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History of the farthing

This article discusses the history of the Farthing (fourth-thing) or quarter penny coin from its introduction in the twelfth century to its demise in 1960. Interested readers are advised to read the parallel articles on the penny and halfpenny, which gives detailed descriptions of the contemporary penny and halfpenny coins, of the dynastic struggles in British history, and of the politics and economics of the production of copper coinage, which it is not intended to repeat here.
It was long considered that the first silver farthing coins were produced in the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307), with earlier requirements for small change being provided by "cut coinage" i.e. pennies cut into halves or quarters, usually along the cross which formed a prominent part of the reverse of the coin. However in recent years an extremely rare issue (only two coins known!) has been discovered dating from the short-cross period of King Henry III (1216-1272). Due to the lack of known examples of the coin, this is viewed as a trial as no known documentary evidence of this coin exists.

Compared to the contemporary pennies and halfpennies, little is known of the mediaeval silver farthing because, as the smallest denomination, they were rarely hoarded -- in fact silver farthings have never been found in large hoards -- and since they contained a quarter-penny's worth of silver they were also extremely small and easily lost. Furthermore, as the coins are so small few metal detectors can find them, consequently they tend to be rare today. Farthings were not produced in anything like the quantities of the penny and halfpenny because, although they were useful to ordinary people, they were not so much used by the wealthy and powerful; also there was less profit and more trouble in manufacturing them for the moneyers than there was for the larger denominations.

Early farthings

Two coins, thought to be trials rather than circulating coins, have been discovered recently. Both are in the short-cross style of King Henry III, produced between 1216 and 1247, and are similar in design to the pennies, but only a quarter the size. The obverse shows a bust of the king holding a sceptre, with the inscription HENRICUS REX, while the reverse shows a small cross with three pellets in each quarter with the moneyer's inscription TERRI (or ELIS or RALPH) ON LUND --Terry (or Elis or Ralph) of London.

Edwardian and Henrician Farthings

Contemporary records show that over four million farthings were produced during the reign of King Edward I, (1272-1307), but comparatively few have survived to our time. By far the most prolific mint was London, identified on the reverse of the coin by LONDONIENSIS or CIVITAS LONDON, but they were also produced at Berwick (VILLA BEREVVICI), Bristol (VILLA BRISTOLLIE), Lincoln (CIVITAS LINCOL), Newcastle (NOVICASTRI), and York (CIVITAS EBORACI), but most of the provincial mints' output is rare today. The weight and fineness of Edwards' farthings varies - the first three issues from the London mint weigh 6.85 grains / 0.44 grams, while the later issues weigh 5.5 grains / 0.36 grams, but the value of the coins remained the same as the heavier coins had a lower fineness or silver content than the lighter coins; it is thought that the coins were made larger in order to make them easier to strike and handle, but coins of low fineness have never been popular in England and the population preferred the inconvenience of a smaller coin with higher metal content. Edward's farthings were of the long cross type reverse, and the usual legend on the obverse was EDWARDUS REX (King Edward), or occasionally E R ANGLIE (Edward King of England), and once ER ANGL DN (Edward King of England Lord (of Ireland)).

Only two mints, London and Berwick, produced farthings in the reign of King Edward II (1307-1327), and their output is classed as "rare" and "very rare" respectively. They are very similar to the coins of his father, and in fact the combination of their rarity and poor condition means that there has not been much research done into the farthings of this reign, although it does seem that for much of the reign farthings of Edward I continued to be produced occasionally.

Edward III's farthings (1327-1377), though fairly similar to his predecessors, are fairly easy to distinguish as the more common inscription on the obverse was EDWARDUS REX A (Edward King of England). Three mints produced farthings in this reign: London is most prolific, Berwick is rare, and only one example is known of the output of the Reading mint (VILLA RADINGY). Edward III's farthings remain fairly rare. Although the normal fineness of silver used at this time was .925 (i.e. sterling silver), for the second coinage of 1335-1343 the London mint produced larger farthings of .833 silver.

King Richard II's farthings (1377-1399) are rare in any condition. They were all struck at the London mint and bear the inscription RICARD REX ANGL (Richard King of England).

Henry IV issued farthings in both the "heavy" (pre 1412) and "light" (1412-13) coinages (20% lighter), although allowing for the prevalence of clipping it is quite difficult to distinguish between the two coinages at the size of the farthing. Both issues are rare and carry the obverse inscription HENRIC REX ANGL and the reverse inscription CIVITAS LONDON, although on the light coinage it appears as CIVITAS LOIDOI.

