The 1933 British Penny is, perhaps, one of the most famous coin rarities in the English-speaking world today – allegedly only seven coins were minted – specifically for the king to lay under the foundation stones of new buildings. So why do so many people claim to have a 1933 penny on their possession or to have seen one?
The answer is simple – I myself have seen many examples of “1933 pennies” over the past 30 years – all of these were Australian, British West Africa, Jersey, or Irish pennies, and their owners, usually victims of their own wishful thinking, forgot to mention the fact that they are not British pennies.
Getting back to the rare 1933 British penny – there was no requirement for the Royal Mint to produce any pennies in 1933 because there were already more than enough in circulation. In fact, the Royal Mint had been steadily reducing its output since 1927 (see table below).
- 1921 – 129,717,693
- 1922 – 22,205,568
- no British pennies were produced between 1923 and 1925, inclusive.
- 1926 – 4,498,519
- 1927 – 60,989,561
- 1928 – 50,178,000
- 1929 – 49,132,800
- 1930 – 29,097,600
- 1931 – 19,843,200
- 1932 – 8,277,600
That said, requests were received for sets of coins dated 1933 to be placed under the foundation stones of buildings erected in that year, and the Mint obliged by striking a small number of pennies to make up these sets.
The myth behind the reality was that people thought they could turn up in their change – a highly unlikely occurrence since these pennies were all buried beneath foundation stones. However, in 1939 World War Two broke out and most English cities were subjected to ‘the blitz’ by German bombers and many public buildings were destroyed or badly damaged – this gave some possibility that one of the coins might have been dug up and spent on food – an ‘urban myth’ that became ‘almost a fact’ during the ‘run up’ to the UK’s decimalization on 15 February 1971.
Around about that time and in the midst of a nationwide search for the missing penny, one of the original buildings – the Church of St. Cross, Middleton, Leeds, Yorkshire – which was originally half-brick and half-timber construction began to attract the attention of criminals. The timber part had been demolished in the 1920s and, when the construction of its replacement commenced in 1933, a compete set of 1933 coins were duly placed under the foundation stone.
- It is thought that the 1933 penny beneath its foundation stone was stolen in 1970
- It’s current whereabouts is currently unknown.
- So, we now know that there is at least one 1933 British penny out there
The Church of St. Cross, Middleton, Leeds, Yorkshire still stands, i.e. only the foundation stone in one corner was dug up and the damage has been repaired – see photo above.
In response to this theft, the Bishop of Ripon ordered that the (nearby) St. Mary’s Church 1933 Penny be unearthed and sold as a protective measure to prevent its theft. It was subsequently sold by Sotheby’s on 24th November 1972
The seven known examples of the 1933 British (circulating) penny are located in:
- British Museum (a ‘circulation’ penny)
- Royal Mint Museum at Llantrisant in South Wales (a ‘circulation’ penny)
- Under the foundation stone of the University of London Building in Bloomsbury, London (a ‘proof’ penny)
- One held in private hands (ex L A Lawrence, P G Smith and Mrs E M Norweb) (a ‘circulation’ penny)
- One held in private hands in the UK (ex Glendinings 1969 and in private collections ever since – a ‘circulation’ penny)
- One held in private hands (ex St. Mary’s Church, Hawksworth Wood, Kirkstall, Leeds, ex Sotheby’s 1972; in private hands ever since – a ‘proof’ penny)
- Whereabouts unknown, previously under the foundation stone of the Church of St Cross, Middleton – part of a 1933 year set which was stolen in August 1970 (a ‘proof’ penny)
- Recently (August 2016) one of these ‘circulating’ British 1933 pennies sold at auction, by Heritage Auctions, in Anaheim, California at the ANA World’s Fair of Money for US$ 179,000
- This equates to €174,411.06 or GB£151,920.22
In addition to the above 7 pennies, and of even greater rarity and value, is a 1933 pattern penny engraved for the Royal Mint by Andre Lavillier – only four of these 1933 ‘pattern’ pennies are known to exist. Generally speaking, these 1933 patterns are valued at half the price of a circulating 1933 penny.
- Recently (May 2016) one of these ‘pattern’ British 1933 pennies sold at an auction in London for a record GB£72,000
- This equates to €82,734.72 or US$93,515.49 – which is roughly half of the above
A ‘pattern’ or ‘trial’ is a coin which has not been approved for release, usually produced for the purpose of evaluating a proposed new or modified coin design.
In the instance of King George V’s coins, there were problems with the obverse side of the coins – the large head was causing an uneven displacement of metal on the reverse side – resulting in ghosting of the bust, i.e. a faint image of the king’s head was appearing on the opposite side after striking of the dies.
- The consequent and on-going experimentation with the design resulted in no less than three variations of the left-facing king’s head.
- After a three-year gap in production the alloy composition was changed in 1925 to 95.5% copper, 3% tin, and 1.5% zinc, although the weight remained at 1⁄3 ounce (9.4 g) and the diameter 31 millimetres.
- A good example of a ‘pattern’ around this time is the penny of King Edward VIII (1936). Only one exists: it is dated 1937 and was produced for official approval just before he abdicated in favour of his younger brother, the future King George VI.
Beware of fakes – there is a lot of them out there!
In addition to the fakes that are occasionally fraudulently offered for sale, there are number of private mints offering facsimile copies. These are sold as facsimiles and are not intended to deceive. They are very obviously not the genuine article, as can seen from the illustration below. A potential problem arises, however, after they change hands a few times and the then current owner doesn’t realise they were bought as facsimiles and thinks they might be real.
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