Coin and Currency Sites to Visit on Your Vacation: UK Edition

If you are heading out on vacation or planning one in the near future; there’s no reason not to celebrate your hobby on the road! Here’s a list of coin- and currency-related attractions and exhibits that you can visit while traversing across the United Kingdom! And don’t forget to check out our part one, with stops in all 50 states and part two for travels in Canada.

Llantrisant, South Wales: Tour The Royal Mint and learn about over 1,100 years of coin history. At the mint you can strike your own Britannia 50 new pence and learn more about the detailed processes involved in producing a coin, the work that goes into it and the history behind Britain’s coinage. Plus more; with weekly events and it’s own cafe, the Royal Mint truly is a desirable destination for any numismatist.

Blaenafon, Wales: Go underground to a real coal mine at the Big Pit National Coal Museum. Learn about old mining families and have the blacksmith experience. From minting coins to casting swords, this coal mine has supplied Wales with raw materials for hundreds of years.

Glasgow, Scotland: The University of Glasgow features The Hunterian museum, home to many fascinating exhibits and artifacts.The Hunterian is Scotland’s oldest public museum and home to over a million magnificent items ranging from meteorites to mummies and Mackintosh. Within this diverse collection you will find astounding artefacts, amazing art and an astonishing array of animal life. Including a huge variety of gold and base metal denominations produced by Byzantine mints in the exhibit: “Byzantium: A Golden Era of Coinage”. Admission is free!

Byzantine coins

Belfast, Northern Ireland: Visit the Ulster Museum to discover a unique human story of this part of Ireland and collections that will take you to all corners of the globe. Things to see include medals such as the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize and as a temporary exhibit discover buried treasure hoards from across the UK.

London, England: In the heart of London you can stop by The Bank of England Museum. Inside the museum you can pick up a gold bar and discover why the building is on top of one the world’s’ largest stores of gold. You’ll learn why people started to use paper money and how the Bank of England makes their notes difficult to copy.

Learn what the Bank of England does and how this affects the average citizen. Find out how they work to keep prices stable (the cost of things like food, televisions and train tickets). At the heart of our museum is the ‘Stock Office’ and this shows what the inside of the Bank of England would have looked like 200 hundred years ago.

Goldsmith’s Hall

London, England: Check in with the Goldsmith’s Hall to see if there are any open days where you can get a tour. Goldsmith’s Hall is where the Trial of Pyx is held every year.

The Trial of the Pyx (pronounced pIks) is a procedure in the United Kingdom for ensuring that newly minted coins conform to the required standards. These trials have been held from the thirteenth century to the present day, normally once per calendar year.

The Hall itself was erected in 1634-6 and restored after the Great Fire of 1666. It lasted for almost two centuries, but was eventually demolished in the late 1820s. The present Hall, by Philip Hardwick, remains much as he designed it, although there have been changes to the decorative schemes and the use of rooms.

The Hall narrowly escaped complete destruction when in 1941 a bomb exploded inside the south-west corner. Faithfully restored on the exterior after the War and internally modified, it retains much of the charm of an urban palazzo. A major refurbishment which was completed in 1990 has further adapted this great building for the 21st century.

Woburn, England: What’s a visit to England if you don’t have some afternoon tea? When going to the Woburn Abbey and Gardens you can view various numismatic exhibits  and sit down for tea the Duchess’ Tea Room. Explore over 22 rooms such as The Silver and Gold Vaults and the Holland Library. Numismatic materials are incorporated into several of the permanent displays.

A Brief History of Irish Coins

 

 

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Early Gallic coin

The earliest known coins in Ireland were British and European copies of Macedonian coinage from the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great. No coins were struck on Irish soil this early, but the copied coins do turn up in hoards and archaeological digs.

 

 

 

Some of this lack of coinage can be attributed to the fact that the Roman invasion of the area did not reach the Emerald Isle, save for a short-lived camp north of Dublin. Roman coins have been found, but only alongside decorative metals and hack silver; the first-century Irish did not use coins as a medium of exchange, but simply as another form of precious metal, similar to the early Vikings.