Henry V's single issue of farthings (1413-1422) is distinguishable from those of his father because his effigy shows his neck, but is more difficult to distinguish from those of Henry VI's first reign (1422-1461), but all Henry V's coins were produced in London while Henry VI's were also produced in Calais (VILLA CALIS).

The first reign of King Edward IV (1461-1470) featured both a heavy coinage (before 1464), with the obverse inscription EDWARD REX ANGLI, and a light coinage inscribed EDWARD DI GRA REX, but they are all extremely rare and weight cannot be used to distinguish between the two issues because of wear, clipping, etc.

No farthings were produced during the second reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV, or in the reigns of Edward V and Richard III.

Only one very rare type of farthing was issued during the reign of King Henry VII (1485-1509), struck at the London mint. It has the unique inscription HENRIC DI GRA REX around the kings' bust to distinguish it from the coins of the earlier Henries.

King Henry VIII (1509-1547) issued farthings in all three of his coinages, although they are all extremely rare. The obverse of the first coinage (1509-1526) has the inscription HENRIC DI GRA REX around a portcullis; while the second coinage (1526-1544) has the legend RUTILANS ROSA -- A dazzling rose -- around the portcullis, and the reverse has the legend DEO GRACIA or DEO GRACIS around a long cross. The third coinage (1544-1547) is the RUTILANS ROSA variety, but produced in debased silver.

A base silver farthing was issued by King Edward VI (1547-1553) with the inscription E D G ROSA SINE SPI around the portcullis on the obverse. This coin is also extremely rare.

No farthings were produced in the reigns of Queen Mary, Philip and Mary, or Queen Elizabeth I, mainly due to the fact that the silver farthing had simply become too small to be struck, following successive reductions in the weight of silver in the coin, and far too easy to lose.

Base metal Farthings

It was during the reign of King James I (1603-1625) that copper coinage was introduced. From his previous experience as King of Scotland James realised that small denomination copper coins would be acceptable, as they had been in use in Scotland and on the European mainland for some time. However the English seemed to have an obsession with gold and silver, requiring that coins had their proper values' worth of metal. James decided not to have the copper coinage produced by the Royal Mint, but instead put the production of farthings into the hands of John Harrington, Lord of Exton. Lord Harrington was heavily charged for his privilege, but also made a healthy profit on the deal. Unlike the larger coins, farthings did not contain their value in metal. Lord Harrington died in 1614 and the right to produce farthings passed to his son, who also died a few months later, then back to Harrington's wife, Lady Anne Harrington. It then seems that Lady Harrington either sold or gave the privilege to Lodewick, Duke of Lennox. The Lennox issues are larger than the Harringtons.

The Harringtons The Harrington issues originally had a surface of tin which served to make counterfeiting more difficult and to make the coins look more like silver and therefore more acceptable. The coins were produced on blanks of 12.25 millimetres diameter. The obverse shows two sceptres through a crown, and the legend IACO DG MAG BRIT -- James by the grace of God King of Great Britain -- while the reverse shows a crowned harp and the continuing inscription FRA ET HIB REX -- France and Ireland.

A later issue was produced on a 15 millimetre diameter blank, which was not surfaced with tin.

The Lennoxes The Lennox issues were all produced on 15 millimetre diameter blanks, with no tin surface. They can be distinguished from the Harringtons by looking at the inscription on the obverse - on the Lennoxes the inscription starts at the top or bottom of the coin, while on the Harringtons it starts before the top of the coin.

During the reign of Charles I, (1625-1649), farthings continued to be produced under the king's licence. In 1623 the Duke of Lennox had also become Duke of Richmond, but died a few months later. The farthing patent passed to his widow, Frances, Duchess of Richmond and Sir Francis Crane. The first issues of Charles I are consequently called Richmonds. In 1634 another farthing patent was issued, to Lord Maltravers, Henry Howard, and Sir Francis Crane, their issues being known as Maltravers. During this time there were vast numbers of forged farthings in circulation and the situation became unacceptable as the poor felt conned and unfairly treated by the authorities. Consequently, Lord Maltravers was asked to introduce a new style denomination which came to be called the Rose farthing -- it was much smaller and thicker than the Maltravers, but the revolutionary development was the metal and construction of the coin; most of the coin was copper, but a small 'plug' of brass was inserted into part of the coin. This made the Rose farthing almost impossible to counterfeit, and the production of forgeries soon ended.

The Richmond issues The obverse shows two sceptres through a crown, and the legend CARO DG MAG BRIT -- Charles by the grace of God King of Great Britain -- while the reverse shows a crowned harp and the continuing inscription FRA ET HIB REX -- France and Ireland.

