18 Things You Didn't Know About UK Coins

By Spencer Hart on at

The Royal Mint has jumped on the retro design bandwagon and designed a new £1 coin which apparently resembles a threepenny bit. If you grew up post-decimalisation and had to google this mysterious coin, then maybe you need to brush up on the numismatic history, starting here with 18 facts which will have you hunting down the back of your sofa in no time.


1.) Threepence, Thrupence, Threepenny Bit

Introduced by King Edward VI, the threepence was first minted in England in 1547. Due to its unfavourably small size in 1937, a larger 12-sided coin (making it easily distinguishable) was introduced -- on the back of this coin a 'Thrift Plant' was featured, a pun at the time when saving was being encouraged. [Image Credit: York Coins]


2.) Coins have been made in Britain since 100 BC

The first coins used in Britain were imported by a Celtic tribe from Northern France but the first coins made in Britain were cast using an alloy of bronze and tin known as potin. These coins were made by the Durotrigan tribe in the West Country and by numerous tribes along the Thames Valley. By 55 BC various tribes were producing gold and silver coins featuring abstract designs which differed from tribe to tribe -- this continued until 43 AD when Roman invaders enforced their Roman coinage as standard currency. [Image Credit: BSSWebsite]


3.) Where did 'Quid' come from?

The etymology of the slang word "quid" is uncertain, but the widely-agreed theory is that it derives from the Latin term Quid Pro Quo, literally 'what for what'. The first recorded use of quid as a unit of money is in Strange Newes from Bartholomew-Fair, by P. Aretine, 1661, "The fool lost his purse, but how he knew not; for the reckoning being suddainly brought in, his Quids were vanisht." (We've all be there right?) [Image Credit: It Can't Just Be Me]


4.) A catchy song was written to help people understand Decimal Day

On 15th February 1971 the United Kingdom and Ireland moved from the old system of pounds, shilling and pence to the decimalised currency of pounds and pence. Before decimalisation the pound was divided into 20 shillings -- 1 shilling consisting of 12 pence. How do you think the UK handled a major change in coinage? Pretty well actually! February was chosen for the changeover as it was the quietest time of year for spending, new coins were gradually introduced and a huge media campaign including leaflets, TV shows and songs aided the change. This wasn't the first time decimalisation was proposed, as back in 1824 Lord Wrottesley's proposal failed to gain support, mainly due to the fact it didn't have this song (or so I'd like to think). [Image Credit: Royal Mint]


5.) A full judicial trial is held to test newly-minted coins

Called the Trial of the Pyx, this ceremony is held to ensure newly-minted coins conform to the required standards -- these trials have been held since the 12th century and the process remains largely unchanged since that date. These trials are held once a year and are presided over by a judge and expert jury of assayers, who have two months to test the coin's diameter, chemical composition and weight. [Image Credit: Royal Mint]


6.) Sir Isaac Newton worked for the Royal Mint

As well as defining the Laws of Motion, his groundbreaking work in optics, and getting hit on the head with apples, Sir Isaac Newton also worked for the Royal Mint. Newton took his role of Master of the the Royal Mint very seriously -- frequenting bars and pubs undercover in an attempt to gather evidence of coin counterfeiting. He successfully prosecuted 28 'coiners,' a crime punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered. [Image Credit: Wikipedia]


7.) The most expensive UK coin to sell at auction went for £460,000

Collecting coins can be a lucrative business, especially if you happen to find an Edward III Florin in your coat pocket, as only three are thought to be in existence. However this isn't a patch on the most expensive coin ever to be sold at auction, as in 2013 a 1794 American Flowing Lady Dollar sold for £6.7 million. [Image Credit: Castle Coins]


8.) £5 is equal to one Galleon in the wizarding world

According to J.K Rowling the exchange rate between the 'wizarding' and 'muggle' worlds is approximately £5 to one Galleon. Although just like the British pound it is frequently counterfeited -- most notably by leprechauns, whose coins vanish a few hours after appearing. The wizarding world didn't follow Britain in decimalisation of the currency as one Galleon is made up of 17 Sickles -- one Sickle being 29 Knuts. [Image Credit: Bullions By Post and Only In Hogwarts]


9.) Pennies used to be cut to provide smaller change

Don't you hate it when you don't have the exact change for something? Well the silver penny was often the only coin in circulation from the 8th century to the 13th century, and during this period it was common to cut pennies in halves and quarters to provide smaller change. A quarter of a penny was originally know as a fourthing; over time the pronunciation of this became corrupted and developed into 'farthing,' a unit of currency used between 1216 and 1956. [Image Credit: Leodis Hammered Coins]


10.) The Pound is the oldest currency still in use today, used in eight countries around the world

