We explore the objects and photographs that show how the Royal Mint adapted to life during the Second World War. How was the Mint affected, and how did it change to keep providing the country with currency, medals and munitions?
As war broke out with Germany in 1939 an increased demand for coinage arose, particularly for silver half-crowns and florins. The first years saw the rate of production of silver double from the pre-war levels, increasing to £10.2 million in 1942 and being sustained above pre-war rates in subsequent years. 1943 saw the largest number of sixpences struck in one calendar year.
Farthing (1940) by The Royal Mint and 1940 farthingThe Royal Mint Museum
Owing to a shortage of material and demands for metal for munitions work, the striking of pennies was largely discontinued in 1940 and did not resume again for 3 ½ years. Farthings, however, despite having little functional use immediately prior to the war suddenly became an important part of daily transactions as ‘every family… had to pay or receive a farthing in weekly shopping’, with an estimated 10,000,000 more of these coins required by 1940.
George VI threepence (1937) by Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
When the new nickel-brass, 12-sided threepence was introduced in 1937 to replace the much smaller, round silver threepence it was initially poorly received by the public. Its popularity surged during the Second World War, however, with its distinctive shape making it easy to identify in a full pocket of change during the blackouts. It’s output peaked during 1942-43.
Staff at the Iver Heath auxiliary mint (1942/1945) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
With its location adjacent to the London docks, there were significant fears that the Royal Mint could be put out of action as a result of enemy bombing during the war. In June 1941 in great secrecy, production of nickel-brass and bronze coins was moved out of the city to an auxiliary mint at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. By the end of its first year the Iver Heath Mint at Pinewood had produced over 43 million coins.
Overseas coinage (1941/1943) by Iver heath auxilliary mintThe Royal Mint Museum
The new auxiliary mint was entirely self-sufficient, and in addition to lower denomination base metal British coins the temporary facility maintained the international profile of the Mint's commitments by producing coins for Ireland, Iraq and Peru.
It might be expected that during a period of war work taken on by the Mint might suffer, but quite the opposite was true and coins produced for other parts of the Empire were actually greater than in recent years. As well as maintaining established relationships with countries, new work was also received by the Royal Mint throughout the Second World War.
Iceland 25 aurar coin (1942) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
After the fall of Iceland to enemy hands, the authorities in Reykjavik were required to turn elsewhere. So it was that in 1940 the Royal Mint received an order for five denominations, from one eyrir to 25 aurar, soon to be followed by additional orders for króna and 2 krónur coins. With nickel in extremely high demand for munitions, it became necessary to strike the 1942-dated 10 and 25 aurar coins in the unsuitable metal of zinc rather than cupro-nickel.
Icelandic coins (1940) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
The war would present further challenges to the production of the Icelandic coins; striking at the Royal Mint commenced after a night during which the windows and roofs had been wrecked by enemy action so, as the Deputy Master put it in his Annual Report, ‘a glacial wind whirled round the coining presses to inaugurate this coinage of Iceland’.
Faroe Islands 25 ore (1941) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
In addition to Iceland, during the Second World War 'a considerable variety of new coins were struck for overseas; the coinages for Norway, the Faroe Islands, and French West Africa broke new ground'. By 1941, Indian Mints had to pick up some overseas work as demand was too high, but they were provided with master tools from the Royal Mint. Pictured here is a 25 ores, struck for the Faroe Islands in 1941.
Canada 5 cents (1942) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
In order to save nickel which was much needed for munitions, in 1942 many of the overseas coins made by the Royal Mint had their specifications changed from cupro-nickel to bronze. In order to prevent confusion with existing bronze coins already in circulation the shape of some had to be changed including the Canadian 5 cent which was struck as a 12-sided coin to avoid confusion with the 25 cent.
As the war progressed, the Mint became busy producing medals both for service in campaigns and civilian gallantry.
Arctic star (1946) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
Although the Africa Star and the 1939-45 star had been created in 1944, in order to avoid wasting metal only the ribbon had thus far been issued with the medal to be received after the end of the war. In 1946 the Royal Mint began to strike some 13 million campaign medals struck for the 8 different campaigns.
Medal production (1946) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
The George Cross and George medal were introduced in 1940 as civilian awards. Both medals are pictured here, and in the background we can see two female factory operatives working on the medals.
ARP badge (1945) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
To recognise the efforts of the wardens who volunteered for the Air Raid Protection Unit at the Royal Mint itself these ARP badges were produced.
In addition to continuing to meet coinage demands, the Royal Mint also turned its attention towards emergency munitions work to support the war effort.
