7 July 2014

15 February 1971 is a date which many of us 'oldies' remember well.  It was the date when, after hundreds of years, Britain finally changed from pounds shillings and pence to decimal coinage.

If you're under 45 or so you probably won't remember using 'old money', and you certainly never had the pleasure of doing sums at school in pre-decimal money.  

For us older ones, here's a reminder of the coins we used in the good old days.  Or, for younger people, an introduction to the 'old money' we older people sometimes still go on about.

The lowest value coin was the farthing, worth a quarter of a penny.  Originally called the 'fourth-thing', the more recent ones had a wren on the reverse side, older ones a Britannia figure.  The coin was withdrawn in 1960.

There were two farthings to a half penny (usually called a ha'penny, pronounced 'haypnee').  The ha'penny had an old-fashioned three-masted galleon on the reverse, like the one used by the Blue Peter TV programme.  Two ha'pennies made a penny, which had a Britannia figure on the reverse.

Silver pre-1937 thrupenny bit (a 'joey')
Next there was the threepenny bit (or 'thrupenny bit').  This was originally a part-silver coin (the 'joey'), see left.  This was replaced in 1937 by a 12-sided nickel-brass coin, see below.  Two thrupenny bits made a sixpence coin, or 'tanner'.  

post-1937 thrupenny bit
Two tanners made a shilling, or 'bob'.  Two bob made a two shilling coin or florin (the 'two bob bit').  This was the first British decimal coin, one tenth of a pound in value.

Two bob and a tanner made a half-crown, worth two shillings and sixpence ('two and six').  Two half-crowns made a crown (five shillings), but for many years this was only issued as a commemorative coin.

a penny farthing bicycle
Four half-crowns were ten shillings, the lowest value bank note.  Those brown 'ten bob notes' were often received as a special childhood birthday or Christmas gift.  

Two ten bob notes made a pound (a 'quid').  And finally there's the guinea - a quid and a bob (21 shillings).  The guinea is still used in some circles,such as horse-racing and fine art auctions, worth £1.05.

The farthing, halfpenny and penny coins were generally known as 'coppers', which is what they were made of until replaced by bronze in 1860.

The sixpenny piece and the higher value coins were known as 'silver', but had been made of copper-nickel alloy from 1947. Today's silver coins are made of the same alloy.

For younger people: it wasn't too confusing - there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings (240 pennies) in the pound.  Yes, it did made maths a bit complicated at school, particularly  multiplication and division, and we didn't have calculators back then either!

But all this fun ended on 15 February 1971, with the arrival of the decimal currency we have today, a nice, simple 100 pence to the pound.

Simple, eventually, but at the time 1p (new pence, or 'pee') was worth 2.4d (old pennies) and there was a lot of hoo-ha about it at the time.  A huge publicity campaign, leaflets delivered to every household and that sort of thing.  

There was also a distinct jump in inflation, with prices being rounded up and 'coincidental' price rises which some retailers claimed were already in the pipeline, all greeted with widespread suspicion.

Our decimal system really is based on multiples of 100, so should perhaps be called centesimal - not a word which rolls off the tongue  which may be the reason why the powers that be plumped for 'decimal system.  However, the US system really is decimal with 10 cents to the dime and 10 dimes to the dollar.  

How did we end up with all these coins?

The penny dates back around 1400 years, mentioned in the laws of Kind Ine of Wessex (688 - 726).  King Offa of Mercia introduced silver penny coins weighing 1/240 of a pound in weight, copying the denier from Charlemagne's empire.  In about 735, Charlemagne's father - who had the amazing name Pipin the Short - introduced a system based on the pound of silver (livre tournois), divided into 20 solidi, each of which was worth 12 deniers, so there were 240 deniers to a pound of silver.  

This is the origin of the old expression LSD for our currency - the pound sign (£) is derived from a fancy gothic capital letter L, the '/' used  to show shillings evolved from the old-fashioned 'long s' which looks like an F, and pennies were represented by the letter d.  Two shillings and 6 pence was written as 2/6d.

The penny swiftly spread throughout the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as the standard coin of what became England, the first country to have a single national currency since the fall of the Roman Expire.  

Between the 8th and 13th centuries, the silver penny was often the only coin in circulation and millions of them were minted.  

