Posts Tagged ‘British history’

How a young queen saw the world without leaving Europe…

Despite ruling over 400 million people in an empire that covered almost a quarter of the world’s surface, Queen Victoria had never set foot in many of the countries that she ruled over.

For many of those people, the only way to catch a glimpse of their empress was by looking at the portraits on the coins that passed through their hands every day. These coins formed a vital connection between people, even though they may have lived on opposite sides of the world and experienced very different lives.

Victoria Empire 1024x584 - How a young queen saw the world without leaving Europe...
Map of the British Empire during Victoria’s reign

India became known as the Jewel in the Empire’s crown, and was so important to Victoria that she was awarded the title of the “Empress of India” in 1876. Although she never stepped foot in the subcontinent, the currency of India (the rupee) was minted with her portrait on from 1840, so people could recognise their empress despite living 4,500 miles away!

The rupee is one of the oldest currencies in the world, so to feature a British monarch for the first time was an important moment in numismatic history. The later portrait issued on rupees was similar to the Gothic Head effigy can be considered one of the most beautiful coins of the empire.

Another numismatic first took place in Australia in 1855, one more country that Victoria never visited (which is hardly surprising as it would have taken her almost two months to get there!). As the empire grew, so did the need for coins and the Royal Mint opened branches in Australia to mint sovereigns for the empire. In 1855 the first ever sovereign to be minted outside of the UK, the Sydney sovereign, was issued. It featured a portrait of Victoria that was based on the Young Head effigy, but with a sprig of banksia weaved through Victoria’s hair, giving the portrait a distinct Australian feel.

Australia Sydney Mint Victorian Gold Sovereign Obverse Reverse photo 1 - How a young queen saw the world without leaving Europe...
1870 Sydney sovereign with Australian portrait of Queen Victoria

A number of Royal Mint branches were opened throughout Australia after the success of the Sydney sovereign. To identify the mint that sovereigns were produced in, mintmarks were added to the coins, with a small ‘P’ for Perth, and an ‘M’ for Melbourne. The sovereign became legal tender in the majority of British colonies in the 1860s, and its importance in British trade, and worldwide circulation earned it the title “the King of Coins”. By the final years of the British Empire, the sovereign was minted in four continents across the globe.

India and Australia weren’t the only countries that saw Victoria’s portrait. Her image also reached as far as Hong Kong, Ceylon, East Africa and New Zealand. In 1870 the first Canadian dollar with Victoria’s portrait was issued, taking Victoria’s image to a new side of the world for people to see.

Victoria never left Europe, but her portrait and image stood strong on coins around the world. Whilst she never stepped foot in many of the countries that she ruled over, that didn’t stop people recognising her image around the world. The coins that they used every day provided a link to the empire that they were a part of, despite the miles between them.


ST 1886 QV Indian Rupee Both Sides 4 300x177 - How a young queen saw the world without leaving Europe...

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The Victorian coins that were meant to transform our currency…but were blamed for famine instead.

In 1971 the UK switched to a decimal currency, leaving the old £sd (pounds, shillings and pence) behind and introducing the decimalised coins we know today. You might even remember decimal day yourself, or using conversion charts and rhymes to learn the new currency. And if you’re like me, then you’ll probably remember the excitement of seeing the new coins in your change. 

But decimalisation actually started under Queen Victoria, when two new decimal denominations were introduced. These were coins that were blamed for sickness, famine, and the unemployment of barmaids. In fact, they were so controversial that decimalisation had to be delayed for over a century!

The Godless Florin

ST UK 1849 Queen Victoria Florin Silver Coin Both Sides 002 1 300x176 - The Victorian coins that were meant to transform our currency…but were blamed for famine instead.
1849 Victorian Florin – nicknamed the ‘Godless Florin’

The florin first appeared in 1849 with a value of 1/10th of a pound, or 10 pence. It was rumoured to have borrowed its name from a similar shaped coin from the Netherlands and was issued as a test to help the public warm to decimalised currency. However, its introduction didn’t go as well as hoped. 

