Pre-decimal Sterling

Coins, values, names and slang
Size of coins
Names and Abbreviations
Money tables
Other coins
Even older coins
Old Scottish currency
Sayings and songs


Value of Coins

4 farthings= 1 penny (1d)
2 ha'pence= 1 penny (1d)
3 pence= 1 thruppence (3d)
6 pence= 1 sixpence (6d)
12 pence= 1 shilling (1s)
2 shillings= 1 florin (2s)
2 shillings and 6 pence= 1 half crown (2s 6d)
Penny Thruppence Sixpence Half Crown

These were the coins before 1961 (in my childhood). There were notes for ten shillings, a pound, five pounds and ten pounds. The farthing was abolished in January 1961, and the rest of the coins were phased out before, during or after D-Day (decimal day - 15 February 1971). Some of the silver continued after D-Day as they had values in the new currency. A shilling became 5p and a florin became 10p. The new coins were 1/2p, 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p and 50p (where the 50p replaced the ten shilling note). The other coins (20p, £1, £2) have been introduced since, and the 1/2p abolished. There are now 8 different values of coin in regular use (as of 2003). If you want to know more about decimalisation, see Tony Clayton's webpage.

I have given the name of the coins as they were pronounced. The correct way of writing them was half penny, three pence and six pence (as you can see on the coins), but no-one said it that way. 3d was often called a thruppenny bit. There was no coin for 2d, but you would say that something cost tuppence (as in Mary Poppins, both for seed to "feed the birds", and for "paper and string" for kites). You would pay for it with two pennies (rather than pence). Something might cost half a crown, but you paid for it with a half crown. A five pound note and a ten pound note were called a fiver and a tenner, as they are today. It is interesting that the ten shilling and pound notes didn't have names (although 'quid' was and is a slang term for pound). This may be because there used to be gold coins for these amounts, called half sovereigns, and sovereigns.

There were slang names for some of the coins. A shilling was a bob. Boy scouts would collect money by doing bob-a-job, meaning simple chores such as washing the car or cleaning shoes for a shilling. (If this seems a very small sum of money, remember that there has been inflation since then. I got 1d for each year of my age for pocket money each week, so when I was 9 I got 9d a week.) People would sometimes say, ironically, "That must be worth a few bob!" meaning, that must be worth a lot of money. (Now we would say "That must be worth a few quid!") Sixpence was a tanner. An old-fashioned expression for a thrupeeny bit was a joey, but I didn't use it as a child. Half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) was sometimes called half a dollar; perhaps this was a memory from when there were four dollars to the pound (in 1945, the exchange rate was $1=$4.03). A pound was a quid, which was always singular, so £5 was five quid. We still use 'quid' for pound, but apart from that, modern coins don't have names, either officially or as slang. Whether this is because they haven't been around long enough, or because we are no longer as interested in the coins of our change, I don't know. However, I have heard from Frederick Cooper, "In my hometown, Liverpool, the 50p piece was called a 'Harold', (Wilson), brought out during his term of office, because it had seven sides and two faces. The later pound coin was called a 'Maggie' (Thatcher), again during the term of office, that she was just common, but attempting to be a sovereign." I'm afraid that you need to be British, and over a certain age, to appreciate these jokes!

I have heard the dart score of 26 (using 3 darts) called "Bed & Breakfast". This is quite a common score among bad darts players, since you're aiming for 20, which has 5 and 1 on either side. Its name was because it was two and six, which was alleged to be the cost of staying in a B&B for a night. That must have been long, long ago!

Coins The penny was 1.25 inches (3 cm) across and the sixpence 0.75 inches (2 cm). This picture on the left gives some idea of size. The column on the right is half a crown down to sixpence. The middle column is thruppence down to a farthing. The left hand column is current money, to give some idea of scale, 10p and 1p. 5p worth of old pennies It also shows some of the problems with the old currency. There were two many silver coins, and they looked too similar, and were too close in size. Also some of the coins were large and heavy, particularly the penny and half crown. Here is a shilling's worth of old pennies, with a 5p coin, worth the same.

