Still coining it at 50
All change! MARION McMULLEN looks at the many faces of the 50p as we mark the coin’s 50th anniversary
BRITISH shoppers said hello to the world’s first seven-sided coin 50 years ago. The new-look fifty pence piece replaced the old ten bob note and began appearing on October 14, 1969, but it was initially given a lukewarm reception in some quarters.
Two hundred million of the 10 shilling notes were in circulation at the time and the heptagonalshaped coin was the third newcomer to be introduced ahead of the planned countrywide D-Day – decimal day – in 1971.
Some people complained it was too easy to confuse the fifty pence with the new 10p coin, which had come into circulation a year earlier, and retired Army Colonel Essex Moorcoft even formed the AntiHeptagonists group, declaring the new coin “an insult to our sovereign whose image it bears.”
It was Sir Hugh Conway, of Bristol Siddeley Engines, who recommended a non-circular shaped coin to the Decimal Currency Board and a square design was even considered at one point.
He and Lord Fiske later unveiled the revolutionary fifty pence piece at a press conference with Lord Fiske later pointing out that the new coin would last far longer than the paper note which only had an average lifespan of five months.
He said: “Although a 50p coin will cost more to produce initially, it should have a life of at least 50 years and the metal will subsequently be recoverable.”
The original coins stayed in circulation until 1998 when they were replaced with a re-sized smaller version and the latest design by Royal Mint engraver Jody Clark came into circulation in 2015.
The original fifty pence featured a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with a figure of Britannia on the reverse with a shield, olive branch and trident sitting alongside a lion.
However, there have been several commemorative designs over the last five decades with the rare limited editions changing hands for hundreds of pounds.
One of the earliest was to mark the UK joining the EU in 1973 and showed nine clasped hands in a circle representing the nine members of the European Community. It was given a makeover though after the Duke of Edinburgh said he did not like “that little p” denoting pence on the coin. The 50th anniversary of the D-Day Landings were remembered in 1994, and in 1998 a pair of hands against a pattern of radiating lines marked the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service.
The 50th anniversary of the first four-minute mile by Roger Bannister featured on the coin in 2004 while the 250th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was marked in 2005. Former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher visited the Pobjoy Mint in Kingwood in Surrey in 2007 to see a coin commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Falklands Conflict and the same year saw the centenary of the Scouting Movement honoured – the centenary of the Girl Guides was similarly celebrated in 2010.
Other coins have celebrated composer Benjamin Britten, the Battle Of Britain, Charles Darwin, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Sir Isaac Newton and The Snowman.
A total of 29 designs were brought out for the London Olympics with one offering an explanation of the football offside rule and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit became the first children’s literary character to appear on a coin in 2016 and marked the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth. Designer Emma Noble said: “I wanted to put her illustrations to the forefront of my design as they are lovely images and the characters are very well known.”
The 50th anniversary of the 50 pence piece has also been marked this year with several special coins celebrating British culture being reissued.
The set includes a 50p marking Kew Garden’s 250th anniversary. The gardens coin was issued 10 years ago and is a collector’s item because only 210,000 were made – making it the rarest 50p design in circulation. It features the Great Pagoda from the famous gardens in London and the originals can sell online for £400.
Coins depicting marmalade sandwich-loving Paddington Bear visiting the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral also began appearing in people’s change this year and there was also a gold version available online for £850.
Nicola Howell, of the Royal Mint, said: “Paddington Bear is a massive part of British popular culture and a favourite among fans of all ages.”
A coin marking the achievements of Professor Stephen Hawking was also released earlier this year with the design inspired by his work on black holes.
Designer Edwina Ellis said: “Stephen Hawking made difficult subjects accessible, engaging and relatable and this is what I wanted to portray. I wanted to fit a big black hole on the tiny coin and wish he was still here chortling at the thought.”
Chairman of the Board at the Royal Mint, Lord Fiske and Mr James, deputy master at the Mint, watching the production of the new 50p piece
Sir Hugh Conway checking the new fifty pence piece after it was unveiled