Old English money – pounds, shillings and pence before decimalisation

By , August 27, 2009 1:51 am


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.

A sovereign minted in 1558, during the reign of Elizabeth I

A sovereign minted in 1558, during the reign of Elizabeth I

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.

A half crown from the first year of Elizabeth II's reign, 1953

A half crown from the first year of Elizabeth II's reign, 1953

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

A one shilling piece from 1956, used as a 5p piece until 1990

A one shilling piece from 1956, used as a 5p piece until 1990

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

A sixpence, or tanner. Used as 2.5 pence until 1980.

A sixpence, or tanner. Used as 2.5 pence until 1980.

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

The guinea

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 1932 florin, worth 2 shillings. Used as a 10p coin from 1971 to 1994

A 1932 florin, worth 2 shillings. Used as a 10p coin from 1971 to 1994

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.

23 Responses to “Old English money – pounds, shillings and pence before decimalisation”

  1. Brian says:

    I have an old silver threepence, be interesting to see what its worth. Nice post by the way reviewing our old money system is something I enjoy especially as I was a teenager when we changed to the decimal system, which I have to admit made adding up the milk bills on my milk round a little easier.

  2. gareth says:

    Was reading a book about Warwickshire in 1682 where they mentioned fines for not accepting the office of maior or sheriff or chamberlein of 100 li or 100 Marks or 20 li. I(presume)? li is pounds from the latin libre but Marks??
    Any ideas??
    Cheers for now

  3. Neil Thompson says:

    I thought that ½d was spelt halfpenny.

  4. Prodnose says:

    There were also the big old copper pennies, some of them very worn, with the head of the young Victoria on them (from the 1840s or 1850s?) and still in use in the fifties and sixties. And the copper ha’pennies, with the sailing ship “The Golden Hind” on the reverse. The greenish threepenny bit had the little pink seaside flower thrift on its reverse. Half a crown was twelve and a half pence, and bought a great deal for a child! I never saw a crown (five shilling piece) and was told that they were “unlucky”. A little silver threepenny piece was saved, wrapped in a scrap of greaseproofed paper and put into the Christmas pudding. Whoever found it in their slice was sure to be wealthy within the year!

  5. Carol says:

    Why do you mention thruppence but not tuppence, or even two pence? I admit to being an American but in all of my British novel reading and BBC watching, I’ve never seen or heard “thruppence.” I have, however, heard Mary Poppins sing “tuppence a bag” in the song “Feed the Birds” and I’ve always loved the Agatha Christie character Tuppence in “Partners in Crime.”

  6. Martin says:

    You calle the `old currency’ complicated, but it wasn’t, we didn’t `sweat’ over money sums, it was just `rithmatic an fell in line to the many other uniquely ENGLISH ways of measuring things. Now it’s been done away with, along with ENGLAND too!! replaced with people who cannot think, because they never had to, just like the EU want!

  7. Kids Pools  says:

    my grand father used to have those old spanish gold coins in stock**.

  8. Roger McFarland says:

    I spent two years in Britain from 1958-1960 and to begin with, the British currency seemed almost unfathomable to a “Yank” from California. But within a short time, the huge copper pennies and the tiny sixpence and other coins and notes seemed as if I’d grown up with them. I was amazed that in many of the Council houses, the light would suddenly turn off unless you put one of those pennies in the meter so the elctricity would flow again. It seemed that the lights could stay on for an inordinate amount of time for only one penny. I still tell with fondness about the tuppence and the thrip’ney bit and the bob to my children and grandchildren. I recall the tune that ended with, “And if you haven’t got a ha’pney, well God bless you”!

  9. Liz says:

    We are still under the old currency system as the queen foreited the Crown in 61

  10. Mike says:

    My mother moved to Canada from Scotland in 1954. Once of her first jobs was in a grocery store here working as a cashier. She just could not “get” the Canadian currency as it’s basis as 100 cents in the dollar. She would ask people to tell her how much things cost and what their change should be. She did not last long, just a couple days. She told her boss, also from Scotland, that he had to agree that our way of doing it was just too hard for a newly arrived immigrant.

  11. kent says:

    I’m extremely impressed along with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is that this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway stay up the nice quality writing, it is rare to peer a nice weblog like this one today..

  12. garathbale says:

    hey i have a 50p a 5p a 6p a 1p and a half a penny love to see what its worth playing football yesterday

  13. steve burke says:

    dont forget the old game of shove hapenny, and spending a penny, the coin you had to put in the lock to open the door of a public toilet!

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