The story of the UK commemorative 50 pence: the equilateral curve heptagon

Started by <k>, June 05, 2022, 07:03:10 PM

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<k>


In 1960, when the pound sterling still consisted of 20 shillings, each of which was divided into 12 pence, Parliament voted unanimously, if belatedly, to move towards a decimal currency. In April 1968 the UK's first decimal coins were introduced, as a prelude to full decimalisation in 1971. The decimal 5 and 10 pence coins were equal in value and size respectively to the co-circulating shilling and 2 shillings coins. In another small step towards decimalisation, October 1969 saw the birth of the decimal 50 pence coin, which replaced its predecimal equivalent, the ten shilling note.

Officially known as the equilateral curve heptagon, this typically quirky British product was the world's first seven-sided coin. Measuring 30mm in diameter, the 50p was initially often confused with the then current large 10p coin, which was 28.5 in diameter. This was despite its heptagonal shape, which was meant to distinguish it clearly from the 10p. The coin's large size reflected its status as the highest denomination of the decimal series, though as the first of its kind, it could justifiably have started life at around the size of our current 20p coin without causing confusion.

Before decimalisation, Britannia had appeared on the lowly predecimal penny. Now she was promoted to the reverse of the 50p, adding a sense of continuity and tradition to the otherwise ultra-novel heptagon. Only four years later, the 50p took on a new and unexpected role. Since the 20th century, the UK's commemorative coins had always been issued as crowns, being 5 shillings in value, or 25 pence after decimalisation. These bulky pieces, 38mm in diameter, were collector coins only and not intended for circulation. In 1973 Prime Minister Edward Heath was so proud of his achievement in taking the UK into the European Economic Community that he ordered the mass minting of a special circulation 50p to commemorate the event.


During 1973, the minting of the standard circulation Britannia design was halted, so the special 50p was seen and handled by virtually everyone in the country. Its reverse design, featuring nine pairs of joined hands to represent the EEC's member nations, gave it an endearingly human touch. Curiously, the symbolism of the design was considered self-explanatory, since the legend stated simply "1973 50 PENCE" and omitted any reference to the EEC. Consequently, children who encountered the coin in the 1970s were often unaware of its commemorative nature. Strictly speaking, the legend should have specified "50 NEW PENCE", since in law the subdenominations were officially known as new pence, to distinguish them from predecimal pence. This seemingly went unnoticed, though the Treasury solicitor of the day privately referred to the coin as "the illegal 50 pence"! Not until 1982 did Parliament enact a law allowing all relevant UK coins to omit the word "NEW" from their legend. Accordingly, Christopher Ironside, who had produced the 50p's original Britannia reverse, redesigned it in order to accommodate the word "FIFTY" in the amended legend. You will find several differences between the two Britannia designs if you examine them closely.


The success of the EEC-themed issue showed the 50p to be a perfect vehicle for commemorative designs, yet the UK did not issue another commemorative 50p until 1992. For the remainder of the 1970s through to 1981, the occasional crown (25 pence) was used to celebrate royal events only. My article "The rejected Scouting 50 pence" (COIN NEWS, October 2017) told how the Royal Mint briefly considered minting a 50p to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Scouting Movement in 1982. However, fears were voiced of the potential commercialisation and trivialisation of the coinage, and the idea was dropped. After the crown's demise in 1981, for commemorative purposes a brass £2 coin was introduced in 1986, followed by a crown-sized £5 in 1990, but these were collector coins only and did not circulate. The concept of a circulating commemorative 50p seemed to have been consigned to history.

UK 50p 1992.jpg

In 1990 the increasingly euro-sceptical Mrs Thatcher was succeeded as Prime Minister by John Major. He was decidedly pro-European, and in 1992 a 50p was issued to celebrate the UK's presidency of the European Council of Ministers. Beyond marking a welcome return of the commemorative 50p, the simple geometric design with its inevitable EU stars did not noticeably enthuse the public.

UK 50p 1994.jpg

The 1994 50p commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day represented a turning point by featuring aircraft and landing craft on its design. Here, for the first time since the wren farthing and ship halfpenny, was a thematic figurative design on a UK circulating coin. In 1997 the coin's diameter was reduced from 30mm to 28.5mm, and in 1998 two 50p commemoratives were issued in the smaller format. Alongside another star-ridden EU commemorative, a rather unexciting design of sunrays and caring hands symbolised 50 years of the NHS.

