O’Brien Coin Guide: Mintages for British Gold Sovereigns


The British gold sovereign is one of the most ‘collected’ gold coins in Ireland today. We used it when we were part of the UK and it would seem that we are still hoarding them. Named after the English gold sovereign, previously last minted in 1604, the name was revived with the Great Re-coinage of King George III in 1816 … and minting began in 1817.

Sovereigns were produced in large quantities every year until World War I, when the UK came off the gold standard. From then until 1932, sovereigns were produced only at branch mints at Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Bombay, Ottawa, and Pretoria.

  • The exception to this was in 1925 when, some were produced in London, as part of Winston Churchill’s ill-fated attempt to return the UK to the gold standard.
  • The last regular issue was in 1932 at the Pretoria mint.
    • During the years 1949 to 1952 sovereigns dated 1925 were produced for the international bullion markets although these can be differentiated by a more pronounced rim.

Technical Specifications:

Sovereigns minted since 1817 have been produced according to the act of 1816 (56 George III chapter 68):

  • Weight: 7.988052 g (0.2817702 oz)
  • Thickness: 1.52 mm (0.060 in)
  • Diameter: 22.05 mm (0.868 in)
  • Fineness: 22 carat = 916⅔ / 1000 (± 2/1000)
  • Gold Content: 7.322381 g = 0.235420 (exactly: 1320/5607) troy ounces or 113.0016 grains

The Trial of the Pyx is the procedure in the United Kingdom for ensuring that newly minted coins conform to required standards. Trials have been held from the twelfth century to the present day, normally once per calendar year; the form of the ceremony has been essentially the same since 1282 AD.

  • They are trials in the full judicial sense, presided over by a judge with an expert jury of assayers.
  • Trials are now held at the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.
  • Formerly, they took place at the Palace of Westminster.

Coins to be tested are drawn from the regular production of the Royal Mint. The Deputy Master of the Mint must, throughout the year, randomly select several thousand sample coins and place them aside for the Trial.

  • These must be in a certain fixed proportion to the number of coins produced.

The jury is composed of at least six assayers from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. They have two months to test the provided coins, and decide whether they have been properly minted. Criteria are given for diameter, chemical composition and weight for each class of coinage.

George III

The reverse design had an ennobled Garter surrounding the image of St George armed, sitting on horse back encountering the Dragon with a spear. The legend translates as 'evil to him who evil thinks' . The obverse featured George III facing right with short hair with a laurel crown of a Roman emperor with the legend in taller than usual lettering.

The reverse design had an ennobled Garter surrounding the image of St George armed, sitting on horse back encountering the Dragon with a spear. The legend translates as ‘evil to him who evil thinks’ . The obverse featured George III facing right with short hair with a laurel crown of a Roman emperor with the legend in taller than usual lettering.

1817 3,235,239
1818 2,347,230
1819       3,574
1820 2,101,994

George IV

George IV sovereigns are unusual insofar as there are two different portraits – the first follows in the classical (Roman) style of the ‘laurel head’ and features ‘St George & the Dragon’ on the reverse. The second design features a ‘bare head’ design by William Wyon, with a coat of arms (shield) on the reverse.

1820 George IV (Pistrucci portrait)

1820 George IV (Pistrucci portrait)

1821 9,405,114
1822 6,356,787
1823    616,770
1824 3,767,904
1825 4,200,343
1826 George IV (Wyon portrait)

1826 George IV (Wyon portrait)

1825 Incl. above
1826 5,724,046
1827 2,266,629
1828    386,182
1829 2,444,652
1830 2,387,881

William IV

William IV followed in his father’s design taste, opting for a ‘bare head’ design by William Wyon, with a coat of arms (shield) on the reverse.

1831 William IV (Wyon portrait)

1831 William IV (Wyon portrait)

1831    598,547
1832 3,737,065
1833 1,225,269
1835    723,441
1836 1,714,349
1837 1,172,984

Victoria

From 1838 to 1870 (inclusive), all British sovereigns were minted in London. Since there were no other mints, there was no need for a mint mark. When overseas mints became established, they used a mintmark. Those coins minted in London continued to be issued without a mintmark.

Year   London
1838   2,718,694
1839      503,695
1841      124,054
1842   4,865,375
1843   5,981,968
1844   3,000,445
1845   3,800,845
1846   3,802,947
1847   4,667,126
1848   2,246,701
1849   1,755,399
1850   1,402,039
1851   4,013,624
1852   8,053,435
1853 10,597,993
1854   3,589,611
1855   8,448,482
1856   4,806,160
1857   4,495,748
1858      803,234
1859   1,547,603
1859      167,539 Ansell (rare) 15-25 known
1860   2,555,958
1861   7,624,736
1862   7,836,413
1863   5,921,669
1864   8,656,353
1865   1,450,238
1866   4,047,288
1868   1,653,384
1869   6,441,322
1870   2,189,960
1871 Victoria young head & shield

1871 Victoria young head & shield

Melbourne

During the 1850s, the state of Victoria alone contributed more than one-third of the world’s gold output. Although a Mint opened in Sydney in 1855, it had difficulty keeping pace with the output of the goldfields and in 1871 a new branch of the Royal Mint opened in Melbourne.

