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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Three-Halfpenny Bit

Title:     The Three-Halfpenny Bit
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

As a rule, there is nothing that offends us more than a new kind of money. We felt humiliated in the early days of the war when we were no longer paid in heavy little discs of gold, and had to accept paper pounds and ten-shillingses. We even sneered at the design. We always sneer at the design of new money or a new stamp. But we hated the paper even more than the design. We could not believe it had any value. We spent it as though it were paper. One would as soon have thought of collecting old newspapers as of playing the miser with it. That is probably the true secret of the fall in the value of money. Economists explain it in other ways. But it seems likeliest that paper money lost its value because we did not value it. Shopkeepers took advantage of our foolish innocence, and the tailor demanded sums in paper that he would never have dared to ask in gold. I doubt if the habit of thrift will ever be restored till the gold currency comes back. Gold is the only metal for which human beings have any lasting respect. No one but a child would save up pennies. There is something in gold--the colour, perhaps, reminding us of the sun, the god of our ancestors--that puts us into the mood of worshippers. The children of Israel found it impossible not to worship the golden calf. They have gone on worshipping it ever since. Had the calf been of paper, they would, I feel confident, have remained good Christians.

The influence of hatred on the expenditure of money is seen in our attitude to threepenny bits. Nine out of ten people feel sincerely indignant when a threepenny bit is given to them in their change. The shopkeeper who gives you two threepenny bits instead of a sixpence knows this and, as he hands you the money, says apologetically: "Do you mind?" You say: "Not at all," but you do. You know that they will be a constant misery to you till you get rid of them. You know that if you give one of them to a bus conductor, even if he is able to restrain himself, he will feel like throwing you off the top of the bus. When at length you spend one of them in a post office--one never has the same scruples about Government institutions--you hurry out with a guilty air, not having dared to look the lady at the counter in the eye. In the nineteenth century, when people went to church, they used to get rid of their threepenny bits at the collection. They at once relieved themselves of a nuisance, and enjoyed the luxury of flinging the gleam of silver on to the plate. Many a good Baptist has trusted to his threepenny bit's being mistaken for a sixpence, by the neighbours, at least--perhaps even by Heaven. He has a notion that the widow's mite was a threepenny bit, and feels that his gift is in a great tradition.

The popular hatred of certain coins, however, goes back to a far earlier date than the invention of the threepenny bit. Even gold, when it was first introduced into the English coinage, was met with such a storm of denunciation that it had to be withdrawn. This was in the time of Henry III., who issued a golden penny to take the place of the silver penny that had hitherto been the chief English coin. It was only in the reign of Edward III. that gold coins became established in England They may have helped to recommend themselves to the nation by their intensely anti-French character. They bore the French arms, and announced that King Edward was King of England and France. France is a country lying close to the shores of England, and is of great strategic importance to her. I do not know whether the copper coins which first came into England in the time of Charles II. raised any clamour of public protest. The nation, I fancy, was so relieved to get back to cakes and ale that it was not inclined to be censorious about the new halfpennies and farthings. In the old days, people had made their own halfpennies and farthings by the simple process of cutting pennies into halves and quarters. They also issued private coins on the same principle on which we nowadays write cheques. Municipalities and shopkeepers alike issued these tokens, or promises to pay, and without them there would not have been sufficient currency for the transaction of business. The copper coins of Charles II. were intended to put a stop to this unofficial sort of money, but towards the end of the eighteenth century there was such a scarcity of copper currency that local shopkeepers and bankers defied the law and again began to issue their own coins. I have in my possession what looks like a George III. shilling, with the King's head on one side and, on the other, inside a wreath of shamrocks, the inscription: "Bank Token, 10 Pence Irish, 1813." It was turned up by the plough on a Staffordshire farm a few years ago. Speaking of this reminds me that a separate Irish coinage continued even after the Union of 1800. It was not till 1817 that English gold and silver became current in Ireland, and Irish pennies and halfpennies were struck as late as the reign of George IV. The Scottish coins came to an end more than a century earlier. The name of one of them, however, the "bawbee," has survived in popular humour. Some people say that the name is merely a corruption of "baby," referring to the portrait of Queen Mary as an infant. It seems to me as unlikely a derivation as could be imagined.