The Gothic Head portrait of Victoria was used on the first florins that were issued, and it featured the monarch wearing a crown for the first time in over 200 years. Another unusual design change was the exclusion of the abbreviation “D.G”, meaning “by the grace of God”. In a society where religion was important, the coin was thought to have angered God, so it became known as the ‘Godless Florin’ and was reportedly blamed for Cholera outbreaks and famine at the time.

The Godless Florin was quickly withdrawn from circulation in 1851 and was replaced by a Gothic florin, which had the same design, but included the “D.G” inscription in an attempt to appease the public.

Victorian Florin comparison mobile 002 300x208 - The Victorian coins that were meant to transform our currency…but were blamed for famine instead.
Left: 1851 Victorian Florin with ‘D.G’ inscription, Right: 1849 ‘Godless’ Florin

The Barmaid’s Ruin

Attempt number two at decimalisation came in the form of a double florin, equivalent to 1/5th of a pound. It was introduced in 1887 and featured the new Jubilee Head portrait of Queen Victoria, but it was withdrawn by the end of 1890 making it one of the shortest circulating denominations in British history.

ST UK 1887 Queen Victoria Double Florin Silver Coin Both Sides 2 002 300x178 - The Victorian coins that were meant to transform our currency…but were blamed for famine instead.
1887 Double Florin, nicknamed ‘The Barmaid’s Ruin’

One of the features that makes the double florin stand out in history is that it was almost indistinguishable from the crown coin. Neither carried the denomination and the only difference between the two, apart from the value, was that the double florin was 2mm smaller – not something that was easy to spot by eye.

This meant that the coins were easily confused, and the story goes that crafty patrons would trick barmaids into accepting the double florin as a crown. The double florin then became known as the ‘barmaid’s ruin’, because this act resulted in barmaids losing their jobs.

The first attempts at decimalisation happened over 170 years ago, and although the double florin was withdrawn from circulation after just four mint years , the florin was much more successful, surviving until 1993 before it was demonetised. It circulated alongside the 10p coin, which was introduced in 1968 to try and help the public warm to decimalisation – this time it was finally successful!

The Victorians experienced monumental changes in culture, industry, technology, and empire in their time, but it seems they just weren’t ready for the change of their currency.


Queen Victoria Double Florin Main 300x208 - The Victorian coins that were meant to transform our currency…but were blamed for famine instead.

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The longest bank holiday in British history…

In August 1914, the British economy was in turmoil because of the instability brought on by the oncoming war on the continent. Bankers and politicians were desperately looking for ways to secure Britain’s finances and prevent the banks from collapsing.

So to buy time to look for a solution, the government extended the national bank holiday on 3rd August to include Tuesday 4th, Wednesday 5th and Thursday 6th August – making this the longest bank holiday in British history!

1 1st series 1914 note - The longest bank holiday in British history...
£1 1st Series Treasury Issue Banknote

The government decided that a large supply of banknotes had to be made available for the values of £1 and 10 shillings, making it easy for the public to make small transactions and to dissuade the hoarding of precious metal coins. However, The Bank of England was not able to prepare and print the required number of notes quickly enough, so the government took the unprecedented step of deciding to issue the notes itself.

These banknotes became known as the Treasury banknotes and were unlike anything the British public had ever seen. Until this point the lowest denomination banknote was £5, and in those days this was such a large sum that many people would never have seen or used a banknote before.

That means that these Treasury notes now stand out as the first widely circulated banknotes in England.

SPEC 1 3rd Series 1917 obverse reverse note - The longest bank holiday in British history...
£1 3rd Series Treasury Issue Banknote

And what’s more, the Treasury notes featured a portrait of King George V. Nowadays we’re used to seeing Her Majesty on our banknotes, but the Treasury notes were the first British notes to feature a portrait of the monarch. In fact, Bank of England notes would not display an image of the monarch until 1960.

Treasury notes played a vital role in keeping the economy moving during the First World War and for the first time in England and Wales, paper money became normal currency used by ordinary people.

These notes were born out of Britain’s longest bank holiday and now stand as some of the most interesting banknotes in notaphily history!


If you’re interested…

Warren Fisher One Pound Silver Banknote Close Up2 1 - The longest bank holiday in British history...

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