Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.
First, the doll-like farthing went. Then the twelve-sided brass threepenny bit, the halfpenny, and finally, in an orgy of numismatic vandalism, the shilling, the florin and the half-crown. At a stroke, two thousand years of monetary history were swept away, a victim of ephemeral economics and a fetish for decimals. The penny coin alone lives on, its nominal value increased, though otherwise pitiably reduced.
Holding an old penny today is a curious experience. It feels so large and so heavy compared to the footling tiddlywink counter we so aptly call a 'p'. It is a marvel of classic design, with its proud image of Britannia, and its stylised, cryptic inscription - itself almost a summary of English history over the last five hundred years - garlanding the monarch's head. Moreover, it is not an isolated example like our current coin, which feels like a litter's runt: the same majestic form can be found in a great series which tracks centuries of Royalty in England.
Nor was this a theoretical assemblage. Until decimalisation - that long, mincing weasel word for British money's equivalent to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria - nearly two hundred years of the past was to be found in your pocket, every day. Searching through each handful of change made even the most mundane of financial transactions an adventure, a chance to stumble across a treasure subtly hidden by being everywhere.
Coins of Elizabeth II and George VI predominated; but those of George V and Edward VII were common too. The former looked like the last Russian tsar, or perhaps Tchaikovsky, while the latter had the bald head of an all-in wrestler and the facial hair of an Airedale. With characteristic formality each succeeding king or queen faced in alternating directions, partners in a regal pavan, making some look back to their predecessor, and others gaze ahead, as if trying to descry the future and the features that would one day in turn look back at them.
But more exciting than any of these were the coins of Victoria. In her sixty-five years as queen, billions of pennies were issued. Though most were recalled to the Mint, surprising numbers survived down to our own day, and were to be found occasionally amongst the coinage of her descendants like an immortal old dowager turning up unexpectedly at a family gathering. The length of her reign meant that her portrait changed several times, from the delicate young girl at the start - looking like something out of a Jane Austen novel - to the stout and dour old woman at the end, when the empress of a third of the world lived out her long widowhood in sadness and comparative solitude.
Finding any of her incarnations always sent a thrill through me. This coin, I thought, has seen a hundred years of the world, been handled by half the nation, bought a million objects; what a story it could tell. And I remembered one of those immortal school essay topics - 'The life of a penny' - which seemed so pointless then, but which now acquired a deeper wisdom. A wisdom cut off now, just as that great metal river of coins pouring down through history has been cut off, dammed, diverted, and turned into the feeble trickle we know today.
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