The story so far: Britannia dominated the reverse designs of Britain’s copper coins from the reign of Charles II to that of William IV. She also starred on all the notes of the Bank of England as well as some of other British banks of issue. Her makeover by William Wyon for the nation’s coppers in the 1820s was fast becoming the standard by which she personified Britain.
Of all the women to sit on the throne Queen Victoria came to exemplify all Britannia had and would become.
By the time of Victoria’s accession in 1837 cartoons of Britannia and her male compatriot, John Bull, were commonplace in broadsheets and weekly newspapers. The two represented an emerging British nationhood.
Throughout Victoria’s reign Bull would be enlisted by Liberals and Conservatives alike to help win elections, pass bills and confront the country’s enemies. In contrast Britannia would become remote from politics while epitomizing the very best of British character. In many ways she was effectively Victoria’s role model.
Yet, well before Victoria came to the throne the perception of Britannia in British society had been undergoing a steady transformation. In early Georgian times she had often been depicted humiliated by friends and foes alike as in the American Revolutionary War. But during the Napoleonic era she experienced a sea change. Her avatar was rebirthed. She was raised out of the day-to-day morass of human affairs and placed on a high moral plane that echoed her Roman origins. She was again semi-divine.
By the 1830s her exaltation over mere mortals was clear for all to see. Illustrators, including cartoonists, restyled her clothes and helm to match William Wyon’s classical vision introduced to the country’s coppers in 1821.
This transformation of Britannia became refined and formalized during the 1840s as in the popular satirical magazine Punch. Here Britannia’s principal spin doctor was Sir John Tenniel, illustrator of Alice in Wonderland. Her image was instantly recognizable as it was on Victoria’s coins.
Following Victoria’s accession Wyon’s Britannia reverse designs introduced for George IV continued in use on the copper pennies, halfpennies and farthings. Britannia abandoned the half and third farthings but when a quarter farthing was introduced in 1839 it was she who featured on its reverse.
In 1860 the Royal Mint opted to dispense with copper in favor of a cheaper bronze alloy. The parliamentary legislation that would allow this use of mixed metal for coins stipulated that on no account was Britannia to be omitted from the reverse. To do so would forfeit Britain’s claim as ruler of the waves.
[Readers no doubt are aware that it is Britannia, rule the waves, not Britannia rules the waves.]
For the new coins William Wyon’s son, Leonard Charles Wyon, reworked his father’s Britannia. He gave her back her sea and its ship and threw in a lighthouse for good measure. A close inspections shows that for the first time since the days of John Crocker Britannia appears somewhat buxom and distinctly chubby-cheeked.
Leonard was keen to see his new designs struck in bold relief. He engraved his original dies deeply. This caused them to fracture after relatively few strikes and he was finally persuaded to settle for dies of lower relief. These, so-called, “Bun Head” bronze coins were issued for much of the reminder of Victoria’s reign: until 1894 in the case of the penny and halfpenny, and 1895 for the farthing.
Spink’s Coins of England and the United Kingdom lists 15 different Britannia reverse die varieties based on Leonard Wyon’s design that were combined with 13 versions of his “Bun Head” obverse.
Victoria’s Jubilee-head effigy was never used on bronze coins but in 1895 a new “Veiled Head” effigy of Victoria was introduced for all her coins.
At this time Leonard Wyon’s reverse Britannia design was modified by George William de Saulles who had become engraver at the Royal Mint following Wyon’s death. Britannia mien is more akin to that of William Wyon’s depiction than that of Leonard. Her lighthouse and ship have disappeared but she has retained her seas, albeit at an intriguing variety of tide levels destined to keep collectors of British coppers happy ever-after. This was the reverse used on all Victoria’s bronze coins until the end of her reign in 1901.
Britannia’s silver groat persisted until 1888 when it was last struck for use in British Guiana. It had been abandoned in Britain some 20 years previously.
Victoria may have been Queen and Empress, but in a move of which would surely have brought wry amusement to Emperor Hadrian, the divine Britannia took the imperial purple in 1895 at the very climax of Victoria’s reign. She became the chosen symbol of empire.
Her presence would now guarantee the fineness of the new large silver trade dollar struck in the Tower Hill Mint and in branch mints at Bombay and Calcutta for use in the East. Here it would circulate alongside similar trade coins from the Americas and Japan.
The design of this coin was by de Saulles. He brought Britannia to her feet, standing on Britain’s shore with shield and trident, while observing one of her ships in full sail. As a coin design de Saulles’ concept was revolutionary. It recalls Britannia’s Roman birth and the later Standing Britannia pattern of Queen Anne.
This coin would be produced in volume from 1895 to 1935 with 163,875,000 struck.
When Queen Victoria died on Jan. 22, 1901, she was succeeded by her eldest son Albert Edward. Like his mother before him he chose to reign under his second Christian name as Edward VII.
His mother was the last monarch of Britain from the House of Hanover. Edward belonged to his father’s House of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha.
There were no changes made to the Wyon/de Saulles Britannia design on the reverses of Edwards’s pennies, halfpennies and farthings. The tide continued to ebb and flow around Britannia’s feet thus continuing to keep British variety collectors entertained. Only in Edward’s son’s time would it stabilize.
But in 1902 Britannia took a bold step forward. De Saulles reworked his trade dollar design and placed her on the reverse of a new silver florin. Up to this point British circulating coin designs had been largely derivative from earlier reigns. The new and unusual Britannia reverse was utterly innovative.
Britannia faces forward, poised upon a ship’s prow, her gown a-flutter in the wind, armed with her now essential helm, shield and trident. The Mint Report of 1901 states the design was introduced to make the florin more easily distinguishable from the halfcrown. Be that as it may, with the death of Edward VII in 1910 the florin reverted to a more traditional heraldic motif.
This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .
• Start becoming a coin collector today with this popular course, Coin Collecting 101.