Of course, this comparison of coins is not quite fair, since the value of money are changed because of inflation. In the 1960's, a Mars bar cost 6d, and a pink shrimp sweet, blackjack chew or fruit salad chew were all a farthing each.

Here is a table from an old reference book showing how you could measure using coins. These all refer to 'old' money!

1 inch - Halfpenny
1 1/4 inches - Penny
3/4 inch - Sixpence
7/8 inch - Shilling
1 1/8 inch - Florin
1 1/4 inches - Half a crown
All these weighed one ounce when new:
3 pennies
5 halfpennies
10 farthings
5 shillings
10 sixpenny pieces

So a shilling's worth of pennies weighed 4 ounces or quarter of a pound, over 100 grams!

After 1066, the Norman used their own French coins in Britain, each impressed with a small star. Norman French for little star was esterlin. The pound sterling was a pound weight of esterlin, roughly 240 coins. So esterlin became Anglicised to 'sterling' - the name for the whole currency, and the coin itself was called the penny, its pre-Conquest name. Pennies are believed to be named after King Penda of Mercia. Shilling comes from the Old English 'to divide' when coins were often cut to make smaller denominations.

Pre-decimal currency was sometimes called LSD, which was written £-s-d. The pound symbol is an ornate L, from the Latin 'libra' - a pound. The penny symbol was 'd' for denarius, a Roman coin.

On decimalisation, the new pennies, which were worth 2.4 times the old ones, had the symbol 'p' to destinguish them. At this time, people would firmly say 'new pee' to show they meant the new currency rather than the old (usually prompting the plaintive comment "What's that in old money?" or even "What's that in real money?") After a bit, we dropped the 'new', but people still use the term 'pee' as well as pence. I have been writting the money using 's' and 'd', as it makes it clearer if you're not used to it, but it didn't used to be written this way. Two shillings and sixpence (a half crown) would be 2/6, and could be said as "two and six". It was perfectly clear what was meant. Any sum involving pounds would say so. One pound seven shillings and sixpence would be £1/7/6, and would be called 'One pound, seven and six'. If there were no pennies, then you wrote a dash. Five shillings was 5/-, but here you did say 'Five shillings'. The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland has a price tag on his hat saying "In This Style 10/6". So this hat would cost ten shillings and sixpence, just over half a pound. It might be paid for with four half crowns and a sixpence!




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The coins above all show their 'tails'. The pre-decimal coins had several different monarchs' heads.

These pennies are, from left to right, Victoria, Edward VII. George V, George VI and Elizabeth II. You may notice that some face to the left, while others face to the right. Victorian pennies This was because each monarch faced a different way to the previous. The missing monarch is Edward VIII (between the Georges). It is not surprising that I don't have an Edward VIII coin. He was only King for a few months, and was never crowned, as he abdicated. Victoria has a small crown, but the others don't. In the modern coins, Queen Elizabeth is always crowned. In fact, there were two versions of Victorian pennies. The earlier ones were known as Bun pennies, because of her hair style. Of course, both portraits face the same way.

Money tables

12d = 1/-
18d = 1/6
24d = 2/-
30d = 2/6
36d = 3/-
42d = 3/6
48d = 4/-
60d = 5/-
72d = 6/-
84d = 7/-
96d = 8/-
108d = 9/-
120d = 10/-
240d = £1
20s = £1
100d = 8/4
Third of £1 = 6/8
Two thirds of £1 = 13/4
We would spend HOURS at school learning these and doing money sums. "If an egg cost thruppence ha'penny, then what does a dozen eggs cost?" Since a dozen pennies was a shilling, then a dozen times three and a half was three and a half shillings, or 3/6. The only thing sold in dozens were eggs, so the sum had to be about eggs. In fact, eggs were always sold in boxes, and priced accordingly. Whoever says that schooling used to be better must have forgotten all this wasted effort. (And no, it didn't help your mental arithmetic. I was good at money sums, but still can't do mental arithmetic very well!)

