The History of the Sixpence

Sixpence Coin Image

The History of the Sixpence

 For collectors and enthusiasts alike, the sixpence stands as a fascinating and unique coin that has a significantly rich history. This small yet mighty coin has been shrouded in cultural lore for decades, standing for much more than a symbol of good luck. In this guide, we explore the history of sixpence coins and how they have come to be one of the most popular coins of all time.

What is a sixpence?

The sixpence coin, also known as a ‘tanner’ or a ‘sixpenny bit’ began circulation in the UK in 1551 during the reign of Edward VI and continued as a form of British currency until 1980.

What does the sixpence look like?

The design of the sixpence evolved over centuries, representing the changing monarchs, artistic trends, and cultural influences of the time. Throughout history, the sixpence has held various designs yet common features included:

  • Obverse: The reigning monarch’s portrait, facing either left or right, was usually featured on the obverse side of the sixpence coin.
  • Reverse: This side of the coin displayed various patterns and designs and could change within each monarch’s reign. Common designs included shields, floral motifs, or animals, like the image of a lion on pre-1927 sixpences.
  • Shape: Small in shape, the sixpence typically measures ¾ inch in diameter and were only slightly larger than a U.S dime.
  • Composition: Prior to 1920, sixpence coins were struck out of 92.5% sterling silver. From 1920-1946, sixpence coins were made up of 50% silver and interestingly, coins from 1947-1967 were not made from any silver content at all and instead, made of cupronickel.

How much is a sixpence worth?

During its time in circulation, the sixpence coin was worth the equivalent of six pennies, however, following the decimalisation in 1971, the sixpence became worth 2.5 new pence.

Due to their collectability and historical significance, many sixpence coins are worth much more than their 2.5 pence face value. In fact, the rarest sixpence coins are believed to be those struck in 1952, as only a small batch was issued prior to the death of King George VI and were sent to Jamaica. Apart from this series of sixpence, no other coins were issued other than this shipment, making them the rarest sixpences in their history.

If your interest in historical coins has been piqued, explore our guide on the rarest coins in the world and discover some of the most fascinating coins to have ever been made.

Sixpence traditions

Throughout history, the sixpence coin has played a crucial role as part of British currency but it’s also found its way into a number of traditional customs and superstitions. In many cultures, the sixpence was considered a lucky talisman and to this day, is still referred to as a ‘lucky sixpence.’

Our guide on coin symbolism will tell you all you need to know about the meaning behind coins and you can find out how sixpences appeared in a variety of rhymes, including ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence,’ and the famous ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence for her shoe’ rhyme that wishes the bride luck on her wedding day by placing a sixpence in her shoe.

It also features in the familiar Mother Goose nursery rhyme about the crooked man who lived in a crooked house, perhaps representing the luck he finds along his journey.

You might also be familiar with the tradition of hiding a sixpence in a Christmas pudding on stir-up Sunday when all the family takes a turn to stir the mix. Once baked on Christmas day, whoever finds the sixpence in their piece of the pudding is said to enjoy fortune in the year ahead.

What to do with old sixpences

Whether you’re a keen collector or find yourself with several old sixpences in your purse, there are a few things you might consider doing with them.

  1. Find out their value and take them to a professional for grading. Coin grading is the process of evaluating the rarity and value of a coin, so you can find out how much your sixpence collection might be worth.
  2. Sell your coins if you’re looking to trade or receive some money for them. You might not get a lot of money in return (unless you find yourself with an extremely rare coin) however you might be able to get a little for them.
  3. Add them to your growing collection. If you are an enthusiastic numismatist or are starting your coin collecting journey, growing your sixpence set is a great place to start, especially if you’re fond of the symbolic fortune they represent.
  4. Get inspired to wear your sixpences with meaningful and unique coin jewellery. Our sixpence coin jewellery is made from highly polished sixpences, minted in a year of your choice. Sixpence jewellery is a great way to own a timeless necklace or ring and they also make perfect gifts for friends and loved ones.

Commemorative sixpence coins

Britain has a rich history of denominations and many coins that are no longer in circulation can be found to collect as commemorative coins. Various sixpence commemorative coins can be obtained, from specific Christmas sixpences for a festive pudding to celebratory gift-boxed sixpences for a bride, there are many options if you’re looking to own a lucky coin yourself.

Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, and to mark the occasion, a special commemorative sixpence coin was issued. These sixpences were used in jewellery like pendants and broaches to celebrate her 50-year reign.

For more interesting insights into British denominations, including commemorative coinage, take a look at our guide on British currency.

The history of the sixpence is a captivating journey that spans centuries and cultures. From its modest beginnings as a ‘sixpenny bit’ in medieval England to its role in our Christmas puddings, the sixpence offers a glimpse into the evolution of currency and its symbolism in our everyday lives. While it may have faded from everyday use, the sixpence coin lives on through timeless keepsakes and treasured traditions that hold a special place in cultures around the world.