World Coins

Royal Mint craftsmanship on display in center

Editor's note: This is the final part of a story by Coin World London Correspondent John Andrew about his visit to the Royal Mint Experience new visitor's center. The original story appears in the June 20 issue of Coin World.

The final area of the Royal Mint Experience is the largest. 

One is welcomed by an enlargement of England’s first gold sovereign struck in 1489 during the reign of Henry VII. This denomination was considerably larger than any previously minted gold coin. Its obverse features the enthroned monarch who declared that it was to be called a “Sovereign’” deliberately suggesting a close association with himself as king. 

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It was intended to add strength and authority to the new Tudor dynasty. Although the sovereign was not struck after 1604 and was eventually replaced by the guinea, the denomination was revived in 1817. During the 19th century, it was considered “the chief coin of the world” and circulated not only in Britain and the British Empire, but in many countries with no ties to the United Kingdom.

Very early in its history, the Royal Mint began to make coins for circulation overseas. The earliest occasion was in 1325 during the reign of Edward II when coins were exported to Bordeaux for use in the king’s territories in southwest France. 

As the British Empire grew, so did the demand for coinage. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, nearly half of all new British silver coins made by the Royal Mint were being shipped overseas. 

Following the Australian gold rush, in 1855 a branch mint was established in Sydney and two others later in Melbourne (1872) and Perth (1899). In the 20th century branch mints were also established in Canada (Ottawa, 1908), India (Bombay, 1918), and South Africa (Pretoria, 1941). The Indian branch was the first to close in 1919 followed by Sydney (1926), Canada (1931) and finally Perth (1970).

Much of the credit for creating the Royal Mint’s foreign coin business should go to Sir Robert Johnson, who became deputy master of the mint in 1922. An energetic individual, he took the helm after World War I. The deputy master acts as the institution’s chief executive officer, its titular head being the chancellor of the exchequer, who also has the title master of the mint. 

This was a difficult time for the mint. To ensure that his skilled workforce was kept occupied, he took steps to build up the export business. He was most successful. Additionally, as the 20th century progressed, many countries within the former British Empire were granted independence and turned to the Royal Mint to continue to provide their coinage. The mint has exported to over 100 countries and in a typical year it ships coins and blanks to 60 countries. Blanks are an important part of its business as many overseas mints have a striking capability, but cannot make their own blanks.

Having seen how coins are made and learned of the Mint’s global presence, we jump back to explore the journey from a drawing to the die. 

First, a large hand-carved plaster of the design is prepared. The larger “canvas” allows for minuscule details to be incorporated that would be impossible to add working on a scale of the actual coin. When completed to everyone’s satisfaction, the plaster is placed on a scanning machine where a digital camera photographs the details from all angles. 

Changes can be made to the digital image, which appears on a screen, via a computer. When all the tweaks have been made, the digital file of the image is turned into a cutting program. This instructs a computer-controlled engraving machine to cut the design into a soft piece of steel that is the size of the desired coin. This is known as a reduction punch. The punch is the first in a series of tools, which after a number of stages, result in the finished dies that are used to strike the coins. 

At this stage, a skilled craftsman may make further adjustments by hand. 

Here we really see the craftsmanship of the Mint employees. The one that was particularly memorable was the gentleman who was preparing the Proof dies and polishing the fields with diamond paste. He had been employed by the Royal Mint for 40 years. Afterwards sitting with Kevin Clancy and Graham Dyer, Clancy’s predecessor and currently senior research curator, Dyer revealed that in 1913, 20 percent of the mint’s workforce had served for 25 years or more and in 2013 the percentage was the same, though the workforce has tripled.

At a very “high tech” display our excellent guide took us through the Mint’s locations in the Tower of London (from at least 1279), its purpose-built premises on Tower Hill (from 1810) and South Wales (from 1968). The mint’s area at the Tower was very cramped and was an area between the inner and outer walls known as Mint Street. In addition to making coins, workers also lived there. The last coin was struck at Tower Hill in November 1975. 

The decision to move the mint to a more spacious modern plant at Llantrisant, 12 miles northwest of Cardiff, was announced in 1967 by James Callaghan, chancellor of the exchequer and master of the Royal Mint. The fact that he was a member of Parliament for a Cardiff constituency possibly influenced the location. 

The larger plant was needed because of the impending decimalization of the U.K. currency, which replaced the pounds, shillings and pence coinage with a pounds and pence system on Feb. 14, 1971.

Our 45-minute guided tour then came to an end and we were free to explore the remaining static and interactive exhibits. 

The most impressive was a short film on a large concave screen showing the manufacturing process from the furnace to the coining press. It was shot so close-up that one could easily imagine being the molten metal, blank and coin. There was a very good explanation and a superb film of the Trial of the Pyx (effectively a trial by jury of a selection of coins made the previous year by the mint). It is a colorful event set in the splendors of Goldsmiths’ Hall. Then there was the role of coins in every day life as symbols of luck and good fortune. I never knew that a sixpence was placed in a bride’s shoe for luck!

Coins and medals on display

Coin rarities were exhibited, including a 1933 penny and an Edward VIII sovereign. There was a large display of medals since 1815 for the armed services which the Royal Mint has struck.

Winners’ medals for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympics were displayed as well as commemorative medals and coins. A section was also devoted to a relatively new area for the mint, Seals of the Realm, which have been the responsibility of the Mint since 1901.

Finally there is a section on collecting. This is certainly not a plug for the Royal Mint’s commemorative coins (though these are covered in the exhibition). 

What was particularly fascinating was audio recordings (accessible by telephone ) in which individuals from a wide cross section explain why they are attracted to coins. As well as those with an interest in historical pieces, there were also those who collected from their change or simply bought commemoratives. In other words, there was something for all.

Did I enjoy my visit? 

Definitely “YES!”

Would I recommend it? Again a very positive response. 

As the Welsh Tourism Minister Edwina Hart stated, “The [Royal Mint’s] new visitor centre will be an all year and all weather visitor attraction showcasing a unique product and global brand and will incorporate a rich heritage resource alongside a live factory working environment. This project has the potential to become an iconic attraction for Wales.”

I totally agree and congratulate all those involved with this project.

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