Old Coin Cache Prompts New English History Lessons
Recently, my husband cleared out some drawers. Don found the usual bits that he should have been thrown out long ago but didn’t, as well as a few forgotten things that he was happy to see again. He also found a handful of English coins.
We took our children to England and Wales in 2000 and we went alone in 1987, but these were not coins left over from those trips. These coins were probably from the pockets of Don’s father. Don traveled to England with his parents when he was five or six years old and that may have been when the coins were acquired. Or maybe they had been in his father’s own junk drawer for years, remnants of his life before he emigrated to the United States in the 1930s.
Some of the coins are quite old and I was intrigued since I’ve been researching England in the 1920s. All bronze pennies and half pennies, they aren’t worth much since they were well-used, but it still gave me a bit of a thrill to hold them in my hand.
There are pennies from several years, including 1916, 1918, 1927, and 1929. They all look the same, with George V’s head on one side and the seated figure of Britannia on the other. George’s father was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and, much like the current king, spent most of his life as the Prince of Wales before his brief reign as Edward VII. George never expected to be king himself since he had an elder brother, but Albert Victor unfortunately died of pneumonia at the age of 28.
George had been occupied pursuing a career in the navy and falling in love with a cousin (those Victorians did that a lot!), but once he became the heir apparent, his life changed drastically. He wound up marrying his brother’s fiancé and they were crowned king and queen in 1911, following his father’s death.
George became the father of Edward VIII, the man who abdicated when he wasn’t allowed to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson. The crown then passed to George’s younger son, also named George, who was Elizabeth’s father and Charles’ grandfather.
There were other children, too, including Prince John who died young in 1919. John was the last-born child and had developmental delays and epilepsy. His parents and siblings seem to have been fond of him, but a separate household was eventually set up for his care. Especially during the war years when the other royals were much occupied, John was looked after by the family nanny.
The backs of the George pennies feature Britannia with a trident and shield. Britannia is described as the “personification of Britain,” which was the name used for the country when it was under Roman rule during the first few centuries A.D.. Britannia started appearing on England’s coins in mid-1600s.
Edgar Bertram MacKennal was the engraver of George’s portrait. He was the king’s favorite artist and sculpted several likenesses of him as well as many other works. MacKennal was an Australian and became the first of his countrymen to be knighted.
This penny’s particular Britannia was the work of Leonard Charles Wyon. The son of William Wyon, an accomplished engraver, Leonard was apprenticed to the art at a young age, and took over his late father’s position when he was just twenty-four years old. Father William engraved penny heads of George IV and William IV, as well as the first portrait penny of Victoria in 1839.
Son Leonard was chosen to engrave the second Victoria coin portrait in 1860, the first penny that was bronze rather than copper. This coin is known as the “Bun Head” because of the queen’s hairstyle and was in use until 1894. A very well-worn “Bun Head” penny issued in 1878 is among the coins Don inherited.
There is also a second Victoria penny known as “Old Head” or “Veiled Head” that was issued between 1895-1901. One of those, from 1899, is also in Don’s collection. This portrait is the widow-in-mourning Victoria with which we are all familiar, designed by Thomas Brock and engraved by William de Saulles. William de Saulles engraved Britannia on the flip side as well but used the previous design by Leonard Charles Wyon.
De Saulles was another prolific and popular sculptor. The Titanic memorial in Belfast was one of his works. He was given the commission in 1913, but World War I intervened, and the memorial wasn’t completed and dedicated until 1920.
While I am certainly not a coin collector, researching these very old pennies and actually holding them in my hand makes me feel even closer to the 1920s history I’ve been working on for Agatha Annotated. History is so much more than a dusty book! I think making connections like this is important for reminding us that the past isn’t just a story. It’s full of real people with real issues and if we empathize with them, we can learn from them.