The Pre-Decimal Penny in UK History and Culture
A Vintage Coin With a Relatively Recent History
The penny has had a very long and interesting history in the United Kingdom. It doesn't have much monetary value today, but in the past it was both monetarily and culturally important. An important juncture in its history was the introduction of a decimal currency and a new penny in 1971. The pre-decimal penny of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was associated with many traditions and sayings. Exploring these traditions is an enjoyable way to learn about the history of the UK.
Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck.— A traditional saying
A Brief History of the Coin
The symbol for the pre-decimal penny was d. The letter came from an Ancient Roman coin called the denarius. The Romans successfully invaded Britain in AD 43 and left in AD 410. Their departure was followed by an invasion by the Angles and the Saxons. The penny existed as long ago as Anglo-Saxon times but was made of silver at first. The name of the penny is said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon words "penig" or "pening", which were used for the early form of the coin.
In 1797, the silver in the penny was changed to copper. In 1860, the copper was replaced by bronze. The composition stayed the same until demonetization on February 15th, 1971. On this day ("Decimal Day"), Britain officially changed to a decimal currency.
In the pre-decimal currency, twelve pennies equaled a shilling and twenty shillings (or 240 pennies) equaled a pound. In the decimal currency, a hundred pennies make a pound. The decimal penny is currently made of copper-plated steel. It's smaller than the pre-decimal coin and and is imprinted with a different design.
Britain consists of England, Wales, and Scotland. The United Kingdom consists of Britain plus Northern Ireland. The flag of the UK is called the Union Jack. The flag of England shows Saint George's Cross.
The designs imprinted on coins are often interesting works of art. The front of a coin is known as the obverse and the back as the reverse. The obverse of the penny in the last three centuries bore a depiction of the reigning monarch. The reverse often bore a depiction of Britannia.
Britannia is a female figure who personifies Britain. She first appeared on Ancient Roman coins and was at one point in time considered to be a goddess. She traditionally wears a helmet and carries a trident in one hand. Her other hand rests on a shield. A trident is a spear with three prongs and is also associated with Neptune, the Ancient Roman god of the sea. In more modern depictions of Britannia, the shield often shows the Union Jack.
The photos above and below show the obverse and the reverse of a 1946 and 1916 penny from my father's coin collection.
Penny-in-the-Slot Gas Meters
The old coins of the UK are linked to many stories and traditions. I lived in the United Kingdom while the pre-decimal coins were in use and experienced some of the penny's traditions in my childhood. Other traditions described in this article were popular before I was born.
My grandfather lived in an old house built in Victorian times. He had a gas meter in his hallway that needed to be fed with coins in order to supply fuel to the house. The penny gas meter was once common in homes like my grandfather’s. I can’t remember what coin Grandad's meter required. I'm fairly certain that the coin had a value of more than a penny and that it was either a sixpence or a shilling. The meter operated by the same principle as the penny version, however.
I remember occasions when the flame on the stove went out and my grandfather or aunt had to put another coin in the meter slot. Feeding the meter was a normal part of life. The money that was put in the device was periodically collected by a representative of the gas company.
"A penny saved is a penny earned (or got or gained)" is an old expression stressing the value of money.
The top coin in the photo above shows Athelstan, an Anglo-Saxon king of the tenth century. The bottom one shows Ethelred, a king of the tenth and eleventh century.
Vending Machines and a New Expression
Penny-in-the slot machines had other applications besides measuring gas use. They were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some machines dispensed chocolate bars, for example. Others provided stamps. The machines existed as late as my childhood, but by then they required more than a penny to use. Choosing a chocolate bar from a machine was a fun part of a trip to a train station. The machines were specialty ones that were often fixed to a wall, unlike today's multi-product and free-standing vending machines.
The popularity of penny-in-the slot machines gave rise to a new saying. If someone uses an expression such as "Now the penny's dropped" to describe another person, they're saying that the person finally understands something that a speaker has been trying to explain to them. The expression is often said as a friendly jest or even by people about themselves. It can sometimes be irritating, though, because it implies that the person took a long time to understand something that was obvious to the speaker.
Another expression related to the human mind and referring to the penny is "A penny for your thoughts". The expression is used when a person wants to know what someone deep in thought is thinking about.
Spend a Penny
When I was growing up and for some time before I was born, a penny had to put in a slot to unlock the door of a public toilet. This gave rise to the euphemism "spend a penny", which meant going to the washroom. Public toilets in the UK were—and are—present in special buildings in busy streets and at facilities such as train stations. Many of the buildings date from the Victorian age. In city centres they are often located below ground level. Today the toilets cost far more than a penny to use.
The public toilet system sounds strange to me now, as it probably does to many other North Americans. It seems unfair to have to pay for a normal and frequent body function. It also seems unfair that people who may not be able to "hold it" need to pay to use a washroom, such as young children, pregnant women, people with certain medical conditions, and elderly people.
Today public toilet buildings are gradually being closed or repurposed in the UK. The closure often forces people to enter specific types of businesses or other institutions if they need to use a washroom. Some places in the UK operate a community toilet scheme. In this scheme, business such as shops, restaurants, and pubs are paid by the local government in return for allowing the public to use their washrooms without paying and without making a purchase. The plan could be useful, as long as a sufficient number of businesses belong to the scheme, the public knows where they're located, and the locations are convenient.
Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!— A traditional rhyme
A Christmas Nursery Rhyme
The penny plays an important role in at least two popular and traditional nursery rhymes. One is associated with Christmas and the other with Easter. The "Christmas is coming" rhyme above is liked because it's about helping someone who is less fortunate than ourselves and because it expresses sympathy for people who don't have money. The song is believed to be several centuries old, but its origin is unknown.
The ha'penny referred to in the song is the halfpenny (pronounced haypenny). As its name suggests, the coin was worth half of a penny. A new halfpenny was created after decimalization but has since been discontinued.
One a penny, two a penny,
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons;
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot-cross buns!— A traditional rhyme (via the Poetry Foundation)
Hot Cross Buns
Hot cross buns have been a traditional food at Easter for a long time. The buns are decorated with a cross and were once eaten specifically on Good Friday in remembrance of Christ. They were originally plain buns with a dough cross instead of the sweet, raisin-filled treats that stores sell today.
The idea of selling the buns for one or two a penny dates from the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The buns themselves may date from several centuries earlier, however. The "Hot cross buns" rhyme is still enjoyed today, though like the Christmas poem above its date of origin is unknown. The poem is often sung.
Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot
The Importance of November Fifth
Bonfire Night, Fireworks Day or Night, or Guy Fawkes Day is a popular event in Britain that was associated with the penny for many years. The event celebrates the capture of Guy Fawkes, who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was found in the cellar of the Houses of Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder on the night of November 4th. His goal was to destroy the building as well as King James 1, who was expected to be in the building on November 5th in order to open parliament. Fawkes was one of a group of Catholics who objected to their repression by Protestants and were determined to do something about it.
The day after Guy Fawke's capture—November 5th—a celebration was held. People lit bonfires to celebrate the safety of the king and parliament. Guy Fawkes was sentenced to a horrible death, but he jumped off the execution platform and broke his neck to avoid it.
The signs that the children are holding are written in the Welsh language. The word "ceiniog" means penny.
A Penny for the Guy
The tradition of lighting a bonfire on November 5th continued after 1605 and still takes place today. According to the BBC, the custom of burning an effigy that represented Guy Fawkes started in the nineteenth century. At some point fireworks were added to the celebration.
Today the November 5th celebration is often a communal one. A big bonfire and fireworks display is held in an open space within the community. When I was a child, the celebration was more often held by individual families. My father lit fireworks for my family in our back garden on bonfire night, as many other families did. I sometimes saw a guy that someone else in my neighbourhood had created, though like a bonfire it wasn't part of my celebration.
The guy seems to have been more popular in the past than it is today. Children often made the effigy and then pushed it around in a wheelbarrow, a pram (baby carriage), or a pushchair (stroller), asking for "a penny for the guy". It was a traditional way for them to make money to buy fireworks or sweets. According to what I've read, the tradition is rare today. Effigies are still burned in bonfires, however, even though this could be considered an unpleasant tradition.
Black Bess or the Knight of the Road told the story of Dick Turpin and his horse. It dates from circa 1860. Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood dates from 1845. Each periodical cost one penny per issue, or 1d. Sometimes free issues were added to a paid one as a bonus.
"Penny dreadful" was originally a term used for some nineteenth-century periodicals that each cost a penny per issue. The periodicals contained exciting, sensational, and often shocking stories that involved crime, gore, and/or the supernatural. The stories were published in installments and were illustrated. They were printed on cheap paper, but fortunately some have survived. The publications were especially popular with working class men, who could afford the entertainment that they provided.
The term "penny dreadful" was often used as a scornful name by people who didn't appreciate the quality of the publications. The periodicals were also known as penny bloods due to the nature of their contents.
The String of Pearls was the original story of Sweeney Todd. The edition above was published around 1850.
An Unusual Bicycle
The farthing was an old coin that was worth a quarter of a penny. It was demonetized in 1961. Both the old penny and the farthing sound like insignificant amounts of money today, but in the past they were worth more than they did as Decimal Day approached. The farthing was a much smaller coin than the pre-decimal penny with respect to size, however.
The penny-farthing bike got its name from the difference in the size of its wheels, which reminded people of the size difference between a penny and a farthing. The front wheel was very large and the back wheel very small. The bicycle was created in the 1870s. It was difficult to mount and dismount and hard to control, at least for a beginner, and it didn't have hand brakes. The rider was in danger of "taking a header", or being thrown over the handlebars. It was popular with men for a while, however. The big front wheel of the penny-farthing enabled people to move fast. Some men participated in races or travelled for long distances on the bicycle.
The penny-farthing was eventually replaced by safer bicycles. It's still made, though. It's a specialty bike that has fans, including the man in the video below.
How to Ride a Penny-Farthing
I enjoy exploring coins from the past. Both their design and their history intrigue me. Old coins were once a major part of people's lives, just as modern ones are today. Although the currency of the past was important economically, it also had cultural value. The pre-decimal penny was associated with many traditions besides the ones described in this article. I think that the traditions linked to vintage coins are well worth investigating.
- Historical facts about the pre-decimal penny from the Royal Mint
- Information about "The penny's dropped" from World Histories
- Disappearance of public toilets in Britain from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
- Origin of "A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned" from The Phrase Finder website
- Information about the Christmas is coming rhyme from the rhymes.org site
- Myths and traditions linked to hot cross buns from the Smithsonian Magazine
- Facts about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) History Extra site
- Penny for the guy facts and photos from the Daily Mail newspaper
- Information about penny dreadfuls from the British Library
- Facts about the penny-farthing bicycle from the National Cycle Museum
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton