This article is mainly about pennies, and contains some speculative theories about the ‘penny mysteries’ this period throws up. So let’s get other matters out of the way first.
First, the alloy question. There was a slight change to the bronze alloy from 1923 (a reduction in tin) to soften the metal and allow greater ‘flow’. This did have a very small effect on reducing the ‘reverse ghosting’ problem (see previous articles), but it was the least radical solution to the problem. Second, some specimens of 1920 and 1921 pennies are found with what look like gold flecks on one side. There is no official explanation for this, but one suggestion is that unused WW1 brass shell casings were added to the mix, and that they failed properly to integrate into the alloy, leaving distinctive flecks.
Often the poor relation, the humble halfpenny was ignored after 1911 and got none of the changes applied to pennies in 1913 and 1921 to try and reduce ghosting. As a result, struck behind a deep obverse portrait and with virtually no protective rim, the reverse was subject to more wear than on any other denomination between 1911 and 1925, and suffered badly from the reverse ghosting phenomenon. And so it became the first denomination to adopt Bertram Mackennal’s “Modified Effigy” (M.E.), in 1925. There was also a redesigned reverse at the same time - good rims, longer border teeth, and a slightly smaller and ‘flatter’ Britannia. This new 1925 design is slightly scarcer than the number for this date with the earlier design, but still reasonably common. It was then used on all halfpennies dated 1926 and 1927.
The farthing reverse had proportionately more protection from its rims and didn't suffer quite so badly as the halfpenny. The M.E. portrait was used on all 1926 farthings, along with a similar redesigned reverse, and this new design pairing carried through to the end of the reign in 1936.
There are several issues regarding pennies that require explanation or - in the absence of official records - speculation. There’s even a couple of unanswered questions within what has been known for decades. I will first go through the period dealing with the straightforward issues (but also asking those awkward questions), then address a few extreme rarities that put the proverbial cat among the pigeons and require some radical thinking to try to resolve.
In 1921, the ‘shallow portrait’ that was introduced for the larger silver in 1920 was also used for pennies; there is a unique pattern in the British Museum dated 1920. Like the silver re-design, it involved lowering the portrait’s profile, making it very slightly larger but flatter, and re-positioning the legend (see Freeman for full details). Both deep and shallow portraits were used in 1921, and are equally common.
Between 1917 and 1921 over half a BILLION pennies were issued, an average of 110 million each year. In 1922, a very much smaller mintage - 16 million - was issued. None were issued between 1923 and 1925, then in 1926 an even smaller number - 4 million - were struck. All pennies dated 1922, and the majority of 1926 pennies, used the newer shallow portrait; all used the old unchanged reverse.
In 1926, the M.E. portrait was introduced but only on a relatively small number of the pennies struck in that year (possibly numbering only tens of thousands, but probably not more than 250,000). This, the famous 1926ME penny, has always been very scarce, but is incredibly rare in the top grades. It probably vies for rarity with the 1919KN.
In 1927, the M.E. portrait was again used for the obverse, but this time the reverse WAS amended : Britannia is smaller and more compact, the rim a bit bigger, the border teeth longer, the lettering smaller, and the exergue larger. The net result of this change is that the reverse is flatter (especially combined with the M.E. portrait) rather than having the ‘dished’ look that was evident especially before 1921. The modified reverse is similar to that introduced for the M.E. halfpennies in 1925, and all farthings from 1926 (see above).
Before looking at the more mysterious discoveries, there are two unanswered questions surrounding the 1926ME. To try to answer one of them is going to require some very radical speculation. But first, the question that will never be resolved is just how many 1926ME’s were issued: they weren't the easiest variety to recognise (as a schoolboy in 1968, the first 1926 penny I found was an M.E. but it was a year before I realised!). In all I found 2 in my change between late 1967 and D-Day, compared with a few dozen ordinary 1926’s. I think a fair estimate would be somewhere between 50,000 and a quarter of a million, out of 4 million in total.
1926 ME Penny, Photo JNCoins
Second, why did the reverse on the 1926ME pennies remained unchanged? After all, when the M.E. halfpenny and farthing had earlier been introduced, both featured a redesigned reverse as we have seen. But not the penny which, like the halfpenny, came partway through the mintage run; there is no other bronze denomination that features the M.E. obverse with an existing reverse, and strictly speaking, that makes the 1926ME penny a ‘mule’ (mispaired obverse and reverse). This only makes sense if its introduction was unintended, or at least, unplanned.
Rare misnamed ‘1922 penny with 1927 reverse'
The ‘speculative timeline’ below will try to answer this, but before that we need to deal with further complications : what Donald Rumsfeld would call “known unknowns”! First, in the late 1970s a 1922 penny with a distinctively different reverse (same Britannia design, but not the same...) was discovered. It has been described as ‘1922 penny-with-1927-reverse’, but this is not really the case. It does have many similarities to the 1927 reverse, but is also distinct from it, as those who have seen it will readily admit. Some say the pointer to differentiate it from the normal 1922 reverse, is Britannia’s thumb in relation to St George’s cross on the shield. That is quite trivial : this extremely rare variety has a noticeably wide rim, and quite long teeth, as well as the smaller Britannia and the whole design sitting flatter on the flan than the regular reverse. It has a rim wider even than that on the 1927 reverse, for example. It just LOOKS different from both reverses, but very different indeed from the ‘old’ reverse used for 1922 pennies. Only a handful are known.
The existence of this major rarity raises more questions than it answers. It was clearly a success story in eliminating the ghosting problem, so why was it not adopted on all 1926 pennies? Yet it was not. The second question is this: when exactly was it struck? Again, this is something to be addressed in the speculative timeline.