 

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Silver dirham

After the Romans left Ireland and the British Isles, coins fell out of use for centuries. The Irish retained a high level of technical skill in metal-working, and many beautiful silver and gold ornaments have been founds in hoards dating to this period. Many historians believe that the majority of coins that made their way to the island were melted and used for jewelry and other ornaments. As Ireland began to be Christianized by St. Patrick and his followers, and accepted by “civilized” (usually meaning “formerly Roman”) nations, coins begin to reappear in the Irish historical record, though still mostly in terms of precious metal rather than currency. Coins found from this period include Anglo-Saxon pennies and dirhams from Islamic lands. (Dr. Caitlin Green often blogs about the spread of Islamic coins to Europe in the medieval period. Her blog is highly recommended.)

 

The Vikings brought an increase in the usage of coins (mostly Danish and Anglo-Saxon) when they settled in Dublin and Limerick, but it seems that the Irish usually melted these coins, or saved them for return trade with the Vikings.

 

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The first coins struck in Ireland were the Hiberno-Norse coins produced in Dublin at the end of the 10th century, by Norse King Sithric III (also known as Sithric Silkbeard). These were copies of English king Aethelred II’s pennies. These coin designs quickly degraded until they were barely recognizable, the lettering represented by vertical strokes, and the production of coinage ceased by 1160.
It was the entrance of the Normans in 1169 that brought about the most dramatic change in the Irish use of coinage. When Henry II’s son, John, was Lord of Ireland, he struck silver farthings and halfpennies near the end of the 1100’s, followed by an increased run of coinage when he became king. Dublin housed the primary mint, though other provincial mints were used, as well. At least one purpose of this minting was to funnel silver out of Ireland and into the war efforts of the British king; Irish silver coins circulated in England and on the continent as “sterlings.”

 

Minting continued sporadically for several decades, still concentrated on putting Irish silver intro circulation in British lands. It was not until 1279 that Edward I struck Irish coins of comparable quality with English coins, in silver pennies, halfpennies, and farthings. Again, this silver quickly made its way away from Ireland, further impoverishing the country.

 

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Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York

During the next 150 years, coins continued to be struck and sent away from the island, until the Irish authorities were granted permission by Richard of York to strike lower quality coins to an “Irish standard.” In return, the authorities pledged their support for his effort to gain the English crown. Richard died, and his son became King Edward IV of England. Until his death in 1483, the Irish battled constantly to keep their own coinage, while Edward wanted all coins bearing his name to meet the higher English standard (which would have resulted in still more Irish silver leaving the small island economy). There are 6 different coin designs from this period, and several different weight standards, as well as base metal and bullion issues; modern numismatists are still sorting this puzzle out.

 

Several subsequent monarchs revised the coinage over the next hundred years, occasionally opting for higher standard metal, but always ending up with base metal coins. Notably, Henry VIII instituted the use of the Irish harp on the country’s coins, a practice that would continue almost unbroken into the modern era.

 

gold-pistole-300x143By 1639, tensions in Irish were high, as the British crown and its auxiliaries made more and more demands, including an Irish army to fight a rebellion in Scotland, as well as conflict between Catholic Irish and Protestant England and Scotland. The Irish Rebellion began in 1641; during this time and the subsequent English Civil War, local coinages began to pop up in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. These were crude coins struck from silver plate, often including their weight or value as part of the design. The only gold coins struck in Ireland date to this period: the pistole and double pistole of 1646. The pistole is a Spanish denomination, and Spanish coinage was among the most stable and tradeable at the time.
Regular issuances of coins in Ireland did not resume until 1680; until then, local coinage and tokens were most common. Over 800 varieties are known, and they come from almost every town and village in the small country. The most significant of these are the St. Patrick’s tokens, in farthing and halfpenny denominations. They have no known attributed issuer, and are heavier and were produced in greater numbers than the others.