UK 50p 2000-Public Libraries.jpg

However, the Public Libraries 50p issue of 2000 carried a surprisingly elegant design that was both symbolic and realistic, showing a library building whose roof supported a book with opened pages. The descriptive legend was cleverly shown as though engraved upon the library's façade. After the largely unexceptional issues of prior years, it seemed to represent a quantum leap in the design of the commemorative 50p that aptly coincided with the beginning of the new century.

UK 50p 2004.jpg

That promise was maintained as our commemorative 50p designs did indeed become ever more adventurous, with far more popular appeal. The 50p of 2004 commemorated Roger Bannister's four minute mile with a stylish design of a running athlete. Here at last was the sort of modern thematic design that many British collectors had longed for.

UK 50p 2005-Johnson's Dictionary.jpg

The 2005 issue, commemorating Johnson's dictionary, carried a purely textual design that cleverly referred back to the coin itself by showing dictionary definitions of the words "FIFTY" and "PENCE". Presented in attractively varied fonts, it was as appealing as many a pictorial design. This new and unexpectedly imaginative approach to design showed that the Royal Mint was now willing to push the boundaries and transcend its former conservatism. Just as importantly, these newly attractive designs circulated in profusion, spurring the emergence of regular "change-checkers" and promoting the UK's coin hobby.

Uk 50 pence 2008-.jpg

In 2008 Britannia was retired from the reverse of the standard circulation 50p, to the dismay of her admirers. A new reverse design was introduced that was — rather daringly — upside-down, relative to the previous design. To date, no commemorative UK 50p coin has ever been minted with this orientation.


In 2009 and in conjunction with the Royal Mint, the BBC children's programme Blue Peter held a competition for a design to kick off a series of circulating 50p coins celebrating the countdown to the London 2012 Olympics. Nine-year-old Florence Jackson won the competition, and her high-jump design was minted on a 2009 50p coin. Hers was the first design by a child to appear on a UK coin, and it was reprised in 2011, alongside 28 other 50p designs highlighting the various sporting events of the Olympics and Paralympics. At last, the UK had a coin series to rival Canada's Confederation commemorative 25 cents series of 1992 and the US State Quarters series of 1999 to 2008. The Olympic 50p coins were readily found in change, prompting a new generation of eager collectors to join the hunt to complete the set.

UK 50p 2011-Aquatics before and after.jpg

The Olympic series also spawned one rarity: the first version of the aquatics design showed the swimmer's face covered by water. Only a few of these were released into circulation, making this the rarest of all the base metal 50p types, before the Royal Mint abruptly changed the design to show the swimmer's face clear of the water.
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<k>

UK 50 pence 2018-.jpg

Meanwhile, our UK commemorative 50p designs from 2010 onward became ever more varied. They often employed unusual perspectives to suggest movement, while their descriptive legends were sometimes positioned diagonally or in stacked form, and in larger and bolder fonts, thus enhancing their artistic effect and visual impact.


UK 50p 2016 Peter Rabbit.jpg

Named and shamed: the rabbit who crashed the Royal Mint's website.

In 2016 the Royal Mint widened their thematic scope by issuing a series of five 50p coins to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter's birth. Four of the designs showed individual characters from her much-loved stories. Demand for the Peter Rabbit 50p was so great that it briefly crashed the Royal Mint's website. Some of the Potter designs were produced in collector-only versions with a colourised reverse, the first time that this technique had been used on a UK 50p. Since then, Paddington Bear, the Gruffalo, and Winnie the Pooh have been among the fictional characters honoured on the 50p, though not all have appeared on circulating versions. These issues have a special appeal for young people and help to attract new collectors.

UK 50p 2020-Brexit.jpg

2016 was also the year when the UK electorate voted narrowly in favour of Brexit. Despite Prime Minister Theresa May's pronouncement that "Brexit means Brexit", her government tried in vain to push it through Parliament. Approximately a thousand Brexit 50p trial coins were minted with the original Brexit date of March 29, 2019 and around a million for the delayed Brexit date of October 31, 2019. All were subsequently melted down. Mrs May had resigned in despair in July 2019, after which Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and later won the general election of December 2019, vowing to "Get Brexit done!" Shortly afterwards, the Brexit 50p was duly issued with the date "31 January 2020" and the bland message of "Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations", which hardly reflected the rancour of the Brexit debate. As with the EEC 50p before it, the true meaning of the coin was implicit and not spelled out. Ten million of the coins were eventually released into circulation. In 1973 Edward Heath had taken the UK into the EEC and celebrated the fact on the UK's first commemorative 50p. He did not live to see the irony of the proclamation of the death of his dream in the commemorative format that he himself had inspired. Normal service was resumed with the other 50p themes of 2020, which included Team GB and a series devoted to dinosaurs.

