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Facts About 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 Penny

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.

A Britannia sculpture, the flags of the UK and England, and a map of the United Kingdom

A Britannia sculpture, the flags of the UK and England, and a map of the United Kingdom

Britain consists of England, Wales, and Scotland. The United Kingdom consists of Britain plus Northern Ireland. The rest of the large island to the west of Britain became the Republic of Ireland (or simply Ireland) in 1949 and is not part of the UK. The flag of the UK is called the Union Jack. The flag of England shows Saint George's Cross.

Coin Design

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.

A 1946 penny on the left and a 1916 one on the right

A 1946 penny on the left and a 1916 one on the right

The photos above and below show the obverse and the reverse of a 1946 and 1916 penny from my father's coin collection. My family used to live in Britain.

The reverse of the coins

The reverse of the coins

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.

A penny stamp machine and two Anglo-Saxon pennies

A penny stamp machine and two Anglo-Saxon pennies

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.

A penny-in-the-slot device from an old toilet plus the two sides of a 1903 penny

A penny-in-the-slot device from an old toilet plus the two sides of a 1903 penny

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.

Hot cross buns as they often appear today

Hot cross buns as they often appear today

Hot-cross buns!

Hot-cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot-cross buns!

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 Rhyme

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.

Fawkes 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. James was a Protestant. Fawkes was one of a group of Catholics who objected to their repression by Protestants and were determined to do something about it. They wanted to place a Catholic on the throne.

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 be hung, drawn, and quartered, but he jumped off the execution platform and broke his neck to avoid this fate.

Children in Wales ask for a penny for the guy in 1962.

Children in Wales ask for a penny for the guy in 1962.

The signs that the children are holding are written in the Welsh language. As might be guessed, 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. The custom of burning an effigy that represented Guy Fawkes reportedly 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 (candy). 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 Dreadfuls

"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, a fictional barber who murdered some of his customers and gave their bodies to a woman named Mrs. Lovett. She made meat pies from the bodies and sold them to her customers. The edition of the story shown above was published around 1850. Though the women's name is spelled "Lovatt" in the illustration, in the text of the story it's written as "Lovett."

The Penny-Farthing: 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 bicycle 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 of the bike was very large and the back wheel very small. The bicycle was created in the 1870s.

The penny-farthing 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 bike 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

The Value of Exploring Old Coins

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. They enable us to learn about history, often in a very interesting way.


© 2018 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 13, 2020:

That sounds like a great collection. I only have a few pennies.

Wil on January 13, 2020:

I have about 26 of these pennies in my coin collection

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 22, 2018:

Thank you for sharing your lovely memories, Dream On. I remember how excited I was to find change on the ground when I was a child. It's a shame that today's change doesn't have as much buying power.

DREAM ON on March 21, 2018:

You touched on so many memories where do I begin. Well first and foremost I want to say how your story touched my heart. Growing up down the street from our school there was a corner store and when we were old enough we would walk in. There was penny candy all laid out and we could pick and choose. The owner would put our fifty cents worth in a small paper bag. It was like gold. Little tiny red fish, and all different shapes and sizes of other candy. It has been a long time and I forgot their names. Even though I remember how good they taste. There wasn't a candy I didn't like. Now that is a thing of the past. To this day when I am walking anywhere. I look down at my feet. I find a penny or even a dime on occasion. I like to walk by a car wash and they have hoses to vacuum out your car. It is good place to find loose change. I strike it rich sometimes. There was one time there had to be thirty five cents in change. Five pennies a quarter and a nickel. I couldn't be happier. Today it's not enough to buy one candy bar but I think like a kid and I am filled with joy. Thank you so much for sharing and teaching us about history at the same time.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 26, 2018:

Hi, Sonia. Your comment reminded me of the money boxes that I used as a child. I had one that was shaped like a horse, which I loved. A pound to "spend a penny" is very sad.

Sonia Sylart from UK on February 26, 2018:

Great information here Linda. It's interesting to read the origins of so many penny phrases we use/hear so often. This article has me smiling and remembering the old days when I used to save my pennies, sixpences and thrupenny bits in an old sticky plaster tin which had a flip top.

Concerning "spending a penny" - in central London nowadays you could pay as much as £1.00 (100 new pence).


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 30, 2018:

Thanks, Nithya. I'm glad you enjoyed the read.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on January 30, 2018:

An interesting and informative read about the pre-decimal penny in the UK. Learned a lot reading this article and enjoyed the read.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 29, 2018:

Hi, Peggy. I find that old coins can bring back a lot of memories. The coin's history and the memories are interesting to explore.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 29, 2018:

What an interesting article you wrote Linda regarding the pre-decimal penny in the UK and all the memories you had of it as well as the history. I thought that it was particularly interesting that people like your grandfather paid for fuel to his home by inserting coins to pay for it. I do remember some toilets in the U.S. that used to require payment to be used but that was a long time ago.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 29, 2018:

Thank you very much, DDE.