 

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Gunmoney coin with portrait of James II

Irish halfpennies resumed production in 1680 after Charles II granted a patent to Sir William Armstrong and Colonel George Legg. James II continued the patent, but produced ceased in 1688 after his abdication. When James decided to reclaim his throne, he issued brass coinage (romantically said to be made from melted cannons, but in reality made from common items, such as church bells). These tokens were known as “gunmoney” and intended to be redeemed for real coins as soon as James attained his throne again. James’ campaign failed, though gunmoney was still issued for some time from a mint in Limerick. This issue was halted when William and Mary captured Limerick in 1691; copper halfpennies resumed production in 1692.

 

 

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Irish banknote from the 1830’s

Near the end of the 1780’s, Ireland faced a coin shortage. King George III had become insane and was unable to sign any new coinage into effect; however, the English monarchy had insisted on such tight control of the production of coins that even Parliament could not legally create coinage. The only solution was the creation of tokens, and sometimes even counterfeit tokens. This period also saw the rise of banknotes in Ireland. The Irish bank tried to import Spanish and Mexican pesos, though the price of silver against gold varied too much to establish consistent value for the coins. The bank counterstruck the coins with a six shilling design; this was not a popular move, but did help to ease the economic tension for a little while. Production of tokens continued sporadically until 1813.

 

s-l1600 (1).jpgBy the early 1820’s, both Irish pennies and halfpennies as well as English currency were circulating in Ireland. In 1826, Irish currency was officially ended, and English currency alone was valid in Ireland until the founding of the Irish state in 1928. In 1926, the new Irish Free State established a coinage committee; famed poet William Butler Yeats served as chairman. The committee continued the use of the Irish harp as the symbol of the country, and the best choice for the obverse of the coin.

 

s-l1600The reverse of the coins would be dedicated to Irish animals, in tribute to the country’s largely agriculture. Some suggested Christian saints as the focus for the reverse designs, but it was feared that many coins would be turned into religious medals. Irish sculptors submitted designs to compete for a prize, with Percy Metcalf’s designs winning out. A very few designs by sculptor Publio Morbiducci were produced as well, before Metcalf’s designs became the standard. The coin reverses feature the woodcock (farthing), sow with piglets (halfpenny), hen with chicks (penny), hare (threepence), Irish wolfhound (sixpence), bull (shilling), salmon (florin), and horse (halfcrown). These coins are highly sought after by advanced and casual collectors, as their distinctive designs and charming animals are considered very attractive.

 

A ten shilling piece was introduced in 1966, and commemorates the Easter rising of 1916. It was not a popular coin, and all but 750,000 of the two million produced were melted. In 1969, Ireland adopted a decimal currency; the change was made to coincide with the decimalization of British coins, since both were in wide circulation in Ireland at the time. Both old and decimal currency circulated together for three days until the old coins were demonetized. The new decimal coins also adopted classic Irish designs and animals.

 

In 1999, Ireland adopted the Euro, and began to withdraw pound coins and notes in 2002.

 

The First Stamps of Ireland

 

On December 6, 1922, Ireland began printing its own stamps; prior to this date, Irish stamps were of British origin. To celebrate the new country, these stamps were printed with images of Irish lore and national pride.

 

Eire

 

The most instantly recognizable is the outline of Ireland (or “Eire”), surrounded by Celtic knot designs, with shamrocks at the top of the stamp. The Emerald Isle floats in a stylized sea, under a decorated arch.

 

 

 

 

 

swordAnother stamp in the series depicts the Claíomh Solais (pronounced somewhat like “kleeve-solish”), the Sword of Light. The Sword of Light appears in many Irish and Scottish folktales. Most of these tales involve a hero on a bridal quest who is required to pass three tests; he often succeeds due to help from servants, animals, or supernatural beings. The sword itself is often kept by a supernatural guardian who must be defeated before the hero can possess the weapon. In many cases, it is the object of the hero’s affection who informs him how to defeat the guardian of the sword. Some consider the Sword of Light to be one of the four treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann; this idea is especially popular in Japan. The sword also has many similarities with tales of Arthur’s sword Excaliber, which was said to shine with the light of thirty torches when he drew it.
arms

 

The arms of Ireland, with the arms of the four traditional Irish provinces quartered on it, is the design on another stamp in the series. The provinces are Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

 

 

 

 

harpLeinster has the traditional Irish harp as the main design, which is based on the Brian Boru harp, a Gaelic harp from the late medieval period, and may be the oldest extant harp in the world. Stone carvings of the classic triangular Irish harp are found from the 10th century forward, and evidence that these harps were in use in the first millennium BCE. It has always been one of the preferred symbols of Ireland. A right-facing version of the harp is also used as the logo for Guinness Beer.