Elizabeth II Crown Victorian crown

The crown was issued for special occasions, and had a different design each time. It was worth 5s. These are Elizabeth II on the left, and Victoria on the the right. Crowns were legal currency, but were heavy, and were given as presents, or collected, rather than used to buy things. Half crowns were common. Crown coins are still issued for special occasions, but now they are worth £5.

Thrift thruppence Scots shilling You would find other versions of coins in your change as well. An older thruppenny bit had a picture of a thrift on it. This is a wild flower, but its name suggests that you should spend your 3d wisely, or even save it! The Scots had their own version of the shilling, which was valid currency in England as well.

While the anti-Euro brigade wish to defend our 'traditional' currency at all costs, in fact, the currency has been constantly changing. From 1717 to 1817, there was a coin called a guinea, which was worth 21s (or £1/1/-). While there was no guinea coin afterwards, I rememberfrom my childhood that prices were sometimes quoted in guineas. This meant they were more expensive than if they were quoted in the same number of pounds! It's still used as the name of some horse races, and is worth £1.05.
We now have a pound coin. There used to be a pound note, and before that, from 1817 to 1917, there was a gold pound coin called a sovereign. In fact, the original sovereign dated from Tudor times (and wasn't necessarily worth a pound), but it was replaced by the guinea, see above. In Victorian times there was also a half sovereign, also gold, which was replaced by a ten shilling (or ten bob) note early twentieth century. However, this was replaced yet again by a "silver" (not real of course) coin in 1971, which was now 50 (new) pence.
There were slang terms for specific amounts of pounds. A pony was £25 and a monkey was £500. This website (which has many other slang terms for money) suggests that this came from the British Raj, since a 500 rupee note had a picture of a monkey on it, and a 25 repee note had a picture of a pony.
A more common slang term for an amount of money is a grand, which is a thousand pounds. This is still in use.
A groat was worth 4 pennies or a third of a shilling. It was last used in 1855.
The biggest change of all was decimalisation (in 1971), where the coins all changed, the shilling abolished, and we had a hundred pennies to a pound instead of two hundred and forty pennies to the pound! Anglo Saxon silver penny

This coin on the left is a silver penny, produced during the reign of King Canute. It was struck by Ornst of Grantabridge (Cambridge). Two hundred and forty of these coins would weigh a pound of silver.

Modern valid change

This realtes to modern valid change, which doesn't really belong on this page but I don't where else to put it! In Britain, you can only pay for something using a certain type of coin up to a certain amount. A shop-keeper or similar person can refuse to accept more than that (although they can accept it if they wish).

CoinsMaximum acceptable
£1 or £2any amount
20p and 50pup to £10
5p and 10pup to £5
1p and 2pup to 20p

However, these restrictions do not apply to the settlement of a debt, when any coins may be used.

Scottish currency abolished at the Act Of Union 1707

1 penny (Scots) = 1/12 penny (Sterling)
2 pennies = 1 bodle
2 bodles = 1 plack
3 bodles = 1 bawbee = 1 halfpenny
2 bawbees = 1 shilling = 1 penny
13 shillings 4 pence = 1 merk
20 shillings = 1 pound = 1s 8d

The Scots shilling (English penny) is still with us as the Gaelic for penny is 'sgillinn'. An English shilling is sgillinn-shasunnach. But 'pound' is just 'nÚt' (pl. nÚtachan).