DDE on January 29, 2018:

Hi Linda Crampton, you have presented your hub with great features. Enjoyed reading so much about this title. Informative and most helpful indeed.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 27, 2018:

Hi, Kari. I love exploring the traditions associated with coins. Thanks for sharing your memories. I share your opinion about the bike!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 27, 2018:

Hi, Manatita. Though I like Canada, I still think fondly of Britain. As always, thank you for the comment.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 27, 2018:

So much history in one little coin. I like how you pull in the traditions to the penny. I can remember having to pay to use toilets when I was a child camping. Also the showers. That penny-farthing bike looks deadly, lol.

manatita44 on January 27, 2018:

I swear you have an English Soul and your knowledge is so much better than mines and I live here. Tasty Hot-cross buns and charming poetry. Nice to learn or remember some of your stories re-told, even if briefly.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 26, 2018:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Natalie. Currency can be an interesting topic to explore, expecially with respect to culture.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on January 26, 2018:

What an fascinating article! I had a coin collection when I was younger that had several English coins in it though I'm sure not one of these. It's so interesting how currency develops in different countries. Thanks for writing it!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

Hi, Bede. It's not a silly question at all. What I meant was that 240 pennies was equal to a pound in UK currency. In the pre-decimal system, the pound was a note, or bill. Today it's a coin.

The metric system is currently used for most weights and measures in the UK, but the old Imperial system is still used in some cases. It must be confusing for visitors.

Bede from Minnesota on January 25, 2018:

Thanks Linda for another interesting article about coins. Virtually all these facts I’ve learned for the first time, such as the penny gas meter and the penny-farthing bike. So, 240 pennies literally weighs one pound? Maybe that's a silly question, but I had the impression that the British work with kilos.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

Hi, Dora. It's interesting to read about similarities in memories. Thanks for sharing yours. Like you, I don't remember the farthing. I haven't found one in my father's coin collection, either.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 25, 2018:

The penny, the rhymes and the Guy Fawkes bonfire were all part of my childhood since we were under British rule in the Caribbean. Heard the old folks talk about the farthing but I do not remember it. Thanks for the memory and the additional facts.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Larry.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

Thank you for sharing the interesting information, RoadMonkey. I love to hear about people's memories. I remember bob a job and wrote about it in my last article. I wish I could remember more of what happened in my childhood, though. I'm sure it's hidden in my brain somewhere because sometimes a memory that has been long forgotten emerges.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 25, 2018:

I don't really know much about coins. This has been an interesting education.

RoadMonkey on January 25, 2018:

I used to go round the streets with a guy as a child for bonfire night. My father had a shop that was quite old. When the wooden floor had to be replaced, there were old Victorian pennies under it and even some old French coins. My grandmother had a coin operated electric meter. Public telephones used pennies and push buttons to call people. If I delivered goods for my father, I might sometimes be given a penny or sometimes, even a tanner (six pence). The boy scouts used to do bob a job. That was a job for a bob - 12 pence, one shilling. In school we had to learn money by rote, chanting out loud, 12 pence, one shilling, 18 pence is one and sixpence, 24 pence are two shillings... etc.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

Hi, ata1515. Paying to use a restroom sounds strange to me, too, even though I used to do it!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

Thanks for sharing the information, Heidi. I didn't know that there were once pay toilets in the United States. I hope you have a great day.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

Hi, Bill. I enjoy exploring coins and their history. It can be a very interesting pursuit!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 25, 2018:

The story about your wife remembering her sister is touching, Bill. Thanks for the comment.

A Anders from Buffalo, New York. on January 25, 2018:

Interesting to read about things “across the pond” from a North American perspective. Paying for restrooms just seems so strange.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 25, 2018:

Wow! That's more than a penny's-worth of information. :) Interesting to see its influence on British culture.

I had to chuckle at the pay toilet issue. Sadly, I remember them here in the States. Today, that would be considered discrimination. At least some things have improved for the better.

As always, super informative and entertaining! Have a terrific day!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 25, 2018:

A fun educational read...a fascinating read...thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. I, too, love coins and their histories...great topic!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on January 25, 2018:

Hi Linda. What a great hub, so interesting. I found the story about having to feed coins into the gas meter hilarious. My wife collects pennies that she finds and calls them "her pennies from heaven". Apparently there is a song with that title, and it reminds my wife of her deceased sister, who used to sing the song. Wonderful job as always.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2018:

Thanks, Flourish! I appreciate your comment very much.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 24, 2018:

This was thoroughly entertaining and reminded me of songs and poems from my childhood. Guy Fawkes Day is not something I knew much about before although I had heard of it. Who knew that this coin topic could be so diverse and engaging? Wonderfully done.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2018:

Thank you for the lovely comment, Jackie. I appreciate your visit a great deal!

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on January 24, 2018:

Very interesting, Linda. I am not a coin collector, as such, but I do have a few and occasionally check for more. I absolutely loved your stories here and it would make me a full blood collector for sure if surrounded by your folklore and true accounts.

Just a magical writing. Very well done!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 24, 2018:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information, David. Your memory is interesting! I don't remember ever using a coin-operated electricity meter.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 24, 2018:

Very well-written and interesting article. Your bit about the gas-meter reminded me of the time I was in England staying with my aunt. I was alone watching TV and the electricity went off. I searched for a fuse box or something (none of the other houses had a problem) but couldn't for the life of me find one. Short story shorter, when she got home (by then I was sitting in the dark), she showed me the coin-operated electric meter under the stairs, complete with some 10P coins conveniently stacked on top of it. Thanks for jogging that decades-old memory.