 

crownsMunster’s arms feature three old-fashioned crowns with five visible rays, likely derived from the Lordship of Ireland (though some link it to Robert de Vere’s dukedom of Ireland in 1386).

 

 

handUlster is represented by a combination arms: the cross of the arms of the de Burgh with the O’Neill’s red hand. Since these early stamps were monochromatic, the colors in the coats of arms could not be accurately depicted.

 

eagleThe arms of Connacht are also a combination; on the left side, an eagle, and on the right, a hand holding a sword. It is thought that these arms derive from the Schottenklöster (Gaelic monastery) in Regensburg, Germany. These arms combined the symbol of the Holy Roman Emperor (protector of the abbey) with the symbol of the O’Briens, one of whom was listed as a fundator of the abbey. It is possible that these arms were given to King of Connacht Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, who was the last High King of Ireland prior to the Norman invasion.

 

crossThe last stamp in the series is a stylized cross with shamrocks and Celtic knotwork. One of the most potent figures in Irish history and folktales is Saint Patrick, who brought Christianity to the island in the fifth century. Patrick was a child in Roman Britain when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. After escaping, he felt called by God to return to Ireland as a missionary. It is said that Ireland has no snakes because Saint Patrick drove them out. He is also said to have escaped the grasp of a murderous king when he and his followers were turned into a herd of deer when assassins passed by. Irish Christianity retained a distinctive flavor for centuries, and even influenced the color of liturgical garments in the modern Western church.

 

Irish stamps are not only beautiful, but full of stories and a good addition to any collection.

The Luck of the Irish

From the Irish potato famine to years of invasion, colonization, exploitation and violent religious conflict, it would seem that the Irish have anything but good luck.  Where then did the phrase “luck of the Irish” originate? – Perhaps with the hope of stumbling across a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow; Or in finding serendipity in the rarity of a four-leaf clover?  Though the origin of the phrase is decidedly unresolved, the “Luck of the Irish” is surely varnished in dark green irony.

The phrase became popularized in America with immigration to the American West in the second half of the 19th century.  Mining fortunes of Irish immigrants such as James Fair, James Flood, John Mackay and William O’Brien known as the “Silver Kings” led to the association of the Irish with good luck.  However, the meaning of this luck is clearly pejorative with the implication that only by sheer luck, as apposed to intelligence, could these “Know-Nothings” succeed.

Traveling with Art: Shrewsbury, Ireland

 

A town with mostly medieval architecture, Shrewsbury, Ireland’s rich history includes being founded around 800 AD and being the center of wool commerce. Evidence also suggests that Shrewsbury had its own mint in its early days, making it an especially important area. The site also saw a number of battles and conflicts in the Medieval era.

 

The postcard image you see above is a color photo lithograph of some of Shrewsbury’s mansions, a view from around the 1900’s showing a building that was built in 1596.

 

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Shrewsbury Castle Keep in Ireland. (Via Rev Dan Catt CC 2.0)

If you want to see a piece of royalty first hand, the town’s Shropshire Regimental Museum at Shrewsbury Castle has a locket with a lock of Napoleon’s hair. (Yes, THAT Napoleon.) To add to the list of famous names, Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury and grew up there.

 

 

A grave for the character Ebenezer Scrooge even exists in a Shrewsbury graveyard, made for a movie version of “A Christmas Carol” and never taken out.

 

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A watercolor scene of Shrewsbury, signed ‘Louise Rayner’.

The town also contains “the grandfather of skyscrapers”, the Ditherington Flax Mill, the oldest iron framed building in the world.

 

 

Shrewsbury has many more claims to fame than you can really keep track of! Today the town has a refined culture and plenty of architecture from various time periods, especially the Medieval era, that make the town a sight to behold.