Over the past 300 years, a surprising number of nations — not just
the United Kingdom — have minted fractionalized denominations of less
than a penny (or less than the penny equivalent).
What seem like oddities to us now were perfectly practical coins
when they were made, designed to fill a need in the everyday commerce
of the nation that produced them.
The era of the fractional penny was past for the most part by the
1970s, especially after coins went decimal in the Commonwealth
nations. The most minor of the “minors” belong to history, but that
just increases their fascination for the world collector.
Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations come to mind first for
many people when they think of fractional pennies. Prior to
decimalization in 1971, the United Kingdom issued quite a few
different fractional coins. These include the 1½ pence, half pence,
farthing, third farthing, half farthing and quarter farthing. The only
monarch who can be found on all of these denominations is Queen
Victoria. Victorians had to be very good at figuring fractions. A
child in 1844 spending a shiny new half farthing for example, would
need to know that this was one-half of one-fourth of one penny.
Throughout the 19th century, the nations of the British Empire
tended toward coins of the same size and denomination as Great Britain
and featuring the same monarch, of course. But then they made the
coins unique in other ways. A colonial Jamaican half penny from 1900,
for example, was the typical half penny size but had a distinctive
look. It was made of copper-nickel instead of the bronze used for the
British version, and featured a much younger and less somber portrait
of the widowed queen.
Ireland gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922
but retained a coinage system of farthings, sixpence and shillings.
The coins in the barnyard animal series that debuted in 1928 and
continued for 40 years were immediately popular with collectors the
world over and remain so to this day. Two of these coins in the Irish
series are fractional pennies, the woodcock farthing and the
sow-with-piglets half pence. The bronze farthings are a particularly
challenging series to complete due to low mintages.
The kopek has been Russia’s cent equivalent as one one-hundredth
of a ruble since the early 18th century. The polushka or quarter kopek
was always made of copper, but the size (diameter) gradually shrunk
from 20 millimeters to 12 millimeters. The last of the polushkas and
half kopeks were minted in 1916. The 1-kopek coins are still made but
rarely used in commerce as their value is too small to be useful.
The Straits Settlements was a British crown colony on the Malay
Peninsula before the area became part of modern day Malaysia. Even
though the coins bore the portraits of British monarchs beginning with
Queen Victoria and ending with King George V, they had American
denomination names like cent and dollar. The quarter cent and half
cent were minted of either copper or bronze.
Among the more unusual fractional coins for the world collector to
enjoy is the 1/26 shilling from Jersey, a British crown dependency
located in the English Channel.
From 1841 to 1877, 13 pence equaled a shilling in Jersey, and
after 1877 it was 12 pence. Therefore, a 1/26 shilling from 1858 was
actually a half pence even though at 28 millimeters in diameter it was
larger than a U.S. quarter dollar.
Jersey is known for its large copper and bronze coins with a
multitude of unusual fractional denominations beginning with
Victoria’s reign and ending in 1971 when the island followed the
United Kingdom into a simpler system. Among these coins are shillings
with marked values like 1/52, 1/48, 1/24, 1/13 and 1/12.
Happily for silver coin aficionados, some silver fractional
pennies are available, too.
A tiny 12-millimeter-diameter .925 fine British 1½ pence is
sometimes mistaken for Maundy money. In fact, it was not minted for
use in the United Kingdom at all. Made between 1834 and 1870, these
precious metal fractionals were sent overseas to Jamaica and Ceylon
(modern day Sri Lanka).
The famous 1904 silver 2½-centesimo “Panama Pill” is one of the
smallest coins ever minted at just 10 millimeters in diameter.
It grew in size in 1907 when it was made from copper and nickel
but shrank again to 10 millimeters in diameter in the mid-1970s.
Panama has also minted other fractional cents including a
copper-nickel half centesimo and a bronze 1¼-centesimo piece. ■