7 ANECDOTES ABOUT THE BRITISH HALFPENNY
Illustration : "Conway Castle" by Paul Sandby (1789)
The British halfpenny (also known colloquially as a ha’penny) led something of a double life. It wasn’t aiming to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes though – it was simply issued twice at different times in history.
First and foremost, it is important to make a distinction at this point between the pre-decimal halfpenny, in use until the run-up to decimalization of the pound in 1969, and the decimal halfpenny, minted between 1971 and 1984, the year in which it finally disappeared from circulation altogether.
It is difficult to say with certainty when the pre-decimal halfpenny first appeared. Various sources agree that it was “currently” being minted during the reign of Edward I towards the end of the 13th century, while it would also appear that there some were issued under Henry I in the early 12th century.
While the pre-decimal version was in circulation for a long period of time – more than six centuries in fact – its little sister, the decimal coin, survived just 13 years before disappearing (quite literally) from circulation for ever.
In this article, we are delighted to offer you a few anecdotes including some surprising bits of interesting trivia that you maybe didn’t know about the halfpenny.
I – MERLIN, PROPHET OF THE ROUND COIN
History, legend and financial policy sometimes become strangely intertwined.
The story goes that one of the most violent Welsh revolts against England, led in 1281/82 by the Prince of Wales Llywelyn ap Gruffudd against the English king Edward I, had its origins, or was at least eventually triggered, by the first issue of the halfpennies as supposedly predicted by Merlin himself:
“Men of irritable passions seldom weigh the consequences against the pleasure of revenge: but on the present occasion their hopes were invigorated by a foolish confidence in an ancient prediction attributed to Merlin, that when the English money should become circular, the prince of Wales should be crowned in London. Edward had lately issued a new coinage of round half-pennies and farthings (...). Hence it was wisely concluded that the prediction of the prophet was on the point of being accomplished.”
II – THE NAME’S PENNY...HALFPENNY
A ha’penny, a ha’penny, my kingdom for a ha’penny!
The surname Halfpenny is found in a variety of forms (e.g., Halpenny, Halfpanny, Halfepenny...) and is quite common throughout the United Kingdom. There is even a Welsh (of course, he had to be!) international rugby player with this illustrious moniker, Leigh Halfpenny..
The name was originally given to tenants who paid rent of half a penny.
Interestingly, prior to the first regulated issues under Edward I, this payment was settled in a particularly simple (and completely legal) fashion: they simply cut a penny in half so as to be able to effect payment of a sum smaller than the lowest existing denomination of coin.
III – CECI N’EST PAS UN PINT
This unassuming by no means any less resilient little coin also gave its name to...an English pub game called Shove Ha’penny.
Picture above : "A group of volunteer firefighters at this Ministry of Supply factory play darts and Shove Ha'penny to pass the time whilst on their shift." - Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer
A sort of tabletop version of curling, it is played with 5 halfpennies and the aim is to shove (push) a coin across a board using the palm of your hand or flats of your fingers so that it comes to rest between horizontal marked lines without touching them.
IV – A PRUDENTIAL LITTLE COIN
This same little coin also appears to have lent its name to one of the first insurance societies to appear in the United Kingdom (Rose’s Act of 1793).
“(...) At Galston, in the county of Ayr, there is a Society for the relief of the Poor, which is constituted upon a very simple principle. It consists of about 50 members : and is called the Penny or Halfpenny Society. It has no funds, which can be embezzled : but when a brother is confined to bed by sickness, every member pays him a penny weekly ; and if he is able to go about, but not to work, an halfpenny.”
V – FOR SUCH A SMALL COIN, IT CERTAINLY GETS AROUND A BIT!
Picture above: "Ambergate, Halfpenny Bridge, Derbyshire, Angleterre" - Detroit Publishing Company, 1905
A bridge between two pennies
Over time, the halfpenny has also become associated with some well-known and not quite so well-known places such as the Ha’Penny Bridge in Dublin, where it spans the River Liffey. This nickname reflects the toll originally charged for crossing the bridge (what might that sum have been then?).
In addition, there are other various other Halfpenny and Ha’Penny Bridges across the UK, for example in Lechlade, Tinsley, and Kingston upon Hull.
This tiny coin is on a roll!
Illustration : "Sortie en Grand-bi des membres de la Société Vélocipédique Métropolitaine de Paris en 1882" in Le Miroir des sports, February 2nd. 1937
The high wheel, commonly referred to as a “penny-farthing”, was one of the first machines ever to be called a… bicycle. It was designed in Coventry, England, by Rowley Turner and James Starley in 1870. Stanley’s nephew would later join him in the industry and go on to found the Rover brand.
With a large wheel at the front and a smaller wheel at the back, it took its nickname from the proportional difference in size between a penny and a farthing (quarter of a penny).
VI – THE WALTZ OF THE METALS
The composition of the halfpenny changed continually over the course of the centuries.
Initially a silver coin, the halfpenny lost some of its splendor toward the end of the 17th century.
The first copper halfpenny was struck in 1672.
Then, from 1685 to 1692, it was made purely of tin with merely a copper plug at its center, primarily with the aim of boosting the tin industry. Unfortunately, tin wears rapidly and also becomes unstable at low temperatures, making it a poor option.
As such, the coin was switched back to good old copper in 1694.
In 1860, it adopted its final look prior to decimalization: its size was decreased, and the coin was made of bronze from that point on.
VII – BUT THIS IS ALL PURE FICTION
Last but by no means least, let us turn our gaze to the Halfpenny Marvel.
You will surely have heard of penny dreadfuls, popularized most recently by the series of the same name, but you may not be aware of their younger sibling.
The “Halfpenny Marvel” was a storypaper published as of 1893 with the aim of, precisely, putting the penny dreadfuls out of business by producing “pure, healthy literature” at a cheaper price.
REAL TOKENS – YOU MUST BE JOKING
Alongside halfpennies, tokens were also hugely popular throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. These ‘halfpenny tokens’ are an endless source of delight for certain collectors due to their originality and diversity. However, that is another story that we will be looking at in more detail here in the very near future...
As such, from Merlin’s obscure prophesies to pub games, crossing bridges to cycling innovations, from storypapers to surnames, this little coin that might seem insignificant at first glance has truly left a remarkable impression on British popular culture.
It even had a reputation as the most hated coin in the kingdom during its decimal lifetime, as its minute size meant it was frequently lost down the back of the sofa...
- “The History of England, from the First Invasion of the Romans to the Accession of William and Mary in 1698, Volume 3” by John Lingard
- “The State of the Poor; Or, An History of the Labouring Classes in England, from the Conquest to the Present Period” by Sir Frederick Morton Eden