On 13th February 1817 a massive banking upheaval got under way. The “old” coinage in circulation was called in and exchanged for a completely new coinage and within a mere two weeks the transfer was complete. It marked the culmination of a secret plan, headed by William Wellesley-Pole who was Master of the Royal Mint, and represented a determined effort by the British Government to restore public confidence in the coin of the realm. For years the public had suffered chronic inflation. They had had paper currency forced on them, which they generally distrusted, and for fifty years the Mint had not minted any silver in significant quantities. Smaller currency was often replaced with locally-minted coper tokens, many of which were only valid in the town of issue.
An added problem had been that the price of silver bullion had gone through the roof. Remember, all coins had a face value which was the same as its intrinsic value, so if the Royal Mint was making a one penny silver coin, it ended up as an absolutely minute sliver of silver – smaller than the size of a pinkie finger nail. It had also got so thin that the design on one side of the coin interfered with the design on the other. The decision was made to decrease the purity of the silver being used. At the same time, the gold currency was given a total overhaul. Previously it was based on the guinea, a coin having a face value of twenty one shillings. From 1817 the guinea disappeared and was replaced with the pound – and a splendid new design by the Italian engraver Pistrucci was introduced.
The whole re-coinage was done in total secrecy, so as not to alarm the public. The distribution of millions of the new coins to Banks throughout the country was done without fuss or loss of any sort, and the whole thing was a huge success. Not that the public liked the new coins, with what was known as the “bull head” of the monarch George III. The problem for Pistrucci was that no-one had seen the King for some years – George III was totally senile, deaf, blind and unshaven, so Pistrucci had to ‘imagine’ a likeness. As with many engravers before and since, he chose to make the royal portrait younger. Wellesley-Pole was already hugely unpopular, as was Pistrucci. The latter was disliked because he was a foreigner, but Wellesley-Pole was despised even more. Not only had he refused to select designs submitted by members of the Royal Academy, preferring Pistrucci’s handiwork, but he was vain enough to have his initials, WWP, appear on the face of the coin. The bull head was considered ugly if not treasonous, giving rise to the ditty:
It is allow’d, throughout the town,
The head upon the new Half-Crown,
Is not the George we so much prize—
The Chin’s not like—the Nose—the Eyes.
This may be true—yet, on the whole,
The fault lies chiefly in the Pole!”
The original intention had been to swap all the coins between 3rd and 17th February but the start was delayed by a few days and got under way on the 13th. It gave rise to this caricature by Charles Williams and published by J Sidebotham on 13th February and entitled ‘The New Coinage, or John Bull’s visit to Mat of the Mint! ‘
It shows Wellesley-Pole, referred to as “Master and Worker of his Majesty’s Mint,” shovelling money into a sack, saying “There, Johnny! see how I have been working for you for months past; you can’t say I get my money for nothing.” John Bull replies, “You be a very industrious man, Master Mat, and the prettiest Cole merchant I have dealt with for many a day.” His sack is inscribed: ‘New Silver to enable the people to give intrinsic value for Bank rags & worthless Tokens.’ Behind him, his wife carries a baby while her children, dressed in rags and with bare feet, scrabble on the floor. A large crowd are gathered behind the family, waiting for their turn to get their hands on the new coins which are being shovelled in the manner of a coal merchant loading coal.
The change-over involved some 2.6 million pounds-worth of currency – that is, some 57 million coins – being delivered nationwide, using boxes containing £600 of coins (a bag of half crowns, four bags of shillings and another one of sixpences). The destination of each box had to be labelled for each of the 700-odd banks involved nationally, and the Mint employed over one thousand staff to oversee the arrangements. The boxes would then be used to return the old coinage by way of exchange. Astonishingly not one coin went astray – the books balanced to the penny.
The copper coinage was largely left alone for the time being, but the popularity of smaller value silver coins led to the introduction of the groat (4d) and, during the reign of Queen Victoria, to a half-hearted attempt at decimalisation involving the florin (one tenth of a pound i.e. two shillings) and double florin. One thing was certain: the coins never looked the same again.
The reverse of Pistrucci’s iconic design for the sovereign i.e one pound coin, shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.