The Maltravers issues The obverse shows two sceptres through a crown, and the legend CAROLUS DG MAG BR -- Charles by the grace of God King of Great Britain -- while the reverse shows a crowned harp and the continuing inscription FRAN ET HIB REX -- France and Ireland. These issues have inner circles on both sides of the coin, between the legend and the design element.

The Rose farthing The obverse shows two sceptres through a crown, and the legend CAROLUS DG MAG BRIT -- Charles by the grace of God King of Great Britain -- while the reverse shows a double rose and the continuing inscription FRAN ET HIB REX -- France and Ireland. These issues have inner circles on both sides of the coin, between the legend and the design element.

Under the Commonwealth no farthings were issued by the government, although huge quantities of private tokens were issued in this period by small traders or towns to satisfy demand.

In the early years of the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685) there was a clear need for low denomination coins to fund day-to-day purchases, witnessed by the large number of farthing tokens in circulation in the 1660s. The Mint was not ready to produce copper coins using the new machine presses until 1672, when a Royal Proclamation in August 1672 decreed that halfpennies and farthings would be issued, and that they would have a face value equal to the value of the metal less the cost of producing them. The new coins were legal tender up to a total value of six pence, and depicted Britannia (modelled by the Duchess of Richmond) on the reverse. It was soon discovered that the Mint was incapable of producing the copper blanks needed for the new coins, and these eventually were imported from Sweden.

The copper farthings were produced in 1672-1675 and 1679, weighed 5.2 - 6.4 grams, and had a diameter of 22-23 millimetres. The obverse had a left-facing bust of the king, with the inscription CAROLVS A CAROLO -- Charles, son of Charles -- while the reverse showed the left-facing seated Britannia, with the inscription BRITANNIA and the date in the exergue beneath Britannia. In 1684 and 1685 farthings made of tin with a small central copper plug were produced -- they weighed 5.4 - 6.0 grams and had a diameter of 23-24 millimetres, and had the same inscriptions as the copper farthings. Very few 1685 farthings were produced because the king died on 8 February 1684, in the Old-Style calendar (i.e. when 24 March 1684 would be followed by 25 March 1685, New Years' Day). The tin farthings had an inscription NVMMORVM FAMVLVS -- a subsidiary coinage -- plus the date on the edge rather than on the reverse.

For the reign of king James II, the copper-plugged tin farthings continued to be produced, with examples dated in all years between 1684 and 1687. The obverse had a right-facing bust of the king, with the inscription IACOBVS SECVNDVS -- James the Second -- while the reverse showed the left-facing seated Britannia, with the inscription BRITANNIA, and the inscription NVMMORVM FAMVLVS and the date on the edge of the coin.

Tin farthings continued to be produced for the first few years of the joint reign of William and Mary, being dated 1689-1692, but the coins were rapidly becoming unpopular as the problems of the corrosion of tin became apparent. In 1693 and 1694 copper farthings were produced again, weighing 4.7 - 6.2 grams and with a diameter of 22-25 millimetres. In both issues, the obverse shows the conjoined heads of the co-monarchs, with the inscription GVLIELMVS ET MARIA.

Following the death of Queen Mary in 1694, the production of coins continued under the same contract as before, with farthings of King William III being produced for all years between 1695 and 1700. However it soon became apparent that the manufacturers were economising on expenses -- cheap labour was being used, including foreigners some of whom could not even spell the king's name which they were engraving on the dies. By 1698 there was a glut of copper coinage and an Act was passed to stop the coining for one year; this seems to have had little effect and the proliferation continued. There were further Parliamentary attempts to control the glut of coinage later.

The United Kingdom

Thanks to the glut of the previous reign, there was no need to produce any copper farthings in the reign of Queen Anne (1701-1714) until the very last year of her reign. If the queen had not died in that year, there is no doubt that the 1714 farthing, weighing 4.8 - 5.8 grams and of 21-22 millimetres diameter, would have entered circulation in quantity, but its actual status is in some doubt as it may be considered a pattern. Sir Isaac Newton was Master of the Mint, and he had high ideals about the quality of the coinage, and the Anne farthing is certainly vastly superior in striking and design to the pieces of William III. The old figure of Britannia used since Charles II's time was discarded in favour of a sharper high relief design in which the bare leg on the former figure of Britannia is covered up, reportedly on the orders of the Queen. Around 1802 a curious rumour swept Britain to the effect that the Queen Anne farthing was worth a fortune, no less than 500, and advertisements appeared in many newspapers offering specimens for sale; in March of 1802 one specimen was sold at auction in London for no less than 750 guineas (787/10/-).

