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British Currency – UK Coins, Metals and Values

Updated on June 4, 2013

The metals that British coins are made from change every few years.

This is because as the world price of metals rise, the value of the metallic content of coins rise too, while their face values remain the same.

To avoid this leading to a situation where it is worthwhile (if illegally) melting down coins for their metallic content instead of spending them in the shops, the metals in coins are continually changed.

From the point of view of the metal detectorist, this is bad news.

While learning how to use a metal detector, we may spend hours getting used to the sound and tone the detector makes as it passes over a particular coin.

We hear a slightly different noise with each coin denomination, and again in the same coin type when their metallic content has been changed from year to year.

Those changes may result in coins that look the same as their predecessors, but their magnetic field is different, as may be their weight and thickness.

Worse still, with each down-grade of the metallic content, the coins become more prone to rust and degradation, especially if they were lost at sea where the harsh salt water can very quickly reduce them to nothing recognisable.

How the 5p and 10p UK coins have shrunk
How the 5p and 10p UK coins have shrunk | Source

Problems with coinage debasement

The biggest problem of debasement, which is the term used when coin metals are down-graded, are that every slot machine throughout the country also needs to be changed to accept the new coin.

While small change 1ps, 2ps and 5ps are rarely used by machines, the biggest problem lies in when they change the larger coins - 10ps, 20ps, 50ps, £1 and £2 coins.

Slot machines may be:

  • parking meters
  • vending machines
  • public transport ticket machines

Denomination
Date First Issued
Composition
Notes
Value of Metal before change
½p
1971
bronze (97% copper, 2.5% zinc, 0.5% tin)
taken out of circulation 1984
1p
1p
1971
bronze (97% copper, 2.5% zinc, 0.5% tin)
composition changed 1992
1.5p
2p
1971
bronze (97% copper, 2.5% zinc, 0.5% tin)
composition changed 1992
3p
5p
1968
cupro-nickel (75% copper, 25% nickel)
size changed 1990
8p
10p
1968
cupro-nickel (75% copper, 25% nickel)
size changed 1992
12p
20p
1982
cupro-nickel (84% copper, 16% nickel)
 
 
50p
1969
cupro-nickel (75% copper, 25% nickel)
size changed 1997
80p
£1
1983
nickel-brass (70% copper, 24.5% zinc, 5.5% nickel)
 
 
£2
1997
nickel-brass & cupro-nickel
 
 

Coins of the Realm

It is worth noting at this point that while older British coins still in circulation may be worth more as melted down metal than stated on their face value, it is an offence to damage or deface any UK coins of the realm.

While the larger 5p, 10p and 50p coins that make up a major part of British currency are still to be found underwater or underground by the use of metal detectors, they are no longer in circulation and are not legal tender.

silver florins, pre-1947 and made of sterling silver
silver florins, pre-1947 and made of sterling silver | Source

Silver Coins

Earlier coins from the pre-decimal era (before 1972) are at risk of being melted for bullion, especially pre-Second World War silver coins, as they contained real silver.

Up until 1920, silver coins (sixpences and shillings) were made of .925 sterling silver standard.

They were than debased to .500 (50%) sterling silver.

To help pay off War debts, in 1947 the composition changed to the cupro-nickel still seen in the decimal equivalents - 5p and 10p coins.

This means that any silver UK coins made before 1947 have bullion values far higher than their face values.

While certain coins are collectible because of their rarity, the rest have probably sadly been melted down for their silver content.

If you have any old silver coins dated before 1947, you will pleased to note that they are now worth 40 times their face value if you sell them to a dealer.

Coins minted before 1920 are worth even more, up to 80 times their face value.

British currency - present day coins

Denomination
Date First Issued
Composition
Notes
1p
1992
copper-plated steel
 
2p
1992
copper-plated steel
 
5p
2011
nickel-coated steel
not in circulation yet
10p
2011
nickel-coated steel
not in circulation yet
20p
no change
cupro-nickel
 
50p
2011
nickel-coated steel
not in circulation yet
£1
no change
nickel-brass
 
£2
no change
nickel-brass and cupro-nickel
 
new style coins
new style coins | Source

The Royal Mint and the debasement of UK silver coins

Starting in 2011, the British Royal Mint changed the metallic composition of 5p, 10p and 50p coins.

These coins are not yet in circulation at the current date (September 2012) as a legal challenge has been mounted to prevent their release.

While their new compositions are designed to save the Royal Mint a massive £8m a year, many organizations involved with vending machines will have to pay out a fortune, redesigning their machines to accept both the new and old silver coins.

The addition of copper to the alloy that makes up these UK coins will turn them magnetic, and in addition the coins are now slightly thicker than their predecessors.

The cost of this change to others, more than likely the general public, is expected to top £100m.

corroded coins found at seaside
corroded coins found at seaside | Source

Will the new coins last as long as their predecessors?

The Royal Mint have said that under normal conditions, the new 5p,10p and 50p coins will last as long as all other coins, while being used normally and passed from hand to hand.

But they admit that when copper-plated coins come into contact with corrosive materials they are likely to rust and become defaced.

A slightly damaged coin that ends up the sea will corrode quickly, as the metals in the alloy will react against each other.

I frequently find older coins, even pre-decimal coins from the early to middle 20th century, at the water's edge, buried under the sand.

While most suffer from some corrosion, the patina is still clearly visible.

Some British currency coins, particularly one and two pences from the late 20th/early 21st centuries are rusted beyond recognition.

Is this now to be the fate of our new silver coins a few years down the line?

British Coinage Poll

Have you ever handled British coins?

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Comments

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    • profile image

      BJ 

      3 years ago

      Thank you for the blog, I checked my coin bottle and found - 50 pence pieces ,one with the George cross 1 with public libraries, 1 with Baliwick of Jersey, 1 with public libraries,2 pence piece with the lighthouse on the reverse.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 

      3 years ago

      I like the silver Britannia, and the 2014 new Britannia, the lunar horse. While Britannia is not on the lunar horse, they are still calling it a Britannia.

    • Metal Detectorist profile imageAUTHOR

      Metal Detectorist 

      4 years ago

      You need expert advice. Take it along to a coin dealer.

      http://www.londoncoins.co.uk/?page=Pastresults&...

    • profile image

      Linda wood 

      4 years ago

      I have a 1874 old penny just wanted to know how much it is worth. Thankyou.

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