On the 15th October 2017 the people of the UK had their last chance to spend their old style one pound coins. Over the past year the Royal Mint has updated, not just our pound coins, but also our five and ten pound notes, as well as updating the designs of our fifty pence pieces. The reason behind this large scale updating of much of our sterling is an old one- the race to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters; criminals who produce fake money.
The crime of counterfeiting is as old as the making of money itself. Archaeologists working in the Greek city of Lydia, for example, have found evidence from around 600 B.C. of the counterfeiting of coins which involved mixing base metals with gold or silver. It was about this time when the practice of clipping came into being- when the edges of a coin were clipped off, collected, and used to make fake coins. Clipping remained a problem across the world until early this century.
It isn’t just metal cash that has been subject to forgery from the moment of its conception. In China, in the thirteenth century, when paper money was first made from the wood of mulberry trees, access to the trees was protected by guards stationed around the forests in which they were most common. Counterfeiters who still managed to find a way to make fake money were punished by death. This harsh punishment was adopted across the world as the standard penalty for faking any form of money and cheating the mint of the country in question, and it remained in force up until as recently as the twentieth century in the Western world. However, there are still some countries still do enforce the death penalty for the crime.
The Bank of England (pictured) and Royal Mint claim that the UK’s new one pound coin, which resembles the old three-penny-bit in shape, will be “the most secure coin in the world…. the new coin will reduce the costs of counterfeits to businesses and the taxpayer.” The coin is thinner and lighter than the previous round pound (2.8mm thick and weighing 8.75g to be exact), its bimetallic construction similar to the existing £2 coin. The outer ring is gold-coloured (in fact, nickel-brass) and the inner ring is silver (nickel-plated alloy). The reverse of the new coin shows one of four different images; the English rose, the Welsh leek, the Scottish thistle and the Northern Irish shamrock emerging from one stem within a royal coronet.
Prior to the introduction of the new pound coin was that of the new polymer five pound note, and then last month the new polymer ten pound note. These notes outraged vegans as they contain animal fats in their production. Although these notes will not be withdrawn, the Royal Mint are currently working on using either coconut or palm oil in the production of the new twenty pound notes, when they are replaced in 2020.
The notes, like the new coins, are much harder to fake, and very difficult to damage or destroy, so not only should the forging of money decrease, but so should the high cost of replacing old and out of service damaged notes.
Any old notes or coins you have left now may only be valuable for antiquity, or you could see if your bank may take them in exchange for the new tender. But time must be running out, if it hasn’t already!
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.