Sixpence (British coin)

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Six old pence
United Kingdom
Value  140 pound sterling
Mass (1816-1970) 2.83 g
Diameter (1816-1970) 19.41 mm
Edge Milled
Composition (1551-1816) Silver
(1816–1920) 92.5% Ag
(1920–1946) 50% Ag
(1947–1970) Cupronickel[nb 1]
Years of minting 1551–1970
British sixpence 1962 obverse.png
Design Profile of the monarch (Elizabeth II design shown)
Designer Mary Gillick
Design date 1953
British sixpence 1962 reverse.png
Design Various (floral design shown)
Designer Edgar Fuller and Cecil Thomas
Design date 1947
Obverses of the 1787 and 1818 sixpence depicting George III.

The sixpence (6d), sometimes known as a tanner or sixpenny bit was a coin worth one fortieth of a pound sterling, or six pence. It was first minted in the reign of Edward VI and circulated until it was made obsolete by decimalisation in 1971. The coin was made from silver from its introduction in 1551 to 1947, and thereafter in cupronickel.

Prior to Decimal Day in 1971 there were two hundred and forty pence in one pound sterling. Twelve pence made a shilling, and twenty shillings made a pound. Values less than a pound were usually written in terms of shillings and pence, e.g. forty-two pence would be three shillings and six pence (3/6), pronounced "three and six". Values of less than a shilling were simply written in terms of pence, e.g. eight pence would be 8d.


The first sixpences were minted in 1551, during the reign of Edward VI. They came about as a result of the debasement of silver coinage in the 1540s, in particular the silver testoon, which fell in value from 12d to 6d.[1] The debased testoon was likely useful in everyday transactions, and it was decided that new coinage should be introduced with the express denomination of six pence.[2] The reason the testoon decreased in value is that unlike today, the value of coins was determined by the market price of the metal contained within them, and during the reign of Henry VIII the purity of silver in coinage had fallen significantly.

Sixpences were minted during the reign of every British monarch following Edward VI, as well as during the Commonwealth, with a vast number of variations and alterations appearing over the years. During the reign of George II a number of issues were designed by John Sigismund Tanner, one time Chief Engraver of the Royal Mint, and it has been suggested that this is the origin of the nickname "tanner", which became a popular name for the coin until decimalisation.[3] An alternative explanation for the nickname is that it comes from Romany Gypsy word tawno meaning small thing.[2]

Reverse of the 1787 silver sixpence.

The Royal Mint undertook a massive recoinage programme in 1816, with large quantities of gold and silver coin being minted. Previous issues of silver coinage had been irregular, and the last issue, minted in 1787, did little to alleviate the chronic shortage of silver coinage in general circulation.[4] New silver coinage was to be of .925 (sterling) standard, with silver coins to be minted at 66 shillings to the pound.[5] Hence, newly minted sixpences weighed 46.636 grains or 2.828 grams.

The Royal Mint debased the silver coinage in 1920 from 92.5% silver to 50% silver. Sixpences of both alloys were minted that year.[6] This debasement was done because the rising price of silver around the world, and followed the global trend of the elimination, or the reducing in purity of the silver in coinage.[7] The minting of silver coinage of the pound sterling ceased completely in 1946 for similar reasons, exacerbated by the costs of the Second World War. New "silver" coinage was instead minted in cupronickel, an alloy of copper and nickel containing no silver at all.[8]

Beginning with Lord Wrottesley's proposals in the 1820s there were various attempts to decimalise the pound sterling over the next century and a half.[9][10] These attempts came to nothing significant until the 1960s when the need for a currency more suited to simple monetary calculations became pressing. The decision to decimalise was announced in 1966, with the pound to be redivided into 100, rather than 240, pence.[11] Decimal Day was set for 15 February 1971, and a whole range of new coins were introduced. Sixpences continued to be legal tender with a value of 2½ new pence until 30 June 1980.[12]

Cultural significance[edit]

As the supply of silver threepence coins slowly disappeared, Royal Mint sixpences replaced them as the coins put into Christmas puddings; children would hope to be the lucky one to find the sixpence, no doubt also encouraging them to eat more pudding.

