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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Vulgar Money Bags

When you start your first job there are all kinds of bewildering things you don’t understand and daren’t ask about. On my first day, two people proof-checking newly-typed accounts by reading them out loud to one another were pronouncing the numbers in a strange and mystifying way – “eight-tie pounds” instead of “eighty pounds”, “four-tie pounds one and three” instead of “forty pounds one and three”. It was just one of a number of strange rituals I hoped would make sense before too long.*

So when I was sent to work with Les and it was time for our lunchtime sandwiches, I didn’t question why he was sorting through bags of coins. It seemed odd and eccentric, but I tried to take all the jingling and clinking in my stride as if it were as normal as reading the newspaper.

“Wow!” he said jubilantly, breaking the verbal silence, “Nineteen-eighteen Kings Norton.”

I had no idea what he meant.

“That’s two this week. I got a nineteen-o-two low tide yesterday.”

I owned up to not having a clue what he was talking about.

It turned out Les was a coin collector, actually quite a knowledgeable and civilised one, but at lunchtimes he became an uncivilised, vulgar profiteer. A couple of times a week he would go to the bank, change £5 into copper or £20 into silver, and sort through it for rare coins.

He explained what he was looking for. In some years, especially 1912, 1918 and 1919, the Royal Mint had been short of capacity and outsourced some of its production to two Birmingham companies, the Kings Norton Metal Company and Ralph Heaton and Sons. The pennies they produced are identifiable by mint marks in the form of the tiny letters ‘KN’ and ‘H’ to the left of the date, and these coins are sought by collectors.

1918 Kings Norton Penny and 1919 Heaton Penny
1918 Kings Norton and 1919 Heaton pennies - the mint marks can be seen to the left of the dates

There were other rarities too, esoteric variations in design. 1902 ‘low tide’ pennies and halfpennies were known as such because the sea level on the reverse side of the coin was lower than the point at which Britannia's legs join, rather than level as in the examples above. Still more obscure was the 1926 ‘modified effigy’ penny in which the head of King George V was struck slightly more faintly than usual, identifiable by the absence of full stops in the engraver’s initials ‘BM’ on the King’s neck, and by the ‘I’ of the word ‘DEI’ pointing directly to a rim tooth rather than a space between. The first person to spot these minute differences must have had extraordinary powers of observation. Other rarities included the very valuable 1933 penny, and even some relatively recently minted coins, such as the 1959 Scottish shilling (Scottish shillings had one standing lion on the back, whereas English shillings had three walking lions). The list went on and on, but all these varieties were sought by collectors who would pay good money for them.

It sounded good – vulgar profiteer that’s me – so I decided to have a try. I brazenly walked into the National Provincial Bank in Park Square and requested £5 in pennies.

“Are you a customer, Sir?”

“Well, no, but ...”

“Sorry Sir, we only provide change for customers.”

The “Sir” was particularly irksome, an apparent display of respect that wasn’t.

Things went better after that. It seems I simply picked the wrong branch on the wrong day. None of the other banks were obstructive; they changed notes into coins without question, and then back again when I returned with rarities removed and replaced, not that I found many.

Whitman Folder - halfpennies
Halfpennies in a Whitman Folder

I never did make anything out of it. I still have the few rare(ish) coins I found – an 1876 Heaton penny and a handful of 1912, 1918 and 1919 Heaton and Kings Norton pennies. Within my limited means, I also collected some complete sets of halfpennies 1902-1936 and 1937-1967, mounted them in Whitman Folders and advertised them for sale in Exchange and Mart, and got a couple of orders which at least covered the cost of the advert. But none of the half-dozen 1926 pennies I kept have the modified effigy and I never did find a 1902 low tide. What I did find and keep had been in circulation so long that their condition is generally lower than collectors are looking for. Perhaps they’re worth a total of around fifty pounds at best, and that’s at today’s values.

Things are slightly better with silver coins – i.e. ‘silver’ threepenny bits (which preceded the twelve-sided nickel-brass ones), sixpences, shillings, florins (two shillings) and half-crowns (two shillings and six pence). Before 1920 these coins were 92.5% silver, and from 1920 to 1946 they were 50% silver, thus irrespective of their rarity to collectors, they are worth well above face value simply because of the silver bullion content. At today’s prices, pre-1920 half-crowns are worth around £4.50 each, and ones dated between 1920 and 1946 around £2.50. When you consider that is only around twenty times face value for the 50% silver, then any put away around 1970 have hardly kept pace with inflation.

By the time I was looking in 1969 and 1970, very few pre-1947 silver coins remained in circulation and practically none from before 1920. I have a little bag of around a dozen pre-1947 half-crowns. Goodness knows how I could afford not to spend them.

Shilling 1890, Half Crown 1891

My dad revealed he had played the same game many years earlier when there was still a fair amount of pre-1920 silver around. Most of his squirrelled-away silver is very worn and worth only bullion value, but among it are two nice Victorian examples, an 1890 shilling and an 1891 half-crown, although even to collectors they’re worth no more than around £25 together.

At least searching hopefully through bags of coins seemed a relaxing and constructive lunchtime diversion. No pointy fingers for taking full and proper lunchbreaks in those days.


* They pronounced the numbers in this way to avoid potential errors, so for example "four-tie" meaning "forty" would not be misheard as "fourteen".