History of the farthing

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The British farthing (derived from the Anglo-Saxon feorthing, a fourthling or fourth part)[1] was a coin of the Kingdom of Great Britain, a new sovereign state created in 1707 by the merging of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, and later a coin of the United Kingdom. Worth one quarter of a penny (1960 of a pound sterling), it was a continuation of the English farthing first minted in silver in the 13th century. Farthings continued to be used until 31 December 1960, when they ceased to be legal tender. For the farthings of earlier centuries, see Farthing (English coin).

Farthings of Queen Anne and of the House of Hanover[edit]

Anne farthing 1714

The first British farthing was minted in 1714. Due to the glut of English farthings produced in the late 17th century, there was no need to produce any copper farthings in the reign of Queen Anne (1701–1714) until the last year of her reign. If the queen had not died in that year, there is no doubt that the 1714 farthing, weighing 4.8–5.8 grams and of 21–22 millimetres diameter, would have entered circulation in quantity, but its actual status is in some doubt as it may be considered a pattern. Sir Isaac Newton was Master of the Mint, and he had high ideals about the quality of the coinage, and the Anne farthing is certainly vastly superior in striking and design to the pieces of William III. The old figure of Britannia used since Charles II's time was discarded in favour of a sharper high relief design in which the bare leg on the former figure of Britannia is covered up, reportedly on the orders of the Queen. Around 1802 a curious rumour swept Britain to the effect that the Queen Anne farthing was worth a fortune, no less than £500, and advertisements appeared in many newspapers offering specimens for sale; in March 1802 one specimen was sold at auction in London for no less than 750 guineas (£787/10/-).

The death of Queen Anne thwarted attempts to issue her farthing, but the need for a copper coinage was no less after the accession of King George I (1714–1727). The price of copper had risen, so the new farthings were lighter than the previous issue, at 4.5–5.3 grams. The farthings struck in 1717 looked slightly odd as they were smaller, and thicker than the previous issues, with a diameter of 20–21 millimetres, and they are known as dump farthings. Farthings of 1719–1724 are slightly larger, at 22–23 millimetres, but are of the same weight. Unfortunately both issues suffered somewhat from manufacturing problems, as the dies were in bold relief and it was difficult to apply enough pressure to the blanks to make a good impression. The coin features the right-facing head of King George and the inscription GEORGIVS REX on the obverse, and Britannia with the inscription BRITANNIA and the date in the exergue beneath Britannia.

1719 George I farthing
Bust of George I with legend "GEORGIVS ." BRITANNIA. and date in the exergue
George I struck issues in 1717 and annually from 1719 to 1724. A variety of types exist. The 1719 issue is illustrated here

King George II's (1727–1760) farthings were minted in quantity in 1730–1737, 1739, 1741, 1744, 1746, 1749, 1750, and 1754 (though the 1754 coin is known to have still been being minted at least until 1763), but to them must be added a huge range of counterfeits (and pieces similar to counterfeits but with markedly different legends from the real coins, so that the manufacturers could avoid accusations of counterfeiting). Many genuine coins were melted down and underweight fabrications produced from the molten metal. The farthings weighed 4.5–5.3 grams and had a diameter of 22–23 millimetres. The obverse showed the left-facing head of King George and the inscription GEORGIVS II REX on the obverse, and Britannia with the inscription BRITANNIA and the date in the exergue beneath Britannia.

In the reign of King George III (1760–1820), apart from the "posthumous" George II coins previously mentioned, the first issue of farthings did not come until 1771. Counterfeiting was rampant, and making the production of counterfeit copper coins a felony in 1771 had little effect and for the next twenty years or so the majority of copper so-called coins in circulation were forgeries. Matthew Boulton's contract in 1797 to produce the Cartwheel pennies and twopences, thwarting the counterfeiters, did not extend to producing the farthing, though Boulton had expected that it would and had prepared several patterns of the appropriate size and weight in accordance with his ideas on the intrinsic value of copper coins. However Boulton was given a licence to produce farthings in 1799. In the meantime the price of copper had risen, and consequently the weight of the coins was reduced slightly compared to the cartwheel design, and the 1799 farthing had a more conventional appearance, although two aspects of the coin were far from conventional: the reverse bore the legend 1 FARTHING, the first time the name of a denomination had ever appeared on an English coin, and it was also the first British coin to have the date on the same side as the king's head. In 1806–1807 a further 22.5 tons of copper was struck into farthings by Boulton, but the price of copper had risen again and the weight was even less than the 1799 issue.