Of all the English coins, the first appearance of which occasioned popular anger, none had a worse reception than the two-shilling piece which appeared in 1849. "This piece," says Miss G.B. Rawlings in _Coins and How to Know Them_, a book rich in information, "was unfavourably received, owing to the omission of 'Dei Gratia' after the Queen's name, and was stigmatised as the godless or graceless florin." The florin, however, so called after a Florentine coin, had come to stay, but since 1851 it has been as godly in inscription as any of the other money in one's pocket. The coin has survived, but hardly the name. One can with an effort call a spade a spade, but who would think of calling a florin a florin? The coin itself for a time bore the inscription: "One Florin, Two Shillings," as though the name called for translation. Since the introduction of the florin, there have been many coins that aroused popular hatred. The four-shilling piece, especially, that was struck in the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee, was received with a howl of execration. Men went about in constant dread of argument with shopkeepers as to whether they had given them a four-shilling or a five-shilling piece. In the interests of the national good temper the coin ceased to be struck after 1890 Englishmen, however, disliked the entire Jubilee coinage. They disliked the Queen's portrait, and they disliked especially a sixpence which could be easily gilded to look like a half-sovereign. The sixpences were hurriedly withdrawn, but schoolboys continued to treasure them in the belief that they were worth fabulous sums. Like groats, the delight of one's childhood, they began to be desirable as soon as they ceased to be common. When King Edward VII. came to the throne, there was another outburst of hatred of new money. The chief objection to it was that the King's effigy had been designed by a German and had not even been designed well. It was at this time, perhaps, when people began to hate the money in their pockets, that the reign of modern extravagance began. To get rid of a sovereign bearing a design by Herr Fuchs seemed a patriotic duty. Thrift and pro-Germanism were indistinguishable.

Much as men detest new sorts of money in their own country, however, many of us take a childish pleasure on our first arrival in France in handling strange and unfamiliar coins. One of the great pleasures of travel is changing one's money. There is a certain lavishness about the coinage of the Continent that appeals to our curiosity. Even in getting a five-franc piece we never know whether it will bear the emblem of a republic, a kingdom or an empire. Coins of Greece and Italy jingle in our pocket with those of the impostor, Louis Napoleon, and those of the wicked Leopold, King of the Belgians. In Switzerland I remember even getting a Cretan coin, which I was humiliated by being unable to pass at a post office. The postal official took down a huge diagram containing pictures of all the European coins he was allowed to accept. He studied Greek coins and, for all I know, Jugo-Slav coins, but nowhere could he find the image of the coin I had proffered him. Crete for him did not exist. He shook his head solemnly and handed the coin back. Is there any situation in which a man feels guiltier than when his money is thrust back on him as of no value? This happens oftener, perhaps, in France than in any other country. France has the reputation of being the country of bad money. The reputation is, I believe, exaggerated, though I have known a Boulogne tram conductor to refuse even a 50-centime piece as bad. I remember vividly a warning given to me on this subject during my first visit to France. I was sitting with a friend in an estaminet in a small village in the north of France, when an English chauffeur insinuated himself into the conversation. He was eager to give us advice about France and the French. "I like the French," he said, "but you can't trust them. Look out for bad money. They're terrors for bad money. I'd have been done oftener myself, only that luckily I married a Frenchwoman. She's in the ticket office at the Maison des Delits--you probably know the name--it's a dancing-hall in Montmartre. Any time I get a bad 5 franc piece, I pass it on to her, and she gets rid of it in the change to some Froggie. My God, they _are_ dishonest! I wouldn't say a word against the French, but just that one thing. They're dishonest--damned dishonest." He sat back on the bench, a figure of insular rectitude but of cosmopolitan broadmindedness. Is it not the perfect compromise?

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: The Three-Halfpenny Bit