THE THREEPENNY BIT

AND OTHER COINS

3d bit

You must be at least 50 to remember the threepenny -3d- bit. For you youngsters who never experienced receiving such riches, I must explain that although it was written ‘threepenny bit’, it was pronounced ‘threpenny bit’. If you were exceptionally lucky you might be treated instead to a sixpence. This was sometimes called a ‘sixpenny piece’ but never a sixpenny bit. Similarly A 3d bit was never a 3d piece. It ought to have been called a threepence bit but this was never a colloquial term.

The distinction between the words penny, pennies and pence has been lost since 1971 when the currency changed. A ‘new penny’ (or since 1982 just a plain penny) is hardly ever mentioned these days – its value is too small to think about- but in the days when it was worth at least something you often heard ignorant people referring to ‘one pence’, not realising that the word pence is plural. It the old days it was acceptable to use the word penny for more than one as sum of money (as in threepenny bit), but not for for more than one coin.The word pence was never used in the singular.

Before decimalisation a two pence coin did not exist but the sum of money still had a distinctive pronunciation – tuppence. A halfpenny too had its own name; it may have been written as a halfpenny but it was always pronounced ha’penny. The name ha’penny lasted into the decimal coinage era as there was a half a new penny coin, but it was soon abandoned as a worthless coin. This was despite its being worth far more than a 1p coin is today, and these are in theory still legal tender. The sum of ‘a penny ha’penny ‘- 1½d- was often referred to as ‘three ha’pence’. ‘Tuppenny ha’penny’ was a way of suggesting that something was not worth very much. ‘Eleven pence there farthings’ was just a ¼d short of a shilling, and was a popular price with our baker; because farthings were hard to come by my mother often had to give the bread-man a shilling for a loaf of bread. The farthing ceased to legal tender in 1960.

The threepenny bit was a valuable coin before inflation began to eat away at it. It would pay for a bag of sweets or a small ice cream, ever a bus fare if you weren’t going too far. It was the only polygonal coin before the ending of the ‘ten bob note’ ushered in the 50 pence coin in 1969. (This coin was the first to have the decimal “p” on it although the change-over was still two years off.) A threepenny bit was of a golden colour made of nickel brass. It replaced the ‘threepenny joe’ which was made of silver and was a smaller version of the silver sixpence. These silver threepenny joes were still in circulation during my childhood, although their silver content made them worth more than their nominal value, and consequently  would be removed by unscrupulous people for melting down. This was illegal of course, but it still happened. So they were rare. The design on the reverse of a threepenny bit was either three-headed flower in George VI’s reign or a portcullis under Elizabeth II. The coin had been produced under Edward VIII, but these circulated in very small quantities, and are extremely rare.

The portcullis1p was reproduced on the threepenny bit coins minted under Queen Elizabeth II until 1970. Thereafter the symbol appeared on the one new penny piece. The earliest use of the portcullis on a British coin is, as far as I can ascertain, on a silver penny of Edward the Elder. This was the son and successor of Alfred the Great who reigned from 900 – 924 AD. This makes the design over 1100 years old. Since that first appearance in Anglo-Saxon times the portcullis did not again appear on British coins until Tudor times. The portcullis was a badge of the Tudor monarchs, and Henry the Eighth used it on his gold coins as a mint mark. At the end of Elizabeth I’s reign the design appeared on the reverse side of the silver coins produced for trade with the East Indies.

Roman coins used a town gate as the design on some coins, but this included a depiction of the masonry surround as well, and was not strictly comparable with the portcullis which is a grid on chains. The term portcullis comes from the medieval French words porte and coleice, meaning a sliding door.

Roman coin

Britannia coin of Antoninus (AD 138-161)

Coins have been minted in this country for well over 2,000 years, going back to well before the Romans invaded Britain. This continued into the years AD, when from 43 AD Roman coinage was introduced by the country’s new rulers.  It is from the Roman conquest period that we have British coins with a figure of Britannia on them. She is seated with spear and shield, a motif which continues right up to today on the 50 pence coin. This is the longest continuity of symbols employed, having lasted  for nearly  two millennia of coinage in these islands. I am very glad it was not ended by the introduction of the Euro.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

MEMORIES OF OLD MONEY

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