S.G. Onions and his Teaching Money

Onions do other things other than make you cry …

In his short time ‘history hunting’ in the north-east of England, Mark McMullan has dug-up many ‘treasures’ including countless coins. He says, “I’ve unearthed all sorts of things. They are not always the most valuable but I have found a gold sovereign from 1889 and medieval objects going back to the 1100s. It’s not about value, but about the history. When I find something, I want to know everything about it, plus its link to the area. I find the hobby addictive, astonishing, and fascinating.

I’m going to tell you about he day Mark found something rather mundane on his ‘pit permission’ near Bishop Auckland, that turned out to be a cracker. The subsequent research revealed the sort of detail and social history that a gold sovereign could never match.

‘Mystery Coin’ © Mark McMullan

Now, the coin above looks rather unremarkable but, after careful cleaning, Mark revealed some fascinating detail. First, I show you a better picture ‘borrowed’ from eBay.

An “Onions’ teaching coin made of brass and 5mm in diameter. On the obverse is a portrait of the infant Albert Price of Wales, the future king Edward VI. On each reverse, there are individual money statements with relevant number of dots. This one has the statement ’12 pence make one shilling’ and, did you notice, to reinforce learning there are 12 dots above the statement?

Opportunity for you to ‘Know your Onions’

To know Your Onions is a compliment. If someone says you know your onions, it means you are experienced in something or you know a lot about a particular subject. So really, it means you’re clever!

It is a strange term and some people (just one of the theories) say it comes from a man called S.G. Onions who made fake coins to help teach children about money. If they learnt about money they would know their onions. You can check for yourself the other theories – one is American – but I know the ropes and this is the one I am going for at the moment. In the 1920s America was a breeding ground for wacky phrases (see the bee’s knees and other examples).

These were issued to, or used by, schools from 1843 onwards to help children learn £.s.d. (pounds, shillings and pence) and to generally assist in learning to count money. From 1843 the coins were made in various metals – to match the currency – until the late 1800’s. Then cardboard was used and these resembled the coins actually in use. This carried on until the late 1900’s.

More Examples

You learn something new everyday with this hobby and I just need to find the other 9 now to complete the set! Do you have any of these? Mark.

S. G. Onions produced a series of coins in 1843 for educational purposes – for teaching in schools and at home. It is an extremely rare series as most were lost by use and they are now over 160 years old. There are 10 main denominations from “1 SOVEREIGN IS 1 POUND” down to “4 FARTHINGS MAKE 1 PENNY”. The portrait is always of the baby PRINCE ALBERT, PRINCE OF WALES (later King Edward VII) and each reverse has the correct number of dots for the denomination to help with counting. For example, “12 PENCE MAKE 1 SHILLING” has 12 dots. This is the coin most usually seen but is still rare. All the other denominations are very rare indeed. The coins range from only 11mm diameter to 17mm diameter. A variety of metals were used but the base metal is usually either copper or brass. The set was reputed to have been issued in a wire mesh bag but none seem to be known today.

The E-Sylum

🙂 One of Mark’s recent posts seems to contradict that theory 🙂

“I had a shock this morning. Went to get my Metal Detector ‘Noxy’ out of the locked boot of my car only to find it had disappeared, along with my spade and headphones. Whilst contemplating how the hell some scumbag knew knew they were there, I thought I must have revealed too many personal details on my New History Hunter Page.

I was out detecting yesterday and wondered if I’d somehow left the gear by the car when packing up, so I returned. Alas, at first there was nothing to be seen. Then I glanced across the field and saw the machine propped up on my spade with the earphones dangling off the arm rest 😱. Unbelievably it had been there all night and I wasn’t aware – I’m only 46, so hopefully that wasn’t a sign of onset dementia!

Just some of the ‘history’ found by Mark – a Victorian gold sovereign

Then I remembered that it had started to rain and the owners were walking towards me to see how I was getting on. In my excitement to show them the history I had found plus the added distraction of heading for my hot flask of tea, I’d completely forgot about the detector I’d left in the field. My mind was further distracted by a neighbouring farmer who said I could detect on his land also. With that and the the drizzle failing to clear I decided to pack up, throw my detecting belt and coat into the car and head home. Roll onto this morning … You couldn’t make it up. Has anyone else done something similar. Please say ‘yes’ so I don’t feel quite so silly.” (Slightly edited.

1920s America was a breeding ground for wacky phrases (contact Mr Google for some examples).

Rating: 5 out of 5.

10 thoughts on “S.G. Onions and his Teaching Money”

  1. Couple of comments my friend.. Is it Edward the VI or VII..? Not sure since both terms are used..

    And I can see the £ for the pound ; and the s for shillings; but how did d come to symbolize pence?

    I cannot tell you the number of times I have do similar things to leaving items behind.. I once left a window

    fully open on our truck.. with over $300.00 in bills sitting on the dash.. It sat like that for a full 8 hours [whilst

    I was at work].. At days end, the money was still there.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had Edward IV and have changed it to Victoria. Thank you for that, Micheal.
    Edward VI ruled for a 6 year period in the 1500’s and Edward VII ruled after Victoria.
    I can’t see any reference to to Edward’s VI or VII in my post.

    Pennies were, confusingly, abbreviated to ‘d’.
    This is because the Latin word for this coin was ‘denarius’.

    We’ve all done silly things … like my latest blog post, for example!


  3. “An “Onions’ teaching coin made of brass and 5mm in diameter. On the obverse is a portrait of the infant Albert Price of Wales, the future king Edward VI.”

    ” The portrait is always of the baby PRINCE ALBERT, PRINCE OF WALES (later King Edward VII) ”

    Not in any way criticizing John.. I was just curious as to whom it was as future regent.

    Hope all is well my friend..


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh dear! I’ll always have problems over the Prince’s of Wales. So confusing. Can I have you as a proof reader? ALBERT became EDWARD VII.

    The present Prince of Wales is CHARLES. When his Ma leaves the picture
    will he become KING CHARLES? Wouldn’t bet on it. His full name is : CHARLES PHILLIP ARTHUR GEORGE MOUNTBATTEN-WINDSOR

    Must have a rest … then consult my resident genealogist, Mrs John.


  5. Not to confuse things anymore, but I thought that Aquaman was the prince of whales? LOL……

    As for leaving my detector behind……..not in the field, but I have got to the field only to realize I’d left it at home.

    Those “Onion” tokens are super cool, I’d like to have even one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

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