The Threepenny Opera

Yesterday’s announcement of the launch of a new 12-sided pound coin reminded me of the old three-penny bit, which had the same number of sides but a different composition and overall design.

Threepenny bit

The old coin had been around since the 16th century, but was phased out when the United Kingdom switched to decimal currency back in 1971. Youngsters won’t remember the old currency, but a pound used to be divided into 20 shillings, each of which was 12 `old’ pence. A threepenny bit was therefore worth 1/80 of a pound sterling. Other old coins of note were the tanner (sixpence), the shilling (one bob) and the half-crown (‘two and six’, i.e. two shillings and sixpence). There was also a penny (which was a rather large coin), the halfpenny and even the farthing (half a halfpenny). Pound coins didn’t exist in those days, only pound notes. There were also `ten bob’ notes, corresponding to half a pound, which converted to 50p coins on decimalization.

Tomorrow the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which will begin our country’s regression into the past. I can’t help feeling that it won’t be long until go back to the old money too.

Anyway, I have specific memories of the threepenny bit because once, when I was little, I swallowed one and had to go to hospital. Don’t ask me how or why this happened. I didn’t feel particularly unwell but they did an X-ray and there it was, bold as brass, in all its dodecagonal glory. I don’t remember the eventual emergence of the coin but when we went back to the hospital a few days later it had vanished from the radar. Nature had clearly taken its course.

That little episode wasn’t as funny as my cousin Gary, who once had to go to hospital because he got a marble stuck up his nose. In Newcastle the word for a a marble is a `liggy’, by the way. I was with Gary when this happened (!) and ended up going along to casualty with him. He was in some discomfort as we sat in the waiting room, then a rather burly nurse came in. She looked at him carefully, then raised her right hand and delivered a resounding smack on the back of his head, whereupon the liggy stotted out across the floor. Job done.

7 Responses to “The Threepenny Opera”

  1. Stephen Addison Says:

    My father used to refer to the threepence as a “thrummer” – he used it to differentiate between the dodecahedral threepence and the silver threepence (which looked like a small tanner). The silver threepence did sometimes show up in change up until decimalization. Consulting online, “thrummer” dates from at least the 1700s, so my father’s usage was personal – or more probably familial.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t recall ever seeing a silver threepence.

      It’s perhaps worth saying that there wasn’t a twopenny bit, but there was “tuppence” as an expression. We also always pronounced “threepenny” like “thrèpenny”…

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Nostalgia. I used to get the bus to primary school between 1961 and 1965, and the fare was a “thruppenny bit” each way. They were brass by then, but my Aunt had saved a set of the older silver ones and by family tradition they were always baked inside the Christmas pudding.

  3. I read today that a new pound coin will be introduced. The UK pound coin, because of its dimensions, is one of my favourite coins. The article estimated that one in thirty is counterfeit (hence the move to produce a coin more difficult to fake). Very relevant to this blog, of course, as Newton was Master of the Mint and spent some time fighting counterfeiters.

  4. […] It was not only shillings that disappeared in the process of decimalization. The old ten-bob note (10 shillings) made way for what is now the 50p piece. The shilling coin became 5p. The crown (5 shillings) and half-crown (two shillings and sixpence, written 2s 6d or 2/6) disappeared, as did the threepenny bit. For a personal story about the latter, see here. […]

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