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.

All About Christmas Crackers

Christmas crackers are a traditional Christmas treat in the UK – and they’ve been popular for over 100 years. Fans of vintage collectibles will get a kick out of them. Crackers take center stage at Christmas parties or Christmas dinner. One person grabs each end of the cracker and pull. It’s a literal bang; a tiny strip of chemicals reacts to pressure and gives off the sound of a snap when participants pull the cracker.

What do these crackers contain? Small toys, jokes or paper crowns are traditional.

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So how did these crackers start? How did flimsy paper products become so popular?

It all starts with Thomas J. Smith of England, who designed the cracker shape to wrap candy bonbons (sweetmeats) in. But the bonbons were not as big a hit as Smith hoped for, so he started brainstorming other marketing methods. He had already designed the twist candy wrapper we’re familiar with, so he figured he’d try putting something other than bonbons in the middle. At first he tried putting love notes in the wrappers; later he changed the contents to trinkets we’re familiar with today (one of his sons later added the paper crowns and cheaper toys). Australians still call them bonbons based on their original design!

Smith came up with the cracker’s “bang” based on the crackle of logs on a fire. It’s half the fun!

Smith and his family even got their own memorial fountain in London in honor of the invention of Christmas crackers. And over 150 years later, the crackers are still going strong.

Does your family use Christmas crackers? What’s your favorite prize?

The First Postage Stamp: The Penny Black

 The Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive stamp, made to reform the British postal service. A man named Rowland Hill proposed the stamp system in 1837.

Before the issue of postage stamps, people paid for postage upon receiving the package or letter. (Some people, such as W. Reginald Bray, took advantage of this system.) The cost was determined by the distance traveled for delivery and the size of the letter. But Rowland Hill thought the system needed reform.

Hill started a competition to design the first stamp. But the public failed to give a good enough design (sounds familiar, eh?) despite the 2,600 designs. None of the winning entries were used.

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A Penny Black shown with red cancel, which is hard to see on the black background.

Instead, the approved stamp design featured a profile of Queen Victoria, the monarch at the time. It came from a sketch by Henry Corbould and went through multiple hands for designing before it became the final product.

The Black Penny stamps did not have perforations and had to be hand cut. They had inscriptions in each corner, which were either stars, letters, or blank spaces.

The UK’s postage stamps are the only stamps that at times don’t name their country of origin; instead they use Queen Victoria’s image to symbolize the UK.

The stamps used a black background, but that soon revealed itself as a problem. The red cancel didn’t show up well on the black stamp. The cancel also rubbed off easily, which led to people reusing the stamps.

The Penny Black only lasted for a year. It was replaced by the Penny Red, and the cancel was given black ink, which showed up much better and didn’t come off as easily.

The Jacob Perkins press that printed the Penny Black. (via takomabibelot, CC)

The Jacob Perkins press that printed the Penny Black. (via takomabibelot, CC)

Rowland Hill’s postal reform changed the system for the better. Within seven months of the stamps’ release, the numbers of letters sent doubled to over 160 million.

Penny Black stamps are not actually that rare – over 68 million were produced. The real value comes in finding a Penny Black in mint condition with the original gum.

A stamp dealer sold one for £250,000 in 2009, the highest price paid for a Penny Black so far.

Take a moment to appreciate Rowland Hill for his postage reform. Without it, the Postal Service would not be what it is today.