The Sixpence was a British silver coin that was first minted 1551 and virtually continuously until decimalisation in 1971. They are small coins, the last minted had a diameter of about 19.4 mm.
It was a popular coin when in circulation and is now popular with collectors as it has a long history and many nice specimens can be obtained at affordable prices. The Sixpence coin was often referred to as a ‘Tanner’.
Silver Sixpences (half a shilling) have been minted since 1551, in the reign of Edward VI, and were minted by every British Monarch since then. The sixpence originally appeared due to the debasement of silver coinage prior to 1551.
By the mid and late 18th century when Britain was moving through an Industrial revolution there was a huge demand for silver coinage. The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) made the silver and gold shortages even worse. The sixpence was so thin it could be bent by hand and so got the nickname of a ‘bender’.
In the Great Recoinage of 1816 the British Government made a massive attempt to stabilise the currency and the sixpence (with other silver coins) moved to a new standard – Sterling Silver, at 0.925 (92.5%) silver.
Sterling Silver remained the standard until the World Wars took their toll; the sixpence became 50% silver in 1920 and no silver at all in 1946. The coin then became cupronickel (75% copper, 25% nickel). The last circulation sixpence was dated 1967, with a proof in 1970 just before decimalisation on 15 February 1971.
Why was it called a Tanner? No one knows for sure but a contender must be after John Sigismund Tanner (1705-1775), who was Chief Engraver of the Royal Mint during the reign of George II and was the designer of a sixpence. The other alternative may be the word derived from a Romany word ‘tawno’, meaning small thing.
A Quick Note About Denomination. Since decimalisation we (the UK) have £1 = 100p, that is One Pound = 100 pence, but before decimalisation the breakdown was very different. While the Pound Sterling was the same, in the pre-Decimal era One Pound = 20 shillings = 240 pennies, or One shilling = 12 pennies.
So a Sixpence is 6 (old) pennies or half a shilling. One fortieth of a pound. In today’s money it would be worth 2½ pence. Not much now, but in days gone by sixpence was a good amount of money.