A threepenny bit, also known as a threepence or thruppence, was a coin worth one-eightieth of a pound sterling, or three old pence. It was a small silver coin that was circulated in the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1971. But why was this coin, worth three pennies, commonly referred to as a “Joey”? There are a few possible explanations behind this interesting nickname.
The Joey Nickname
The most widely accepted theory is that the threepenny bit earned the nickname “Joey” from Joseph Stalin. In the 1930s, around the time the threepenny bit was introduced, Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union. His profile featured prominently on Soviet propaganda and coinage, meaning many people in the UK would have been familiar with his image.
The threepenny bit displayed a wren bird on the reverse, but the obverse featured a profile of King George VI. It’s believed that the similarity between Stalin’s profile on Russian coins and King George’s on the threepenny led to the “Joey” moniker as a nod to Joseph Stalin.
However, there are a few other possible explanations for why the coin was called a Joey that shouldn’t be discounted:
Some believe the threepenny bit gained its nickname from Joe Lyons, the founder of the famous Lyons Corner House restaurants. Lyons Corner Houses were a popular chain of cafes started in 1894, that went on to gain fame for their iconic tea shops and affordable meals.
As the Lyons company expanded across the UK throughout the early 1900s, the name “Joe Lyons” would have been recognized by many Brits. The theory is that Lyons’ nickname “Joe” transferred over to the coin due to the similarity. However, the timing does not quite line up, as the threepenny bit was introduced in 1937, over 40 years after Lyons’ cafes had become an integral part of British culture.
“Joey the Bird”
The wren bird depicted on the reverse of the threepenny bit also may have contributed to its nickname. The coin was colloquially called “Joey the bird” in reference to the wren design. Over time, this may have been shortened to just “Joey” and applied to the coin itself.
Additionally, some claim that “Joey” was rhyming slang used byLondon criminals in the 1930s to mean “bird” (as in jail bird). This rhyming slang may have found its way onto the threepenny bit from its wren bird image.
The Name “Joey”
There’s also a chance the nickname arose simply because “Joey” was a common diminutive name at the time. The use of “Joey” was likely inspired by the coin’s low value – threepence being the smallest denomination coin circulating in Britain when it was introduced. Calling it a “Joey” may have been a term of endearment referring to its size.
History of the Threepenny Bit
To understand how the threepenny bit gained its nickname, it’s useful to look at the historical context surrounding the coin:
Introduction in 1937
The threepenny bit was introduced in 1937 under King George VI. It was minted through the remainder of George’s reign until 1952.
The coin was made from nickel brass (as opposed to the more expensive silver used for higher denomination coins). It weighed 6.8 grams and had a diameter of 1.5cm.
The coin was designed by the sculptor Percy Metcalfe. The reverse featured a small bird perched on a gate – this is a wren, Britain’s smallest bird species.
The wren design gave rise to the “Joey the bird” nickname theory. Having a native British bird on the coin was intended to be a symbol of Britain’s aviation prowess, with the wren representing speed and agility.
Replacing the Threepenny Silver Coin
The new nickel threepenny bit replaced a small silver threepennies that had been in circulation since the 1600s. The silver version was discontinued in 1937 as the metal became too expensive.
At the time, threepence was the smallest denomination coin in circulation. Lower value pennies were minted from bronze, while higher coins used silver.
Changes Under Queen Elizabeth II
When Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, new threepences featuring her portrait were issued from 1953 onward. However, the reverse wren design remained unchanged throughout the coin’s production.
Over time, inflation caused the purchasing power of threepence to decline. The coin was demonetized in 1971 and removed from circulation shortly after.
Use of the “Joey” Nickname
While the threepenny bit was in circulation, “Joey” became a widely used nickname by the British public:
In Commercial Transactions
Shopkeepers would commonly refer to threepenny bits as “Joeys” when tallying up transactions. For example, a total cost of threepence may be verbally called out as “three Joeys”.
In Slang & Rhyming Slang
“Joey” also arose in cockney rhyming slang. “Joey and Robert” meant “threepenny bit”, while just “Joey” became slang for threepence.
“Bird” was also 1930s rhyming slang for a threepenny bit, possibly contributing to the “Joey the bird” theory.
After it was demonetized, the threepenny bit became popular with coin collectors. Numismatists and coin dealers would commonly refer to threepences as “Joeys” when buying, selling, and cataloging them.
In Everyday Speech
Outside of commerce and numismatics, “Joey” also appeared in regular conversational British slang when referring to threepences. The moniker was widely recognized across all social classes.
The Decline of the Joey Nickname
While the “Joey” nickname was ubiquitous from the 1930s to ’60s, it began declining along with the coin itself in the later 20th century:
Demonetization in 1971
Once threepenny bits were withdrawn from circulation in 1971, there were obviously no more commercial transactions involving them. Shopkeepers and the public at large had no reason to keep using “Joey” in a monetary context.
As new generations came of age after 1971, fewer and fewer people had handled or used threepenny bits first-hand. The nickname faded from the vernacular without the coin’s presence.
The decline of rhyming slang and changes to British culture in the late 1900s also erased much awareness of the old “Joey” term among younger people.
However, the nickname remains widely recognized today among older generations who remember the threepenny bit when it circulated.
The Joey Nickname Today
While no longer in popular use, the Joey nickname can still be found in some contexts:
Coin collectors and dealers specializing in older British coins consistently use “Joey” to describe threepenny bits when buying, selling, and cataloging.
In Historical Literature & Media
Contemporary books, articles, and media about 20th century British history will sometimes reference a threepenny bit as a “Joey” to provide historical context.
Among Older Generations
Some older Brits who remember using the coins first-hand still refer to threepences as “Joeys” today once in awhile for nostalgic effect.
However, such uses are increasingly rare as living memory of the coin fades.
In summary, the threepenny bit earned its popular “Joey” nickname thanks to several factors:
- The similarity between King George VI’s profile and Joseph Stalin’s
- The wren “Joey the bird” design on the reverse
- Its small size and low value, like a “Joey” or young child
- Its use in rhyming slang – “Joey and Robert”
While this unique moniker was ubiquitous in the mid-20th century, it has slipped from usage over recent decades as memories of the coin fade. But numismatists, history buffs, and the surviving members of older generations can still appreciate Britain’s old threepenny “Joey” today.