Of Alloys and Ghosts, 1920 - 1926

1. Silver

The period from 1920 to 1926 is numismatically one of the richest and most complex of the entire reign, with some as yet unanswered questions. There are so many issues to discuss, that I have broken this period into two, and will deal with silver and bronze separately.

The Royal Mint felt obliged to deal with two quite separate problems immediately following World War One. The first was the perennial ‘ghosting’ that, as has been observed, appeared on the shallower of the reverse designs on both silver and bronze coins (a faint outline of the edge of the deeply-cut obverse portrait); the other was the hike in the price of silver caused by the inflationary pressures of WW1, which meant that the cost of production of silver coins was not economically viable. Both problems were addressed in the silver coin issues of 1920.

First, the silver problem. A century earlier, as part of the 1816 Recoinage, Britain adopted the gold standard, and the silver coinage became a token issue for the first time; this meant that a uniform size and weight for denominations could be established, as silver coins no longer needed to be worth their intrinsic face value, and fluctuations in the price of silver could therefore be ridden out without affecting the coinage. However, when it became more expensive to produce coins than they were worth, as happened in 1919, the only logical choice was a change in composition. 

And so, in 1920, a new silver alloy appeared, consisting of 50% silver, the other 50% being predominantly copper with tiny quantities of other metals. At the same time, the Mint began the - assumed to be - long job of withdrawing sterling silver coins to make way for the new ‘debased’ issues. And the general public - realising that the new silver coins were only ‘half silver’ - began to hoard pre-1920 coins.

Eighty-five million halfcrowns in the new alloy were minted between 1920 and 1923. (And 95m florins, 87m shillings, 67m sixpences; only silver threepences - fast going out of fashion - saw a decline). However, this major recoinage slowed down abruptly when a general collapse in prices and wages occurred; the price of silver fell below the critical point, and pre-1920 silver was once again worth less than its face value. This had two consequences.

First : although the Mint was committed to the new alloy, the withdrawal of pre-1920 (92.5%) silver assumed a much lower priority now that the silver content was less than face value; pre-1920 coins continued to circulate side by side with the 50% coins. By this time though, large quantities had already been ‘put aside’ by the general public, which is why many of these ‘hoarded’ pre-1920 silver coins are seen today in VF or better grade, as they had comparatively little circulation.

Second : the depression in prices and wages resulted in a much lower demand for the larger silver denominations - the circulating coinage formed a much higher proportion of the ‘money supply’ then than it does now; many fewer halfcrowns and florins (in particular) were needed for wage packets, resulting in small mintages - the notable ‘scarce period’ of  1924 - 1926. This is especially seen in 1925 when the mintage for each denomination was only 1+ million.

Before leaving the subject of the 50% silver alloy, it must be pointed out that it was far from being problem-free. For the first two or three years it looked good when newly struck, but wore to an ugly yellow colour. Some tinkering with the composition of trace metals was done, and the next couple of years saw silver coins wear to show brownish-red ‘coppery’ patches. Finally, the Mint got it just about right, and minted them with a coating of pure silver; these coins tended to wear with greyish patches, and this was so all the way through to their replacement with cupro-nickel in 1947. The Mint even experimented with pure nickel, and some extremely rare shillings exist but as they are strictly patterns, they are outside the scope of this article.


So, what about the ghosting problem? The first priority was to lower the profile of the obverse portrait, the height and depth of which had caused all the problems in the first place. The first attempt, in 1920, was quite subtle, and this new portrait looks almost identical  : very fractionally larger, less rounded i.e. lower, and with less pronounced hair detail, along with minor changes to the lettering and rim, it was used on the larger silver denominations (halfcrown, florin, shilling) from 1920. (Also pennies from 1921 - see next article). It is referred to in the Spink catalogue as the ‘shallow cut’ portrait. In 1920, both obverse types were used, and occur in approximately equal proportions, so neither is rare.

However, in 1921 there is a very scarce variety of the shilling (there are in fact several varieties in that year, most of them very minor) : it uses both pre-1920 obverse and reverse dies, and is more scarce than the catalogue values usually ascribed to it would indicate. There is an even rarer 1923 florin that uses the pre-1920 obverse die along with the later reverse. This ‘mule’ was only discovered comparatively recently, possibly because of all three denominations, the differences between the two types arguably shows less clearly on the florin than on the halfcrown and shilling.

The shallow cut obverse was partly successful; much of the reverse ghosting was reduced, but the Mint felt there was further to go. To this end, Bertram Mackennal came up with yet another obverse design - the one famously known ever since as the “Modified Effigy”. This - to those familiar with it anyway - is clearly different to the earlier portraits : the hair details are incuse, the moustache, beard and eyes look subtly older, but the prime pointer is the designer’s initials ‘BM’, which are to the right hand side of the truncation and without stops (before they were centrally positioned and had stops after).

George v

In 1926, both portraits were used; the older (1920) portrait on all silver denominations, and then the new “M.E.” portrait on all except florins. There are no rarities in either, though the comparatively low mintages make high-grade examples of 1926 more valuable than pre-1924 issues; confusingly, this applies less to the M.E. portrait than the earlier one. The M.E. portrait was again used in 1927 - first issue, before new reverse designs (see separate article) - on the halfcrown, shilling and sixpence, and lasted until the end of the reign.

There were numerous other very minor alterations to the silver coin designs in this period, and for those interested, they can be read up in Davies. Perhaps the most noticeable change was to sixpences in 1925, about half of which have broader rims and different beading; all the early portrait sixpences of 1926 also have these.

Summary of main varieties:

1920: obverse changes from ‘deep cut’ to ‘shallow relief’ on halfcrowns, florins, shillings; both types occur in this year

1921: both obverse types on shillings (‘deep cut’ portrait very scarce)

1922: some halfcrown reverses have a groove between crown & shield 

1923: both obverse types on florins (‘deep cut’ portrait rare)

1925: sixpences with and without new ‘wide rim’ change 

1926: obverse changes from older type to ‘modified effigy’; both types occur on all denominations in 1926 except florins (no M.E.); some older type halfcrowns have varying degrees of missing colon after OMN (filled die)

The changes to the silver coinage between 1920 and 1926 may seem quite complex, but this is as nothing compared to the story of the humble penny between the same dates, and I will cover the bronze coins  of this period in a separate article.

Chris Peckris