Puppydog tails — 31 December 2010

Penny frontPenny obverse

Generations of schoolboys have searched through their change in the vain hope of finding one and in August of this year on the internet auction site eBay a 1933 penny bearing the head of King George V surfaced. Experts have always worked on the assumption that only seven such coins were minted and, if genuine, this one would have been worth at least £80,000. Two versions to the coin were struck and it is thought that four had a slightly different image of the King in preparation to an updating of his likeness on all coins. These are particularly valuable.

The Royal Mint had no plans to make any pennies in 1933 because there were already plenty around, however, a small number were produced following requests for a commemorative coin and experts have always worked on the basis there were seven. Of these, three were placed by the King under the foundation stones of buildings, two were presented to the British Museum and two found their way to private collectors. In September 1970, during building work, one of the coins was stolen from the cornerstone of the Church of St Cross in Middleton, Leeds and rather than risk a further theft, the Bishop of Ripon ordered that another coin buried at St Mary’s Church in Hawksworth should be unearthed and sold.

Today the Mint Museum, British Museum and the University of London each hold one of the coins, with three in private collections.

Now tonight as the Nation’s attention is focussed on England’s most famous clock it is worth recalling an urban myth that has again resurfaced following the eBay auction of the rare penny.

The clock keepers of Big Ben have used pre-decimal pennies stacked on the pendulum of the clock to act as weights to help regulate it since 1859, when the clock tower was completed and the first strikes of its 13.7 ton bell, nicknamed “Big Ben,” were heard. Adding or taking away coins effects the pendulum’s centre of mass and the rate at which it swings, adding just one penny causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

There is a long and historic relationship between Big Ben and the UK’s coins and few people realise the technical role that old pennies have played inside the clock. Now as part of Big Ben’s 150th anniversary celebrations three of the 10 coins in use have now been replaced with a £5 crown – produced as part of the Royal Mint’s collection to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics – which features Big Ben’s clock face.

There is a possibility, although slim, that one of the 1933 coins has been used in this way. Now the clock keepers of the Palace of Westminster intend to keep hold of the old pennies in case they need to be returned to the pendulum at a future date.

So as you watch Big Ben for the correct moment to celebrate the New Year, a penny might, just might, be up there, the value of which could make your New Year wishes come true.

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Gibson

(2) Readers Comments

  1. Unfortunately nowadays all the fun seems to be missing in our coinage.
    Another trick I seem to remember was instead of putting 4 old style pennies into the slot in an old fashioned telephone (before pressing button A), you could tap out the number on the receiver to give you a free phone conversation.

  2. In pre-decimalization days, I once read an article entitled something like “A fortune in your small change” which listed all the valuable coins (pennies, halfpennies and, I think, a few others) that were known to be “in the wild”. The article advised the reader to put any change received into a particular pocket and not spend it before checking it. A list of dates for each denomination was provided. I did this assiduously for a while but, of course, never found one of the listed coins.

    Decimalization brought an end to this amusing if irritating hobby. I haven’t heard of any new pence coins being of any particular value. They are a dull lot, really.

    When I worked in a bookshop and later in a public library, taking money across the counter, a few odd coins did turn up. For example, I was once given a farthing in place of a modern penny. They are almost exactly the same size. We looked up that particular farthing and found it was worth 75p, not the fortune we had hoped!

    As kids we would sometimes wrap a halfpenny in silver foil and try to pass it off as a shilling. As long as you showed only the monarch’s head face, it would almost pass. I don’t think we ever succeeded though. People were too sharp-eyed or perhaps we were too honest to carry it off.

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