George III farthings were produced in three distinct phases:-

  • 1771, 1773–1775 (all years). Weight 4.3–5.3 grams, diameter 23–24 millimetres. Obverse shows a right-facing bust of the king, with the inscription GEORGIVS III REX, reverse shows a left-facing seated Britannia holding a spray and spear, with the inscription BRITANNIA and the date in the exergue beneath Britannia.
  • 1799. Weight 5.8–6.6 grams, diameter 23–24 millimetres. Obverse shows a right-facing bust of the king, with the inscription GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA REX 1799, reverse shows a redesigned left-facing seated Britannia holding a spray and spear, with the inscription BRITANNIA 1 FARTHING.
  • 1806–1807. Weight 4.7–4.8 grams, diameter 21–22 millimetres. Obverse shows a right-facing bust of the king, with the inscription GEORGIVS III D G REX date, reverse shows a slightly different left-facing seated Britannia holding a spray and spear, with the inscription BRITANNIA.

After the mint moved from the Tower of London to Tower Hill the production of gold and silver coins took precedence over copper in the Great Recoinage of 1816. The production of copper coins did not resume until the reign of King George IV (1820–1830), when farthings were produced in 1821. Benedetto Pistrucci was employed as a designer and engraver at the mint, and unfortunately for the farthing it was his job to engrave the designs for the new coinage, and he produced a spectacularly ugly portrait of the king, with a bulging face and neck. It is not difficult to see why the king was displeased with his portrait, and Pistrucci's treatment of Britannia on the obverse was not much better, with Britannia now facing right for the first time ever. Pistrucci was downgraded for refusing to copy another artist's work, and William Wyon was given the task of producing a better farthing, with the more flattering "bare head" type of 1826; however Wyon did not discard all Pistrucci's ideas, Britannia still faced right on the reverse. The George IV farthing was produced in two types, between 1821 and 1823, 1825, and 1826 it weighed 4.5–4.8 grams, with a diameter of 22 millimetres, and from 1826–1830 it weighed 4.6–4.9 grams with a diameter of 22 millimetres. Both Pistrucci's and Wyon's designs were produced in 1826. The Pistrucci obverse shows a left-facing bust of King George IV with the inscription GEORGIUS IIII DEI GRATIA, while the reverse shows a right-facing helmeted Britannia seated to the left of the coin, with a shield and trident, with the inscription BRITANNIAE REX FID DEF and the date in the exergue underneath Britannia. The Wyon obverse shows a left-facing laureated bust of King George IV with the inscription GEORGIUS IV DEI GRATIA date, while the reverse shows a right-facing centrally-seated helmeted Britannia with a shield and trident, with the inscription BRITANNIAE REX FID DEF. Wyon's preference was to put the date under the king's bust, and to put the rose, thistle, and shamrock in the exergue underneath Britannia.

The King William IV (1830–1837) farthing, produced in 1831, and 1834–1837, continues the George IV design but with a right-facing bust of the new king, with the inscription GULIELMUS IIII DEI GRATIA date, while the reverse is identical to the previous reigns' Wyon design.

Victorian farthings[edit]

Queen Victoria farthing 1861

The farthings of Queen Victoria's long reign (1837–1901) can be basically divided into the copper issue of 1838–1860, where the coins were 4.5–4.9 grams in weight and 22 millimetres in diameter, and which were very similar to the farthings of her two predecessors (with the obvious substitution of REG for REX on the reverse), and the bronze issue of 1860–1901, which itself is split between 1894 and 1895 into coins displaying the "young head" and the "old head" of the Queen (although in 1864 a copper farthing was produced as well as the normal bronze coin: this is extremely valuable). The bronze coins weighed 2.8–3.0 grams, were 20 millimetres in diameter, and the metal content was 95% copper, 4% tin, 1% zinc. The bronze coins also featured the denomination FARTHING on the reverse, with the date in the exergue beneath Britannia. The inscription on the obverse of the "young head" coins reads VICTORIA D G BRITT REG F D, while on the "old head" it is VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP (Victoria, by the grace of God Queen of Britain, defender of the faith, Empress of India). Some 1874–1876 and 1881–1882 farthings have an "H" mintmark underneath the date, indicating that they were produced at the Heaton mint in Birmingham.

Farthings were produced in all years of Victoria's reign except 1837, 1870, 1871, and 1889. Starting in 1897, farthings were issued in an artificially toned state so that they would not be confused with the half-sovereign coin. It is thought that the reason there is an unbroken series of copper farthings between 1838 and 1860 is because the same dies were used to produce the obverses of both the gold sovereign and the farthing – this would account for the high frequency of defects in the coin series as presumably the dies would have been used first to produce the gold coins, and defects may have appeared in them before they were used on the farthing.

