World Coins

Decoding British coins: is political message hidden on a farthing?

What a dirty rat! That’s what collector David Powell says is visible in the drapes at Britannia’s ankle on the reverse of a 1734 copper farthing of George II.

Images courtesy of David Powell.

Editor's note: The following is the final piece of a multi-part Coin World series about the secret language of British coins prepared by Jeff Starck for the January 2015 monthly edition of Coin World. See links to the rest of the series at the end of this post.

British coins reveal the source of their metal, reflect economics of their time of issue, and even political messages, if you know how to unlock the codes.

A halfpenny for a ‘rat’

It may be apocryphal, but legend suggests that at least one of two Royal Mint engravers (either John Tanner or John Croker) had a serious sense of humor.

According to collector David Powell, if you look closely at the folds of the clothing that cover Britannia’s right leg on a decent condition young head George II halfpenny, it would appear that a rat is crawling up it. Additionally, gargoyles can sometimes be discerned in the lower reaches of the hairpiece on later silver coins of George II (having the Old Head obverse), Powell said, sharing his findings Jan. 26, 2014, with readers of the E-Sylum, a weekly email newsletter that may be accessed at 

“How well these devices were appreciated by the public of the time I am not sure,” he wrote. 

British coin specialist Allan Davisson had never heard of the issue, and was unable to locate a similar occurrence in his stock and photo archives, meaning that the modification could have been on just one die, he said. 

The catalog of British coinage is so vast and interesting that we could barely touch upon the many marks and meanings to be found on British coins.

For a better understanding of the possibilities, the Standard Catalog of British Coins (now titled as Coins of England & the United Kingdom) is a starting point. Rayner’s catalog of silver issues, as well as Peter Seaby’s The Story of English Coinage, delve deeper into this fascinating area. 

Type examples of many of the coins with special markings are readily available, if monarch is not factored in, with the Dorrien & Magens shilling the notable exception. 

Collectors who begin such a collection might just find the pursuit “hits the mark.”

Read the entire "Decoding British Coins" series:

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