The coins in the Royal Mint Museum number some 80,000 and they span the entire period from classical Greece and Rome to the modern day. The early part of the collection, however, is merely representative, the great strength of the Museum’s holdings lying in the post-1660 period and in particular the range of modern patterns, proofs and experimental pieces. Spectacular among these are the proposed coins for Edward VIII, never released for circulation because of the king’s abdication in December 1936, and an extensive series of preparatory pieces made during the run-up to decimalisation in February 1971.
Overall, the policy since 1816 has been to maintain as complete a record as possible of the coins struck by the Royal Mint, both for the United Kingdom and for overseas countries.
Browse highlights of the coin collection below.
Beauty and grace
The gold five-pound piece of 1839, though not as spectacularly rare as the Edward VIII pattern coins, is arguably one of the most beautiful coins in the world. On the obverse it shows William Wyon’s famous Young Head portrait of Queen Victoria, considered to be the finest of all Wyon’s portraits of the queen. The reverse is also the work of Wyon and, drawing its theme from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, depicts the queen as Una guiding the British lion. There is a powerful contrast between the restrained energy conveyed by the lion and the peace and grace of the standing figure of Una. The design is an unusual one for a British coin and has given the coin its familiar name of the Una and the lion five-pound piece.
A collector coin
Beautiful though it undoubtedly is, the coin has been criticised for being too medallic. In a sense this is unfair since the Royal Mint records contain no evidence that the Unas were ever to be struck for circulation. On the contrary, all the indications are that they were never intended to be anything other than proof coins and that they were primarily made for inclusion in the specimen sets of the first Victorian coins. These sets, dated 1839, were finally ready for distribution to collectors in 1843, but the Una in fact continued to be struck on occasion long after the sets had been completed.
Varieties and rarity
The total number struck is nevertheless no more than a few hundred. Yet for a rare coin it is surprising how many variations can be found among the surviving pieces. There are different metals, differing types of edge, differing patterns of ornamentation on the queen’s hairbands, and the different reverse reading DIRIGIT in the inscription instead of DIRIGE. It is therefore particularly fortunate that the Royal Mint Museum should contain no fewer than 13 specimens. Two are in gold, four in silver, two in bronzed copper and the remainder, including impressions from the unfinished dies, in tin. Between them they cover most of the varieties which have so far been identified.
If you have heard of only one rare coin, there is a good chance that it is the 1933 penny. For some reason this coin, more than any other, has lodged itself in the public consciousness. Indeed, people have spent a lifetime sifting through their coins in a vain attempt to find one.
The banks possessed such large stocks of pennies in 1933 that it was not necessary to strike any more for general circulation. But there was a convention at the time that complete sets of coins of the current year were buried under the foundation stones of new buildings. Consequently three 1933 pennies were struck for buildings erected in that year, along with a small number to be kept as record copies by the British Museum and the Royal Mint Museum.
No record was kept at the time of how many pennies dated 1933 were made but it is thought to be no more than six or seven. With no precise record of the number made, and with the coin having been struck to ordinary circulation standard, it seemed possible that one might turn up in everyday use, prompting a generation to search their change for the rare but ultimately elusive penny of 1933.
In August 1970 it was discovered that thieves had stolen the set of coins deposited beneath the foundation stone of the Church of St Cross, Middleton, near Leeds. As a result a second set, buried beneath the foundation stone of St Mary’s Church, Hawksworth Wood, Kirkstall, Leeds, was removed on the instructions of the bishop and sold. As far as is known the third set is still in place.
Shaped coins – shapes that is other than round – are nothing new. The Chinese, as with so much else, were there well before western Europe, while for England the Civil War siege pieces of the seventeenth century are an early example of experimentation with this idea. Britain had to wait until the 1930s, however, and the issue of the 12-sided threepence for its first multi-sided coin of regular issue and thereafter there was much more to come from many other countries.
The idea to issue the world's first equilateral-curve heptagon as part of Britain's new decimal currency came originally from H. G. Conway, the technical member of the Decimal Currency Board who was at that time President of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. The item illustrated here, which is inscribed with his name, is a trial piece from very early in the process of development. The fifty pence has since become an extremely popular coin and it is only right that on at least one coin the unsung hero of its introduction is celebrated.
