When we are out metal detecting we love to find silver sixpences, but what is their history, when did the humble sixpence stop being made from silver and when did the sixpence stop being produced and come to the end of its life?

I. Introduction

The sixpence, a seemingly modest coin, carries within its small circumference a rich tapestry of history, cultural symbolism, and even unconventional uses. From its origins in the 16th century to its unique role in modern music, the sixpence has left an indelible mark on numismatics, everyday life, and the world of rock and roll. Join us on a journey through time and discover the fascinating story of the sixpence.

II. The Birth of the Sixpence: A Response to Economic Changes

A. Edward VI and the Debasement of the Testoon

The sixpence made its debut on the English coinage stage in 1551 during the reign of Edward VI. The coin’s inception was closely tied to economic changes and the debasement of the silver testoon. As the value of the testoon plummeted from 12 pence to 6 pence, a new coin was introduced to match this reduced denomination.

In the early years, the sixpence was crafted from sterling silver, containing 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, representing a high standard of silver coinage.

B. Practicality in Everyday Transactions

The debased testoon, despite its diminished silver content, proved useful in everyday transactions. Recognizing the need for a coin with a specific value of six pence, authorities introduced the sixpence in 1551, ensuring a practical currency system that could facilitate smooth transactions in a changing economic landscape.

III. The Evolution of the Sixpence

A. Silver Content Variations

1. Sterling Silver to 50% Silver (Post-1920)

In the early years, sixpences were minted with a sterling silver composition (92.5% silver and 7.5% copper). However, economic pressures and the aftermath of World War I prompted changes in the silver content. In 1920, the silver content was reduced to 50%, reflecting the need for resource conservation during times of war and economic challenges.

2. Transition to Cupronickel

When did sixpences stop being silver? The evolution continued, and as the mid-20th century approached, the silver content of sixpences underwent a significant change. In 1947, sixpences were no longer minted with silver but were instead composed of cupronickel, an alloy of copper and nickel. This shift marked the end of an era for silver sixpences and mirrored broader changes in the composition of British coinage.

B. Designs and Symbolism

The designs on sixpence coins evolved over the centuries, reflecting the artistic sensibilities and cultural influences of their respective eras. From intricate heraldic symbols to portraits of monarchs, each design tells a story of the time in which it was minted.

IV. Cultural Significance and Traditions

A. The Sixpence in Weddings

The sixpence has become deeply embedded in certain cultural traditions, most notably in weddings. The tradition of placing a sixpence in the bride’s shoe is said to bring prosperity and good fortune to the couple. This charming custom has endured through generations, adding a touch of nostalgia and symbolism to wedding ceremonies.

B. Love Tokens and Sentimental Value

The malleability of the sixpence, especially in its early days with higher silver content, made it a prime candidate for love tokens. These tokens, often crafted by bending the coin into a specific shape or engraving messages, served as sentimental keepsakes exchanged between loved ones.

V. Brian May and the Sixpence: A Musical Connection

A. A Unique Guitar Pick

One of the most distinctive aspects of the sixpence’s modern legacy is its association with Brian May, the iconic guitarist of the legendary rock band Queen. Brian May’s unconventional choice of a sixpence as a guitar pick has become synonymous with his signature sound and playing style.

B. The Sound of a Sixpence

The unique texture and thickness of the sixpence coin contribute to the nuances in Brian May’s guitar work. Fans and fellow musicians alike recognize the sixpence as an integral part of May’s sonic palette, underscoring the idea that even a small coin can play a significant role in shaping musical history.

VI. Collecting Sixpences: Numismatic Treasures

A. Numismatic Appeal

Sixpences hold a special place in the world of coin collecting. Their historical significance, varied designs, and sometimes limited mintages make them appealing to numismatists seeking to build diverse and meaningful collections. The rarity of certain issues adds an element of excitement to the hunt for these small yet valuable coins.

B. Preservation and Appreciation

Collectors often grapple with the balance between preserving the historical integrity of sixpences and appreciating their aesthetic qualities. The patina that develops on older coins tells a story of age and use, adding character to each piece and inviting collectors to connect with the past.

VII. The Decline and Demise of the Sixpence

A. The Cessation of Sixpence Production

The journey of the sixpence, which began in the 16th century, faced its conclusion in the 20th century. In 1970, the sixpence, along with other pre-decimal coins, was officially withdrawn from circulation in the United Kingdom as the country transitioned to a decimalized currency system.

B. Legacy and Remembrance

While the sixpence ceased to be produced for circulation, its legacy endures in the hearts of collectors, musicians, and those who cherish the traditions associated with this small yet historically significant coin.

VIII. Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of the Sixpence

In conclusion, the sixpence is far more than a small denomination in the world of currency. Its story encompasses economic changes, cultural traditions, and even the realm of rock music. From its birth during the reign of Edward VI to its role as a love token and a musical tool in the hands of Brian May, the sixpence has proven that even the smallest coins can leave an outsized impact on history.

As we continue to explore the multifaceted legacy of the sixpence, we discover not only a coin with monetary value but a vessel for stories, sentiments, and the creative expressions of individuals across centuries. Whether nestled in a bride’s shoe, carefully preserved in a coin collection, or striking the strings of a guitar in a rock concert, the sixpence continues to weave its way into the fabric of our cultural and historical tapestry.