War and the Coinage of 1914 - 1919

 

There is one fact that hits you straight in the eye when you examine the mintage figures for silver coins between 1911 and 1918 : in the first three years, before the outbreak of war, the issues of silver denominations are broadly in line with those of Edward VII (perhaps a little higher, but no more than a gentle hike in the graph), but from 1914, the first year of war, those figures rose dramatically - not just doubled, but triple, even quadrupled the amounts. None more dramatic than with halfcrowns. The COMBINED 3-year total for 1911-13 is less than 8 million (an average therefore of less than 3m a year), this rises to 18 million in 1914 alone, and 32 million for 1915!


What caused this unprecedented increase? After all, the population was stable, and was soon to fall with the tragic deaths of so many fighting on the frontline. It was of course inflation - the spectre that killed the German economy after the war, and so nearly did for Britain’s. The Government of the day, to pay for the war, issued bonds and printed money like there was no tomorrow. Prices went up and up, and of course there were many more people to be paid, not least the women who previously had no spending power of their own, and were now employed in munitions factories. And so the larger denominations, which together with the new paper money, became what we now call ‘the money supply’, were issued in huge quantities. The years 1914, ’15, ’16, and ’18 show the largest mintage figures, with a noticeable though not extravagant drop-off in1917and 1919. 

 

1917 shilling reverse showing ill-defined lion due to die wear. Pay close attention to the mouth and mane Photo JNCoins.

1917 shilling reverse showing ill-defined liondue to die wear. Pay close attention to the mouth and mane. Photo JNCoins. 

This fact also goes a long way to explain the second phenomenon connected with UK coins in this period, namely the fall-off in quality. Many coins are found  in uncirculated condition with poor hair detail on the monarch’s portrait, similarly ill-defined lions on the reverse of shillings, to give two notorious examples. This was caused by die wear, the dies being used way past their ‘sell by date’.


What caused this? Some have suggested that the war effort deprived the Mint of the metal required to cut new dies, but this is not a satisfactory explanation : compared with the mammoth quantities of the metals silver and bronze, required to create coin blanks for the increased mintages, the amounts required for dies would have been tiny. No, I believe there is a far simpler cause. The phenomenal increase in output during this period and unprecedented right across the board, meant the Mint must have been working overtime to cope with it.  Therefore, dies were worked right up to the limits of their life before being replaced. 

 

Turning now to the significant points, year-by-year.


1914

 

The main point of interest is farthings, where the change to the penny in 1913 was now reflected, to a lesser extent,  a year later. No reverse changes were made, but the obverse was changed slightly. The main effect of this is most evident on the TT of BRITT: where the verticals are long and parallel up to the change, they are a bit shorter, further apart and not quite parallel on the changed version (See Freeman). The rims are less deep, and the entire legend slightly modified.


Both types occur in large quantities, but the earlier obverse also occurs on a small number of farthings dated 1915 and is a major rarity, not being identified until the 1970s.


Note that all farthings continued to be ‘mint darkened’ chemically, giving them a deep purple/black sheen; this was done to prevent BU coins being passed off as half sovereigns. The practice continued until 1918, when most (but not all) farthings were lustred.

 

There were very minor changes to the reverse dies of florins, and obverse dies of silver threepences (see British Silver Coins Since 1816 by Peter J Davies; ‘Davies’ from now on).

 

1915

 

The main problem with coins dated from 1911 to 1920 is the high profile of the portrait. When struck, this high profile caused metal to be ‘sucked away’ from the reverse, resulting not only in weak reverse strikes, but also a ‘ghost image’ of the outline of George’s head to appear on the reverse.


The first attempt to resolve this was in 1913, as already noted, but the problems, especially with pennies and halfpennies, persisted. A new attempt was made for part of the penny mintage in 1915 and 1916 : the highest point of the portrait, the ear, was recut lower to give a ‘recessed ear’ appearance. Although not rare, they are scarce in high grade particularly those of 1915. All such specimens are also found with a broken tooth just before the colon after BRITT on the obverse, which is possibly a die identifier for Mint officials to monitor the wear pattern of the recut ear. The new type was reasonably successful as most examples of ‘recessed ear’ pennies have fully struck up reverses, so why it was not permanently adopted is something of a mystery.

 

1917


1917 Sixpence 'not fully struck up' Photo JNCoins.


Sixpences of this date are a clear example of how dies were overworked. The portrait and reverse design are frequently found not fully struck up, which, together with a comparatively low mintage, means that a well-struck example in high grade is worth a considerable premium over most other dates in this series.

 

 

1918 - 19

 

The most notable features of these dates are the pennies, minted by Heatons and Kings Norton mints, both of Birmingham. Both years can be found with a tiny ‘H’ or ‘KN’ to the left of the date, and are scarce-to-rare, especially in higher grades. The relative scarcity of the mintages are (commonest first):

1919H

1918H

1918KN

1919KN

 

Of these, 1919H are by far the most common, and 1919KN by far the most rare, though when you look at the rarity in high grade, the picture changes a little. 1919H pennies are extremely difficult to obtain in EF or better, and are at least as rare in top grade as 1918KN.

 

Colour is also a factor. The Heaton pennies are usually found a bit blacker than their London counterparts, while the Kings Norton pennies were struck on blanks that wear to a distinctive terracotta red/brown shade.

 

There is a minor variety of the 1918KN penny known as the “crowsfoot” due to a distinctive flaw below George’s ear.


 

Exceptional 1918KN penny.
Not typical at all - Photo JNCoins

Well struck examples of any of these pennies are difficult to find, as worn dies were more often the rule than the exception. I have a 1919H penny that is at least EF for legend, reverse details, etc, but the hair detail on the portrait is the equivalent of Fine only,  not circulation wear nor a weak strike, but die wear.

 

For silver, there are some minor varieties of reverse design for halfcrowns and florins which are quite rare (Davies), but the most significant and rare variety is a 1919 silver threepence where, very unusually after 1900,  an ‘overdate’ occurs, the final ‘9’ of the date being punched over an ‘8’.

 

By the end of the War, the coinage, like the rest of Britain,  was worn out, tired, and badly in need of a lift. Inflation was still high, but the reduction in mintage of silver coins had begun. This was however, put on hold. The high price of silver by 1919, made the intrinsic value of the coins, plus the cost of production, greater than the face value of the coins themselves. This was the prime cause of one of the greatest changes to be seen since 1816, and it was to be ushered in in 1920.


Chris Peckris