There were also fractional farthings. The first of the fractional farthings to be issued was the third-farthing, which throughout the period of issue from 1827 to 1913 was minted solely for use in Malta. The island used British coins, but the grano, dating from before British rule, was valued at a twelfth of a penny. As a result the decision was made to coin the equivalent in a British denomination. Half-farthings and even quarter farthings were also issued for colonial use.

From 1844 to 1869 the half farthing was legal tender in Britain. The coin was much derided by press and public and was withdrawn in 1869. However the value of a half farthing in 1844, in 2010 values, can be estimated at approximately £0.05 (5p).

Darkened Farthings[edit]

A farthing is worth 1480 of a half sovereign; however, the two coins were similar in size, with the farthing having a diameter of 20 mm, only 0.5 mm wider than the half sovereign, moreover by 1895 the designs of the obverse (the Queen's head) of coins were the same. This meant that when people claimed newly minted farthings were being mistaken for half sovereigns something had to be done. The response was to alter the appearance of the farthing by chemically turning them black, this was done between 1897 and 1917. Acidified sodium thiosulphate solution was used to react with the surface of the farthings after they had been struck, permanently altering their appearance and making it less likely to mistake them for half sovereigns.

Post-1901 farthings[edit]

Farthings weighing 2.7–2.9 grams and of 20 millimetres diameter (which was to remain the standard size of the coin for the remainder of its existence) were minted in all years of King Edward VII's reign (1901–1910) except 1901. They are similar to the last issues of Queen Victoria except for the king's right-facing bust on the obverse, with the inscription EDWARDVS VII DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX FID DEF IND IMP, and also are extremely reminiscent of the contemporary penny and halfpenny. These farthings were issued in an artificially toned state so that they would not be confused with the half-sovereign coin. The last half-farthing coin was a "coronation model" of King Edward VII in 1902.

The reign of King George V produced farthings to a basically unchanged design every year between 1911 and 1936. The obverse shows a left-facing portrait of the king by Sir Bertram Mackennal, with the inscription GEORGIVS V DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX FID DEF IND IMP, and the usual right-facing Britannia on the reverse. Unlike some of the pennies of this reign, no farthings have mintmarks from provincial mints. Until 1917, farthings were issued in an artificially toned state so that they would not be confused with the half-sovereign coin, but by the end of the war half-sovereigns were no longer being struck. The content of the bronze used in the farthing was changed in 1923 to 95.5% copper, 3% tin and 1.5% zinc, although the weight of the coin remained 2.8–2.9 grams and the diameter was 20 millimetres.

The Edward VIII farthing is a pattern which was awaiting royal approval at the time of the abdication in December 1936. The king insisted that his left profile be used on the coinage instead of the right which would have been used if he had followed the alternating tradition going back to Charles II; the obverse has the inscription EDWARDVS VIII D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP, but in a complete break from tradition Britannia was dropped from the reverse for the first time since 1672, and replaced by one of Britain's smallest birds, the wren. This reverse remained in use for the remainder of the coins' existence.

King George VI wren farthing 1946

Farthings of a similar design to his brother's were produced in each year of the reign of King George VI. The inscription on the obverse reads GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP until 1948, then GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX FIDEI DEF, but unlike the halfpenny there were no minute differences in the reverse each year.

The farthing of Queen Elizabeth II was only produced in four years, 1953–1956. The reverse was the same as before, while the obverse featured the queen's head by Mary Gillick, with the inscription ELIZABETH II DEI GRA BRITT OMN REGINA F D in 1953, and ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA F D for the other three years.

End of the farthing[edit]

In 1953 a correspondent wrote to The Times that a bus conductor had refused to accept eight farthings for a twopenny bus fare, and that a newspaper vendor had become abusive when offered six farthings for a newspaper. Although a subsequent letter pointed out that the farthing was still legal tender for sums up to one shilling, by 1956 it was apparent that due to inflation the farthing had outlived its usefulness, and minting ceased after that year. The farthing ceased to be legal tender after 31 December 1960.[2]

The current decimal penny, which was introduced when decimalisation of the British coinage took effect in 1971, is almost the same size as the last farthings to be minted, but at one hundred pence to the pound it is nominally worth 9.6 times as much. However, as of 2010, inflation has given the current British decimal penny a purchasing power of less than half that of a farthing as it was on the eve of the latter's withdrawal in 1960.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Spink Numismatic Circular, March 1983, Volume XCI, No. 2, p.39
  2. ^ "Save the penny or leave the penny?". CBC. 6 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-09.  (inaccessible 2014-1-23)

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