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This Britain

Words on Euro 50p piece took a pounding

A sculptor had come up with an acclaimed design and the Royal Mint was anxious to start production but when it came to finalising a new 50p piece, it seems everyone from the prime minister to the Duke of Edinburgh had to have their ha'penny worth.

Documents released at the National Archives show that efforts to strike a commemorative coin to mark Britain's entry into the EEC were nearly derailed by a wrangle over its wording between the highest and mightiest in the land.

The design for the coin showing nine hands joined together in a circle had been chosen unanimously by a Whitehall committee in July, 1972, as part of a tight schedule to get it into wallets and purses by the time Britain joined the nine-strong community on 1 January, 1973.

But the wording inside the circle caused a rift between Downing Street, the Foreign Office, the Royal Mint and Buckingham Palace when the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, insisted it should read: "Europe 50p 1973."

A memo to Number 10 from a Foreign Office official, said: "I should like to repeat that our preference remains for the words 'European Community'. The ring of hands would ... not be readily understood as commemorating our entry into the European Community. The word 'Europe' might offend European countries other than the nine. Its meaning is too wide." Mr Heath said squeezing the 17 characters on the coin would make the lettering too small.

The Royal Mint said the Queen's effigy on the obverse of the coin might be taken in Europe to suggest she is its monarch, or in this country to imply a delegation of her sovereignty. Then Alan Bailey, the Master of the Mint, said the coin could simply state "50p 1973". Mr Bailey, writing to Mr Heath, said he had asked Prince Philip How he liked the coin. "He replied that he liked it but added, 'I don't like that little 'p'. The inscription on the coin is being amended to read '50 Pence 1973'. The Master of the Mint knows his place."