The death of Queen Anne thwarted attempts to issue her farthing, but the need for a copper coinage was no less after the accession of King George I (1714-1727). The price of copper had risen, so the new farthings were lighter than the previous issue, at 4.5 - 5.3 grams. The farthings struck in 1717 and 1718 looked slightly odd as they were smaller, and thicker than the previous issues, with a diameter of 20-21 millimetres, and they are known as dump farthings. Farthings of 1719-1724 are slightly larger, at 22-23 millimetres, but are of the same weight. Unfortunately both issues suffered somewhat from manufacturing problems, as the dies were in bold relief and it was difficult to apply enough pressure to the blanks to make a good impression. The coin features the right-facing head of King George and the inscription GEORGIVS REX on the obverse, and Britannia with the inscription BRITANNIA and the date in the exergue beneath Britannia.

George II's (1727-1760) farthings were minted in quantity in 1730-1737, 1739, 1741, 1744, 1746, 1749, 1750, and 1754 (though the 1754 coin is known to have still been being minted at least until 1763), but to them must be added a huge range of counterfeits (and pieces similar to counterfeits but with markedly different legends from the real coins, so that the manufacturers could avoid accusations of counterfeiting). Many genuine coins were melted down and underweight fabrications produced from the molten metal. The farthings weighed 4.5 - 5.3 grams and had a diameter of 22-23 millimetres. The obverse showed the left-facing head of King George and the inscription GEORGIVS II REX on the obverse, and Britannia with the inscription BRITANNIA and the date in the exergue beneath Britannia.

In the reign of King George III (1760-1820) apart from the "posthumous" George II coins previously mentioned, the first issue of farthings did not come until 1771. Counterfeiting was rampant, and making the production of counterfeit copper coins a felony in 1771 had little effect and for the next twenty years or so the majority of copper so-called coins in circulation were forgeries. Matthew Boulton's contract in 1797 to produce the Cartwheel pennies and twopences, thwarting the counterfeiters, did not extend to producing the farthing, though Boulton had expected that it would and had prepared several patterns of the appropriate size and weight in accordance with his ideas on the intrinsic value of copper coins. However Boulton was given a licence to produce farthings in 1799. In the meantime the price of copper had risen, and consequently the weight of the coins was reduced slightly compared to the cartwheel design, and the 1799 farthing had a more conventional appearance, although two aspects of the coin were far from conventional: the reverse bore the legend 1 FARTHING, the first time the name of a denomination had ever appeared on an English coin, and it was also the first British coin to have the date on the same side as the kings' head. In 1806-1807 a further 22.5 tons of copper was struck into farthings by Boulton, but the price of copper had risen again and the weight was even less than the 1799 issue.

George III farthings were produced in three distinct phases:-

After the mint moved from the Tower of London to Tower Hill the production of gold and silver coins took precedence over copper in the Great Recoinage of 1816. The production of copper coins did not resume until the reign of King George IV (1820-1830), when farthings were produced in 1821. Benedetto Pistrucci was employed as a designer and engraver at the mint, and unfortunately for the farthing it was his job to engrave the designs for the new coinage, and he produced a spectacularly ugly portrait of the king, with a bulging face and neck. It is not difficult to see why the king was displeased with his portrait, and Pistrucci's treatment of Britannia on the obverse was not much better, with Britannia now facing right for the first time ever. Pistrucci was downgraded for refusing to copy another artist's work, and William Wyon was given the task of producing a better farthing, with the more flattering "bare head" type of 1826; however Wyon did not discard all Pistrucci's ideas, the date still appeared on the obverse, and Britannia still faced right on the reverse. The George IV farthing was produced in two types, between 1821 and 1823, 1825, and 1826 it weighed 4.5 - 4.8 grams, with a diameter of 22 millimetres, and from 1826-1830 it weighed 4.6 - 4.9 grams with a diameter of 22 millimetres. Both Pistrucci's and Wyon's designs were produced in 1826. The Pistrucci obverse shows a left-facing bust of King George IV with the inscription GEORGIUS IIII DEI GRATIA, while the reverse shows a right-facing helmeted Britannia seated to the left of the coin, with a shield and trident, with the inscription BRITANNIAR REX FID DEF and the date in the exergue underneath Britannia. The Wyon obverse shows a left-facing laureated bust of King George IV with the inscription GEORGIUS IV DEI GRATIA date, while the reverse shows a right-facing centrally-seated helmeted Britannia with a shield and trident, with the inscription BRITANNIAR REX FID DEF. Wyon's preference was to put the date under the king's bust, and to put the rose, thistle, and shamrock in the exergue underneath Britannia.

