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Is That Thatcher on British Penny?
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
October 21, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Can you name the people who appear on the U.S. coins jingling in your pocket? If you can you are likely better informed than are many of the non-collectors I interact with daily.

This lack of knowing who appears on our coins is not just a U.S. coinage problem. This lack of basic numismatic knowledge is so bad in Great Britain that the British Royal Mint has recently launched an educational campaign to teach the public who that really is gracing the reverse of the penny through 1967 as well as other British coinage.

A BRM study recently concluded one in four Brits don’t know that is Britannia seated on the penny (or other coins). Since Great Britain is introducing silver and gold composition 1/20th ounce and 5-ounce coins depicting Britannia during 2013 the public’s ignorance of the name of the effigy is not being taken lightly.

When asked who else it might be 12 percent of those surveyed said it was Boadicea, 5 percent said it was Queen Victoria, 4 percent identified the personification as Minerva, 2 percent thought it was Joan of Arc, while others named either Queen Elizabeth I or former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Incidentally, Boadicea was a warrior queen who attempted unsuccessfully to defeat the Romans occupying Britain. Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom and craftsmanship. The personification of Britannia is actually based on Roman Emperor Claudius’s son Britannicus as a model.

The modern depiction of Britannia was first introduced in 1672 on coins of Charles II. Britannia first appears on the seal of the Bank of England during the 1690s. How did Britannicus become Britannia? According to the contemporary diarist Samuel Pepys, Charles II’s mistress Frances Stuart was rumored to be the model.

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Why not? Both John Reich and Hermon A. MacNeil were accused of the same thing regarding U.S. coins they designed.

It’s bad enough when an American can’t identify (or pronounce) Sacagawea on a U.S. dollar coin, but when a British citizen can’t identify Britannia its time to consider an educational campaign.

There is nothing like making something animated, and that’s exactly what the familiarization campaign has done. Volunteers act as living statues of Britannia as she appears on the new Britannia gold coin. These human statue volunteers are currently appearing in Cardiff, Glasgow, and London. They are planned to appear in other British cities as well, where they will tell their story to any passersby willing to listen.

BRM Director of Commemorative Coin Shane Bissett said, “We felt that it was only right that we undertake this campaign to ensure that everyone in the United Kingdom understands what she represents – and gets an opportunity to learn more about the history of a figure who, in ever-changing ways, represents us all.”

When coinage was first introduced ca. 600 B.C. it is believed merchants first placed their mark on coins. Once the value of coinage was recognized by the local monarchs these rulers began placing their seal on coins instead.

By the time the Greek city-states began issuing coins the propaganda value of specific images on coins had been recognized. Some of these city-states depicted something important to their image or their major industry, while others depicted a distinguished figure of their ruler. Yet others trumpeted an important event such as a military victory.

The Romans that followed fully understood the importance of the propaganda value of the images on coins. Important events, buildings, and deities often graced the reverse of these coins.

There is reason to believe King Louis XVI of France was recognized from his image on coins when he attempted unsuccessfully to flee France during the French Revolution. Louis’ head may have appeared on his coins first, but it eventually ended up in a basket at the front of the guillotine thanks to someone recognizing him from his portrait on France’s money.

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