The ‘Vulgar’ or ‘Honolulu’ Penny

4th November 2014 — 21 Comments

I’ve just spent a frantic half hour looking for all the copper pre-decimal UK pennies that I’d ever found. Why? A throwaway comment on an American detecting forum from a guy living in New Mexico was the catalyst for my search.

He said that when he lived in the UK ‘they’ would ‘get a kick’ when finding what was called a ‘passion penny’, but he refused to go into details. This whetted my appetite even further.

TicketI must have spent a very sheltered and somewhat naive childhood because the nearest I ever got to ‘passion’ was collecting bus tickets. The serial numbers most prized were those in which the sum of the digits added up to twenty one, like in my example.

From what I remember such numbers were thought to influence the future. If the ticket was given to a person of the opposite sex, then they would be the one that you would marry … or something like that! Except that if it was threw it away,  that love was discarded. I don’t remember ever finding one! But, I digress …

In 40’s and 50’s England, Victorian pennies were still in circulation and I happen to have quite a few in my collection found when metal detecting. I soon found what I was looking for, but I wanted to know more.

At times like this that friendly Mr. Google is the first port of call, but on this occasion he let me down. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea to use the phrase PASSION PENNY as my search. I won’t go into intimate details, but one of the most innocent and alluring returns (still naive?) to my enquiry was seductive and passionate curvy escort near Gatwick.

I must say that it isn’t often that an American tells me something about my own currency that I don’t already know. This was a first. My Texas cowpoke friend, doppelgänger and fellow uber-blogger Dick Stout has often said that he learns a lot about American history from some of my blog posts.


© JW – Click to enlarge

Okay, okay. Please be patient and I’ll get to the point! First, I want you to take a good look at the reverses of the old English pennies above. Click the image to enlarge if you would like to see a bigger picture.

Take particular note of the trident Britannia holds in her hand. The earlier issue shown on the right shows her holding it at a slightly different angle, with the lower end towards her … like a large dildo! Because of this it was dubbed the passion or vulgar penny. There is a story, most certainly a myth, that the guy who designed the coins was Irish and he disliked Great Britain.

Supposedly, as an insult, he depicted the trident as going between Victoria’s legs. The insult went unnoticed for several years. When officials finally recognised the slight, the coins were considered to be ‘vulgar’ because of the indecently sexualised Britannia, and the design was altered. I don’t know if Victoria was amused or not, but I found that an interesting and amusing story … and one that was new to me! The truth is that the engraver was a chap called William Wyon and although of German descent, he was born in Birmingham.

George IV

1827 George IV Copper

The design showing Britannia with trident angled inward towards her upper thigh predated the minting of Victoria’s pennies and was quite common on copper coins and undermines the myth’s assertion that the pose was offensive. See the George IV coin above.

Many of you have informed me that bronze pennies minted between 1860 and 1894 were also known as ‘Honolulu’ pennies due to the position of the trident compared to those of later pre-decimal pennies.



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21 responses to The ‘Vulgar’ or ‘Honolulu’ Penny

  1. Well John that account of passion or vulgar penny was new to me also.
    That’s a very interesting bit about your ancestors Bob & Tucker Winter being involved with Mr. Fawkes in attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament, did they originate from Ludworth.
    Great story keep at.


    • In about 1441 the manor of passed into the hands of the Holdens. It is thought that the Winters formed part of their retinue, and descendants have lived in the village ever since … or so I’m told!

  2. You put a lot of hard work into this blog John. Your family connection to the Winter’s is interesting. I’ve been doing some research on my ancestor’s family trees, but none of mine were famous, no rogues or vagabonds. Just rural labourers and agricultural workers, who were forced to move to London at the advent of the invention of agricultural machines seeking employment.

  3. And to think here we discontinued the lowly penny. Found memories here of putting them on railway tracks to get flattened. As always John….loved the read me bouy!

  4. Well I looked at the coin and must say if you didn’t point it out I would have never given it a second look. As they say beauty, or in this case vulgarity, is in the eye of the beholder John Winter. Shame on you….

  5. Would an 1893 penny be a ‘lucky vulgar’ penny?

  6. Victoria once said “I close my eyes and think of England”.

  7. I like the Bus Ticket and remember on the London Buses hearing the conductor coming along collecting the money.
    His machine punch going “Ding” each time he franked the issued ticket from a 12″ long hand held wooden ticket rack.

    I must be getting old.LOL

  8. You’re on a roll John, yet another informative, well written and genuinely very interesting post that I shamefully knew absolutely nothing about, I too have had a look in my collection of old coppers and am a proud owner of a few “vulgar” pennys.
    Passion Penny from Gatwick you say, I’m just down the road from Gatwick nudge nudge wink wink !

  9. Kevin Wilkins says;
    Hi John, after a conversation with my wife about the ‘Honolulu penny’ (she didn’t know) I googled it and found your excellent site.

    At social events I remember from late ’60s the ‘Honolulu Penny’ was used as a ‘spot prize’ when the music stopped as we danced, Many men carried one, I should have one somewhere! Hope I haven’t bored you, Regards, Kevin

  10. John, i have just left a link to this post on the BPC site. One of our prospecting club members found a penny around this date range.

  11. None of the above explained the origin of the term ‘Honolulu’, which is a euphemism for the cockney: on ‘er lulu, which was where she was holding the trident.

  12. As a lad at school we would scrape pennies against the soft brick of the school and with the aid of a bit of spittle and rubbing would shine them up like new. Every now and then someone would shout out ‘I’ve got an onalulu on’ which would bring great laughter, but of course in the 50s was risqué for us 6year olds. Actually the tridents position went one her knee, on her thigh and on her lulu. I have never met anyone who remembers this in 75 years.
    One other silly thing occasionally someone would bring a condom to school the manufacturers name was ONA. We would shout out ‘where’s Arizona ( Harry’s ona) to which we would all shout out ‘ in his pocket ‘
    Sad I know but no one ever remembers that.
    Mitch barker

    • Keith Davidson 29th July 2019 at 1:47 AM

      I don’t recall the brand name ONA….my guess is that it derives from onanism ; in its meaning of coitus interruptus rather than of masturbation.
      Perhaps that’s enough of straying from numismatics.

  13. When I was a musician in the 1960s it was popular at dances to give spot prizes for correctly answering a question or request. We would stop a waltz mid-dance and give the prize to the first person to bring us a rose-coloured handkerchief, for instance. (Trick request; roses can be white). One other trick was to give a prize to the first person to bring us a “on ‘er lulu” penny.

  14. My Dad has just given me his old coin collection that was gathering dust in the attic. “Keep an eye out for the Honolulu pennies” he said, before giving me the punch line. A google brought me here – thanks

  15. I have checked some of my Victoria PENNIES, HALF PENNIES and FARTHINGS. They all have the trident angled inward towards her upper thigh. Pennies, half pennies and farthings pre dated 1895 all had the same BRITANNIA design mint, including from GEORGE IV 1824 mint through out William IV until Victoria 1884. George IV 1823 was the last year with Britannia holding the trident towards her knees, and from 1895 all Victoria coins onwards have Britannia holding the trident towards her knees too. 1824 to 1894, 70 years to remember.

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