In Great Britain, there is a well-known tradition of the bride wearing 'Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe.' A silver sixpence in the bride's shoe is a traditional good luck wedding gesture and customarily, it is the father of the bride who places the sixpence as a symbol of him wishing her prosperity, love and happiness in her marriage.

They are also used as a good luck charm by Royal Air Force aircrew who have them sewn behind their wings or brevets, a custom dating back to the Second World War.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 4, Scene 2), we learn that by his absence (ensorcelled in Titania's bower), Bottom the Weaver will forgo sixpence a day for life from the Duke. In Elizabethan times, six pence was roughly a day's wage for rustic labour in the provinces. With it, one might buy two dinners, six performances of Hamlet among the groundlings at the Globe Theatre, or an unbound copy of the play itself.

"I've Got Sixpence" a traditional song, runs:

I've got sixpence. Jolly, jolly sixpence.
I've got sixpence to last me all my life.
I've got twopence to spend and twopence to lend
And twopence to send home to my wife.[13]

An elaborated version was published in 1941, words and music by Elton Box & Desmond Cox.:[14] the singer tells the tale of spending twopence (per verse) until he has "no-pence to send home to my wife – poor wife."

Brian May, guitarist from the British band Queen, uses a sixpence instead of a normal plectrum to play his guitar.[15]

Sixpence None the Richer (also known as Sixpence) is an American rock/pop band whose name was inspired by a passage from the book Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

Penguin Books – later known for publishing James Bond series, were selling at their start in 1930s through Woolworths and other high street stores books for sixpence.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 75% Cu and 25% Ni


  1. ^ "Sixpence". Royal Mint Museum. Retrieved 3 October 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "The Story of the Sixpence". Chard. Retrieved 4 October 2014. 
  3. ^ Seaby Coin & Medal Bulletin. B.A. Seaby Ltd. 1952. p. 382. 
  4. ^ Gaspar, P. P. (2004). "The 1787 Shilling - A Transtition in Minting Technique". British Numismatic Journal 74: 84–103.  Unknown parameter |DUPLICATE_last2= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |DUPLICATE_first2= ignored (help); Missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  5. ^ Clancy, Kevin (1990). The recoinage and exchange of 1816-1817 (Ph.D.). University of Leeds. 
  6. ^ David Groom (10 July 2010). The Identification of British 20th Century Silver Coin Varieties. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-4457-5301-0. 
  7. ^ The Numismatist. American Numismatic Association. 1972. 
  8. ^ Christopher Edgar Challis (1992). A New History of the Royal Mint. Cambridge University Press. p. 583. ISBN 978-0-521-24026-0. 
  9. ^ The Bankers' Magazine. Waterlow. 1855. p. 139. 
  10. ^ Zupko, Ronald Edward (1990). Revolution in Measurement - Western European Weights and Measures SInce the Age of Science. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 186. pp. 242–245. ISBN 0-87169-186-8. 
  11. ^ "The Story of Decimalisation". Royal Mint. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  12. ^ Christopher Edgar Challis (1992). A New History of the Royal Mint. Cambridge University Press. p. 659. ISBN 978-0-521-24026-0. 
  13. ^ This is based on story 57 of the Gesta Romanorum, in which a carpenter explains that he needs eight pence every day: two to repay (to his father), two to lend (to his son), two to throw away (on his wife) and two to spend (on himself).
  14. ^ Catalog #vn1462851 for the score in the National Library of Australia
  15. ^
  16. ^ Joicey, Nicholas (1993), "A Paperback Guide to Progress: Penguin Books 1935-c.1951", Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 25–56; and Ross McKibbin Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951, Oxford, 1998, ISBN 0-19-820672-0.

External links[edit]