A farthing was a British coin used from the 13th to the mid 20th century. It was worth a quarter of an old penny, which made it the smallest denomination coin minted in Britain. So a half farthing would have been worth one eighth of a penny.
The Origins of the Farthing
The farthing traces its origins back to the silver penny introduced by King Henry II in 1180. These early pennies were quite large, heavy silver coins. Over the next few centuries, the penny was debased with the introduction of more and more copper. By the late 13th century, the penny had become a small copper coin weighing just 1.5 grams.
With the reduction in size and value of the penny, there arose a need for smaller denomination coins to facilitate commerce. The first farthing (meaning ‘fourththing’) was minted in England in the late 13th century under King Edward I. It was made from silver and worth 1⁄4 penny. The farthing established itself as an important low-value coin over the next few centuries.
The First Half Farthings
Given its tiny size and low value, the farthing was often cut into halves or quarters to create even smaller units of currency. These cut coins were referred to as ‘half farthings’ and ‘quarter farthings’ even though they were not officially sanctioned by the Crown.
The first half farthings date from the early 14th century reign of King Edward II. Demand for low denomination coins was increasing but the government did not issue any coins smaller than the farthing. So people took to cutting farthings into halves and quarters to pay for trivial items.
These cut coins revealed some of the inner silver core of the farthings. They were rough, uneven shapes and forged illegally by moneyers and merchants to bridge the gap between the farthing and halfpenny.
Half Farthings of Queen Elizabeth I
The first officially issued half farthings came during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the late 16th century. Rising prices had eroded the purchasing power of the farthing, creating demand for smaller coins.
Queen Elizabeth granted a patent to the Earl of Derby to produce copper half farthings and quarter farthings in 1561. These new issues were circular rather than cut or broken halves of farthings.
The patent allowed the Earl to mint up to £20 in half farthings per year for a period of 4 years. These officially sanctioned small coins became popular in the late 1500s to pay for minor transactions.
Half Farthings in the 17th and 18th Centuries
Half farthings continued to sporadically circulate alongside farthings in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were used to pay for trivial items such as a half-pint of beer or half a loaf of bread.
As with the farthing, the half farthing tended to be minted during periods of high inflation when its tiny value actually meant something. But in times of stability, the half farthing was withdrawn as unnecessary for commerce.
During the reigns of Charles I and Charles II in the 1600s, there were renewed issues of half farthings to keep up with price inflation. Under Queen Anne in the early 1700s, half farthings were once again minted before being discontinued.
Half Farthings of King George II
The next instance of half farthings came during the reign of King George II. Rising grain prices in the 1730s caused many bakers to issue private half farthing tokens to sell half-loaf batches of bread.
To counteract this illegal private coinage, the government recommenced minting official half farthings in 1735. These help alleviate the shortage of small change in the economy.
The king’s name appeared on the obverse or front of these half farthings along with the issuing dates. The reverse featured Britannia with a spear, shield and spray of leaves.
Half Farthings of King George III
The final British monarch to issue half farthings was King George III in the late 18th century. Small change remained in high demand but counterfeiters were illegally minting low denomination coins.
To combat this, the Royal Mint struck more regal half farthings in 1798. These copper coins weighed just 2.8 grams and measured 15mm across. The design featured a laureate bust of King George III on the front with the date underneath.
The reverse of these final half farthings depicted Britannia once again. This issue proved successful and over 1 million half farthings circulated before production ceased in 1806.
The Demise of the Half Farthing
After 1806, the half farthing was demonetized in Britain and minted only forinclusion in annual proof sets. Its tiny value simply wasn’t worthwhile for business transactions anymore.
The farthing itself was demonetized in 1960 and removed from circulation. Its demise meant the end of the road for the half farthing too, as it could not exist without the farthing.
Queen Elizabeth II ruled when the farthing was withdrawn and became the first British monarch to not issue any half farthings during her long reign.
So in summary, the half farthing was a small cut silver or copper coin worth one eighth of a penny. It circulated intermittently in Britain between the 13th and 19th centuries until inflation made its tiny value irrelevant to commerce.
Physical Characteristics of Half Farthings
Since half farthings were initially created by cutting regular farthings in half, their shape and size was irregular. The officially minted issues were much more uniform in appearance.
Here are the typical physical characteristics of British half farthings over the centuries:
- Diameter: 10-15mm
- Thickness: 1-2mm
- Weight: 0.5-3 grams
- Composition: Silver (early), copper (later issues)
- Color: Silver, brown, copper
- Shape: Mostly round, some cut halves
- Design: Various kings and queens, Britannia
Being so small and thin, half farthings were easy to lose and could be mistaken for mere fragments or shards of metal. Many were melted down and recycled over the years.
Value of Half Farthings Today
Given their age and rarity, legitimate British half farthings have become quite valuable collector’s items today. Here are some estimated values:
|Issue Date||Estimated Value|
|1400s (Hammered silver)||$700-$1000+|
|1560s (Queen Elizabeth I)||$300-$600|
|1610s-1660s (Charles I – Charles II)||$100-$200|
|1730s-1740s (George II)||$75-$150|
|1790s-1800s (George III)||$50-$100|
As you can see, the hammered silver issues from the 15th century command the highest prices from collectors and museums. Even the late 18th century copper half farthings of King George III can be worth $50 or more in decent condition.
Factors Affecting Value
When valuing old half farthings, collectors take into account:
- Age and rarity
- Precious metal content
- Condition and wear
- Legible date and mint mark
- Historical significance
Clearly dated half farthings in fine condition fetch much higher prices than worn, damaged pieces or crude cut halves. Grading services are used to authoritatively assess and certify the preservation state of rare coins.
While the half farthing today seems like a very odd, tiny denomination, it served a useful purpose for over 500 years enabling cheap transactions during periods of high inflation. Frugal British shoppers once relied on these little coins.
Half farthings are now obsolete but provide a valuable window into the nation’s monetary history. Their diminutive size belies their importance to commerce in past centuries. Collectors still prize these mini coins today.