Although some farthing and halfpenny coins were made, pennies were often cut into halves and quarters to provide people with change.

What became the shilling and pound were introduced in 1487 and 1489 respectively.  The crown and half-crown were added in 1526, the first threepenny and sixpenny coins in  1552.  The copper penny coin appeared in 1797.

And there really did used to be a coin called a 'groat'.  It was worth four pennies and taken out of circulation in the 17th century.
Edward III Groat
A groat from Edward III reign (14 century)

Our currency is often referred to as 'sterling' to differentiate it from other currencies of the same name - Egypt, Lebanon, the Sudan (and new new country of South Sudan), Syria, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Falkland Islands have currencies called the pound.  

Maundy money
The word 'sterling' probably dates back to 1158 when King Henry II introduced the 'Tealby penny', a coin made of 92.5? silver, harder-wearing than pure silver.  This alloy is called 'sterling silver' from this link with ancient coinage.  Today, only traditional Maundy coins contain silver.

There were also ten shilling and pound gold coins (the half-sovereign and the sovereign), which started off as handy-sized pieces of bullion.  The pound coin was called a sovereign as the first ones in 1489 had a picture of the kind, Henry VII.  The sovereign became the standard British gold coin in 1817, replacing the guinea.

I have one of these at home
The 10 shilling and pound bank notes were first use from 1914, replacing those gold coins.  The sovereign is till in production, as is the crown (now a commemorative £5 coin).

The earliest suggestion found so far was made by Jonathan Swift in the 17th century that Britain should adopt decimal currency.  And the French Revolution influenced a European movement towards decimalisation.  Proposals, reports and commissions in 1824, 1853, 1857 and 1918 led nowhere. 

The florin was introduced in 1849, worth two shillings (one tenth of a pound) and the earliest examples actually bore the inscription 'One Tenth of a Pound'.

A Committee of Inquiry on Decimal Currency (1961 - 63), chaired by Lord Halsbury, recommended a pound-based system.  And the decision to adopt this was taken in 1966, coming into effect in 1971.  

The old shilling and two shilling coins were replaced in 1967 with the five and ten 'new pence' coins respectively, the same size and value as the coins they replaced.  

The 50 pence coin was introduced in 1969 to replace the 10 shilling note. The old halfpenny coin was withdrawn in 1969, the half-crown coins and the 10 shilling note in 1970, but the tanner survived until 1980.

The decimal coins introduced in 1971 were the half new pence, one new pence and two new pence.  The term 'new pence' was dropped in 1982, the year when the 20p coin arrived in our change.  The half pence coin went in 1984, a victim of inflation.  The pound coin was introduced in 1983, replacing the pound note completely in 1988.  The £2 coin arrived in 1986, the current two-tone version in 1998.  

The silver 5p, 10p and 50p coins we have in circulation today are a bit smaller than their 1971 versions, the current coins introduced during the 1990s.

The cupro-nickel (75% Cu, 25%Ni) 5p and 10p coins are gradually being replaced by nickel-plated steel ones due to the increasing price of metal (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_pence_(British_coin)).

The penny, florin and half-crown coins seem pretty large today.  I always loved the quirky old 12-sided thrupenny coin, small and heavy and also the half crown, probably because the latter was what was often given to me by kind uncles and grandpas.

Queen Victoria penny
Edward VII penny
Looking at the coins reminded me that the profile of each monarch faced in the opposite direction from their predecessor.   Your local museum may well have a collection of historical currency and coins.  

Even though the coins have changed value and appearance many times, in Britain we've kept the name of one coin, the penny for the last 1400 years.  You'd recognise a Greek or Roman coin, or a penny from 700 AD as money if you saw one day.

With cards and electronic transfer, sadly money is becoming just numbers moving between computers.  Maybe if we simply carry on using cash, money might stay being something real, a coin or a note, both continuing links with our history.

And if we carry on using our modern coins long enough, maybe someone will come up with some snappy nicknames for them.

Back in about 1912 my grandmother was paid a sovereign (£1/0s/0d) a week wages (or perhaps it was a half sovereign?)and was mortified one week to lose it.  Perhaps it would have been better if she'd been given her wages in smaller denominations!


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