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When Did the Halfpenny Go Out of Circulation?

by Simon Barker

when did the halfpenny go out of circulation

The Halfpenny – of half pence – was withdrawn from circulation in 1984, after lengthy consideration by the Treasury which considered it important in the fight against inflation.

It was believed that having a half-pence coin prevented goods from being rounded-up in price. It had been introduced in 1971 as the UK underwent decimalisation, and was never a popular coin thanks to its small size.

The Halfpenny and Decimalisation

When the UK opted to switch to decimal currency in 1971 it was considered vital that a coin to the value of half a penny be included in the coinage of the time. The reason for this was to allow for more accurate conversion between the old value of pound sterling and the new, decimal version. For example, until the decimal era, a pound had consisted of 20 shillings, a shilling being 12 pence. In new decimal coinage, a pound would still be 20 shillings, but a shilling would now be 5 New Pence, and one pound equalled 100 new pence. Thus, the half penny – upon its introduction – was worth the equivalent of 1/200th of a pound sterling.

One further reason for introducing the half penny was that the Treasury wished to keep in circulation the sixpence. This would now be worth 2½ pence, and the half penny would allow for its use in common circulation where half a penny was needed as change. Both of these – the half penny and the sixpence – allowed in their decimal guise for lower priced items to be accurately translated between the two currency systems.

Bronze Halfpenny

The half penny, like its sister coins the New Penny and the two-pence piece, was minted in bronze and was correspondingly smaller than its more valuable companions. Part of the half penny’s unpopularity was down entirely to its size, which enabled it to be lost very easily.

Some interesting facts about the half penny:

  • The half penny, like all decimal coins produced before 1984, featured a portrait of the Queen on the back, originally by the artist Arnold Machin.
  • The coin was minted in large quantities in the years 1971 to 1983, with the exception being 1972, in which only ‘proof sets’ of the coin were minted. These are special editions of the coin minted to the highest standard, not usually for public consumption, and hence highly collectable. In 1984, the Royal Mint also produced proof and ‘uncirculated’ sets for collectors as the half penny was discontinued.
  • In 1971, no fewer than 1,394,188, 251 half penny coins were released into circulation, making this the most common year found on half pennies.
  • Conversely, excluding proof sets from ’72 and ’84, the year collectors look for is 1983, when ‘only’ 7,600,000 were released.

The 1/4p Coin Proposal and Legal Tender

There was a proposal to introduce a decimal 1/4penny coin. This would have been struck in aluminium – rather than bronze, but it never came about. The idea was that a 1/4p coin would permit the old and numerous threepence coin – or ‘threepenny bit’ – to continue in circulation with a value of 1¼ new pence. The need for this was debated and rejected.

As for the status of legal tender, it’s a term often heard in UK in relation to money, but is little understood. For example, during its lifetime, the half penny was legal tender up to a value of 20 pence. This does not mean a retailer – or anyone – was legally bound to accept 20 pence in half pennies as payment for goods.

Legal tender means as follows: if someone owes a debt and offers to pay in legal tender, they cannot then be sued in UK law for non-payment.

In an interesting twist on the legal tender subject, the retailer could – should they wish – demand to paid in only legal tender (for example half pennies up to the value of 20 pence) should they wish, and be within the law to do so!

Withdrawal of the Half Penny

By the time of its withdrawal in 1984, very few prices included a half-pence, and the coin was deemed to be of no importance. Chancellor Nigel Lawson announced early in 1984 that the coin would be withdrawn from circulation by the end of the year, and it was officially withdrawn I December of that year.

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