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The Gold Coins of England

Robert Lloyd Kenyon, 1884
Victoria (1837-1902)

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VICTORIA. (1837-1902)

Queen Victoria began her reign upon the death of her uncle on the 20th June, 1837, and, whatever may be the case in other respects, no reign has ever been more Conservative than hers with regard to the type and denomination of the gold coins. An order in Council was issued on the 8th of June, 1838, followed by a proclamation on the 5th of July, ordering the making of £5 pieces, sovereigns, and half-sovereigns, all of the same type, which is described in the order. Two patterns for five-pound pieces were produced, not, however, of this type, but having Una and the Lion on the reverse, in reference it is presumed to the government of the British nation by a queen; but no such coins have ever been issued to the public, and the sovereign and half-sovereign are the only gold coins which have been struck for currency during this reign. A coinage of £5 and £2 pieces is, however, provided for by the Coinage Act, 1870, by which the coinage is at present regulated, and Her Majesty in Council has power to order any other denominations of coins to be coined at the mint, provided that the weight and fineness of such coins shall be proportioned to that of the existing sovereigns and half-sovereigns.

The standard fineness of the coins is the same as that of all coins since the Restoration, namely 22 carats fine gold to 2 carats alloy; arid the weight is that which was fixed in 1817, namely 123.27447 grs. to the sovereign. No sovereign weighing less than 122½ grs., and no half-sovereign weighing less than 61 1/8 grs., is lawful tender.

Until the year 1871 both obverse and reverse of the gold coins remained unchanged. The portrait of the Queen on the sovereigns is the same as on most of the silver coins, and is thus described by Mr. Hawkins in the “Silver Coins of England:“—“The bust of the Queen is represented turned to the left, the head is bound with a double fillet, and the hair gracefully collected into a knot behind. The likeness of Her Majesty is excellent, and is copied from a model in wax taken from the life by Mr. Wyon, the chief engraver to the mint, by whom the dies are engraved with admirable taste and skill.” The legend is VICTORIA DEI GRATIA, with the date below the bust, and WW, the initials of the engraver William Wyon, in relief on the truncation of the neck. On the reverse is a square shield, ungarnished, crowned, bearing the arms of England in the first and fourth quarters, Scotland in the second, and Ireland in the third. The colours are expressed. The arms of Hanover are, of course, omitted, as the right to that kingdom is limited to the male line only, and devolved, after the death of William IV, on his next brother the Duke of Cumberland. A branch of laurel is placed on each side of the shield, and the legend is BRITANNIARUM REGINA FID:DEF: (181).

The half-sovereigns are exactly like the sovereigns, except that the letters W W do not appear on the obverse, and on the reverse the shield is garnished, and the laurel branches are omitted. (183.)

On the reverses of some of the gold coins of 1863, and on all those of the following years, may be observed a very small numeral under the shield. On figure (181) the numeral is 18. These numerals were placed on the dies in order to test how long each particular die lasted, every die having a different numeral, and the series of numerals beginning again at the beginning of each year. Thus every sovereign of the year 1868, with the numeral 18 on it, is made from the same identical die. Of course, as every die was made by the same punches, there is no substantial difference, except the numeral, between one die and another. It was found that a single die could generally produce 100,000 sovereigns before wearing out. These numerals were used on the sovereigns as long as the shield of arms continued to be the type of the reverse, and on the half- sovereigns until 1880 inclusive. They were not found, however, to be of any practical use, and are now discontinued.

On the 14th of January, 1871, an order in Council was issued, authorizing the use of the type of St. George and the Dragon on the reverse of the coins, and the remarkable expedient was adopted of reviving, for the sovereigns, the old reverse dies, engraved by Pistrucci for George IV, with no alteration whatever except of the date in the exergue (182). The obverse remained as on the Queen’s former sovereigns, except that, as there was no legend on the reverse, the full title, VICTORIA D: G: BRITANNIAR: REG: F: D: was placed on the obverse. These were struck concurrently with sovereigns bearing the shield on the reverse from 1871 to 1874, and since 1874 no other typo but that of St. George and the Dragon has been used on sovereigns struck in England. The half-sovereigns have continued the same throughout the reign.