The British Trade Dollar features a dramatic standing Britannia design by George William De Saulles. Some 270 million pieces were struck over a forty-year period from the mid 1890s for circulation in the Far East and, although its popularity waxed and waned, it seems to have met the needs of those who lobbied for its introduction.
The Museum collection contains a number of specimens of the coin but because it is a Mint collection, containing many trials and patterns, care has to be exercised in avoiding easy assumptions about the nature of particular items. For example, while not obvious from its appearance, the coin illustrated here turns out to have been struck in 925 silver whereas British dollars were issued with a silver fineness of 900. Precisely why this trial or pattern piece was made is not entirely clear but it acts as a warning that some items may be more unusual than they at first seem.
The fine sovereign of Elizabeth I pictured here was purchased from Lincoln for the Royal Mint Museum on 9 February 1914. It is a handsome coin and is one of only two sovereigns of Elizabeth's reign in the collection, but its significance for the Museum extends beyond the addition of a new type of Tudor sovereign.
In August 1913 William Hocking was appointed as the first Curator and Librarian of the Museum, in large part as recognition of his substantial contribution evidenced through the publication a few years before of his two-volume catalogue of the collection. As part of the new arrangements he thought it appropriate to set up a new system of recording additions and an Accessions Register was duly established in 1914, the first entry being this fine sovereign of Elizabeth I. From that time on funds were made available for further additions under Hocking's direction and as a result a number of rare and interesting items now have a home in the Museum.
As a rarity the uniface Peace Crown of 1926 ranks very high. During that year the idea of issuing a crown with peace as a theme was mentioned in a speech delivered in the House of Commons by the historian and numismatist Sir Charles Oman and subsequently he actively pursued the idea with officials at the Mint. The design that was developed of the seated figure of Britannia was drawn by Francis Derwent Wood and modelled by Humphrey Paget and pattern pieces were struck during July 1926.
Strangely, the Peace Crown illustrated has not always been in the Royal Mint collection. It originally belonged to Sir Charles Oman and was given to the Mint by his son in 1974, a very generous gesture that filled a conspicuous gap in the Mint collection, since a specimen of the coin was not retained at the time. As the idea for the crown gained momentum other designs were considered and the pattern piece shown here was eventually abandoned, making the very few pieces that survive of this beautiful coin of real interest.
Because of the Abdication in December 1936 no coins of Edward VIII were issued in the United Kingdom. There had, however, been time for pattern pieces to be prepared and the Royal Mint Museum contains the finest collection of such pieces in the world.
Such was the sensitivity surrounding the Abdication that for many years these patterns were locked away and not treated as part of the Museum collection; few people knew what had survived and the existence of the coins became something of a mystery even within the Royal Mint. It was not until the retirement of Sir Jack James, Deputy Master from 1957 to 1970, that a sealed cardboard box was retrieved from a safe in his office and found to contain no fewer than 49 coins of Edward VIII. On 5 November 1970 these coins were placed in the Museum and provide the core of what is listed here.
Three other specimens had in fact survived in the Mint but, as uniface reverses, had not been associated with Edward VIII. One of these, the pattern crown RMM 14, had come into the collection from the Operative Department in March 1938 but the other two, the penny RMM 52 and the halfpenny RMM 57, had found their way for some reason into the coin collection held in the Assay Department. In January 1974, with the consent of the Chemist and Assayer, Mr E. G. V. Newman, in whose office the collection was kept, the two uniface patterns were extracted for the Museum.
Just previous to this there had been a significant addition of some 20 or so rubber impressions (RMM 62-81) from surviving dies and tools for the coinage of Edward VIII. These impressions had been prepared within the Mint to illustrate the official account of The Proposed Coinage of King Edward VIII by G. P. Dyer, the Librarian and Curator. Published in 1973 following the death of the former King the previous year, the booklet contained a detailed description of what the press called ‘the coinage that never was’ and in the interests of completeness it had been thought desirable to include all designs for which dies were made in 1936. Where there were no corresponding pattern coins in the Museum, the designs were illustrated by means of rubber impressions specially taken for the purpose from the dies and these impressions were subsequently added to the collection.
Since 1974 the Museum has filled some of the gaps in its collection by the acquisition of pattern and trial coins in the saleroom or by private treaty.
