed with cut-out characters and scenery for toy theatres in Victorian times. Black and white sheets cost a penny, coloured ones tuppence. Penny dreadfuls were sensational story books sold for a penny.

These days we say 'she thumped him' rather than 'she gave him a fourpenny one'. Outside Yorkshire it's unusual to be called a 'daft ha'porth'. Upstarts are rarely described as 'tuppenny-ha'penny' politicians or whatever.

But some sayings cling on. We still 'spend a penny' when going to the loo - harking back to the days when all public lavatories required a penny in the slot for access. ('Spend a pee' might actually be more appropriate!) Footballers can still 'turn on a sixpence'. Things still cost 'a pretty penny', gamblers are still 'in for a penny', we penny-pinch and bad pennies still turn up.

And we're still offered a penny for our thoughts.


This penny turned up in Manchester this year when an archaeological survey on the site of proposed new flats uncovered an old bank vault
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 27, 2016
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