A new coin bearing the words “Friendship With All Nations” is set to be launched on March 29th as Britain leaves the EU. Announced by Philip Hammond in his Budget, people immediately went to social media to post their versions of what a coin celebrating a decisive moment in our history would look like. Because a coin will surely unite the country? I’m not going to open another debate about Brexit but thought it was worth talking about coin design and how some coins in circulation can be worth far more than their face value.
For quite a few years now The Royal Mint, from its headquarters in Llantrisant, Wales, has issued coins commemorating special events. I still have a stash of coins somewhere commemorating royal weddings and jubilees. But in more recent years, with coin collecting on the rise, it has turned into big business. All sorts of events are being celebrated and coins are being put into circulation in varying numbers, creating some very collectable coinage.
There are numerous websites to visit and apps such as Change Checker that allow you to search your small change for the more rare coins. You will discover that if you find a Kew Gardens 50p, you will have a lot more than 50p in your pocket. They can sell on eBay for £175. Most coinage doesn’t reach such high figures but when it does, it’s for a variety of reasons. A small mintage is the most common for high prices although people will pay large sums for coins with errors. A version of the 2012 Olympic 50p featuring aquatics with water passing over the face of the swimmer, has appeared on eBay for £1000. The design was quickly withdrawn from circulation and amended before full production making these coins exceedingly rare.
The Royal Mint itself has a long history. It was created over 1000 years ago when coin mintage was centralised in the UK. Originally based at the Tower of London, the mint moved to Wales in the 1960s after the government decided to move a variety of departments out of London. There is now a visitor centre at the Royal Mint site and a museum displaying the finest collection of coins, medals and machinery in the world.
The mania for collecting coins went stratospheric with the London 2012 Olympic 50p’s. In 2009, the Royal Mint launched a competition to design a 50p for every Olympic and Paralympic event – 29 in total. For 27 coins, the competition was open to the public. A 28th, for six to 12 year olds, was assigned to BBC’s Blue Peter and the 29th was put in the hands of secondary schools as a competition for teenagers aged 13-19. The deadline was April 24th and you were able to enter as many times as you wanted.
I decided to have a go despite reading an article in Design Week which suggested designers should not enter as it was unpaid work. The prize was an example of your design minted and put into circulation, plus £1000, and a gold one-off version of your coin. But the chance to be part of Olympic and British coin history was, for me, the real bonus. And I love a competition. I created six designs, entered them, and forgot all about it.
Months later my phone rang and it was the Royal Mint. I was visiting my parents and truth be told, I went a little bit crazy. My coin for rowing had made the shortlist. Would I change a couple of words in the wake of the boat to those they considered as more fitting the event’s ethos? I didn’t have to, they said, but I could. Obviously, I did – and then, weeks later, I was told my coin had been selected, I was ecstatic, but could tell nobody. I did let it slip to my parents and I told my partner but had to keep tight-lipped.
All winners were invited to Llantrisant and put up in a plush hotel. We enjoyed a pleasant meal on the first night when all the winners were able to mingle and get to know each other. At my table were NHS workers, artists and coin designers – a real mix, with most never have won anything like this before. The next day we saw our coins for the first time and the packaging design. There was a group picture taken in the grounds of the Royal Mint before each of us introduced ourselves and our designs in a short film. At the end of the day, we were each handed our little, unique, piece of history – a commemorative 50p piece struck in gold. It was a truly memorable day.
On the occasion of the launch, I was given a Royal Mint chaperone as first local tv, radio and then local newspapers came to the house. I was part of the evening news and almost appeared on the BBC’s One Show where I would have been filmed minting the coin. Unfortunately, that fell through, but all the winners were featured in news broadcasts and became part of the Olympic celebrations. It was incredible.
The coins became super collectable. People removed them from circulation and put them in albums and displays. To this day I have never had an Olympic 50p coin in my change. The whole commemoration idea must have lit a spark at the Royal Mint. They realised it was an event that could capture peoples’ imagination. Since then they have released 10p pieces depicting an alphabet of Britishness and more recently, Beatrix Potter designs to feed the nation’s desire to collect coins.
It feels great to be part of it. I have designed a British coin – something that not that many people can lay claim to. My coin is exhibited in the Royal Mint Museum as well as being part of the British Museum’s permanent collection. It is part of Olympic and British coinage history. It is a mark I will leave behind and that makes me extremely proud.
The image below shows my initial submission which I amended and re-submitted.
The image on the right is the approved and final coin design.