The William IV (1830-1837) farthing, produced in 1831, and 1834-1837, continues the George IV design but with a right-facing bust of the new king, with the inscription GULIELMUS IIII DEI GRATIA date, while the reverse is identical to the previous reigns' Wyon design.

The farthings of Queen Victoria's long reign (1837-1901) can be basically divided into the copper issue of 1838-1860, where the coins were 4.5 - 4.9 grams in weight and 22 millimetres in diameter, and which were very similar to the farthings of her two predecessors (with the obvious substitution of REG for REX on the reverse!), and the bronze issue of 1860-1901 (which itself is split between 1894 and 1895 into coins displaying the "young head" and the "old head" of the Queen) (although strangely a copper farthing was produced in 1864 as well as the normal bronze coin: this is extremely valuable). The bronze coins weighed 2.8 - 3.0 grams, were 20 millimetres in diameter, and the metal content was 95% copper, 4% tin, 1% zinc. The bronze coins also featured the denomination FARTHING on the reverse, with the date in the exergue beneath Britannia. The inscription on the obverse of the "young head" coins reads VICTORIA D G BRITT REG F D, while on the "old head" it is VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP. Some 1874-1876 and 1881 farthings have a "H" mintmark underneath the date, indicating that they were produced at the Heaton mint, in Birmingham. Farthings were produced in all years of Victoria's reign except 1837, 1870, 1871, and 1889. From 1897 farthings were issued in an artificially toned state so that they would not be confused with the half-sovereign coin. It is thought that the reason there is an unbroken series of copper farthings between 1838 and 1860 is because the same dies were used to produce the obverses of both the gold sovereign and the farthing -- this would account for the high frequency of defects in the coin series as presumably the dies would have been used first to produce the gold coins, and defects may have appeared in them before they were used on the farthing.

Farthings weighing 2.7 - 2.9 grams and of 20 millimetres diameter (which was to remain the standard size of the coin for the remainder of its existence) were minted in all years of Edward VII's reign (1901-1910) except 1901. They are similar to the last issues of Queen Victoria except for the king's right-facing bust on the obverse, with the inscription EDWARDVS VII DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX FID DEF IND IMP, and also are extremely reminiscent of the contemporary penny and halfpenny. These farthings were issued in an artificially toned state so that they would not be confused with the half-sovereign coin.

The reign of King George V produced farthings to a basically unchanged design every year between 1911 and 1936. The obverse shows a left-facing portrait of the king by Sir Bertram Mackennal, with the inscription GEORGIVS V DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX FID DEF IND IMP, and the usual right-facing Britannia on the reverse. Unlike some of the pennies of this reign, no farthings have mintmarks from provincial mints. Until 1918 farthings were issued in an artificially toned state so that they would not be confused with the half-sovereign coin, but by the end of the war half-sovereigns were no longer being struck. The content of the bronze used in the farthing was changed in 1923 to 95.5% copper, 3% tin, 1.5% zinc, although the weight of the coin remained 2.8 - 2.9 grams and the diameter was 20 millimetres.

The Edward VIII farthing is a pattern which was awaiting royal approval at the time of the abdication in December 1936. The king insisted that his left profile be used on the coinage instead of the right which would have been used if he had followed the alternating tradition going back to Charles II; the obverse has the inscription EDWARDVS VIII D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP, but in a complete break from tradition Britannia was dropped from the reverse for the first time since 1672, and replaced by Britain's smallest bird, the Wren. This reverse remained in use for the remainder of the coins' existence.

Farthings of a similar design to his brothers' were produced in each year of the reign of King George VI. The inscription on the obverse reads GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX F D IND IMP until 1948, then GEORGIVS VI D G BR OMN REX FIDEI DEF, but unlike the halfpenny there were no minute differences in the reverse each year.

The farthing of Queen Elizabeth II was only produced in four years, 1953-1956. The reverse was the same as before, while the obverse featured the queen's head by Mary Gillick, with the inscription ELIZABETH II DEI GRA BRITT OMN REGINA F D in 1953, and ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA F D for the other three years. In 1953 a correspondent wrote to The Times that a bus conductor refused to accept eight farthings for a two penny bus fare, and that a newspaper vendor had become abusive when offered six farthings for a newspaper; a subsequent letter pointed out that the farthing was still legal tender in sums up to one shilling, but it was apparent that inflation meant that by 1956 the farthing had outlived its usefulness, and minting ceased after that year.

The farthing ceased to be legal tender after 31 December 1960.

For other denominations, please see British coinage.