British & Irish Coins (1826-1967)

We all know about the Act of Union (1800) which was passed by both the Irish and British parliaments despite much opposition. It was signed by George III in August 1800 to become effective on 1 January 1801. Pitt intended to follow the Act of Union with other, more far reaching reforms, including Catholic Emancipation, but was thwarted by George III, who refused to break his Coronation Oath to uphold the Anglican Church.

A second (less well known) “union” followed in 1825 – a “customs and monetary” union – the Irish pound was thence tied to sterling and almost “free trade” conditions followed. If the act of 1800 was unpopular, the customs & monetary union was an economic disaster!

  • Unable to compete with a rapidly industrialising neighbour, many of Ireland’s proto-industries collapsed and the economy shifted to the export of food and primary commodities such as wool and leather.
    • This coincided with the rise and fall of the Irish banking industry
      • There was a huge number of small private banks by the year 1800.
      • Despite their numbers and their initial success, few managed to acquire sufficient capital to ensure stability
      • These small banks were vulnerable in a period of economic change.
      • Most of them failed in the ‘deflation and depression’ period after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815
      • See O’Brien Banknote Guide: Lord ffrench & Co (Tuam & Dublin)
      • 1814 (9 June) One Guinea promissory bank note by Ffrench, Taaffe, Morris & Keeny

        1814 (9 June) One Guinea promissory bank note by Ffrench, Taaffe, Morris & Keeny

  • During the period 1816-1920, rising urban demand in Britain raised beef prices by more than 300%. Agricultural production shifted from labour-intensive tillage to livestock rearing with a corresponding decrease in the numbers employed in both agriculture and manufacturing.
    • The larger banks that survived the crash of 1815 turned to agricultural loans
  • During the period 1825-1870, cattle exports jumped from 76,000 to 451,000 per year whilst sheep exports rose from 50,000 to 681,000. Accordingly, the numbers of people employed in agriculture and manufacturing declined, prompting a further export dynamic: labour-power. Mass emigration ensued – particularly during and after the Potato Famine of the 1840s.
    • See O’Brien Banknote Guide: Agricultural & Commercial Bank  (The First Irish Joint-Stock Bank to Fail)
    • 1838 Agricultural & Commercial Bank of Ireland, One Pound, 15 September 1838, no. 5567, Enniscorthy (AG 5a)

      1838 Agricultural & Commercial Bank of Ireland, One Pound, 15 September 1838, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford

  • By the 1920s, agriculture accounted for some 53 per cent of the population’s gainful employment and no less than 97 per cent of Irish exports went to Britain. Of the existing native industries, mostly involved in brewing, distilling and agricultural processing, only 130 companies employed more than one hundred employees.
    • Most were either stagnant or in decline

For hundreds of years prior, Ireland suffered from well-documented currency shortages, debased coinages and poor financial management at the highest levels. This is a common theme of many nationalist histories but Britain too, was not immune to financial impediments and the merchant class in England complained bitterly about their monetary problems.

The Irish “coins of necessity” had their equivalents in England, as did the “tradesmens’ farthings” and later tokens, plus the infamous “evasion halfpennies” of the 1790s and beyond. England also suffered from widespread counterfeiting – despite the harsh penalties for those caught. The authorities were acutely aware – so much so that, during the American War of Independence (1776), the British flooded the American colonies with counterfeit money in an effort to undermine and collapse their economy. Something had to be done!

  • Major changes were introduced in Britain in the opening decades of the 19th C
    • The gold sovereign was established by the Coinage Act of 1816 and replaced the guinea which had been the main gold coin since 1663.
    • Newly designed silver coins, which were not as valuable as the sovereign, were also introduced into circulation.
  • The commitment to monetary stability following the currency upheavals of the Napoleonic era, the laying of the foundations of the sterling area throughout the British colonies and overseas possessions, and the amalgamation of the Irish and British currencies in 1826

From a numismatic viewpoint, the Irish used British coins from 1826 to 1928. The reality was, of course, a lot more complex than that, e.g. privately issued tokens were accepted as de facto local currency well into the 19th C and the dreaded “truck” tokens (or scrip) were also common. Even after we issued our own currency in 1928, British coins were in circulation in the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland right up to the 1970’s. With the exception of the threepence and sixpence, most British and Irish coins were of a similar size, weight and alloy – see Modern Irish Coins page for more details.

One result of this is that many Irish coin collectors also collect British coins from this period, i.e. 1825 to 1967. A happy coincidence is that there is probably just as much old British coinage sitting in jars and boxes around Ireland nowadays as there is the old Irish coinage. This makes Irish dealers a good source for collectors of British coins.

Since all Irish coins (1928 to 1976) were produced by the Royal Mint, many British collectors also collect the Irish pre-decimal series. Technically, it was a “slave currency” to Sterling – see The Currency Act of 1927 and the Currency Commission of Ireland for more information.

The following is a simplified list of the British copper, bronze and silver coins of the monetary union (or modern) period.

Copper & Bronze

Silver

  • Three Halfpence (1½d)
  • Threepence (3d)
  • Groat (4d)
  • Sixpence (6d)
  • Shilling (1/-)
  • Florin (2/-)
  • Halfcrown (2/6)
  • Double-Florin (4/-)
  • Crown (5/-)

Gold

Up until 1816, the gold guinea was the coin of choice for the wealthy but this coin was subjected to numerous fluctuations in value over the years. The guinea was a coin of approx. ¼ oz. gold that was minted between 1663 and 1814. It was the first English machine-struck gold coin, originally worth one pound sterling, equal to twenty shillings, but rises in the price of gold relative to silver caused the value of the guinea to increase, at times to as high as thirty shillings.

  • This caused an ‘arbitrage’ market between silver and gold, resulting in gold coins flowing out of the country (into foreign melting pots) and a shortage of gold coins in the British economy.
  • Thus, the Royal Mint had a major problem insofar as it had to replace gold coins by buying expensive gold from the foreign markets – including those markets that had melted their previous stock of gold coins.

From 1717 to 1816, its value was officially fixed at twenty-one shillings. Then, Britain adopted the gold standard and guinea became a colloquial or specialised term.

  • Third-Guinea (7s & 4d)
  • Half-Guinea (10s & 6d)
  • Guinea (21s)

The name came from the Guinea region in West Africa, where much of the gold used to make the coins originated. In the Great Re-Coinage of 1816, the guinea was replaced as the major unit of currency by the pound and in coinage with a sovereign = 20 silver shillings.

  • Half-Sovereign (10/-)
  • Sovereign (£1, or 20 shillings)
  • Two Pounds (£2)
  • Five Pounds (£5)