  • Melbourne sovereigns carry a small ‘M’ to identify them.

Sydney

Millions of pounds of gold bullion were shipped from Australia to London each year to be minted into coin. However, it soon became apparent that it would be easier to refine the gold and turn it into coins at source, rather than transport it to Britain and have it turned into coins there. Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide each submitted to be the venue of a branch of the Royal Mint and after some deliberation the British government awarded it to Sydney, which began issuing coins in 1855. This mint issued coins with its own design from 1855 until 1870 then, in 1871 the Royal Mint insisted that all gold sovereigns regardless of Mint should carry the British design.

  • The coins minted by Sydney carry a small ‘S’ mintmark to identify them for quality control purposes.
  • It made good sense to produce British sovereigns close to the gold mining source areas, rather than ship the gold to London to be made into coin, then possibly ship it back again.
1887 Victoria young head & St George

1887 Victoria young head & St George

Year London Sydney Melbourne
1871   8,767,250 2,814,000
1872 13,486,708 1,815,000    748,180
1873   2,368,215 1,478,000    752,199
1874      520,713 1,899,000 1,373,298
1875 2,122,000 1,888,405
1876   3,318,866 1,613,000 2,124,445
1877 1,590,000 1,487,316
1878   1,091,275 1,259,000 2,171,457
1879        20,013 1,366,000 2,740,594
1880   3,650,080 1,459,000 3,053,454
1881 1,360,000 2,234,800
1882 1,298,000 2,465,781
1883 1,108,000 2,050,450
1884   1,769,635 1,595,000 2,942,630
1885      717,723 1,486,000 2,967,143
1886 1,667,000 2,902,131
1887 1,000,000 1,916,424
The Jubilee Head design meant to commemorate the 50th year of Queen Victoria's rule (1887-1893)

The Jubilee Head design meant to commemorate the 50th year of Queen Victoria’s rule (1887-1893)

1887 1,111,280 1,002,000    940,000
1888 2,777,424 2,187,000 2,830,612
1889 7,267,455 3,262,000 2,732,590
1890 6,529,887 2,808,000 2,473,537
1891 6,329,476 2,596,000 2,749,592
1893 1,498,000 1,649,352

Perth

The gold mines at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie in Western Australia, once discovered, quickly became recognised as two of Australia’s richest. The problems of transporting the raw gold over 2,100 miles to the nearest Mint in Melbourne were obvious and so a new branch of the Royal Mint was authorised and opened in 1899.

  • Sovereigns minted at Perth carry a small ‘P’ mintmark.
1893 Victoria widow head

1893 Victoria widow head

Year London Sydney Melbourne Perth
1893   6,898,260 1,346,000 1,914,400
1894   3,782,611 3,067,000 4,166,874
1895   2,285,317 2,758,000 4,165,869
1896   3,334,065 2,544,000 4,456,932
1897 2,532,000 5,130,565
1898   4,361,347 2,548,000 5,509,138
1899   7,515,978 3,259,000 5,579,157    694,937
1900 10,845,741 3,586,000 4,305,904 1,927,484
1901   1,578,948 3,012,000 3,987,701 2,969,947

Edward VII

1902 Edward VII gold sovereign

1902 Edward VII gold sovereign

Ottawa (Canada)

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898 saw more than 25,000 people seek their fortune in the frozen North of Canada. For some time all of Canada’s coinage was struck in England but these new gold strikes made this impractical.

In 1908 a Canadian branch of the British Royal Mint was opened in Ottawa. As well as producing silver and base metal coins for everyday use, the new Canadian mint also turned the recently discovered gold into sovereigns striking intermittently between 1908 and 1919.

  • Sovereigns of this mint carry a small ‘C’ mintmark.
Year London Sydney Melbourne Perth Ottawa
1902   4,737,796 2,813,000 4,267,157 4,254,861
1903   8,888,627 2,806,000 3,521,780 4,678,569
1904 10,041,369 2,986,000 3,743,897 4,596,205
1905   5,910,403 2,778,000 3,633,838 4,854,698
1906 10,466,981 2,792,000 3,657,853 4,803,230
1907 18,458,663 2,539,000 3,332,691 5,028,807
1908 11,729,006 2,017,000 3,080,148 4,926,537
1909 12,157,099 2,057,000 3,029,538 4,526,270 16,273
1910 22,379,624 2,135,000 3,054,547 5,646,049 28,012

George V

King George V and Queen Mary were crowned at Westminster Abbey on 22 June 1911 and they were subsequently enthroned as Emperor and Empress of India at New Delhi on 11 December 1911.