However, even the rare 1922 penny reverse is nothing compared to two virtually unique recent discoveries: a penny dated 1922 with Modified Effigy, paired with the very rare reverse variety described above; and a 1926ME penny with the ‘proper’ reverse that was introduced for all pennies from 1927.
So here are the mysteries needing to be addressed:
1) why was the 1926ME penny paired with the ‘wrong’ (old) reverse?
2) what is the story behind the unique reverse found on a few 1922 pennies?
3) how can there be a 1922ME penny?
4) how do we account for one 1926ME penny with the ‘correct’ reverse?
The best way to attempt to answer these questions - in the absence of official records - is to create a timeline from 1922 to 1927 mixing fact with speculation to try to come up with the likeliest explanation for these strange and so far unexplained anomalies. The speculations are my ‘best guess’, and if anyone has a better explanation, or access to more obscure data, I'd be interested in hearing from them.
In 1922, with bronze pennies and halfpennies showing worse ghosting than other denominations, the Mint decides that the new ‘shallow cut’ obverse introduced for pennies in 1921, may not be sufficient to cure the problem. With a low mintage for 1922 and no pennies planned for the next few years, they have time and resources to experiment with a redesigned reverse. This has a wider and deeper protective rim and longer teeth, with Britannia being reduced in size. A few trial specimens are struck dated 1922 and find their way into circulation.
In 1923 a subtle revision to the alloy is made, but halfpennies continue to suffer badly. Bertram Mackennal is commissioned to work on a radical revision to the obverse effigy - the M.E. - which is ready for introduction sometime in 1925, over halfway through the halfpenny mintage. At the same time, the experimental redesigned reverse from 1922 is paired with the new obverse, and the success of these changes then sees them introduced on all farthings from 1926.
At this time - say, late 1925? - the Mint are planning to see how the Modified Effigy will look on pennies, with the redesigned reverse. There possibly aren't the resources to run a proper trial, but an obverse pattern is ready, and someone remembers the 1922 experiments. As that reverse die still exists, it is mated with the obverse pattern and one (or more?) specimens struck, giving an unlikely 1922ME. One survives.
Now for the most radical speculation. To quote Bette Davies: “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be bumpy...”. Ready? Ok. Here goes. The next official mintage of pennies is not planned to be until 1927, with the Modified Effigy paired with the redesigned reverse. But what if... during 1926 a sudden demand dictates an emergency issue of pennies? The Mint must react, but their hands are full with the changeover to the M.E. obverse on most denominations, and there are also to be new silver coinage reverse designs from 1927. And so they find a few leftover or unused obverse dies from 1922 (which itself may have been a lower-than-anticipated mintage?), and hastily prepare the necessary reverses from the existing matrix used in 1922 and earlier.
Towards the end of this emergency issue of 4 million pennies, the stocks of obverse dies are used up, but as the 1927 dies are already in existence, a few are used to finish off the mintage without a change to the reverse (but see below). Thus the famous 1926ME penny mule we are so familiar with, is born.
(I can already feel some of you scratching your heads over this. No, there isn't any evidence that 1926 pennies were an emergency issue. But then, there isn't any evidence that they weren’t, and it does help begin to explain the so far inexplicable. For one thing, why was the strike so low - 4 million - following 3 years when none were issued at all? After all, the issue for 1927 was large - almost 61 million - which was normal after a gap without pennies; why bother with a small issue, including muled pennies, in 1926 unless it was to meet a sudden demand?)
'1926 Penny with 1927 reverse'
At the point where 1927 obverse dies are to be used to complete the 1926 issue, someone has the bright idea to see also if the new 1927 reverse can be altered to pair with the obverse to avoid minting a mule penny. The one example in existence does look crisp and prooflike - Michael Freeman’s verdict, no less - and there have been suggestions that the last digit of the date looks altered. If it was changed from a 7, this would account for it. For reasons unknown, this plan is abandoned after the production of a pattern. Possibly the Mint is just too busy to produce a few reverse dies for the remainder of the run, and it’s decided to persist with the old reverse used for the main part of the strike, and accept the fact that the small number of 1926ME pennies will be mules.
An alternative theory might look like this: before or during the hypothetical emergency issue of 1926 pennies, it’s decided to strike a few patterns dated 1926, of the M.E. obverse with the redesigned ’1927 reverse’. I don't like this idea half as much though; that pairing had already been introduced for halfpennies and farthings without any thought of producing patterns. None have come to light at any rate. In fact, 1926 M.E. patterns are generally notable by their absence across all denominations. (However, this makes the existence of the 1922ME pattern penny even more puzzling.)
All this is pure speculation, but to summarise (hypothesis underlined):
1922 - the last regular issue of pennies, using the old reverse
- an experimental new reverse (anti-ghosting) of which a few ‘escaped’
1923-25 - no pennies issued
1925 - M.E. portrait used on halfpennies, with similar reverse to the 1922 experiment
1925? M.E. portrait trial penny, using the experimental 1922 reverse die
1926 - emergency issue of 4m pennies from unused 1922 obverse dies + old reverse
- M.E. portrait used for end of this run using dies prepared for 1927
- M.E. penny struck with altered 1927 reverse: an abandoned trial
1927 - M.E. portrait + modified reverse similar to 1922 experiment, but not identical.
The real truth about the penny mysteries from 1922 to 1926 may never be officially resolved, but I hope you've enjoyed this brief excursion into educated guesswork (you may prefer the term ‘complete fantasy’!), and that in the absence of official records, it helps answer the questions. Next month, in the final article on the coinage of George V, I will cover the period 1927 to 1936.