Wednesday 4 January 2012

What's that in Old Money?

I remember pre-decimal UK money. Yes, I am THAT old. It all changed on 'D Day' in 1971 when I was 10 and just as I had got used to the old system, dammit. The one thing I remember clearly was that my sixpence pocket money was now two and a half 'new pence', which felt like I'd been cheated. And the local sweet shop owner near my home in Penzance, Cornwall, was quick to take advantage of our confused young brains by marking up the Mars Bars as four New Pence. They had been 6d. Git.

We all got given little cards to help us make the conversion and the TV ran adverts like this:

Yes, it was all very confusing at the time but it was a change for the better. Unlike weights and measures (the metrication of which was always a very silly idea - See here), there was no good reason why we shouldn't adopt the simplest system in order to count money. Let's face it, decimal currency is much easier than the complex old system of pounds, shillings and pence that we had. If you are under 40, you might be interested to hear how the old system worked; if nothing else it'll help you make sense of old films and TV shows.

Prior to decimalisation the UK pound consisted of 240 pence rather than the 100 we know today. It could be divided into twenty shillings each containing 12 pennies or pence. These divisions may seem clumsy and alien to our modern decimal world but, actually, having a pound of 240 equal parts does mean it can be exactly divided into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, eighths, tenths, twelfths, fifteenths, sixteenths, twentieths, twenty-fourths, thirtieths, fortieths, forty-eightieths, sixtieths, eightieths, and one-hundred-and-twentieths. A decimal system allows precise division only into halves, quarters, fifths, tenths, twentieths, twenty-fifths, and fiftieths.

We often call the old system 'Pounds, Shillings and Pence' because they were the basic units and it was often written as £SD or, rather humorously, as 'LSD'. That's because the pound sign (£) is a stylised letter L. We get it from the Romans and the word libra; the Latin word for scales or balance (as in the star sign). The libra was a basic Roman unit of weight and the librum pundus - where we get 'pound' from - was the amount of silver needed to make 240 silver pennies. It weighed around a pound - which is why the abbreviation for the weight is 'lb' - librum. It's also where the name of the pre-Euro Italian currency, the Lira, came from. The 's' of 'LSD' didn't stand for 'shilling' as you might think but for another Roman coin, the solidus. And the 'd' - used for the pence - was also Roman and short for denarius, a Roman silver coin of low denomination. 

It's curious to note that the pound that we think of as so fundamentally British was actually Italian. It was used all over the Roman Empire - that's the UK, most of Europe and parts of Africa - and therefore, with some irony, was the original Euro.

When Britain went decimal, and for some years after (until 1988), the pound was a note rather than a coin. There were also £5 and £10 notes in common circulation (and still are). There was also a 10 shilling note (known as the 10 bob note) but that was phased out in 1970.

The image shown above represents all of the coins and notes that I can remember using just before decimalisation came along. Or seeing anyway - my pocket money didn't reach the heady heights of paper money. They are the £5, £1 and 10 shilling notes (the £10 note isn't in the picture) and the half penny, penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and half crown coins. I'll explain them all ... and, just to confuse things, mention the other rarer coins that were also still in circulation in 1971.

The smallest I can ever recall ever using was the ha'penny; one half of a penny (1/2d) and usually pronounced as 'hayp-knee'. It was about the same size as a modern 2p piece which is why you use them in amusement arcade 'Shove Ha'Penny games'; it meant the minimum conversion to the machines when the ha'pennies vanished (and a tidy profit too as the new 2p coin equated to 2d in old money!).

Both the ha'penny and the penny were bronze coins although they were originally made of copper and were often called 'coppers'. I clearly remember, as a child, walking home from school past an old tramp in Causeway Head who always asked us to 'spare some coppers'. The penny was also the toll charge for using public toilets hence the expression 'spending a penny' that many still use today (even though the buggers charge you 30p at London train stations now).

Next came the threepence - usually pronounced as thruppence or threppence and most commonly called thruppenny bits (which became Cockney rhyming slang for breasts). These were small round silver coins up until the end of the 1930s after which they came a chunky 12 sided brass looking coin. They lasted until August 1971.

Then came the sixpence, often called a tanner. This was a small silver coin until 1947. After that they kept the silver colour but got slightly larger and were made of cupro-nickel. Sixpences were seen as lucky by many people.

The shilling, commonly called a bob, was worth 12 pence. The silver-coloured one shilling piece equated to the decimal 5p and the new coins were deliberately minted the same size to help people with the transition. Shillings could be used as 5p pieces up until 1990 when they were withdrawn and the new, smaller 5p piece was introduced. The name 'shilling' comes from scilling, an accounting term that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times where it was deemed to be the value of a cow in Kent (or a sheep elsewhere).

The florin was a two shilling piece and, therefore, 1/10th of a pound (24d). The florin was a Victorian experiment in decimalisation. For several years, a group of ministers had been lobbying for the government to decimalise so that trade with other nations and other countries in the Empire would be easier. almost everyone else had decimal systems. The government was unwilling to make such a big step all in one go and so the florin was introduced in 1849 to gauge public opinion. The florin remained in use in the UK after decimalisation just like the shilling. In value and size  it equated to the 10p piece and could be used as such. They finally disappeared as recently as 1993 when the new smaller 10p came along.

