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2 March 2017

How the round pound tells the story of the past three decades

The pound we're used to having in our pockets will soon become a collector's item. Here is a short history. 

By James Dawson

Many of us won’t remember the thrupenny bit, the bizarre 12-sided three pence coin that was part of our pre-decimal coinage up to 1971. However, in March 2017, it is making a comeback, this time as the new shape for the one-pound coin. The redesign, intended to prevent counterfeiting, will see all of the current round one-pound coins withdrawn by October 2017.

To this aim, the Royal Mint is urging the public to spend their pounds or take them to the bank before then. That is no mean task. There are 1.5bn pound coins in circulation and an equal number of new ones being produced. 

The number of pound coins works out at about 25 coins for everyone in the country, which coincidentally is also the number of different reverse (or “tails”) designs that have featured on the pound coin over the years. Perhaps you may want to check your change? Look out for your favourite design, a special year or some of the rarer examples, so that you can perhaps keep a souvenir of the old pound.

The pound has long had a public resonance beyond what it can buy you at the newsagent. At the 2001 general election, Conservative leader William Hague went around holding one and stating that only he could save the pound. But this symbol of our historic currency was at the time less than 20 years old. Introduced in 1983, its size and specification do not match any pre-decimal coin (unlike the 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p). It started with a very traditional design – a royal coat of arms, supported by the lion and unicorn on the reverse. But from its second year, 1984, the Royal Mint embarked on a range of different designs that make the pound coin one of the most diverse in circulation (it is beaten by the 50p, of which 29 different designs were issued for the 2012 London Olympics alone).

Among the designs featured have been those reflecting each country in the UK – with images for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England often being issued, in that order, on consecutive years. The first series represented a traditional plant from each country emerging through a coronet. The thistle and leek are easy to understand. But Northern Ireland was represented by the flax flower, rather than the shamrock, being the symbol of the local linen industry and a more neutral symbol. It is also used as an emblem for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Nor did England get the rose – since this had been used on the new 20p coin issued from 1982 onwards, an oak tree featured instead. First minted 1984-1987, this series was repeated 1989-1992.

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Then came the heraldic series 1994-1997 and 1999-2002 (though none of Scotland’s 1999 one pound coins actually entered circulation). These designs bear a passing resemblance to the football badge for each nation – Scotland’s Red Lion, the Welsh Dragon, Northern Ireland’s Celtic Cross and of course the Three Lions. The latter design, however, only appeared in 1997, and thus missed clinking with the Euro 96 football tournament and its ubiquitous song. The author Julian Barnes provided a rather vivid description, in a New Yorker article in April 1993, of how these designs were chosen – in preference to a set depicting national birds – by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee (a body chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh).

A hiatus followed until a new series arrived in 2004-2007, which featured bridges. (Some coin-watchers speculated that the gap was because the Royal Mint feared (or anticipated) that if Britain joined the euro, there would not be long enough to issue a new set of four designs.)  The Forth Bridge and Menai Bridge stand out clearly. Northern Ireland is represented by the more obscure MacNeil’s Egyptian Arch, a railway viaduct carrying the Belfast to Dublin railway over the road in Newry just a mile from the Republic of Ireland’s border. For England, the Royal Mint passed up Tower Bridge, Telford’s Iron Bridge, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and, even, the Humber Bridge. Instead, the coin features the “blinking-eye” Millennium footbridge at Gateshead.

The two following series both seemed rushed, with two designs issued each year. In 2010-2011, the emblems of the national capitals were featured – first Belfast and London, then the following year Cardiff and Edinburgh. Not many of any of these coins were circulated. Then the Royal Mint revisited the idea of featuring national plants, although this time in the form of branches curved across the middle of each coin. In 2013, England appeared as a rose across an oak, while Wales was represented by a daffodil and a leek. The next year – coinciding with Scotland’s independence referendum – Scotland was represented by a bluebell and thistle, while Northern Ireland’s design finally saw the shamrock appear alongside the flax.

Alongside the national series, there have also been variations on the royal coat of arms. The original design reappeared in 1993, 1998, 2003, 2003 and 2008. In 1988, one of the strangest designs appeared, the royal shield with only the crown above it. Looking slightly like the head of a spade, the design harked back to the “spade guinea” gold coin issued in 1795 under King George III (this also featured on a 2013 commemorative two pound coin). Only 7m of these coins are about.

Between 2008 and 2015, the design featured a plain shield with the royal arms, but without a crown, lion or unicorn. There was more to this than meets the eye, however – the design formed a template for the other coins from 1p to 50p, which, when arranged together, made up the royal shield. 

A fourth version, depicting the royal arms with a reclining lion and unicorn, came out in 2015. It is a beautiful design, but sadly short-lived – it will last barely two years in our pockets before it is withdrawn. Compare this to my mother’s memories of working in a shop in the 1960s, when coins of Queen Victoria would frequently turn up. Despite 62m of this recent design having been minted, perhaps it will soon become a collector’s item. 

There is then one more design, but you are unlikely to find it. Produced in 2016 as a valedictory tribute to the round one-pound coin, it only appears in collectors’ packs. But do watch out, just in case. It shows four heraldic beasts arranged in a diamond pattern – the lion, unicorn, dragon and stag – again representing the four countries of the UK (the Northern Irish beast should be an elk, but this animal is considered unsuitable in heraldic circles). Other versions of the pound coin have been minted for Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

All these will soon be gone. The new thrupenny-bit pound coin pays homage to them, however. The result of a design competition, it weaves the four floral emblems together – the rose, leek, thistle and shamrock emerging from a coronet, as if harking back to the original series of the mid 1980s. Such a massive coinage changeover means there will be plenty of these shiny new pounds around. But with the Royal Mint’s creativity over the years, how long before new designs start appearing? Perhaps one day, my daughter’s competition entry of a giant corgi astride Tower Bridge will finally be produced…

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