Heads or Tails: The Evolution of the Pound Coin

Heads or Tails: The Evolution of the Pound Coin

Posted 15 April 2014 by Angelique Blankson

The pound has always been my favourite coin.

From the distinct sound it made upon descending into my piggy bank as a child, to the promise of the “Willy Wonka” factory its value seemed to afford me in sweets; If I was given a pound, I officially considered myself loaded.

Where did it all begin?

The word ‘pound’ itself is a Germanic adaptation of the Latin ‘libra pondo’ meaning ‘a pound by weight’. Although we no longer include the word libra, it represents itself in the ornate ‘L’ shape of the £ symbol and also in the abbreviation of the unit of mass, lb.

The monetary pound first came into being as a measure of weight, its value originally equated to the price of a pound of silver.

In an echo of the ancient Roman system of librasolidus and denarius, a pound was divided into 20 shillings and 240 silver pennies.

The first pound coin was issued in 1489, under Henry VII, and was known as a sovereign as it depicted the king in full portrait, seated upon his throne:


Large, heavy and made with 23 carat gold (standard for gold at the time), the hammered coin was described as the ‘finest, best executed and most handsome coinage in Europe’. Up until then the pound had been a convenient book-keeping device and no one had yet thought of turning this money of account into a coin that could be used instead of pound bags of pennies.

Banknotes, which were initially hand-written, began to circulate in England soon after the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694.

The first one pound note was issued in 1797 in response to the need for smaller denomination banknotes to replace gold coin during the French Revolutionary Wars and the pound bestrode its complex system of shillings and pence until decimalisation in 1971.

Fast forward to Spring 1983 and the birth of a new  pound coin. Having replaced the Bank of England’s one pound note which by the end of 1984 had ceased to be issued, it was the first time a coin for this denomination had been introduced since the First World War and it wasn’t very popular.


The current pound coin is made of nickel brass, a copper alloy containing zinc and a small quantity of nickel. This pale yellow brass is distinguishable in pocket and purse not only  for it’s beautiful shine (it takes on a duller appearance after being exposed to the oils in our skin etc.) but also because of its weight – 9.5 grams. Brass is resilient and has a high level of corrosion resistance and so was a perfect metal for a coin that began life as a handsome half ounce  gold piece.

The reverse designs of the £1 coin represent the UK and its four constituent parts – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England – and the first series of  designs took floral emblems as its theme.

These floral emblems can be seen in the first row of reverse pound coin designs here:


So what is wrong with the current pound and why do we need a new one?

Imitation. There are around 1.5 billion pound coins in circulation and the current security measures that were set in place 30 years ago, are no longer suitable. Edge inscriptions which are stamped on the edge of blank coins prior to striking, are apparently quite easy to imitate. Around 2 million counterfeit coins are removed each year which is a huge expense to banks and the economy. The new coin will feature the Royal Mint’s Integrated Secure Identification System technology (also known as ‘Isis’), offering heightened currency security at a lower cost.

The proposed design of the new coin will significantly differ from the circular nickel-brass style we’ve been familiar with over the last three decades. Firstly, the bi-metallic coin will take the form of the iconic threepenny bit (the first coin to feature a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II) with its dodecagon shape. It will include the  aforementioned application of an existing anti-counterfeiting technology which, along with other security features, should make ‘the most secure circulating coin in the world’ difficult to forge.


A public competition will be held to determine the design for the reverse of the coin.

While the original pound coin will be missed, its absence should represent a new sense of security. It’s descendent will hopefully fill the identifiable three-penny-bit-shaped space in the nation’s heart.

What do you think? Let us know your views on the new pound coin.

For me, it’ll no doubt remain my favourite. Must be the Libra in me.