A two pound piece

The British £2 is one of the most striking coins in circulation. As well as being the only mainstream bimetallic coin in the UK, it is wider and heavier than any other. With its golden edge and silver centre, it has become the coin of choice to commemorate events, people and institutions of national significance.

The current series of the £2 coin was launched on 15 June 1998 with the Royal Mint issuing millions for general circulation. A review of coinage carried out in 1994 had suggested the need for a new, higher denomination coin than the pound. The four-year gap between suggestion and introduction demonstrates the seriousness with which the government and Royal Mint took the task of designing a suitable new coin.

The front and reverse designs for the British £2 coin (standard version)

The Royal Mint consulted a wide range of groups, from the RNIB to channel the concerns of people with limited or no sight to the vending machine industry. Age Concern was consulted to ensure that the coin was designed to limit any confusion from the elderly and the general public were invited to express their opinions and concerns.

The democratic, public-centred spirit continued in determining the design for the reverse side of the coin (the Queen’s portrait is, like all other coins, on the front); the Royal Mint launched a competition open to the general public which was eventually won by Bruce Rushin, then an art teacher in Norfolk. His design was an intricate pattern of interlinked circles depicting technological advances from the iron age, to the industrial revolution, the age of electronics and the internet.

From 1999 onwards, however, the reverse side was the location of choice for a series of national celebrations or commemorations. Since 2001 there have been at least one, more often two and, in 2013, three different designs resulting in at least 22 variations to the standard design since the coin was launched.

Various commemorative designs on the reverse of the British £2 coin - from left to right - 1999 Rugby World Cup, Marconi, Commonwealth Games,  DNA, Trevithick, Gunpowder Plot, end of WW2, Brunel (two designs) and the Act of Union

The most common feature have been historic commemorations. Two pound coins have been used to mark the 500th anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Mary Rose, the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible and the Gunpowder Plot, the tercentenary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland, the bicentenary of anniversary of the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire and Richard Trevithick’s first steam locomotive, the centenary of the first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission by Marconi, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA.

Sporting events have also featured heavily, with commemorations marking the 1999 Rugby World Cup (held across the UK, Ireland and France), the XVII Commonwealth Games (held in Manchester), the 2008 Olympic Games handover ceremony and the 100th anniversary of the IV Olympiad, held in London.

Finally, individuals have been commemorated, with two coins celebrating Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 2006 (the 200th anniversary of his birth), Robert Burns and Charles Darwin in 2009 (on the 250th and 200th anniversary of their births respectively), Florence Nightingale in 2010 (on the hundredth anniversary of her death) and Charles Dickens in 2012 (on the 200th anniversary of his birth).

Various commemorative designs on the reverse of the British £2 coin - from left to right - Olympic Games handover, IV Olympiad, Robert Burns, Charles Darwin, Gunpowder Plot, King James Bible, Mary Rose, Charles Dickens, London Underground (two designs) and the Guinea

Finally, 2013 saw the 150th anniversary of the London Underground celebrated in two coins and the 350th anniversary of the introduction of the Guinea being commemorated in a suitably grand and royal coin.

For each of these commemorative coins the usual edge inscription, “Standing on the shoulders of giants”, (taken from a letter written by Isaac Newton, in which he acknowledged the debt he owed to others by saying: “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”) has been changed.

All of the different examples can be seen on the Royal Mint’s website, but a few of my favourites include:

  • So many irons in the fire (from a coin celebrating Brunel);
  • Am I not a man and a brother (from a coin commemorating the abolition of slavery);
  • Your noblest shippe (on the Mary Rose); and
  • Mind the Gap (the almost inevitable text to celebrate the London Underground).