The penny and its divisions had been important elements of the British coinage system for centuries when the adoption of a decimal system in 1971 replaced the old penny valued at 1/240 of a pound with one valued at 100 to the pound. Though smaller in size, the bronze penny survives today, while its fractions have succumbed to inflation. For three centuries, however, the several copper and bronze coins of small value were mainstays in the commerce of Britain.
Copper as a coinage metal was generally shunned by Britain until the reign of Charles II (1660-85) and had appeared only in the form of undated farthings (equal to one-fourth of a penny), these competing with various tradesmen's tokens. The first systematic use of this metal by the Crown to produce small change occurred when copper halfpennies and farthings dated 1672 were issued bearing a cuirassed (leather-clad) bust of Charles II on their obverse and a seated figure of Britannia on their reverse. Additional halfpennies were struck and dated 1673 and 1675, while farthings were again issued for 1673-75 and 1679. At this time, and for more than a century to follow, the penny was still a tiny silver coin.
The reign of James II (1685-88) saw no copper coinage. Instead, the curious practice of producing halfpenny and farthing pieces of tin but containing central plugs of copper was revived, after having been tried briefly during the reign of his predecessor. The designs were quite similar to those of Charles II, though the curaissed bust was used alternately with a draped bust of the king.
The use of both curaissed and draped busts, in combination with the Britannia reverse, carried into the following joint reign of William and Mary (1688-94). Tin, unplugged, was favored for the small coins, though copper halfpennies and farthings were finally struck in 1694 only. Again, the cuirassed busts of William and Mary were paired with the Britannia reverse. Following the death of Queen Mary, William III ruled alone from 1694 to 1702. So too did copper rule the minor coinage of Britain, halfpennies being issued 1695-1701 and farthings from 1695 through 1700.
Only during the final year of her reign did the coinage of Queen Anne (1702-14) feature a copper issue. Farthings bearing the draped bust of the queen and a seated figure of Britannia included the date 1714, which appeared in the familiar position within an exergue beneath Britannia. Perhaps due to the unique status of this issue within her reign, the Queen Anne farthings were at one time the objects of fantastic tales regarding their great rarity. Numismatists, of course, were able to debunk these stories, as the 1714 farthings are only moderately scarce.
The reign of George I (1714-27), first of the Hanoverian monarchs, witnessed a fairly generous coinage of copper halfpennies (1717-24) and farthings (1717, 1719-24). As had become traditional, the profile bust of George I faced in the opposite direction of his predecessor, a practice which was not violated until the brief reign of the fractious Edward VIII (1936). The king's portrait was once again cuirassed, as was that of his son and successor, George II (1727-60). Copper coins really came into their own during this reign, as halfpennies were struck every year from 1729 though 1754, save for 1741. Farthings were struck most years from 1730 through 1754. This reign was sufficiently long as to require both an old and young bust of the king.
George III (1760-20), grandson of George II, ruled for a remarkably long period, though the well-known madness of his later years led to a regency under the direction of his grandson and successor. Despite such a long reign, there was relatively little regal copper coinage from this period, a fact which led to a rich proliferation of privately produced tokens and counterfeit halfpennies. Official copper halfpennies were struck only in 1770-75, while farthings were struck in 1771 and again in 1773-75. All featured the cuirassed bust of George III and the seated Britannia. This imagery ultimately became more familiar in the form of circulating counterfeits and American imitations struck by the former British colonies.
The reign of George III is perhaps most notable for introducing at last the copper penny. Produced under contract to the Crown by Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint, these huge "cartwheel" pennies were the first British coins struck on steam-powered presses. Dated 1797, these pennies were issued in huge numbers over the next two years and were accompanied by a lesser number of the gigantic copper two-pence pieces. Beautifully engraved by Conrad Heinrich Kuchler, these coins were technical marvels, though the two-pence proved to be inconveniently large.
While the miniscule silver penny would live on as a presentation piece for the annual Maundy service, its circulating counterpart would henceforth be of copper. The success of Boulton's product prompted a contract coinage of halfpennies and farthings dated 1799, as well as another issue dated 1806. This latter was accompanied by a penny of the same date.
No further coppers were issued by the government until the reign of George IV (1820-30). London's new Tower Mint struck pennies and halfpennies dated 1825-7 and farthings dated 1826-30. The tiny half-farthings of 1828 and 1830, as well as the even smaller third-farthings of 1827 were intended soley for colonial use, though similar in design to the larger coins. This simple formula was followed in the reign of William IV (1830-37), with sporadic coinages of the same five denominations.
The extremely long reign of Victoria (1837-1901) saw Great Britain at the very height of its imperial reach, and her coinage in all metals was so extensive and complex that only the major features can be included here. The issuance of copper pennies, halfpennies and farthings was nearly continuous from 1838 through 1860, all of these bearing the "Young Head" bust of the queen on their obverse and a seated Britannia on their reverse. Half-farthings of similar design were added for domestic and colonial use. In 1860, the large, pure copper coins were replaced with smaller and lighter equivalents coined in a bronze alloy. These were immediately successful and were coined in most years through 1901. The "Bun Head" of Victoria was replaced by the "Veiled Head" beginning in 1895. Midway through 1897, and for the next twenty years, all farthings were chemically darkened at the mint to prevent their being mistakenly or deliberately passed as gold half sovereigns.
The bronze pennies, halfpennies and farthings of Edward VII (1901-10) were virtually identical to those of his mother, save for the obverse portrait. All farthings produced during his reign are of the darkened finish. Third-farthings were struck for Malta in 1902.
The reign of George V (1910-36) continued these same denominations, including a one-year-only issue of third-farthings in 1913. Again, the latter were not for domestic use, and they did not bear the Britannia figure. Since gold coins disappeared from circulation in Britain after 1915, it was no longer necessary to darken the farthings, and this practice was discontinued midway through 1918.
The abortive reign of Edward VIII (January-December, 1936) resulted in just a few rare pattern coins, though his titles appeared on circulating coins for the colonies. The patterns included pennies, halfpennies and farthings of the usual Britannia types, as well as experimental nickel-brass threepence pieces similar to those adopted during the following reign.
Edward's brother and successor, George VI (1936-52), presided over a time of great change in Britain. Among these changes was the gradual replacement of the silver three-cent piece with one of nickel-brass, beginning in 1937. Its distinctive dodecagonal (12-sided) shape was combined with a new reverse design featuring a thrift plant. This new coin was accompanied by the traditional Britannia issue of pennies, though the halfpennies of this and the following reign now featured a stylized view of Sir Francis Drake's ship Golden Hind. On the reverse of all subsequent farthings appeared a charming rendition of the English wren.
The reign of Elizabeth II (1952-) continued the same four denominations of bronze/brass pieces, though inflation soon rendered the once indispensable farthing a coin of no further value in circulation. Its coinage was discontinued after 1956. The immediate post-war coinage of pennies created a redundancy, and this denomination was coined only in 1953 and 1954 (the latter being unique) before experiencing a six-year hiatus. Its coinage resumed in 1961 and, with that of the halfpenny, continued through 1967. At that time, the production of both issues was terminated in anticipation of the decimalization of the British coinage system in 1971. A final, commemorative proof edition of each of the old pre-decimal denominations was struck dated 1970, and these were sold in sets to collectors as the last of their kind.