The pound coin 14.05.13

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"For a coin," Marx wrote in the first volume of Capital, "the road from the mint is also the path to the melting pot. In the course of circulation, coins wear down, some to a greater extent, some to a lesser. The denomination of the gold and its substance, the nominal content and the real content, begin to move apart." In the 1860s, a gold sovereign was minted from a pound's worth of gold. Since then, what Marx called "the natural and spontaneous tendency of the process of circulation to transform the coin from its metallic existence as gold into the semblance of gold" has been taken to its logical conclusion. In Britain, gold sovereigns haven't been struck for circulation since the First World War. The real content of a modern pound coin – 6.65g of copper, 2.33g of zinc and 0.52g of nickel – is worth less than 5p, while 9.5g gold would set you back around £320.

Its nominal content is steadily depreciating too, of course. Inflation was behind the introduction of the modern pound coin 30 years ago this month, on 21 April 1983. As the Royal Mint explains, "By 1980 it had become apparent that with the general decline in purchasing power, the £1 unit of currency was more appropriate to a coin than a banknote. The note was in constant use on average lasting only nine months, whereas a coin can last as long as forty years or more and with the growth in the vending industry it was felt that a coin would be more useful." Sections of Fleet Street disagreed: "The Pound Britain Doesn't Want", a Daily Mail front page fulminated in June 1983, demanding (fruitlessly) the coin's withdrawal. Six months later the Guardian reported that the phasing out of the pound note had been delayed because "ministers ... fear reverberations on the Government's popularity because of an emotional attachment to the tradition of the £1 note." The paper pound was eventually withdrawn on 11 March 1988.

There have been three versions of the Queen's head on British coins since 1983, by Arnold Machin (1983-4), Raphael Maklouf (1985-97) and Ian Rank-Broadley (1998-present; if you look closely you can see his initials struck below her neck; the earlier portraits are unsigned).

The design on the reverse changes each year, cycling through symbols representing – or, in the Mint's formulation, "honouring" – by turns the United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England: the thistles, leeks, flax plants and oak trees of the 1980s giving way to lions and dragons in the 1990s and, more recently, iconic bridges and the badges of the four capital cities. The 30th anniversary design, by Timothy Noad, returns to the vegetable theme of the early years: an oak branch and a rose for England; a leek and a daffodil for Wales (where all the coins are actually struck; the small cross on the edge is the mint mark for Llantrisant). Scotland and Northern Ireland will follow next year.

The mottoes inscribed around the edge of the coins vary according to country, too. The most common, DECUS ET TUTAMEN, which appears on the UK, England and Northern Ireland issues, is a tag from Virgil's Aeneid. The Mint translates it as "an ornament and safeguard". It first appeared on coins in the reign of Charles II, when it really was a safeguard; it prevented the edges of gold and silver coins from being clipped undetected. These days it's purely ornamental, since no one's going to bother shaving off a few millimetres of brass-nickel alloy. It's not much of a safeguard against forgery, either: nearly 3 per cent of the 1.5 billion pound coins in circulation – about £40m worth – are thought to be counterfeit.



Jonathan Hordle/REX FEATURES



Thomas Jones

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The class divider is decorated with dotted chains that are supposed to represent a bead curtain

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