We have seen that in former reigns the coins of foreign countries were frequently made current in this country at certain specified values by royal proclamation. But the power to do this appears to have been taken away by the Act of the 56th year of George III, c. 68, by which the great recoinage of silver in 1816 was regulated; for that Act declares the gold coin of this realm to be the only legal tender for payments within the United Kingdom of any higher amount than forty shillings, and that its weight and fineness shall be regulated by the indenture at that time in force with the master of the mint. But the immense discoveries of gold in Australia made it very convenient to establish a mint there, and accordingly in 1863 an Act was passed (26 & 27 Vict., c. 74) which, after reciting that Her Majesty had by proclamation established at Sydney a branch of the Royal Mint for making gold coins of the same weight and fineness and of the same denominations as the gold coins issued by Her Majesty’s mint in London, enacted that it should “be lawful for Her Majesty by proclamation, issued with the advice of her Privy Council, to declare that, after a date specified in such proclamation, gold coins made at the said branch mint, of designs approved by Her Majesty, at Sydney aforesaid, and being of the same weight and fineness as are required by law with respect to gold coins of the same denominations made at Her Majesty’s mint in London, are to be a legal tender for payments within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” And in 1866, by the Colonial Branch Mint Act, 1866 (29 & 30 Vict., c. 65), a general power was given to Her Majesty, by proclamation issued in like manner, to declare that gold coins so made at any colonial branch mint which she had established, or might thereafter establish, “are to be a legal tender for payments within any part of Her Majesty’s dominions, to be specified in such proclamation, in which gold coins issued from Her Majesty’s mint in London shall, at the date of the issue of such proclamation, be a legal tender.” The only branch mints established at present are at Sydney and Melbourne, of which the former was opened on the 14th of May, 1855, and the latter on the 12th of June, 1872; and by virtue of the two Acts above mentioned the coins there struck have been made legal tender in this country. Those struck at Sydney were at first of a different type from those struck in this country; the bust of the Queen is different, though similar, and the head is encircled with a laurel wreath. The legend on the obverse is the same as on the sovereigns with St. George and the Dragon, and the date is under the bust, but the reverse is entirely different, having AUSTRALIA across the field, with a crown above it, the words SIDNEY MINT above, and ONE SOVEREIGN or HALF-SOVEREIGN below. Those now issued at Sydney, however, are exactly the same as those struck in London with the arms on the reverse, except that a minute S, for Sydney, is placed under the arms in the position occupied on the English sovereigns by the small numeral to which we have already alluded. The Melbourne sovereigns are the same as the London ones with St. George and the Dragon, but have M, for Melbourne, below the bust. The half-sovereigns of both mints have the arms on the reverse. The dies for all the Australian coins are made in London.

The gold coins of the present reign cannot be said to be rare, although few people, perhaps, are able to obtain quite as many of them as they would like to possess. None of them are dated 1837, and in 1881 and 1882 there was no coinage of English gold at the mint, partly because the buildings and machinery there were being rearranged and altered during those years; but from 1838 to 1880 inclusive sovereigns have been struck every year except in 1840, 1867, 1875, and 1877, and half-sovereigns every year except in 1840, 1862, and 1868; and the mint returns show that the number of sovereigns coined in London during this reign to the end of 1882 is 162,656,796, and the number of half- sovereigns is 54,116,322; besides which, 45,990,500 sovereigns and 2,170,500 half- sovereigns have been issued from the mint at Sydney, and 21,126,600 sovereigns and 393,000 half-sovereigns from that at Melbourne down to the end of the same period. Of these coins a considerable number are believed to find their way into the melting pots of working goldsmiths and jewellers, who obtain by this means gold of a known standard; but the figures nevertheless indicate the enormous extent of a commerce which can require such a circulating medium. It has been pointed out by previous writers that the designs upon the coins are not such as enable an artist to exhibit his taste and skill, and that devices containing allusions to important historical events are never allowed. Such devices were frequently adopted in former times. The coinage of Edward III, for instance, alludes to his claim of sovereignty over the seas; that of James I to the union of the kingdoms; and that of Charles I to the king’s declared principles of government; the mint-marks contain constant allusions to contemporary personages; and several military and commercial successes are recorded on the coins from Charles II to George II. In a reign so eventful and so prosperous as the present it would surely not be difficult to find achievements, whether military, or scientific, or social, of which not one party only but the whole nation is proud, and which might well be commemorated on our national coinage. We have no doubt that artists would be found equal to the occasion, and a grand opportunity would thus be utilized of rewarding illustrious services and of developing artistic taste.


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