Coins of England and Great Britain

('Coins of the UK')

by Tony Clayton

5 - The Penny

Three Farthings <<-- : -->> The Penny-Halfpenny

Values of One Penny Coins
Pictures of One Penny Coins

Silver Pence

The penny is amongst the earliest of British coins, being first minted in the 8th century AD. A denier had been struck in the kingdom of the Franks about 755 AD, and the Kings of Kent (Heaberht) and Mercia (Offa) followed suit soon after. However, it was not until Eadgar became King of all England in 959 that the silver penny became universal throughout the country. Indeed, until the reign of Henry III it was virtually the only denomination minted.

The old abbreviation d for penny comes from the denier, which in turn derives from the Roman denarius.

Due to the longevity of the issue, the frequent changes of type during each reign, and the large number of mints and moneyers during the mediaeval period, this is a very complex series, which I cannot possibly do justice to on this page. To take an example, during the reign of Stephen (1135-1154) there are five main types with over 60 mints, not counting those produced by Queen Matilda or the northern Earls during this turbulent decade.

Initially pennies were of the Short Cross type, as shown in an example of a Henry II penny, but these were liable to be clipped, so the cross was extended to the border of the coin, as in this Henry III type.

The silver penny is still minted for the Maundy Ceremony where the Queen gives a number of pensioners (the number corresponding to her age) a quantity of silver coins specially minted for the purpose in a white purse. The coins are 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p denomination, and the total number of pence given to each pensioner also corresponds to the age of the Queen.

The last hammered pennies were produced in the reign of Charles II, after which machine struck pennies were made. For some years they were issued for general currency use, but as years passed they were eventually issued for the Maundy ceremony only, a practice that continues to this day. The one penny coins are very small, and all have a crown over the numeral 1 with a wreath around on the reverse.

Copper Pence

George III

The first copper penny was the famous Cartwheel Penny struck by Matthew Boulton at the Soho Mint, Birmingham in 1797, during the reign of George III. It weighed a full one ounce (28.3g) with a diameter of 36mm, and was rather heavy for the pocket. Many have survived being used as weights for kitchen scales, and thus battered and worn.

You can have a very large specialised collection of this coin, as the details differ from die to die, especially in the design of the ship seen in front of Britannia on the reverse.

The coin was issued for some years with no change in date. However, a new design was issued between 1806 and 1808, weighing only 18.9g.

I am often asked about penny coins dated 1799. These are always halfpennies which, being quite large, are frequently mistaken for pennies.

There are many late strikes made by Matthew Boulton in a variety of metals, and further ones made by W.J.Taylor when he bought the dies in 1848. I believe that the chief way these later issues can be distinguished is by marks resulting from die corrosion. He also produced a pattern dated 1805 with a different design.

George IV

A further gap in dates then follows, until 1825, when a new design was produced for George IV. The 1827 issue is rare, being produced for use in Australia. An illustration of the obverse of an 1826 penny is also available.

There are three reverse types for the George IV issues, differing in the representation of the St Patrick's cross on the shield:

These issues, along with those issued up until 1860, weigh about 18.8g and have a diameter of 34mm.

William IV

Intermittent issues were made for William IV, with coins available dated 1831, 1834 and 1837. It is said that a coin dated 1836 exists, but there is some doubt about the reality of this. The 1831 coin issued for circulation exists in three varieties:


There follows what is to me one of the great beauties in the numismatic world, the Copper Penny of Queen Victoria, issued from 1839 to 1860, although the latter date is very scarce, as is 1849. The obverse shows the splendid Wyon portrait of the queen, while the reverse has a representation of Britannia. The coin needs to be seen in at least EF condition to see it's true glory.

There are some interesting varieties involving the design of the trident and the spacing of the colons in the inscription. Usually the trident is ornamental, but between 1853 and 1857 a plain trident version also exists. The close colon variety has the colon after DEF obviously close to the F, while the far colon variety has it about halfway between the F and Britannia's foot.

Years where more than one circulation type exists are as follows:

The 1860 coins are all 1860 over 1859, and were not issued for circulation.

The copper coins were demonetised on 31st December 1869, and accepted by the Mint at face value until 30th July 1873.

Bronze Pence


As with the lower denominations, a switch was made to bronze in 1860, with the introduction of what has always been known as the Bun Penny. The diameter was reduced from 34 mm to 30.81 mm, and the thickness significantly reduced. The new coin was half the weight of the old at 9.4g, and was officially coined at 48 pence to the pound. These dimensions remained the same until 1970.

The composition of the new coin was based on that adopted by France in 1852, and consisted of 95% copper, 4% tin and 1% zinc. Inevitably, a number of patterns were produced before the final design was accepted.

