The year is 1914. Europe is on the brink of four long years of bloody conflict. The First World War would go on to change millions of lives, reshaping the political and social landscape of Europe and sweeping away many pre-war institutions and customs in the process.
One such casualty was Britain’s gold Sovereign which, although firmly established, was forever shaken by the devastating effects of such a war.
The eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War offers an opportunity to look back and reflect upon the role of The Sovereign at that time, a coin that by 1914 could be said to have reached a peak of accuracy, accepted and trusted throughout the world, enjoying a truly Golden Age.
A Model of Accuracy
By 1914 The Sovereign, with its long history stretching back to the first Tudor monarch, was a firmly established part of the British monetary system.
In an age where the average weekly wage could be as low as 16 shillings, The Sovereign’s value of 20 shillings represented a substantial amount of money. It was a coin used by the rich, affluent sections of society, reflecting the polite, refined culture of upper class Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Those lucky enough to feel the reassuring weight of a Sovereign in their pockets and purses could feel safe in the knowledge that what they possessed was a coin of the highest quality.
With almost £100,000,000 worth of gold coinage in circulation at the time, the condition of Sovereigns in 1914 had been greatly improved by a series of reforms enacted in the late 19th century. A continuous programme of recoinages, plus the attention of the Banks, had also weeded most poor quality coins out of circulation.
The Royal Mint also went to great lengths to ensure that the coins it produced were as accurate as they could possibly be. The studious attentions of The Royal Mint’s Chemist and Assayer, Sir William Chandler Roberts-Austen, had led to a greater consistency in the fineness of the coin and The Royal Mint adopted punishingly low tolerances to ensure the accuracy of the weight of each Sovereign, individually weighing them before issue.
These efforts made by The Royal Mint and the Banks meant that in 1914 the Deputy Master of The Royal Mint could claim that the condition of the gold coinage was one of the pre-eminent features of the British Currency. For many people, The Sovereign of 1914 was more than just a coin; it was a statement of British pride and prestige, and had come to be known as ‘the chief coin of the world’
The Advent of War
Despite this illustrious reputation, the Sovereign could not fail to be affected by the widely felt impacts of the First World War.
Within days of the outbreak of the war, the Government had issued Treasury notes for 10 shillings and one pound, and posters appeared urging people to give up their Sovereigns to support the war effort.
These powerful images were accompanied by stern warnings, issued by David Lloyd-George from the House of Commons, to those who might consider hoarding gold:
“Anyone who, from selfish motives of greed or from excessive caution or cowardice, goes out of his way to attempt to withdraw sums of gold and appropriate them to his own use – let it be clearly understood that he is assisting the enemies of his native land, and he is assisting them more effectively probably than if he were to take up arms”.
The messages had the desired effect, and the age of a circulating Sovereign gradually drew to a close as the public were persuaded to give them up to aid the British war effort.
More and more disappeared from circulation throughout the course of the war and by 1915 the production of Half-Sovereigns ceased completely, with the production of Sovereigns lingering on for two more years.
A New Role for the Modern Sovereign
Although the First World War ended the circulation of gold coins in Britain, and production of The Sovereign in the United Kingdom ceased entirely in 1917, it could not shake the affection that the British public felt for its gold coinage.
Those that could recall the days when The Sovereign was part of daily life looked back fondly to when it was still possible to find perfect, newly-struck Sovereigns in circulation, when the accuracy and reliability of this great coin spoke volumes about the strength of Britain and of Empire.
Happily, the story of The Sovereign is truly one of survival and life was breathed back into this famous coin when regular production of The Sovereign began once again at The Royal Mint in 1957. No longer a circulating coin for everyday use, The Sovereign today is beloved by collectors and those who seek bullion-quality gold coins.
Since 1957 approximately 100,000,000 Sovereigns have been struck, reflecting the enduring affection with which it is held by people all over the world, as indeed it was during its previous 19th Century heyday; an affection that, while challenged by the events of the First World War, could never be broken.
This blog was written with the kind assistance of Chris Barker, Assistant Curator at The Royal Mint Museum.