The 'Chief Coin of the World'

It was during Queen Victoria’s long reign that the sovereign firmly established itself as a coin of true international significance. By the 1880s, it had become known as the ‘chief coin of the world’ and an official list named no fewer than 36 British colonies and dependencies in which the sovereign was legal tender; countries that had no connection to Britain, such as Brazil, Egypt and Portugal, accepted it as currency too. Trusted for its reliability, the coin’s reputation was built on its tight tolerances and The Royal Mint’s exacting production controls, a standing further enhanced by legislation that helped remove underweight sovereigns from circulation. At the turn of the century, the active circulation of gold in the UK was somewhere in the region of £100,000,000 and, as demand for the coin had grown throughout the world, branches of the Royal Mint were established in Australia close to sources of gold in order to strike the coin.


Did You Know?


• Housed in a former hospital known as the ‘Rum Hospital’, the building which would later go on to become the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint was originally funded by the proceeds of rum sales.

• Closely supervised from London, the overseas branch mints routinely received tooling for sovereigns which was sent out from the Mint’s headquarters at Tower Hill in order to maintain standards.

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A Trio of Portraits

Three portraits of Queen Victoria are used on sovereigns struck in the UK, the first of these being William Wyon’s graceful portrait of the queen which appeared on coins issued in 1838. The talented engraver clearly held the queen’s respect and admiration, having remarked to Wyon he ‘always’ represented her ‘favourably’. Despite this, not everyone considered the portrait a success and The Times believed it to be a poor likeness but the portrait remained on the coinage until Queen Victoria was well into her 60s. The sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm prepared the new portrait that replaced Wyon’s work and its introduction coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 but widespread criticism of the design meant it was not used for long. Prepared by the artist Thomas Brock, the final portrait of Queen Victoria to appear on sovereigns was first used in 1893.

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Victoria sovereigns featuring portraits by William Wyon (RMM3753), Joseph Edgar Boehm (RMM3786) and Thomas Brock (RMM3797)

The Return of George and the Dragon

For the reverse of the sovereign, Jean Baptiste Merlen engraved another shield of the Royal Arms within a wreath that appeared for several decades. It did not, however, appeal to the new Deputy Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Charles Fremantle, who in 1871 secured the revival of Pistrucci’s St George and the dragon, which had been absent from the coin since 1825. For a time, both designs appeared simultaneously but the shield design was eventually dropped from sovereigns struck in the UK in 1875.

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Victoria sovereign reverses featuring designs by Jean Baptiste Merlen (RMM3741) and Benedetto Pistrucci (RMM3770)

Did You Know?

• Pre-Victorian gold coins ceased to be legal tender from 1891.

• The portraits for Queen Victoria’s sovereigns are often referred to as the young head, jubilee head and old head.

• For gold required in day-to-day transactions, spring-loaded cases complete with rings for suspension on a watch-chain were developed so that they could be carried in the fob of a waistcoat.

• Die numbers appeared on sovereigns between 1863 and 1874. Probably introduced to track poor-quality coins back to the press operator responsible for their production, these small numbers appear below the shield on the reverse of the coins.

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