Countries now tend to have 100 thingy-ma-bobs to the what-cha-call-it. Whether it’s 100 cents to the dollar, 100 pennies to the pound, or 100 centime to the franc, base 10 is where it’s all at with currency.
But until recently in the United Kingdom, easy-to-add decimal currency was foreign. From the Anglo-Saxons in the Dark Ages up until 1971, it was far more complicated than that!
Names for different amounts changed over the centuries – no-one was talking about a noble or a groat in 1970. But pounds, shillings and pence had been in place for more than 1,000 years.
This article is about old English money, and in memory of the school children who sweated over “money sums” in English schools.
Pounds, shillings and pence
A pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a shilling was 12 pennies. So £1 was 240 pence. Not the easiest of figures to use on calculators, and hence, decimalisation in 1971.
Amounts of money were written as l s d, for pounds, shillings and pence. 5s was 5 shillings, often just written as 5/-. And 5s 6d was 5 shillings and sixpence – and was often, instead, written as 5/6. “Shillings” was written as “s” from the Latin word solidus , and pennies or pence was written as “d” from the Latin word denarius. These were both old Roman coins.
In spoken English, the “shilling” word was often missed out – so a shopkeeper might say, “that’ll be 5 and 6, please”, meaning 5 shillings and six pence.
Names of different amounts of currency
It wasn’t as simple as pounds, shillings and pence, though.
Lots of different small amounts of money had their own names. Some were obvious – such as “thruppence” for three pence, some much less obvious, such as “tanner” for six pence.
Here is a list of those in common use in the couple of decades before decimalisation:
Quid – pound. Still used today, and has no plural. So you have one quid, and ten quid
Crown – 5 s. Not usually issued as an actual coin, except for commemorations, but used as a unit in common language
Half-crown – 2/6
Florin – 2s
Bob – 1s
Tanner – 6d
Joey, thruppence or thrup’ney bit – 3d
Hapney – 1/2d, prounced “HAYP-nee”
Farthing – 1/4d
Guineas, sovereigns and half-sovereigns
Guinea coins were produced between 1663 and 1813, and bizarrely, the value of it fluctuated according to the relative prices of gold and silver.
Although no guineas were minted as normal coins after 1818, the term continued to be used, although it became a fixed sum of 1 pound and 1 shilling, or 21s. Prices were still sometimes quoted in guineas – when my father entered pupillage to become a barrister, the price payable was 100 guineas, or £105.
The term continued to be used for snooty puposes after decimalisation (now meaning £1.05 instead of £1 1s), such as fine wine buying or tailor-made suits. It is used to this day in horse trading, and a number of horse races still have the word “Guinea” in the title , indicating the original value of the prize.
Sovereigns and half-sovereigns
These were gold coins, produced when the pound was still tied to the gold standard. They were worth £1 and 10s respectively. These are still produced to this day, although they don’t contain much gold for £1-worth!
Continued use of old coins after 1971
A number of pre-decimal coins were used for many years after decimalisation. The florin, or 2s, became worth 10 new pence, and the shilling became worth 5 new pence.
The coins themselves were the same – so as a child and teenager (I was born at the end of the 1970s), if I wanted to pay for something costing 10p, I could quite happily use a 1935 florin.
The sixpence, now worth 2.5 new pence, was used until 1980.
The shilling, now worth 5 new pence, was used until 1990
The florin, or two shilling coin, was worth 10 new pence, and was used until 1994.