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
The florin first appeared in 1849 with a value of 1/10th of a pound, or 24 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The Godless Florin was quickly withdrawn from circulation in 1851 and was replaced by a Gothic florin, which had the same design, but included the “D.G” inscription in an attempt to appease the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.
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 It was introduced in 1887 and featured the new Jubilee Head portrait of Queen Victoria, but it was withdrawn by the end of 1890 making it one of the shortest circulating denominations in British history.
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.
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Many coin enthusiasts will recognise the three major depictions of Victoria on her coinage; the Young Head, the Jubilee Head, and the Old Head. You may even have seen the beautiful Gothic Head portrait that featured on a new denomination of Victoria’s coinage. However, very few will have heard about the portrait that never featured on a UK coin – the Sydney Type II portrait.
Each effigy has a different and unique story to tell and gives an insight to the fascinating and captivating tales of Victoria’s life and reign. Here are the five portraits, including the ‘secret’ Sydney portrait, that symbolise those 63 years of her reign.
The longest reigning…
The Young Head portrait was the first official effigy of Queen Victoria to be used on circulating coinage. William Wyon’s design represented a youthful 18 year old queen, one that many people never would have thought would go on to lead the world’s largest empire and celebrate a rule lasting over 60 years.
To this day it is the longest that a portrait has featured on our circulating coinage, having been issued on bronze coins up until 1895. The Young Head effigy is considered the most favoured portrait of Victoria’s coinage, undergoing only minor changes throughout its lifespan. A variation was even designed by Wyon’s son, called the ‘Bun Head’ portrait.
The most beautiful…
In 1847, William Wyon created a second portrait of Queen Victoria, but little did he know that this portrait would go on to be regarded as one of the most beautiful representations of the Victorian age.
The revival of Gothic culture was seen across Victorian life. This particular portrait drew its name from the distinct gothic font used for the inscription around the edge, and the intricate detail on the crown that Victoria wears is considered a numismatic masterpiece.
The one that never made it to Britain…
Victoria’s portrait was used on coins that were issued at imperial mints within the empire, but the Sydney Mint Type II portrait was only ever seen on Australian coins. First issued in 1857, it was produced exclusively on Australian coins for only 14 years! It depicted a younger queen with a sprig of banksia (an Australia plant) weaved into her hair, which gave it a distinct Australian feel.
The most controversial…
By 1887 Victoria had ruled for over 50 years and overseen the expansion of the British Empire into the largest the world had ever seen. A new portrait was needed to reflect the achievements and elegance of an elder monarch. The Jubilee Head portrait was designed by Sir Joseph Boehm and was the first to feature Victoria in her mourning veil.
The portrait was only circulated for six years, partly because the public thought that the crown was balanced precariously on her head and didn’t reflect the queen with the grace that she deserved. Because of the split public opinion, the portrait was shortly replaced just six years after it was introduced.
The Queen in mourning…
By 1893 Thomas Brock had created the Old Head portrait. It depicted a mature Queen with her mourning veil draped over her shoulder and tiara. Victoria’s veil had become integral to her image since the death of her husband in 1861, right up until her final years. This is one of the most famous images of Victoria and features on the final sovereign of her reign, issued in 1901.
Of all the monarchs, Victoria’s reign seems to have captured the imagination of the public more than any other. Every coin and portrait tells a unique story – from the Young Head which depicted a promising Queen, right through to the Old Head which represented an aging and graceful monarch.
If you’re interested…
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