The old Penny-Farthing bicycle, Dennis Potter’s play Pennies from Heaven, valuable stamp the Penny Black, along with old style amusement halls Penny Arcades all have one notable similarity – Monikers deriving from the centuries old British coin the penny.
Today’s reference of Britain’s oldest coin a consequence of yesterday hearing that our copper coinage may shortly cease to be legal tender in the UK.
“See a penny. Pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck.” an old adage my mum proffered occasionally when I was a child. However, on the rare occasions I witnessed the coin on terra firma, I found advocacy of it’s good fortune bore not one a shred of truth.
In fact it once led to my arrest. Although to be honest, it wasn’t a solitary penny I picked up – It was a wallet full of £20 notes I’d acquired from the victims pocket. Thankfully Fagin and Bill Sykes secured my release by clandestinely snatching me from the clutches of the law – Consequently my misdemeanour never got to court…… With them singing an out of tune ‘Gotta Pick A Pocket or two’ during my escape, God only knows how they managed to save me from the beak!
Being a bit of a Luddite, I’ll be sad to see the end of the penny; not unlike I was when the post-decimalised halfpenny disappeared in 1984.
The penny an amiable bedfellow on my life’s canvas, particularly in my childhood in 1970’s north east England, where ten of them could secure a multiple of sweets, three football programmes, entrance to the Classic cinema on Low Fell and two ha’ppuths of slack.
I wasn’t a greedy child. I sought not a Willy Wonka golden ticket with it’s promise of everlasting confectionery utopia. As long as I got a few pennies pocket money a week for Spangles, Toffo’s, penny chews or a football magazine, I was a contented lad…. Or I was until the heavily viscous penny chews caused dental issues. A visit to a dentist in 1970’s England being a particularly dreadful experience.
I was nearly eight years old when the UK said ‘I’ll see thee’ to the imperial currency format and introduced decimalisation. It was February 1971 and goodbyes were proffered to shillings and half a crowns; whilst we welcomed aboard half-pences, new pennies, two pences and the ten pence coins as our new legal tender.
I have vague recollections of attempting to utilise the confusing imperial system when purchasing sweets from the ‘bottom shop**‘ on Low Fell’s Chowdene estate. Thankfully, though, I didn’t have to try and get to grips with the confusing old monetary system for long before the currency cavalry arrived in the shape decimalisation. With it’s units of ten, an altogether easier monetary system to follow.
** To clarify – The ‘bottom shop’ is what we dubbed the estate store lower down the fell on Dartmouth Avenue. It wasn’t a retail outlet the specialised in the sale of human posteriors…… That shop was on Durham Road close to the Chowdene Post Office!
The penny was the currency my granddad Jack used in his early 1970’s slight of hand trick, in which he pretended to my younger brother Ian and I he’d found the coin in our ears…… Another of the multitude of ways in which this copper coinage touched on my existence. Not to mention a catalyst for Ian’s regular journeys to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. A necessity to have pennies removed from his ear after his failed attempts at emulating granddad’s trick.
Further memories of utilising of copper was playing a multitude of amusement arcade games on childhood holidays in Scarborough and Blackpool. Coins that brought minor adrenalin rushes and disappointment in equal measure, as my brother and I sought our unlikely fortune.
Our childhood aim to acquire as much money as millionaire Jonathan Hart in US detective drama ‘Hart to Hart’. Allowing us the wherewithal to buy a dog called Freeway, live in luxury, while solving complex crimes that had thus far baffled the LAPD.
Sadly, we never became millionaires, assisted the LAPD with a homicide or even bought a dog called Freeway (or indeed a canine of any other moniker).
Our ‘best’ prize from the amusement arcades ended up being a soft toy I won on a horse racing game. According to the stall holder, this prize was supposed to be a horse, but as it clearly adorned a trunk I suspect they’d run out of horse toys and had moved on to handing out elephants.
In a nutshell, if the new penny ceases to part of UK life I’d greet the news with a tinge of sadness. I realise it’s probably outgrown it’s time, but the coin has it’s place in many happy childhood memories……. Well, with exception of it’s part in me winning that soft toy horse/elephant thingy!