World Coins

Britain's 1933 penny a coin that can't be explained

The 1933 penny may be the most famous British coin of the 20th century. In August, Heritage Auctions sold the example that was formerly in the Emory May Norweb Collection.

Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Editor's note: this is the second part of a story by Jeff Starck about Depression-era coins that shouldn't exist but that were issued under strange circumstances. The article originally appears in the December monthly issue of Coin World.

Great Britain’s 1933 penny is another coin that can’t be explained fully and has become famous. 

The subject of media attention, pocket change searches and intrigue for decades, as the Royal Mint Museum website remarks, “this coin, more than any other, has lodged itself in the public consciousness. Indeed, people have spent a lifetime sifting through their coins in a vain attempt to find one.”

With banks awash in a sea of coins in the Great Depression, no pennies were produced in 1933 for general circulation.

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So, why were some made anyway?

A custom of the time called for complete sets of coins of the current year to be buried under the foundation stones of new buildings. Consequently, three 1933 pennies were struck, in Proof, for buildings erected in that year, along with a small number of circulation examples to be kept by the British Museum and the Royal Mint Museum. The number of 1933-dated pennies is thought to be no more than six or seven. 

With no precise record of the number made, and with the coin having been struck to ordinary circulation standards, it seemed possible that one might turn up in everyday use, prompting a generation to search their change for the rare but ultimately elusive penny of 1933. 

According to dealer Lawrence Chard, of Chard, “People like a good entertaining story, and are quite happy to believe it, embellish it, and re-broadcast it. The media helps this process along, often through inaccurate reporting, preferring not to let truth or accuracy stand in the way of a good yarn,” he wrote online at “Readers like to think they can make money for nothing, so are prepared to believe what the media, or others, tell them.”

As with the 1930 Australian penny and 1936 Canadian Dot cent, fakes of the 1933 penny abound, with forgers often altering dates on common coins. Other would-be 1933 pennies are actually pennies from elsewhere in the British realm, like Australia, British West Africa, Jersey, or Ireland.

In August 1970, it was discovered that thieves had stolen the set of 1933 coins deposited beneath the foundation stone of the Church of St. Cross, Middleton, near Leeds.

As a result, a second set, buried beneath the foundation stone of St. Mary’s Church, Hawksworth Wood, Kirkstall, Leeds, was removed on the instructions of the bishop, and it was sold, in a 1972 Sotheby’s auction. 

As far as is known, the third set is still in place under the foundation stone of the University of London Building in Bloomsbury, London. 

Besides the circulation examples in the British Museum and Royal Mint Museum, another circulation example, held in private hands, was sold by Glendinings in 1969.

The final known circulation example was once part of the Emory May Norweb Collection. Graded MS-63 brown by NGC, Heritage Auctions sold this coin during its Aug. 11, 2016, auction in Anaheim, Calif., where it realized $193,875 including the 17.5 percent buyer’s fee. 

In addition to the seven known 1933 British penny examples, and of even greater rarity and value, is a 1933 pattern penny, engraved for the Royal Mint by French artist Andre Lavillier. Only four of the 1933 pattern pennies are known to exist. The pattern differs from the “regular” 1933 penny in a few details, including a different set of designer’s initials.

The neck is perhaps the easiest point to distinguish between coins of the standard design and the pattern, where Lavrillier’s AL initials are next to Bertram McKennal’s BM initials. 

One of the pattern pennies realized £86,400 ($126,495 U.S.) including the 20 percent buyer’s fee, during a May 4, 2016, auction in London.

Keep reading about Depression-era coins that shouldn't exist:

Australian cent that shouldn't exist

Depression-era Commonwealth ‘cents’ that shouldn’t even exist, but do: Though not the rarest Australian coin, the 1930 penny has legendary status among Australian commonwealth coins.

1936 Canada Dot cent rarity

Royal romance and abdication lead to Canada’s 1936 Dot cent rarity: King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936 led Canada to create one of that country’s most famous rarities, the 1936 Dot cent.

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