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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
The coin that lost our interest
By Joe Campbell
BBC News Magazine

penny
As the Royal Mint puts the final touches to a re-designed one penny piece, do we really care any more about a coin that is so little valued more than six billion have been lost without a trace?

Once there was a time when the closest most of us came to royalty was carrying a coin bearing the monarch's head in our pocket.

These days, increasingly it seems we have a stronger link with the Crown, for like the Queen, fewer and fewer of us actually carry money around - unless it's the plastic kind bearing the credit card company's logo rather than the ancient heraldic devices from the coin of the realm.

If we have fallen out of love with hard cash though, then it would seem the humble penny is least loved of all.

More than 10 billion of them are currently thought to be in circulation according to the Royal Mint.

Lost money

But that figure does not tell the whole story for since Britain went decimal in February 1971, more than half as many again have actually been produced, and truth be told, nobody quite knows where they have gone.

Penny chews
What will a penny buy you these days?
"The coins estimated to be in circulation, compared to the total number of 1p coins issued since it was introduced 36 years ago, suggests that over 6,500 million are no longer in general circulation," said a spokesman for the Royal Mint.

"There are a number of explanations for this, including travellers taking them abroad."

Market boss John Ayres, who works in one of the last bastions of the cash economy perhaps knows where some of the missing 65m has got to.

"When I get home I just take all the coins out of my pocket and leave them on the dresser until somebody calls with a charity collection or we're feeling really hard-up," he says.

John, who manages one of Britain's biggest markets in Bury in Lancashire says many stall holders will still price goods along the lines of "and 99 pence" to avoid breaching the next crucial pound barrier.

"I bought something yesterday and it came to 3.99 and I said to the trader you can keep the penny. I've seen people years ago throwing the old half-pence piece away and I think the penny is now viewed the same way.

"Personally speaking I can't see it being around much longer - maybe two or three years. I don't think you can buy things for a penny anymore. It's a sign of the times."

The Royal Mint disagrees the coins days are numbered - as its re-design plans demonstrate.

Penny packet

And a penny can still buy some things - in theory at least.

HISTORY FOR A PENNY
Penny
First Penny coins struck under King Offa around 755
Used silver equivalent to the weight of 24 grains of barley
This weight - 1.6g - was the original "pennyweight"
The town of New Mills in Derbyshire is home to a company whose name will be familiar to generations who used their pocket money to buy penny sweets from the corner shop.

"We still do a filled sherbet straw that costs a penny but there are fewer and fewer products that are only one pence," says Andrew Matlow of the town's biggest employer, Swizzels Matlow.

These days it is the mums who do most of the sweets buying as part of the weekly family shop. The big stores, he says, have no time for a handful of chews that sell for just a few coppers and the penny sweets that do still roll off the production line are more likely to be sold in plastic-wrapped multi-packs costing rather more than 20p maximum that people are obliged to accept in pennies as legal tender.

Even the coin collectors have little time for the new penny. one expert describing it as "very boring," compared to the coin it replaced on D-day or decimalisation day back in February 1971.

"There was some sort of romanticism about the old penny with coins dating back to the time of Victoria still in circulation," says Jeremy Cheek, Numismatist with coin dealers, Spink.

Penny for the guy
Penny for the guy? Best make that 50p
"When plans were announced to get rid of the old coins, that actually sparked many people's interest and they began collecting."

The now not so new penny has also been hampered by its very consistency, what the mint might see as an attribute making the coin perhaps just a little too everyday for the rest of us.

Since its introduction 36 years ago, it has changed remarkably little. The prefix "new" was dropped from the coin's tail-side in 1982 and the head has seen three different pictures of the Queen as she has aged alongside the design.

But perhaps the biggest change will have passed most of us by with the switch in 1992 from an alloy of bronze, copper and zinc, to a steel disc coated in copper, when the price of the original raw materials outstripped the penny's face value.

So if there is no longer a scrap value in the humble penny - where have the missing coins gone?

New look

Experts at the British Museum, the sometime beneficiary of hoards of rather more valuable historic coins unearthed by treasure hunters, have one theory.

There are probably jars of them all over the country
Katie Eagleton, British Museum
"People seem to like putting them in a jar," says Katie Eagleton, curator of modern money.

"There are probably jars of them all over the country," she adds, only partly in jest, as she sorts through a recent bequest including new pennies from each year they've been minted.

The museum already receives an example of the coins made each year, direct from the mint, and she defends the soon to be replaced portcullis design.

"It's good because you can recognise it straight away and it's got enough detail to make it difficult to forge - not that anyone would probably ever want to waste their time making fake pennies!"