  • George V was the only monarch whose effigy appeared on sovereigns from all seven mints.

George V reigned during the height of the British Empire and, consequently, the Royal Mint’s reach.  The tumultuous events of World War I, the collapse of the international monetary system and the demise of the gold standard meant that he would be the last King to grace the gold sovereign as a ‘circulating’ coin.

Bombay (now known as Mumbai, in India)

Another branch of the British Mint was established in Bombay in India in 1918, where the demand for sovereigns was particularly high. The Bombay mint only produced coins for one year and all are dated 1918. Nonetheless, the Indian mint struck more sovereigns (approximately 1.3 million) in its single year of operation than the Ottawa branch managed in more a decade.

  • Sovereigns from the Bombay mint were distinguished by the letter ‘I’ for India.

Pretoria (South Africa)

The next branch mint was established in Pretoria (South Africa) in 1923. Like the Australian and Canadian mints, this was set up to turn locally mined gold into coins. Significant quantities of gold were discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, setting off another mass migration as speculators, prospectors, fortune-seekers, and adventurers from all over the world descended upon the region.

By the end of the 1890s the area was responsible for a significant percentage of global gold production. Sovereigns, identical to the British coins except for the inclusion of an ‘SA’ mintmark, were struck at Pretoria between 1923 and 1932.

George V (large head)

The George V 'large head' gold sovereign circulated from 1911 to 1928 (inclusive).

The George V ‘large head’ gold sovereign circulated from 1911 to 1928 (inclusive).

Year London Sydney Melbourne Perth Ottawa Bombay Pretoria
1911 30,044,105 2,519,000 2,851,451 3,413,474 257,048
1912 30,317,921 2,227,000 2,469,257 4,390,672
1913 24,539,672 2,249,000 2,323,180 4,689,749     3,717
1914 11,501,117 1,774,000 2,012,029 4,771,657   14,900
1915 20,295,280 1,346,000 1,637,839 4,334,135
1916   1,554,120 1,242,000 1,272,634 4,107,705     6,119
1918 3,716,000 4,969,493 3,725,961 106,570 1,294,352
1919 1,835,000    514,257 2,852,156 135,957
1920    360,000    530,266 2,533,542
1921    839,000    240,121 2,320,530
1922    578,000    608,306 2,256,187
1923    416,000    511,129 2,129,026           719
1924    394,000    278,140 1,428,984         2,660
1925 3,520,000 5,632,000 3,311,662 1,868,007   6,086,624
1926 1,031,050    211,107 1,297,625 11,107,611
1927    310,156 1,305,420 16,379,704
1928    413,208 1,399,102 18,235,057

George V (small head)

George V - Small Head 1929-1932

George V – Small Head 1929-1932

Year London Sydney Melbourne Perth Ottawa Bombay Pretoria
1929 436,938 1,588,350 12,024,107
1930   77,588 1,773,914 10,027,756
1931   57,809 1,173,567   8,511,792
1932   1,066,680

The total gold sovereign production is difficult to calculate.

Production 456,640,088 114,015,050 142,768,949 102,267,357 568,596 1,294,352 83,442,710

Sovereigns were produced in large quantities until World War I, at which time the UK came off the gold standard. From then until 1932, sovereigns were produced only at branch mints at Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Bombay, Ottawa, and Pretoria (except for some in 1925 produced in London as part of Winston Churchill’s ill-fated attempt to return the UK to the gold standard).

In Victorian times it was the practice of the Bank of England to remove worn sovereigns and half sovereigns from circulation and to have them re-coined. It is estimated that in circulation a sovereign could have a lifespan of up to 15 years before it fell below the “least current weight”, i.e. the minimum amount of gold below which it ceased to be legal tender. Consequently, although over a billion sovereigns have been minted in total, that figure includes gold that has been coined and re-coined a number of times.

  • That being said – it was actually the half-sovereign that had the most circulation in Victorian Britain
  • Most sovereigns languished in bank vaults, so the 15-year lifespan theory only applies to those coins that actually circulated

In addition, when coins were sent to places such as the United States for international payments between governments, they were frequently melted down into gold bars because of the Federal regulations then in force. When gold coins were finally withdrawn from circulation in 1933 in the US, many thousands of British gold sovereigns were consigned to the melting pot in this way.

  • As such, the mintage figures above in no way reflect the survival rates of these coins.
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