The pound dates back to Anglo-Saxon England, around 700 AD, where it was equal to 240 silver pennies or one pound weight of silver -- it was made popular by King Offa of Mercia (Midlands) and remained unchanged until 1526. The pound sterling is currently the official currency of 12 UK territories and Queen Elizabeth II's portrait has appeared on coins in 33 different countries, more than any other individual. Thanks to a new iSIS security system, the new pound coin will be the most high-tech coin ever produced (apart from bitcoin), ensuring its use for many decades to come. [Image Credit: Wikipedia and Select Factoring]


11.) Post-2008 coins can be combined to form a shield! (Kind Of)

When I first saw this it almost blew my mind -- the reverse design of post-2008 coins can be combined to form an image of the Royal Shield. A competition to design the reverse of the coinage was held in 2005 with the winner, Matthew Dent, announced in 2008 and awarded £35,000 (hopefully all in small change). [Image Credit: Wikipedia]


12.) If you find buried treasure and don't report it, you could face a prison sentence

Finding buried treasure is every child's dream, but don't think you can do whatever you want with your discovery -- technically hidden treasure found in the UK belongs to the Queen. All findings must be reported to the Coroner within 14 days, where an inquest is held and the treasure is offered to museums. If no museum chooses to bid then the treasure is returned to the finder/land owner. The largest haul found in the UK was unearthed by Terry Herbert in 2009; the treasure amounted to 1500 pieces of seventh century Anglo-Saxon gold and silver worth £3.2 million. [Image Credit: CC at the Movies]


13.) Julius Caesar was the first living ruler to put his head on a coin

The first living ruler to put his head on a coin was Julius Caesar. Before this, ancestors, family members, animals and previous rulers were used on coinage. It is not know exactly why he chose to do this -- although vanity is a common explanation. It is also suggested he used them as a propaganda tool, a way of controlling the citizens and soldiers, relating himself to good fortune and victories. [Image Credit: Mysteries of Life]


14.) Do you know how to tell whether a coin is fake?

There are a number of ways counterfeit one pound coins can be recognised; firstly the rear design must match with the inscription and date. These combinations are changed yearly. Secondly the orientation of the Queen's head and reverse design should be aligned, and finally, counterfeit coins tend to look newer than they actually are. It is obviously illegal to use a counterfeit coin, so if you possess any suspect coins they should be handed into your local police station.

If you want to waste the rest of your afternoon checking your cash for counterfeits then the Royal Mint has compiled an easy guide for identifying them. Currently it is estimated that 3.04 per cent of pound coins are counterfeit, with the biggest bust occurring in 2012 when police seized 4.1 million coins in a single raid on a 40ft freight container in Essex. [Image Credit: Stocking Fillers]


15.) If asked to draw the Queen's face on a coin, 88 per cent of people draw her facing left (when in fact she faces right)

Although this percentage may have reduced since this fact appeared on QI, a study shows that when asked to draw the Queen on a coin, 88 per cent of people will draw her facing left when in fact her profile faces right on all coinage. One explanation for this is that she faces left on stamps, although this is disputed since a majority of people in Denmark also incorrectly think their monarch, Margrethe II, faces left, while on the stamps she looks straight out.

Another theory is the dominance of right-handedness causes us to naturally draw a face facing left. Interestingly if Prince Charles becomes monarch he will face left because each monarch alternates between facing left and right on coins; this is a tradition dating back to Charles II (with some exceptions). [Image Credit: Bullion By Post]


16.) Heads or... Tails?

Have you ever wondered why flipping a coin is called "heads or tails," when no coin features an animal or tail of any kind? Well, the expression "heads or tails" may have stemmed from the German title of the game, Kopf oder Zahl (head or number) and a common mispronunciation of the word 'zahl' turned into 'tail'. Historically coin flipping was seen as the expression of divine will, popular since Roman times when the game was known as navia aut caput (ship or head). Even now in modern UK days, if a local or national election results in a tie, the winner would be decided by flipping a coin.


17.) The unofficial record for coin swallowing is 11 coins

Due to the possible health implication this record doesn't feature in the Guinness Book of World Records but the title was previously held by a British man who managed to down ten pennies. This was unofficially broken by Liang Yuxin of China, who states he can swallow eleven coins. Liang holds numerous records for swallowing unusual objects, such as 50-inch chains and live fish. [Image Credit: PreMed of Color]


18.) An estimated 28,850,000,000 coins are in circulation today

The Royal Mint estimates almost four billion pounds worth of coins are currently in circulation, made up of around 29 billion individual coins -- along with these estimates they also figure £300,000 worth of coins go missing every year. [Image Credit: Shutterstock]