Struck Identities: Money as Material Culture

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PhD researcher Tom Rusbridge discusses the launch of the Royal Mint’s new ten-pence pieces and explored the issues with their ‘quintessential Britishness’.

March 2018 saw the announcement of The Royal Mint’s ‘Great British Coin Hunt’. Complete with the strapline ‘quintessentially British’, this set of 26 ten pence pieces features an A-to-Z of supposedly distinctive ‘British’ icons. Between the Angel of the North and zebra crossings the list comprises institutions such as the NHS and the Houses of Parliament, a menu of an English Breakfast, fish and chips, ice cream and tea, as well as some more eccentric and endearing quirks: queuing, villages, postboxes and mackintoshes. Even the Loch Ness Monster is struck upon the surface of one of these pieces that members of the public are being encouraged to scour their loose change for, the Mint making available a custom album in which successful finders may press and preserve their coins for posterity. One month on, how have these coins been received, and what can a historical understanding of objects as material culture offer to understand their long term importance?

The Great British Coin Hunt Banner (

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the announcement of the circulation of these coins was not met with universal praise. While many took to the official twitter hashtag – #coinhunt – in celebration of their finding of a new ten-penny piece or applauding the celebration of institutions such as the NHS and public heritage sites such as Stonehenge, others have viewed the release of these coins in the wake of Brexit as a celebration of ‘Little England’ and all that it is, and will be. Others have criticised the coins for their Anglocentricism; beyond the Loch Ness Monster Scots have felt short-changed, and there is no sign of Cardiff Castle or the Brecon Beacons, the Giant’s Causeway or a pint of Guinness, while the English Angel of the North, Stonehenge, King Arthur and James Bond, and the London-centric Houses of Parliament, Yeoman Warder and distinctive double-decker bus all have their own coins. This is not to devalue those icons which seek to pull people together under a mutual banner of ‘Britishness’ – oak trees, robins and the Union Flag – but it also does very little to celebrate Britain’s immigrant populations and multiculturalism.

Those who have seen #coinhunt as obtusely, perhaps insensitively, celebrating banal qualities of British ‘national identity’ at a time when for many that same identity is undergoing drastic nip-and-tuck have gone as far as to challenge these coins as nationalistic. This is an interesting challenge to these coins, but ignores many forms of a public ‘British identity’ that have gone before. As early as 1853, Hector Bolitho coined ‘Britishness’, and just under twenty years later Sydney Mostyn’s novel Perplexity describes a character named Frank by his ‘pure eyes, his clear-cut nose, and chastely-graven nostrils, his small rounded chin, his genial speaking mouth, his white brow, his manliness, his high-bred air, and, if I may coin a word, his thorough Britishness’.[1]

Although historians such as Linda Colley and Kathleen Wilson have highlighted the early turning points in defining a ‘British’ national identity, these historically rooted qualities do not lend themselves to the kind of identity that has been exploited by these ten pence pieces.[2] For these ten-pence pieces, the icons of Britishness are rooted in a more intangible and current social imaginary, the kind defined by both a persistent schedule of national celebrations in recent memory – Jubilees, the Olympics, Royal Weddings and Royal babies – as well as an endless list of television programmes, films and books. Programmes such as Jam and Jerusalem (2006-2009) and The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007) and films such as Calendar Girls (2003) and The Lady in the Van (2015) have all poked fun at British eccentricities: the inability to express emotion, resolve in the face of rainy bank holidays and the charm of afternoon tea. But they have also celebrated them.

This is innocent enough. Complete with contemporary actors, sets and their own material cultures, representations of Britishness such as television programmes and films are always products of their time, and indeed are products tempered by the artistic control of their writers and performers. Complete with a stamped date of being struck, coins are obviously products of their time too, but they constitute a very different type of material source. As a national currency, coins are a far more legitimate and authoritative expression of national identity than a programme or film, and as objects which exchange hands on an everyday level they are also far more accessible and visible. As well as representations, these are objects which will be consumed in a very quotidian way – in the commonplace transactions of customers. What is complicated, even dangerous, about this ‘quintessentially’ British ten-pence pieces, then, and how do they speak to the history of objects?

On the one hand, the levelled criticisms that these designs do not capture the variety of British culture is significant as it suggests a disconnect between ‘official’ Britishness and the population they are supposed to represent. As sources that may be used by future material culturalists to understand Britain in 2018, they serve to erase a lot of that variety. More than this, however, these pieces suggest a dangerous stagnation of what British identity is and can be. Struck across the surfaces of these objects, 26 individual icons of Britishness so entrenched in the quaint and the eccentric make a bold statement about contemporary British identity. As charming as a national commemoration of a cup of tea may be, it nevertheless demonstrates that an officially ‘British’ identity is not one susceptible either to revision, or to popular re-definition by the communities it purports to represent. If as a nation in 2018 Britain wants more modern icons of identity to represent it, it must look beyond even the Royal Mint to have them commemorated and recognise that this challenge starts from the bottom up.

[1] H. Bolitho (ed.), The British Empire, (London and New York, 1853) p. 34, S. Mostyn, Perplexity, (London, 1872) p. 46

[2] L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, (Third edition, Yale, 2009), K. Wilson, ‘Empire, Trade and Popular Politics in Mid-Hanoverian Britain: The Case of Admiral Vernon’, Past & Present 121 (November, 1988)