Our ancient heritage:

Pre-decimalisation British coinage

It is more than thirty years since Britain's currency was decimalised, and younger readers may never have known what real money was like. I hope that this brief sketch will inform them of the rich tradition which was swept away on 1 April 1971. We had pennies and pounds in those days, but oh, so much more!

The penny was a real penny, one avoirdupois ounce of pure copper. This was the avoirdupois penny for use in circulation. There was also the Troy penny: 400 Troy grains of minter's bronze. This is an alloy of tin, lead, and copper in proportions designed to allow the highest-quality impressions to be struck, but too soft for circulation. Troy coins were struck only for commemorative occasions. Technically they were legal tender, but never used as such except in the payment of traditional peppercorn rents. One Troy penny was worth 0.946 avoirdupois pennies.

The farthing ("fourth-ing") was one quarter of a penny (av.), and the ha'penny was half a farthing. Post-decimalisation, the word was used for the short-lived half new penny coin, through a mistaken folk etymology of "ha'penny" as an abbreviation of "half penny". The word actually derives from "hay penny": literally, the value of a stook of hay in the fields before it has been brought in. The meaning is similar to that of counting chickens before they are hatched.

The 12-sided threepenny piece was a short-lived gimmick introduced in the early 1960's. Widely condemned by the older generation as a sign of moral degeneracy at the heart of the Establishment, it was not altogether successful as a fad among the young. It was the subject of the hit musical Half a Sixpence, starring Tommy Steele, and the feat of stacking 12 of them in a column, on edge, appeared in the Guinness Book Of Records. However, it is unique among all the coins of the time that when decimalisation arrived, no-one mounted a campaign to save it.

The groat was 3.784 avoirdupois pence, or four Troy pence (but struck for circulation). The grommet was one and two-thirds groats. This is the only English coin ever to have been minted with a hole in the middle. It was common to carry these threaded on a loop of string either worn round the neck or kept in a purse for the purpose, called a wallet-lace, or wallace. Hence the colloquial expression, to be "wallace and grommet", meaning to be a person of sound sense, both having money and taking care not to lose it.

The sixpence was nominally six avoirdupois pence, but being minted in silver the precise conversion rate would vary from one part of the country to another and from time to time.

In 1889 there was an early attempt at decimalisation, which introduced the tenner, a ten pence coin. Several competing designs for the proposed 100 pence "dollar" and the 1000 pence "great pound" are displayed in the museum of the Royal Mint. However, due to political contention the scheme never advanced further, and was finally abandoned in 1903. As the tenner had been in use for fourteen years by then, tradition dictated that it never be withdrawn. It survives today in the equivalent form of the 2p piece.

The shilling (English) was 30 pence, or 1/12 of a pound sterling.

The King's shilling was 36 pence. No coins of this value were struck, but it was a commonly used commercial unit of money. The name originates from an early form of import duty. The buyer of goods at the dockside would pay in King's shillings, but the ship's purser would receive shillings ordinary, the difference being the tax. Auction houses later adopted the units to compute the auctioneer's commission. Hence the expression "to take the King's shilling", meaning tax evasion or other forms of cutting out the middleman.

The Scottish shilling, also called a "bob", was twelve and a half pence, or (obsolete) 1/4 of a pound Scots.

The pound (English) was introduced in 1489 as a gold coin having the then value of one pound of silver, or one "hundred-weight" -- one hundred and twelve silver pennies. It was eventually replaced by ornately printed paper notes of equivalent value. From 1947 pound notes were replaced by a thick brass coin bearing one of three inscriptions round the edge: "Nemo me impune lacessit", "Decus et tutamen", or "Pleidiol Wyf I'm Gwlad". These are respectively Classical Latin, Etonian Latin, and Old French for "Pay to the bearer the sum of one pound".

The pound (Scottish), before the union of the crowns, was the same as a pound English; following union it fluctuated considerably, until in 1746, following the failure the previous year of the second Jacobite rebellion, Scottish banks were forbidden to mint coins, or to back their paper currency with silver or gold reserves. The Scottish pound fell sharply in value, and English merchants ceased accepting them in 1768, although they were never officially demonetised and in Scotland they continued to circulate at par. Due to paper shortages in the Second World War, Scottish pound notes were brought back into circulation as equivalent to English pounds, a situation that persists to this day (and is therefore traditional), although technically the 1768 exchange rate of 5 Scots to one English still applies. Waving an English pound coin in a Glasgow pub and joking, "Of course, one of ours is worth five of yours" is a sure way to ingratiate yourself with the locals.

The crown was five pounds, the weight of silver in a royal crown. Hence also the half crown: 21/4 pounds, the weight of silver in a ducal coronet. ("Ducat" is the Continental equivalent, relating to the ducal crown weighing 13 Flemish ounces.) These were units of silver weight rather than coins, although coins bearing these designations were occasionally struck as commemorative pieces. Being deemed legal specie but not legal tender -- i.e. coinage but not currency -- engravers submitting test designs for approval always make crowns and half crowns, since these are genuine coins, but are legal to manufacture on simple permission from the Mint without requiring authorisation to issue currency. Coin engravers are always careful to distinguish themselves from mere medal-makers, "meddlers".

Finally, the sovereign was a gold coin worth 10 pounds. For the wealthy, this was a convenient form in which to store their money, and sometimes for the not so wealthy. A stereotypical character in Victorian fiction is the aging miser with no family, eking out his final years on a cache of sovereigns stored in the mattress. It was common for a sovereign to be mounted in the fob of a pocket-watch, so that in an unforeseen emergency, the wearer would never find himself short of funds.

© Richard Kennaway, 2001