The existing design won't vanish overnight when the re-vamped penny is introduced with what the mint promises will be a design reflecting "modern Britain."

Only once it is unveiled to the public, later this year, will we know whether it will put the shine back on the face of the most humble of coins.


A selection of your comments appears below.

Why not introduce the 99p coin. Problem solved for everyone.
Alex, Birmingham, UK

This is a staggering number of coins to go missing. A 1p coin weighs 3.5g so the missing coins weigh in excess of 22 metric tonnes and would occupy a volume of approximately 2600 cubic meters if stacked in the most efficient way. This is equivalent to a pile 2.6 km long measuring 1 metre by 1 metre. Working on the assumption that it takes about 10 seconds to stack ten 1p coins (sadly I have tried this) it would take one person more than 200 years of non-stop work to build this pile - that is, of course, if they could find them!
Chris, Salisbury

To those of you who throw your 1p and 2p pieces in the bin... please in future make sure that you throw them in the gutter. As my daughters and I walk around town we pick them up, save them until the end of the year, add them to our jar to pay for Premium Bonds.... and one day someone else's discarded 1p will probably win us a million pounds!!
Lizzie, Suffolk

Most of my coppers went through crushing machines at Disney land and the NASA space center!
Steve, Nottingham

Does anyone remember the farthing? I remember them from my early childhood in the 1950s. It was a little coin with a robin on the front and was worth a quarter of an old penny. They would turn up in drawers and between floorboards but you couldn't spend them because the shopkeepers could not be bothered with them. Very frustrating when you were a child and wanted to buy a Black Jack or Fruit Salad (four for a penny). They were scrapped eventually because they were worth so little. Taking inflation into account, they would be worth around 5p in present money so why are we still bothering with one and two penny coins?
Richard, London

I work in a school and am forever picking up coins dropped by pupils on the corridors and around the outside of the school (they all go in the charity box). It would appear that any coin under 10p isn't worthy of being called money! It certainly wasn't like this when I was growing up - every 1/2d counted towards something worth saving up for!
Sue, Blackpool

We can't get rid of these coins overnight. The inflationary effects of rounding everything up to 5p would leave Gordon Brown in a tailspin. Long live the penny at least until we've given up on coins altogether.
Neil, Cardiff

Maybe we should have a 'penny amnesty' and raise some money for charity.
Paul Carter, London

Surely it is now time to abolish 1p and 2p coins as they are worth so little and clog up our pockets. Last time I visited New Zealand I noticed that the smallest coin they had was 5c. Why not round everything off to the nearest 5p and get rid of these bronze coins. I always throw my bronze into a drawer or into a money box. It is not worth carrying around.
Simon Ricketts, Douglas, Isle of Man, British Isles

"As the Royal Mint puts the final touches to a re-designed one pence piece" For goodness sake, it is a one penny piece! Pence is plural!
PJ (the pedant), West Yorks, thelbiq.co.uk

I've got 268 of those missing ones on the shelf here.
Ed, Clacton, UK

Bin them along with the 2p coin, they are a complete waste of time, money and resources.
Mike, London

If somebody is trying to track all these pennies down, can I just say I have 365 of them in a jar. Good luck with the rest
Yusuke, Stockport

Get rid of it. It's a useless antiquated coin that takes up too much space in today's slender wallets. Move with the times people!!
Gareth Kilvington, Newport, South Wales

I am probably going out on a limb here but it does seem an awful lot of coins to have 'disappeared'. With the price of copper as it is, perhaps the majority of these have been melted down? They are only tiny, but if you have 6,500,000,000 of them ... I'm sure you'd get a fair bit of copper from that many!
Heather, Bromsgrove, England

Frankly I can't see the point of copper coins any more. It's a total waste of time (and presumably money) to re-design the coin and press a whole load of new ones; the Mint should have taken this opportunity to do away with them completely, and have everything sold in multiples of 5p from now on. It would take the weight (and resultant holes) out of many peoples pockets.
Richard Gosling, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

The pennies from my pocket end up in a giant plastic bottle - and are changed either every Christmas, or when we go on holiday and are bagged up for the seafront arcades!!
Katie Webber, Nottingham

The penny and the two pence coin won't die unless hard cash is completely eradicated. If something cost 2.97 then you will either have to make up the 7p to pay or the 3p in change. The only way it will go is if we have a complete reshuffle of our coin and pricing system. Eliminate the penny and two pence coin, and round up anything under a pound to the nearest ten pence. If you ask me, 99p will die before the penny.
Hannah, Middlesex





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