Northern England Coin Traditions

Giving coins as christening gifts was (is?) a very popular way of wishing new babies well. Most people know about traditions but how many are national and how many are just carried out locally?
The picture below shows a sixpence – aka a ‘tanner’. © JW

Most of you know that I was a pit lad from the north-east of the UK. One Sunday in 1948 I unwittingly ‘stumbled’ across an old Durham custom. I was playing a game of football with my mates outside the magnificent wooden St. Andrew’s church. (Unfortunately, just before it was scheduled to be dismantled and rebuilt at the Beamish open air museum, it was torched by a thicket of local morons.)

St Andrews Church, Ludworth. Picture courtesy of David Cook

A lady carrying a baby in a white shawl emerged from the church, attracted my attention, and handed over a small package – with strict instructions not to open until I got home. 

My mother told me it was a christening gift and since I was a boy, the baby must have been a girl. I remember the gift contained salt, piece of fruit-cake and a silver florin, carefully wrapped in a paper doily. Looking back, I was very lucky to receive a florin ( two shillings ). On a later occasion one of my mates was first to receive the package and very disappointed to find only a silver sixpence.


I spent quite a bit of time hanging about the church after that episode, but with little luck! If the baby had been a boy, then the first girl to be seen after leaving the church received the gift. The tradition was supposed to bring the baby luck. Salt ( of the earth ), Cake ( never go hungry) and a coin to bring prosperity. Sometimes, I understand, there was a candle ( to light the way ). I suspect the baby didn’t appreciate what was happening, but the baptism package made this unsuspecting child very happy! 

Most people know about traditions but how many are national and how many are just carried out locally? Does this still go on in the north-east, I wonder? Thereafter, If me Ma knew about a new girl baby’s baptism she would let me know. Good ol’ Winnie!

Rev Jamieson’s Unhygienic Detail

John Jamieson, the famous Scottish lexicographer of the early nineteenth century provides some additional unhygienic detail when he tells us this cake was ‘wrapped up in the garment which covers the posteriors of the infant, and afterwards divided among the young people that they may sleep over it’.

On meeting a new baby for the first time, many Scots still put a silver coin in the child’s hand. If the child holds on to the coin, he or she will be thrifty and prosperous, but if they let the coin drop, the child will never be rich.

John Jamieson

I also remember that when a new baby visited our house my parents always ‘crossed the child’s palm with silver’ so that the baby would always have money. Giving coins as christening gifts is still a very popular way of wishing new babies well. More on this in a future blog . . .

Another Disgusting Fact

This is the chorus from The Lambton Worm, a legend from North East England in the UK. The story takes place around the River Wear, and is one of the areas most famous pieces of folklore. Dave ‘Geordie’ Wilson gives his interpretation. of the song.

In my search for interesting facts about coins I came across the word ‘subfumigation’. All I could determine was that it started with an ’s’, and ended with ’n’; was thirteen letters long and not allowed as a Scrabble word. Not much to go on! Then I came across an old medical thesaurus that eventually led me to this::

Back in Anglo-Saxon times, long before the invention of hygiene, there were a few incredibly disgusting traditions associated with birth, but nothing quite turns the stomach like subfumigating. It’s a process by which cat faeces, horses hooves, fish eyes and other animal products would be burned on a fire to make a bad smell, and then the mother-to-be would be ushered in.

The Saxons believed that the womb would somehow be so appalled by the stench that it would contract and help the baby come along. No one, as far as we know, thought to check with the baby and see what he or she may have thought.

BBC Anglophenia . . . Five Birth Traditions of the British Isles.

10 thoughts on “Northern England Coin Traditions”

  1. All interesting stuff John and most new to me other than crossing the babies palm with silver which is still carried out.
    Don’t forget your blog post on the other lucky silver tanner in the Christmas pudding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had never heard the word ‘tanner’ before John.. at least not as it relates to coins ; One who tans hides.. well that was different.. that I knew.

    As to crossing a palm with silver.. I can remember my folks giving out silver spoons to infants when they were born on the neighbourhood.. Is that a form of ‘crossing the palm with silver?’

    And I do not want to know about subfumigation.. thank you very much!!! LOL


    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Royal Mint says that, ‘. . . this alternative name for the sixpence probably dates from the early 1800s and seems to have its root in the Romany gypsy ‘tawno’ which means ‘small one’. The silver sixpence was used in many other traditions.

    It has been a tradition in many countries for wealthy godparents to give a silver spoon to their godchildren at christening ceremonies. That may be the source of the phrase, or it may simply be derived from the fact that wealthy people ate from silver while others didn’t. Hence the phrase, ‘ Micheal was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.’


  4. Subfumigation…….isn’t that what the navy guys do as soon as they surface? LOL….

    Always the smart one John……..hanging outside the church waiting for the news!

    Liked by 1 person

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