For all issues from 1860 to 1970, the basic reverse design remained similar, with Britannia seated facing right, holding a shield and trident, the words ONE PENNY and the date in the exergue below.

There are two varieties of the 1860 penny with toothed or beaded borders, and scarce mules (e.g. obverse toothed, reverse beaded) of both types are known. It seems that dies with the beaded border developed flaws more rapidly.

The design of Queen Victoria's head gradually changes as the years pass, reflecting her ageing, often in a subtle manner.

The following obverse dies are known, according to Peck:

The following reverse dies are known:

Known Die Pairings (excluding proofs):

The above information is given as a guide only. For more detailed information, along with illustrations, consult a copy of Peck or Freeman. I am indebted to Bernie Workman for information on varieties not listed in Peck.

The Bun penny was minted every year from 1860 to 1894. As for the lower denominations, the Heaton Mint was used from 1874 to 1876, and from 1881 to 1882.

Scarce years are 1869, 1870 and 1871.

The 1875 penny comes with two settings for the date, one narrower than the other. The narrow variety is only slightly scarcer than the wide.

The 1882 penny without mintmark is particularly rare (and not in Peck), but watch for worn coins where the mintmark has been worn away. A variety with the bar missing from the H is known. The following is a description of how to tell a genuine 1882 no H from an 1882H penny, as kindly related by the Penny specialist Bernie:

The identifiable features of the genuine non "H" 1882 penny are a flat shield on the reverse, NOT convex. Victoria has an apparent hooked nose, caused by a weak die strike in the area of the eyeball. The "R" and the "I" in "BRITT" should not be joined; a very small space should be visible with a magnifier. There is a tuft of hair protruding from the back of the neck, left of the ribbon knot. This tuft of hair is always visible on very worn specimens. The "H" variety can be clarified by examining the space encapsulated by the inner ribbon, as if the uppermost section forms a point in this triangulated section, then it is the common variety. The rare non "H" does not terminate in a point because of the tuft of hair mentioned above.

I should add that there are two types of obverse and reverse for 1882H pennies, and that the 1882 No H penny has the less common types - having these characteristics does not ensure that it is a No H, but having the characteristics of the other types confirms that there was an H even if worn away.

The Veiled Head issues from 1895 to 1901 are fairly common, with two main varieties: 1mm or 2mm spacing of the trident from the P of PENNY in 1895, and a scarce 'high-tide' version of 1897 (Picture courtesy of Martin Platt). The two 1895 designs differ in other respects also, including tide height.

Edward VII

For Edward VII a low-tide penny for 1902 occurs as for the halfpenny. The normal 'high-tide' version is also illustrated.

The 1903 penny comes with two varieties of the numeral 3. Normally closed, the open version is scarce.

There are also two reverses for 1905, the first as for 1904 with the upright of the E almost parallel with that of the P in PENNY, and the second as for 1906 with the E more parallel with the N.

In 1908 changes of both obverse and reverse took place. First the obverse changed from the 1907 pattern (1C) to the 1909 pattern (2C), with the colons becoming more central between the words, and then the reverse changing to the 1909 pattern (2D) with a choppier sea which now meets the legs exactly where they cross. At least one copy of the other combination (1D) has been reported.

George V

George V produced a wide variety of interesting pennies. The Heaton Mint was used in 1912, 1918 and 1919, although the H is much smaller than for the Bun pennies, and is situated in the left corner of the exergue. In addition for 1918 and 1919 some pennies were minted at the Kings Norton Metal Company and have a small KN on the left in the exergue. These are scarcer than the H coins and very difficult to find in grades higher than VF. An image of a rare EF 1919KN penny is available by clicking here. Interestingly, the 1912H coin is probably more easily found than the 1912 coin despite a much lower mintage, as the former was preferentially saved by collectors before the advent of decimalisation.

In 1913 the obverse changed slightly, with the lower stop of the colon between GRA BRITT, originally closer to the A, changing to a midway position. Also the reverse was modified with some extra ripples to the right of the shield. All four die combinations (1A,1B,2A,2B) are known, with the 1B and 2A varieties being scarcest.

There is a very rare variety of reverse for the 1922 penny, which is similar to, but not the same as, the new reverse introduced in 1927. The length of the teeth around the edge is the simplest way of confirming that you have the common form!

Production of pence did not take place between 1923 and 1925. During this period work was done to try and remove an effect known as ghosting. This was caused by the deep relief of the King's head. As a result, the flow of metal during striking often resulted in a ghost-like image on the reverse. The alloy used was modified from 95% Cu, 4% Sn and 1% Zn to 95.5% Cu, 3% Sn and 1.5% Zn in 1926, and then the head was redesigned with lower relief first during 1926, and then again in 1928.