Different sayings and songs based round money

A penny farthing was an ancient bicycle, where the front wheel could be 5 feet across, while the back wheel was only a foot. These wheels looked like the difference in size between a farthing and penny.
'Spend a penny' meant going to the toilet. Public toilets had locks that could only be opened by inserting an old penny.
'Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves'. Be careful about small sums of money.
But on the other hand 'Penny wise, pound foolish'. You can get so involved in small amounts of money, you don't realise that you are wasting large amounts of money.
'Not worth a brass farthing' - well, a farthing was never worth much, and a brass one even less!
'I haven't got two farthings to rub together' (because I am so poor).†When the farthing got abolished, then the saying got changed to 'two ha'pennies' instead.
'A penny for your thoughts' is said to someone deep in thought (I don't remember anyone claiming the penny!)
'Someone turns up like a bad penny' means that they keep visiting you although they're not welcome. (The person who gave me this saying used it of herself, which was not true!). I presume that a bad penny is a forged one. Another correspondent mentions a war grave that simply said "He was a good penny" (i.e. he didn't come back). Heart-breaking!
'In for a penny, in for a pound' means if you're going to get involved, then go all the way. These penny/pound sayings could still be used, of course.
If you are 'quids in' then you are happy with the situation. A 'quid' is a pound.
'You look as if you'd lost a shilling and found sixpence.' Sixpence was worth less than a shilling, so you look unhappy!
A 'fourpenny one' means a blow or a punch, possibly a black eye. It was not a coin pre-decimalisation, but long ago, it was a groat.
You can look 'as fine as fivepence (or ninepence)'. Neither five pence or nine pence were coins! Five pence is a coin nowadays.
A correspondent tells me about 'Sitting here like tripe at nine pence'! I'm not sure what this means - possibly nine pence used to be expensive for tripe (it wouldn't be now!), so tripe priced that high wouldn't get sold - it would hang around.
'Ten pence to the shilling' is the same as 'one brick short of a load' or all the other variants!
'Half a sixpence' doesn't mean three pence. Couples would make love tokens by breaking a sixpence in half. Sometimes in folk songs, this was used to recognise your lover after many years at sea, since the two halves of the sixpence matched.
There's an interesting saying which has cropped up since decimalisation. When the money changed, people often weren't sure what the price of something meant, since they weren't thinking in the new money yet, so they would ask "What's that in old money?" However, I've noticed people using the same expression when talking about metric units. So "That's 2 kilos." - "What's that in old money?" Presumably this expression will vanish when all of us who remember the confusion in the early 1970's are no more. Unless we go over to the Euro!

There are songs for different times of year mentioning money.

Good Friday Hot Cross Buns
Hot Cross Buns
One a penny, two a penny
Hot Cross Buns
Guy Fawkes Day Remember, remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Penny for the Guy!
Christmas Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat.
Please put a penny in the old man's hat.
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do.
If you haven't got a ha'penny, a farthing will do.
If you haven't got a farthing, then God bless you.

In the songs and rhymes, there seems to have been a particular affection for the sixpence.

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a king?

There was a crooked man,
Who walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence
Beside a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat,
Who caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together
In a little crooked house.

I've got sixpence,
A jolly jolly sixpence,
I've got sixpence to last me all my life.
I've got tu'pence to lend
And tu'pence to spend
And tu'pence to send home to my wife.

Tuppence was popular as well, although it wasn't a coin.

Half a pound of tuppenny rice
Half a pound of treacle.
That's the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.
Plus the Mary Poppins songs, of course!

Rhymes with other amounts of money show how much you used to be able to buy with these coins. (A pie for a penny!)

Simple Simon met a pieman
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
"Let me taste your ware."
Says the pieman to Simple Simon,
"Show me first your penny."
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
"Indeed, I have not any."

Buttons, a farthing a pair!
Come, who will buy them of me?
They're round and sound and pretty,
And fit for girls of the city.
Come, who will buy them of me?
Buttons, a farthing a pair!

"Oranges and lemons" say the bells of St Clements
"You owe me five farthings" say the bells of St Martins
"When will you pay me?" say the bells of Old Bailey.
"When I grow rich," say the bells of Shoreditch.
"When will that be?" say the bells of Stepney.
"I do not know," says the great Bell of Bow.

See Saw, Marjorie Daw,
Jenny shall have a new master,
She shall have but a penny a day,
Because she can't work any faster.

A good website on Coins of England and Great Britain.

If you would like to see some more rhymes, Mike's Collection of Nursery Rhymes is good.

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