Penny foolish

The 1p piece is useless, but it is less than half a century since it was bright and new

Philip Hammond has hastened to put the penny’s review behind him (WWarby CC BY-2.0)

The decimal penny’s review should write itself: this coin is not worth picking up in the street. As a store of value  and a medium of exchange, it is useless. It costs the Royal Mint more to make than it will buy — or would buy, in any shop that hasn’t phased it out. Some of this coinage is thrown away, some accumulates in bottles to be palmed off on charities, who would grumble if we did away with it. Why don’t we just let it die a natural death?

Philip Hammond has hastened to put his review behind him. Yet it is less than half a century since this penny was bright and new. Out went the traditional penny — the D (from the Latin: denarius) in £sd, which stood for pounds, shillings and pence. In came, at last, a modern decimal currency.

Plantagenet Palliser, Trollope’s Chancellor, had vainly dreamt of it. He could not make the  farthing — a neat little coin, worth a quarter of a penny — fit into it. His successor gave us a coin without a plural: 3d had been threepence, but 3p became three pee. Worse still, its purchasing power drained away. The change had weakened our mental resistance to rising prices, and within five years inflation had reached 26 per cent.

Within the Bank of England, an unsung hero called John De Loynes saw this coming. He had stabilised the Gambia’s currency around a four-shilling coin, with two crocodiles chasing each other round the rim. Gambians, he thought, would like to bet on one crocodile catching the other up. They were used to a four-shilling unit, they had no need for a decimal currency — and, in any case, inflation was decimalising the world’s currencies quite fast enough without central bankers joining in.

This went down like a bad oyster with his seniors at the Bank. How dare he cast doubt on Britain’s monetary modernisation? But inflation had already solved Palliser’s problem by seeing off the farthing, the threepenny bit and the “silver” sixpence followed, and today the shilling, in its new guise as a five-pee piece, is the lowest coin of any practical use. How long will it last at today’s rate of inflation? Don’t expect the next review to tell us.

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