Until it was superseded in 1971 by a decimal pound of 100 pence, the traditional pound sterling was valued at 240 pence. This awkward figure resulted in numerous and peculiar divisions such as 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. There had existed some justification for this system when the pound’s fractions were represented with silver coins, but all pretense was lost when silver was replaced by an alloy of copper and nickel.
The tremendous debt which Britain owed to the United States at the end of World War II was payable in silver. So vast was this sum that it proved impossible to repay without suspending the use of silver for domestic coinage. Commencing with the issues of 1947, all of the denominations which had until that time contained at least 50% silver were henceforth struck in an alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel.
There were a few exceptions, however. The Maundy pieces, which were not intended for circulation in any case, were elevated from .500 silver to the sterling standard of .925 fine. The conventional silver three-pence coin, which already had largely been superseded by the nickel-brass edition, was discontinued altogether.
Crowns were not included among the denominations produced regularly for circulation, so this left the half crown of George VI as the most valuable coin in domestic circulation during the transition from silver to copper-nickel. Its design remained unchanged from the type produced since 1937. Featured on its obverse is the bare-headed, left-facing bust of King George VI. Arranged in a peripheral arc is the legend GEORGIUS VI D:G: BR:OMN:REX. The reverse is dominated by a concave shield suspended from a ring. This shield is quartered, two quarters displaying the arms of England, the remaining quarters featuring the arms of Scotland and Ireland. Flanking the shield on either side are opposed and conjoined letters G, each pair surmounted by a crown. Arranged in arc form around the periphery are the legend FID:DEF IND:IMP, the value HALF CROWN and the date of coinage. The designer’s initials HP for Thomas Humphrey Paget appear beneath the bust on the obverse, while the KG of George Kruger Gray flank the lower part of the shield on this coin’s reverse.
As with all the lesser coins, the florin bears the same obverse design as the half crown. Its reverse, however, features England’s rose, surmounted by a crown and flanked by the Scottish thistle and the Irish shamrock. Beneath these two latter elements are the letters G and R, respectively. Arranged in arc form around the border are the legend FID:DEF::IND:IMP, the value TWO SHILLINGS and the date. Kruger Gray’s initials K and G flank the stem of the rose.
This reign initiated a practice which would continue into the following one-that of producing shillings with two distinct reverse types. The English type features a large crown upon which stands a facing lion whose body is seen in profile. This is flanked by the date, divided into two pair of numerals. Around the border are the legend •FID•DEF IND•IMP• and the value ONE•SHILLING, the two separated by English roses. The initials K and G appear above the lion’s tail. The Scottish reverse depicts a facing lion crouched atop the crown and holding a sword and a scepter. Flanking it on one side is a shield bearing the cross of St. Andrew, while the other side is balanced by the Scottish thistle. The lion divides the date into two pair, as well as separating initials K G. The legend and value are treated in similar fashion to the English shilling.
As the smallest and simplest of these coins, the six-pence piece features the script letters GRI surmounted by a crown. The letters divide the date into two parts, and initials KG appear below. The legend and value are presented much as they are on the larger coins.
In the few years remaining in this reign, there should have been no further changes, yet the tide of world events dictated otherwise. India’s independence from Britain in 1947 was reflected on the latter’s coinage beginning in 1949, when the legend IND IMP was deleted and the remaining legends re-spaced to compensate. The six-pence piece was further modified at this time to eliminate the confusing GRI in favor of a large GR enclosing a smaller VI.
1951’s Festival of Britain prompted the issuance of a commemorative crown bearing Humphrey Paget’s familiar bust of George VI on its obverse and Benedetto Pistrucci’s rendition of St. George slaying the dragon on its reverse. The value FIVE SHILLINGS is below the bust, and the edge is lettered to read MDCCCLI CIVIUM INDUSTRIA FLORET CIVITAS MCMLI (1851 By the industry of its people the state flourishes 1951).
The ascension to the throne of George VI’s daughter as Elizabeth II in 1952 brought only modest changes to the nation’s coins. Debuting in 1953, her coinage was accompanied by a one-year-only issue of commemorative crowns. It features a three-quarter view of the queen on horseback, flanked by two crowned and monogrammed EIIR. Her titles are separarted from the value FIVE SHILLINGS by English roses. Gilbert Ledward’s initials GL appear to the right of the horse’s hindlegs. The reverse of this coin was the work of Edgar Fuller and Cecil Thomas, and it depicts a crown at center, surrounded by two shields with the arms of England and one each of the Scottish and Irish arms. These are divided by a rose, a thistle, a shamrock and, for Wales, a leek. The latter divides the date as 19 53, and the edge reads FAITH AND TRUTH I WILL BEAR UNTO YOU. This type was reissued in 1960 for the British Trade Fair in New York, but with a reeded edge and with BRITT OMN omitted, as Britain’s empire was then breaking up. The date replaced the value FIVE SHILLINGS on the crown of 1965, whose reverse honored the recently deceased Sir Winston Churchill. Its edge was likewise reeded.
The half crown of this reign featured a quartered shield bearing the arms of England, Scotland and Ireland. It’s surmounted by a crown and flanked by letters E and R. The legend FID••DEF is separated from the value and date by Maltese crosses. the designers’ initials EF and CT are seen beneath the shield. The florin depicts England’s rose at its center, surrounded by a garland of thistles, leeks and shamrocks. Also the work of Fuller and Thomas, it cleverly uses these plants to divide the titles and legends, as well as their initials.
The updated English and Scottish shillings were both by William Gardner and feature similar shields at their centers, topped by Tudor crowns. The English version has three lions couchant, while the Scottish edition has a single lion rampant. The shield divides both the date and the designer’s initials W G, while the legend is separated from the value by crosses. The six-pence piece, again the work of Fuller and Thomas, is similar in concept to the florin. It features single examples of the rose, thistle, shamrock and leek, all skillfully intertwined. The initials EF and CT flank the shamrock, and the legend, value and date are arranged in peripheral arcs.
The dissolution of the British Empire following World War II prompted the removal of BRITT OMN from the queen’s titles in 1954. Otherwise, Elizabeth II’s copper-nickel coinage remained unchanged through 1967. Production of these issues was terminated that year in anticipation of the new decimal coinage. As a final tribute to the system of coins which had served Britain so well for centuries, a complete proof set from half penny through half crown was minted in 1970, the last date to bear these denominations and designs.