Pretoria branch mint (circa 1940) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
In 1938 a munitions department was established at the branch mint in Pretoria, South Africa, which was expanded after the outbreak of war. The number of staff employed doubled and the .303 ammunition factory was put on double shifts. By 1941, coinage work accounted for a fraction of total output and the decision was taken to drop the link with the Royal Mint in London and the newly independent South African Mint was opened in 1941.
The Royal Mint Museum (20th century) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
Back in London, the Royal Mint Museum at Tower Hill was cleared out at the start of the conflict to create more space to carry out munitions work. The main room of the Museum was primarily used for the manufacture of cartridge weighing machines, but even after hostilities ceased the weighing machines were replaced by Bliss presses and benches for the examination and packaging of Campaign Stars.
Munitions Machinery (1940/1945) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
In 1940, in connection with the production of cupro-nickel for bullets in the Coining Department, two coiling machines were made and an existing rotary cutting machine was converted into an edge slitting machine. Numerous other munitions work was also carried out, with this machine pictured an example of the type of equipment used.
Mint Life During the War
The large increase in output during the war meant that many more staff were needed, and at its height in 1943 a total of 970 people were employed at the Royal Mint. Throughout the war employees faced dramatic changes to their working lives, including long average working weeks of 62.5 hours and extremely limited annual leave, and It was down to the dedication of the staff that the Mint could continue to operate throughout the war.
Women in the Mint (1940/1946) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
Directly after the start of the conflict, 120 staff members who were part of the Reserve or Auxiliary Forces were immediately called up. This sudden loss of 20% of the workforce put a large strain on those remaining and by 1941 it was recognised that something had to be done to ensure high output could be sustained. The Deputy Master John Craig ‘decided to take a step which had not been found necessary in the 1914-18 war to employ women and girls for certain of the coinage operations’.
Woman working at the Royal Mint (circa. 1941) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
The introduction of women to the factory was evidently a success, and hailed by the Superintendent of the Operative Department as ‘an important innovation’ with the coining department producing a record breaking 54 million pieces in one month in 1942. By 1943, 278 women were working in production, and accounted for 29% of the total workforce.
Factory worker operating machinery (1940/1946) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
Despite the success of the female factory workers, in 1946 the women employed in the Coining Department were gradually replaced by men returning from war service and in May of that year the few women remaining in the coining rooms were transferred to the Medal section to work on the manufacture of the Campaign Stars.
With its precarious position near the London docks, the Royal Mint had to prepare for the threats of war in 1938 with the "bi-weekly training in fire-fighting and anti-gas duties of volunteers. First-aid service was also expanded and an emergency supply of 190,000 gallons of war was created. In March, 1939 the basements were strengthened to become air-raid shelters and were provided with a large number of bunks. A black-out of all lights, temporarily instituted during one of the pre-war crises, was in readiness."
ARP unit (circa. 1940) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
As the Mint started suffering direct hits from bombing raids, fatalities on site and giving over production space for munitions work the Royal Mint formed its own Air Raid Precuations (ARP) team tasked with protecting the site and its workers from German bombs and incendiaries.
ARP booklet (1945) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
The Air Raid Precautions unit was staffed throughout the war, with the task to fight fires from bombs and incendiary devices and limit the amount of damage and the number of casualties. A separate account of the activities of the Mint’s ARP unit in the form of this booklet was published soon after the war, which you can read in full o our website.
ARP book extract (1945) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
As London suffered under the Blitz, the Royal Mint could not escape without any damage. The nightly bombings meant that in the autumn of 1940 all night shifts were suspended, leading to staff being required to now work Saturdays and Sundays. Further disruptions to production included damage to the Gas Mains in Stepney in September 1940 leaving the Mint unable to melt metal and the Coining Section was closed as a result for nearly a month. The Mint buildings also suffered damage, and partial destruction of the silver and gold melting houses in December meant that work could not resume here until January 1941. Thankfully, loss of life within the Mint was small with only 3 members of staff killed on site.
Tower Hill VE day (1945) by The Royal MintThe Royal Mint Museum
Like much of the country, it was a tired and war weary Mint that celebrated the end of the war in 1945. Adapting to the demands for munitions whilst also setting numerous production records was a remarkable achievement, and it was a hard working but fatigued workforce who would have welcomed the two-day holiday brought by VE and VJ day. After 6 years of blackout the Mint lit up its buildings, showcasing the scars left by the War.
To read the ARP booklet in full, click here: https://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/collection/library-and-archive/arp-booklet/ .
You can also discover further material relating to the Mint in the Second World War on our website: https://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/ .