One of the great rarities of the Canadian coinage is the one dollar of 1911. The master tools were made by the Royal Mint and, prior to their being shipped across to Canada, a trial striking was carried out. A little like the 1933 penny, no record was made of exactly how many were produced but two are definitely known and the coins have over the years generated an extensive literature. The specimen in the Bank of Canada’s National Currency Collection, on long-term loan from the Royal Mint Museum since the mid 1970s, was loaned as a gesture of good will. What has been less clear, until now, is the provenance of the other specimen of the coin in private hands.
By good fortune, however, within the last 18 months a copy of William Hocking’s catalogue of the Museum collection, annotated by Hocking himself, was acquired for the Museum and it reveals that before 1914 two specimens of the 1911 dollar came into the Museum. One is now in the Bank of Canada and the route by which the other specimen seems to have eventually found its way onto the market would appear to be by having been de-accessioned direct from the Royal Mint Museum. Precisely when and why this was done remains unclear but any thought of the involvement of the Deputy Master William Ellison-Macartney, who left the Royal Mint in February 1913, as has been mentioned, is extremely unlikely.
The coin illustrated here is not just a familiar Maria Theresa thaler but was in fact the actual one employed in the preparation of the dies for the striking of thalers by the Royal Mint. For some twenty-five years from the mid 1930s millions of thalers were produced at Tower Hill in order to supply British merchants operating in Ethiopia and neighbouring territories where the thaler was extensively used.
A wax enlargement was generated on the reducing machine from this thaler and was given to the artist Langford Jones to sharpen the details and clean up the surface knocks and bangs from the original coin. He was under firm instructions to make an exact copy of the original, paying particular attention to the small feathers on the wings. Clara Semple's published history of the thaler mentions the Tower Hill production and reminds us what a colourful and fascinating life this much-loved coin has had.
When the coinage of Hong Kong was being introduced in the 1860s several trial pieces were prepared for the range of planned denominations. The one cent piece illustrated here was one such trial, combining a crowned portrait of Queen Victoria on the obverse with several symbolic devices on the reverse, including a miniature St George and the dragon.
The reverse also includes the letters RM, for Royal Mint, and TG, the initials of the then Master of the Mint Thomas Graham. It may well have been in Thomas Graham's mind that an earlier Master, William Wellesley Pole, had gone to great pains to ensure that his initials appeared on the new half-crowns, shillings and sixpences introduced in February 1817. As it transpired, Thomas Graham was not to have his moment of glory on the Hong Kong coinage, his initials being omitted from the designs finally approved.
In 1945 the Government of India came under pressure to introduce a new coin for use by the poor of a denomination smaller than the pierced coin, the Pice. Mint officials at Bombay were asked to find a solution and the result, worked out and produced in less than a week, was the Pie, made from the circular disc punched from the centre of the Pice. The intention of making such a small coin was to ensure that its metal value would not exceed its face value but with such a small diameter it would have been a difficult coin to use and the idea, together with the pattern pieces, was shelved.
This specimen found its way into the Royal Mint collection as a gift from the aptly named Major Money, one of the senior officials at the Bombay Mint in the 1940s. He visited the Royal Mint in the early 1990s and his excellent memory of the time has helped provide the background to how this tiny coin came to be made. It was an ingenious idea, hit upon by Major Money himself, to make use of the otherwise redundant centre of a pierced coin. It also provides a charming example of how a national collection can be built up through acts of kindness as well as through deliberate accessions policies.
One of the coins most frequently shown to visitors to the Royal Mint Museum is the Monogram Penny of Alfred the Great, (871-899). It is a distinctive coin, with its skilfully worked arrangement of the name Londonia and a stylised portrait of Alfred crude in its execution but nonetheless full of personality.
At the same time, one of the most frequently asked questions is when was the Royal Mint established but, not having a formal charter or clear record of a definite starting point, we can only know from the record of the coins themselves of the existence of the Mint from very early times. As one of the first coins to state explicitly that it was minted in London, the Monogram Penny has come to be regarded as a particularly significant coin in the history of the Royal Mint. But minting was taking place in London before it was re-settled by Alfred the Great so, while this coin is a convenient way in which to arrive at the beginning of the Mint's history, quite when it actually began will remain open to question.
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