‘Gynaecological’ Silver Penny

A number of my posts in the original blog were lost. That is a pity because they were rather unique and detectorists still ask for them. This short post about the penny is one I have managed to resurrect and added more information.

Living in the close-knit society of a County Durham pit village in the 1940’s was quite a revelation for a small and inquisitive boy. Lots of everyday happenings like birth and death I tended to take for granted; traditions were just accepted and never really questioned.

There were women in the village, always elderly, who were regarded as ‘wise women’. They were trusted and called when there was a birth or death. With the latter, they would attend to the body, washing, preparing and ‘laying it out’.

 Henry III Halfpenny – © John Winter

I pause my tale just for a moment to introduce (opportunity to show off) a cut halfpenny I found, a coin that stars in the remainder of my story and pictured above! Although this is a Henry III coin dating back to 1248-50, it still illustrates the point rather well. If you are of a weak and easily offended disposition, don’t read any further.

Closing the eyes with the aid of two coins, usually a penny – because they were heavy – was one of those traditions. In earlier times, Matthew Boulton’s cartwheel would have been more than adequate for the job! I always thought it was done so that when we all trooped in to view the body, the deceased looked more at peace and comfortable, as if they were sleeping. The tradition may also hark back to the ancient Greeks who put coins on the eyes of dead people in order for them to be able to pay Charon, the ferryman, to take the dead across the River Styx.


It has been pointed out to me that I am simply perpetuating a myth by saying that hair and fingernails continue to grow after death. I am happy to make a correction.

“The gruesome idea of nails and hair continuing to grow on a rotting corpse is fascinating. But it’s a myth – at least if you’re thinking of luscious locks and long, curly fingernails growing inside a coffin. Nails and hair may appear to keep growing, but this is because flesh shrinks as it dries out, retracting the skin to make the nails and hair appear longer. There is a little truth in the story though, because death isn’t an instantaneous process. When someone’s heart stops beating their brain cells die very quickly, but cells that use less oxygen can live a little longer. So potentially hair and nails could grow a tiny bit after the brain is dead.”

Peter Buehler of the BBCs Science Focus magazine

In Liza Picard’s excellent book, Restoration London, covering the period 1660-70 when Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diary she mentions the ‘wise woman’ who gave moral support to their female friends.

Restoration London: From POVERTY to PETS, from MEDICINE to MAGIC, from SLANG to SEX, from WALLPAPER to WOMEN’S RIGHTS


‘If the membrane bag of fluid in which the baby had developed had not broken by the time the midwife arrived the wise woman would put her hand up … and break the membrane with a specially sharpened fingernail, or a thin coin. At that time, the edges of small coins were not milled and a used groat was rather sharp.’

Liza Pickard

In an earlier post I exhorted you NOT to put a newly unearthed hammered coin in your mouth with the express intention of cleaning it. I think I’ve just found another reason why you shouldn’t do it – you don’t know where it’s been!

Did You Know?

Medieval Treasure from there Montrave Hoard. © Coincraft?

In May 1877, workmen were repairing a drain in the grounds of Montrave House, Fife, Scotland. As the earth was pulled up, a shower of coins rained down from a metal pot. The pot contained incredible grade medieval silver pennies, which were eventually purchased by the British Museum.

The coins were contained in a metal pot 8 1/2 ins high and 29 1/2 ins in circumference, and consisted of 9615 English, Scottish and foreign coins of the 13th and 14th century, besides a good many smaller coins. No hoard had been discovered ( at that time ) of comparable dimensions.

I understand that a ‘select few’ were put on to the market – it is very rare that museums, especially the British Museum, part with their coins. Today, I see examples from the hoard being sold by Coincraft, the London Mint Office and on eBay.

Silver coins shown here would most likely have been used in day to day life. Just think about who could have handled yours?

Last Word . . .

I’ll never put one in my gob again! Thanks for the education John.


12 thoughts on “‘Gynaecological’ Silver Penny

  1. I am another person who will not put a coin in their mouth John.. Now I have another reason not to do so,.
    And a question… who decides what ‘select few’ coins go on the market? Is it the museum?/ Or some other individual.?
    Once again.. thank you.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. SIMPLY: If a detectorist finds something significant, i.e. a hoard – or precious metal – then it is his duty to notify the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO). In the Treasure Act of 1996 the age of the find was over 300 years. Now it has changed to a date in the 1700s. The Act was revised in 2019 and can be seen here: WARNING – 47 pages long.

      Click to access Revising_the_definition_of_treasure_in_the_Treasure_Act_1996_and_revising_the_related_codes_of_practice.pdf

      You can plow thru that lot . . “The FLO or curator prepares a report for the coroner on how the find meets the definition of treasure in the Act, and offers the local museum the find for acquision. If no museum declares an interest in acquiring the find, the find is disclaimed and returned to the finder. Otherwise the coroner holds an inquest and if the find is declared treasure it becomes the property of the Crown. The finder and the landowner then become eligible for a reward.

      Read those 47 pages for a ‘clear’ account . . .


    1. Don’t worry about it. Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune. You knew it was wrong, anyway!


  2. All these years John and I thought the phrase “the penny dropped”, was meant more for a mechanical purpose…….Hmmmmm, it gives pause for thought doesn’t it? LOL…

    I’ve also heard told that they used to put coins on peoples eyes, so that if they opened them the coins would fall off and you knew they were still alive? That’s likely more of a myth than anything I’m sure, but I’m happy to propagate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks John
    More interesting information. I remember Gordon Heritage putting a silver coin in his mouth to clean it just after digging it out of the ground in an episode of “the Hoard Hunters”. Soil is full of pathogens, I once saw a friend of mine eating his sandwiches during a detecting session his hands were covered in dirt from the field where the farmer had spread chicken muck but 5 hours later he was in hospital with very serious salmonella poisoning and in a very chronic state he remained in hospital for 3 days, needless to say he never used gloves he soon learnt a lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Randy. I also remember that episode and incident very well. In 2010 I wrote a short article on the matter of wearing gloves. Perhaps it is time for the subject to have another airing?
      Stay safe. Be careful.


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