The next coin up was the half crown. This was the coin that the florin was being tested against. The half crown's value was two shillings and sixpence or 'two and six'. That's the same as 30 pence or 1/8th of a pound. The champions of decimalisation insisted that people found it easier to divide by tens than by eights. They were right. This coin was lost after 'D Day'.

Paper money stepped in at this point with the ten shilling note which was replaced by the 50p piece after 1971. A common expression you'll still hear today is 'bent as a nine bob note' or 'queer as a nine bob note'. It means something dodgy or untrustworthy.

Lastly, there was the guinea. You'll still hear the word guinea used in the names of horse races - such as the annual 1000 Guineas race at Newmarket - because it was very much a coin of the well-heeled. A guinea was worth one pound and one shilling (21s). They were made from African gold mined in Guinea - hence the name - and were only in circulation until 1816. However, the term continued in use as the guinea was considered a more gentlemanly amount than £1. You paid a tradesman, such as a carpenter or butcher, in pounds but a gentleman, such as an artist or lawyer, was paid in guineas. It was a tradition in the legal profession that a barrister was paid in guineas but kept only the pounds, giving his (they were all men then) clerk the shillings. Like the pound, the guinea could also be divided exactly into many different amounts - halves, thirds, quarters, sixths, sevenths, ninths, fourteenths, twenty-firsts, twenty-eighths, thirty-sixths, forty-seconds, sixty-thirds, eighty-fourths, and one-hundred-and-twenty-sixths. One useful factor was that a third of a guinea was exactly seven shillings.

As I mentioned, there were some other coins in use as legal tender in 1971 although you rarely saw them. The crown (worth 60d or five shillings or 1/4 of a pound) was a very large coin and didn't circulate well. It was sometimes called a 'dollar'. Minting was stopped in 1965 and they did not translate to the new decimal system. They continue to be minted as commemorative coins only to mark important events such as royal marriages and deaths. There was a short-lived double florin (four shillings) that was minted between 1887 and 1890 and which are now very collectible. I've never seen one. And there was a gold coin worth £1 called a sovereign (and a half sovereign, also in gold, worth ten shillings) that were first minted in 1817 as a response to the rather uncertain value of earlier gold coins. Both were current throughout Victoria's reign. It's why Cockney traders still use the slang term 'sovs' for pounds. You may also know of the farthing or quarter penny. I remember seeing them as a child with their distinctive image of a wren on the back but they'd stopped being legal tender in 1961, the year I was born. The fact that it was the smallest coin and the penny was the largest gave the distinctive penny farthing bicycle its name.

Under the old system, amounts of money were written in various ways. The pound was represented, as it still is, by the £ sign, the shilling by an 's' and the penny by a 'd'. So the meaning of £3-4s-6d is fairly obvious and would have been said as 'Three pounds, four and six'. Amounts below a pound were written using a slash (originally a tall old-fashioned long 'S') to divide shillings and pence.

Consequently, the Hatter's hat was priced at 10/6 meaning 10s and 6d, or 'ten and six' if spoken. A guinea was £1-1s-0d and could be written as '1g' or '1gn' or, in the plural, '3gs' or '3gns'.

So, to recap;

2 ha'pennies made 1d. There were 24 ha'pennies in a shilling.

1 penny (1d) was 1/240th of £1 and 12 pennies made one shilling.

1 threepence (3d) was worth 1/80th of £1 and there were four threepences in a shilling. 

1 sixpence (6d) was 1/40th of £1, two sixpences made a shilling, and four sixpences made a florin.

1 shilling (1s) was worth 12d and there were 20 shillings in £1.

1 florin was worth 2s or 24d or 1/10th of £1.

1 half crown was worth 2s and 6d (2/6) or 30 pennies. Eight half crowns made £1.

1 pound (£1) was 240d or 20s.

1 guinea (1gn) was £1 and 1s, or 21s, or 252d.

So now you know. It all seems very complicated now doesn't it? But do bear in mind that every man, woman and child understood this system at the time. We weren't so dumb in the old days!

But damn, I do feel old now.

To see some great detailed descriptions of pre-decimal coinage, do visit this site run by Gwydir. I'd also recommend Bob Mockford's excellent site here. And my thanks to Mo McFarland for pointing me in the direction of this wonderful little film from British Pathe News.


  1. Hi, well you were older than me on decimilsation day (I was 8). But you're wrong in your recollection that Mars Bars were 6d. In fact I remember they were 9d. But you're right they were 4p on decimilisation day.

  2. Ian

    Hmmm ... I remember the incident pretty clearly but who knows what befuddlement my brain has endured in the past four decades? Maybe I'm confusing the Mars Bar with a Toffee Crisp which I KNOW was 6d as there was an ad on TV at the time set in the Wild West that spoofed the song 'Chatanooga Choo Choo'. The ad ended ... 'Choo choo toffee crisp for sixpence a bar.'


  3. Maybe my brain has suffered befuddlement too! However 9d is 3.75p, and 6d is only 2.5p. So they won't have shot up in price from 2.5p to 4p.

    I also remember certain tubes of sweets like fruit polos going up from 3d (1.25p) to 1.5p.

    BTW the ha'penny wasn't about the same size as a 2p. It was *exactly* the same size. As indeed the farthing is exactly the same size as a new 1p piece. No I don't remember farthings! But I do remember all the pre-decimilisation currenly -- even halfpennies, half-crowns and 10 bob notes which all went out of circulation prior to decimalisation day (Monday 15th February 1971). That is if I remember correctly!