Myth # 133: The British “Vulgar Penny” was a deliberate insult.

Thanks to Matt Phillips, who researched and wrote this week’s post. Matt works at Mount Vernon as a living history and historic trades interpreter; he has a Masters Degree in history from George Mason University.  

 

I recently came across a mid-19th century British penny that was supposedly called a “vulgar penny.” As the story goes, the man who designed the coins during Queen Victoria’s reign was Irish, and he disliked Great Britain. He depicted Britannia on the coin’s reverse holding a trident; the shaft of the trident goes between Britannia’s legs. This was supposedly done as an insult to the hated British. Furthermore, the insult went unnoticed for several years. When officials finally recognized the slight, the coins were considered to be “vulgar” because of the indecently sexualized Britannia, and the design was altered.

The Facts:

William Wyon was the medalist and engraver at the Royal Mint who designed the first generation of copper pennies to bear Queen Victoria’s likeness in the late-1830s.  Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish minter, Wyon’s family was of German descent, migrating from Cologne to Great Britain in the mid-1700s.  William Wyon was born in Birmingham, England in 1795.  He was appointed second engraver at the Royal Mint in 1816, and would become chief engraver in 1828, a position he held until his death in 1851.  William Wyon produced not only coinage bearing Queen Victoria’s likeness, but also numerous medals to commemorate British military and naval engagements.[1]  Queen Victoria purportedly even told Wyon, “You always represent me favourably,” referencing his depictions of the queen on coinage and medallions.[2]

By the late-1830s pennies bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria were being minted in Great Britain.  These coins depicted the young monarch (the so called “Young Head” depiction) on one side, with Britannia depicted on the reverse.  Britannia’s trident was held at an angle tilting inward toward her upper thigh.[3]  In fact, the posture of Britannia seen on the Victoria coinage was previously utilized on King George IV coinage dating to the 1820s.[4]  The commonality of depicting Britannia in this fashion undermines the myth’s assertion that the pose was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting.  Britannia would be posed in this manner on British coinage throughout much of the nineteenth century. Images of these coins can be found here. 

A second generation of Victoria pennies was designed by William Wyon’s son, Leonard Charles Wyon (born in November 1826 at the Royal Mint in London, where the family lived).[6]  He took over many of the engraving duties of his father, William, after the elder Wyon’s death in 1851.  As a modeler and engraver for the Royal Mint, Leonard Charles Wyon produced both coinage and medals to commemorate events and prominent figures of the British Empire, as his father had done before him.[7]

Including an updated image of Queen Victoria, Leonard Charles Wyon’s bronze “Bun” pennies (so named because of the queen’s depicted hair style) were minted beginning in 1860.  Though these coins featured a new depiction of the monarch on the front, they retained Britannia’s pose from William Wyon’s earlier Victoria penny (that, in turn, was utilized from early-nineteenth century coinage) on the coin’s reverse.  This version of the Victoria penny was minted until 1894.[8]  In addition to designing coinage, Leonard Charles Wyon was responsible for producing most British military and naval medals between 1851 and 1891.[9]

The posturing of Britannia, with trident angled inward toward her upper thigh predated the minting of Victoria pennies, being used on coinage by the early-nineteenth century.[10]  Collectively, the “Young Head” and “Bun” Victoria pennies continued to utilize this depiction of Britannia for over five decades.  There is no record (implicit or explicit) that the way in which Britannia’s trident was depicted was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting to the monarchy or the British state during the early- or mid-nineteenth century.  The evidence strongly contradicts the myth’s allegation that the slight went unnoticed for only a few years before government officials recognized the insult and changed the imagery.  The longevity of use of the Wyons’ depiction of Britannia certainly underlines this point.  It was only with the third generation of “Widow” or “Veiled Head” Victoria pennies in 1895 that Britannia was depicted holding a trident in a more vertical fashion, its shaft terminating nearer her knee than her upper thigh.[11]

Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish engraver, the German-descended William and Leonard Charles Wyon enjoyed long careers engraving coinage and commemorative medallions for prominent British figures and events at the Royal Mint.  Had either William or Leonard Wyon profaned Great Britain or its monarch with their work, as the myth alleges, they would certainly not have remained in such prominent positions at the mint, nor would they likely have been called upon to create further coinage and commemorative medallions.  Furthermore, the long tenure and prolificacy of both William and Leonard Charles Wyon as prominent engravers and medalists at the Royal Mint indicates that both engravers were well regarded for their skill and quite secure in their posts at the mint.  Indeed, Leonard Charles Wyon was “regarded as the foremost British die-engraver of his time, [though] he lived under the shadow of the greater reputation of his father.”[12]


[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] article: “Wyon Family”; ODNB articl: “Wyon, William.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/64499/64499?back=,30170

[2] http://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/history/people/artists/william-wyon/index2.html

[3] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[4] This is shown on an 1827 “George IV” penny.  http://www.petitioncrown.com/PENNY_1d.html

[6] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170

[7] ibid.

[8] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[9] http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=msib4_1240311740

[10] http://www.petitioncrown.com/PENNY_1d.html

[11] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[12] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170

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