Now, more than 50 years after its birth, this product of British inventive genius, the equilateral curve heptagon, continues to intrigue collectors of all ages. Its unusual shape provides the basis of its quirky charm. It is vertically symmetrical, yet it has an uneven number of sides, giving the coin a clearly differentiated pointed top and flat bottom. As a commemorative, it lacks the unwieldiness of the crown yet can comfortably carry a fairly large design. Though it could feasibly have started its life as a much smaller coin, it would then likely never have been chosen as a circulating commemorative, and the large 10p might have found favour instead, though far less successfully. The "Goldilocks" size and intriguing shape of the 50p have undoubtedly fuelled its astounding popularity as a commemorative, in a way that a smaller or round coin could not have emulated.

The first two commemorative 50p coins were separated by 19 years, yet nowadays several are issued annually. For these, the Royal Mint's world-class artists regularly produce stunningly attractive and imaginative designs, whose thematic range has extended dramatically to embrace science, literature, history and natural history. All these factors have turned the commemorative 50p into a British super-product, a much-coveted, mass-produced, public work of art, with a host of fans in the UK and overseas.
Visit the website of The Royal Mint Museum.

See: The Royal Mint Museum.

<k>

UK 50 pence 2016-Team GB.jpg

My favourite UK 50 pence design. It is modern and elegant.




Another sports design. This one plays with perspective and uses diagonal text.

UK 50 pence 2019.jpg

UK, 50 pence, 2019.

The Stephen Hawking commemorative features a swirling black hole. An innovative design.
Visit the website of The Royal Mint Museum.

See: The Royal Mint Museum.

<k>

Visit the website of The Royal Mint Museum.

See: The Royal Mint Museum.

Offa

I'll never forget the first 50p I ever had it was in 1969 a lot of older people refused them as change preferring the 10 shilling note which the coin replaced.
All coins are equal but some are more equal than others

<k>

Who would ever have imagined, back then, the heptagon mania of the 21st century!
Visit the website of The Royal Mint Museum.

See: The Royal Mint Museum.

chrisild

Not that I know very much about maths ;D but what is important with regard to that shape (Reuleaux heptagon) is that it has curves of constant width. A triangular or square coin, for example, would – even with rounded corners – hardly work with vending machines. This hepta...Reul...thing however does, and pretty smoothly. :)

Offa

Quote from: <k> on June 08, 2022, 03:07:28 PMWho would ever have imagined, back then, the heptagon mania of the 21st century!

When the 1973 European 50p was released it caused quite a stir as it was the UK's first ever circulating commemorative coin
All coins are equal but some are more equal than others

<k>

Quote from: Offa on June 09, 2022, 01:28:20 PMWhen the 1973 European 50p was released it caused quite a stir as it was the UK's first ever circulating commemorative coin

It was popular too. People often referred to it as "the 50 pence with the hands".

The hands gave it a human touch that was lacking in the later star-ridden geometric designs of 1992 and 1998.

Why did they wait so long to issue another  commemorative 50 pence coin?
Visit the website of The Royal Mint Museum.

See: The Royal Mint Museum.

Offa

Quote from: <k> on June 09, 2022, 01:31:45 PMIt was popular too. People often referred to it as "the 50 pence with the hands".

The hands gave it a human touch that was lacking in the later star-ridden geometric designs of 1992 and 1998.

Why did they wait so long to issue another  commemorative 50 pence coin?



God knows 1992 was the next one funnily enough for the eec as well although the £2 had become a medium for commemorative coins with the commonwealth games in 1986
All coins are equal but some are more equal than others

<k>

Quote from: Offa on June 09, 2022, 02:39:07 PMalthough the £2 had become a medium for commemorative coins with the commonwealth games in 1986

The brass monometallic 2 pound coin was a non-circulating collector coin, of course.
Visit the website of The Royal Mint Museum.

See: The Royal Mint Museum.