The 1926 penny is scarce, particularly with the modified low relief effigy of the King. If you do not have a pre-1926 penny to compare it with, look at the I in DEI and the I in BRITT. If the centre line of the I in DEI points between two teeth, and that in BRITT at a tooth on the rim, it is the unmodified effigy version. If the I in DEI points directly at a tooth while that in BRITT points between two teeth it is the modified effigy version. The colons after GRA and BRITT also differ in their position.

One of the great rarities of the British series is the 1933 penny. None were issued for general circulation, but seven were made: three proofs to place in foundation stones laid by the King and four currency issues. At least one of the proofs has been stolen (from the Church of St.Cross, Middleton, in 1970), but the other six are all accounted for. Just three (including one proof) are in private hands.

If you find a 1933 penny, it is highly likely to be an altered coin which originally had a more common date, or is from Ireland or the Channel Islands!

In addition there are four pattern pennies known to exist which have a larger portrait of George V and a slightly different version of Britannia on the reverse.

Edward VIII

In common with other denominations, an Edward VIII penny was produced dated 1937, but none were issued as it is the custom to await the Coronation, and he abdicated first. The reverse design was modified and once again showed a lighthouse. At least five proof copies are known to exist; two of these are in private hands.

George VI

During the reign of George VI pennies were struck until 1940, when it was found that demand was reduced because of the popularity of the new nickel-brass threepence coin. Between 1941 and 1943 any pennies that needed to be struck were dated 1940. Production restarted with a low tin bronze (97% Cu, 0.5% Sn, 2.5% Zn) in 1944, but reverted to the earlier alloy during 1945. These coins tarnished badly and had a pinkish shade, so the 1944 to 1946 coins were darkened artificially.

There are two years with design varieties. In 1937 the reverse was changed first: the right limbs of the second N in PENNY points either at a tooth (Rev.A), or between teeth (Rev.B). Then the obverse was changed slightly, so that the upright of P in IMP changed from pointing directly at a tooth (Obv.1) to pointing slightly to the right (Obv.2). The combination of Obverse 2 with Reverse A is not known.

During the issue of the 1940 penny the exergue line on the reverse changed from being single to double.

In 1950 supply of pennies exceeded demand (due to the introduction of the brass threepenny piece in 1937), and so no domestic issue was made. However a limited mintage of 240,000 pennies was made in 1950, followed by 120,000 dated 1951, both for colonial use. Most of those dated 1951 were sent to Bermuda. I personally never found either of these dates in circulation in the UK in the mid-60's, despite an extensive search of many thousands of pennies.

Freeman states that UK demand in this period was satisfied using 1949 pennies.

A very rare proof dated 1952 has recently come to light, which may prove to be unique, although there is a possibility that a second exists.

Elizabeth II

Demand was still low on the accession of Queen Elizabeth II, so the only circulation quality pennies issued were in the coin sets made in time for the Coronation. These sets were often broken up, so 1953 pennies were seen in change on occasion before decimalisation.

Possibly just one example of a 1953 penny with a toothed border on the reverse is known. This border is like that for George VI pennies, and are undoubtedly the product of the initial trials of the new portrait.

The next year all denominations were re-designed with a more deep-cut portrait and revised inscription. A few 1954 pennies were struck for trial purposes to test the new dies, and all should have been melted down. However, a single copy has unofficially survived to become another of the classic British rarities. I believe that it was originally found in circulation.

Striking of pennies for circulation restarted in 1961, and ran through in enormous numbers to 1967. The alloy used was the low tin alloy used in 1944. The date 1967 was used after that year to satisfy the large demand for the coin, mainly speculation. The reverse design was similar to that of George VI, with a lighthouse to the left of Britannia, but with round beads rather than teeth at the edge.

The final issue before decimalisation was a proof version dated 1970 (that is a bit of a misnomer as I believe that the 1970 Proof set was minted a few years after decimalisation).

The old large pennies were demonetised on 31st August 1971.


See my Main Coins Page for acknowledgements


Three Farthings <<-- : -->> The Penny-Halfpenny
Main History Index
Values of Pennies
Values Index
Pictures of Silver Pennies -1066
Pictures of Silver Pennies 1066+
Pictures of Copper Pennies 1797-1860
Pictures of Bronze Pennies 1860-1901
Pictures of Bronze Pennies 1902-1936
Pictures of Bronze Pennies 1937-1970
Pictures Index

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Coins of the UK - 5 - The Penny
Copyright reserved by the author, Tony Clayton
v68 19th January 2013
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