A penny showing Britannia

A 1912 penny 

Pounds shillings and pence, or £.s.d. as it was written, must be a foreign language to many of those alive today, but it was the medium of exchange I grew up with. Until I was an adult – and by that I mean a 21-year-old, not an 18-year-old teenager – it was the only money I knew.  Why was a penny abbreviated to the letter ‘d’?  It all goes back to Roman times; the Latin word for penny was denarius. Similarly the ‘L’ in £.s.d. came from the word libra for a pound and the ‘s’ stands not for the word shilling as you might think, but for the Latin solidus. I said it was a foreign language, and this was literally true. The earliest reference to L.s.d. dates back to 1387 in England, according to the Oxford Dictionary, although the ‘£’ symbol with its horizontal line first appears in the early 17th century. At least the ‘£’ symbol still remains in use (if the s.d. went nearly 50 years ago) and has not been replaced by the Euro. At one time  in the 1990s the pound appeared to be doomed.

The groat (worth four pence) was a coin that had last been minted in 1856, and had not been extensively circulated after 1800. The crown (worth five shillings) only appeared in special issues to commemorate national events in the 20th century, although half-a-crown (two shillings and sixpence or 2/6) was still a common coin until 1971. The farthing remained legal tender until 1961, by which time it must have cost much more to produce than the coins were worth. By the end so few were minted that they seldom turned up in your change; yet I remember them well enough, with the symbolic Jenny wren on the tail side. There were nearly a thousand of these little coins to a pound. You couldn’t actually buy anything for a farthing in my lifetime, but eleven pence three farthings was a popular price for a loaf of bread. I have heard of a few pins being offered as change by haberdashers because farthings were so scarce, but normally you just ignored the farthing change and gave a shilling instead. Ha’penny chews on the other hand could still be purchased at the sweetshop until the ha’penny itself disappeared in 1969. A guinea was not a coin, it was a sum of money, and in theory it still exists as £.1.05p – one pound and one shilling. It was, by the 1960s, only used for selling racehorses. The 5% difference was the auctioneer’s commission – a very reasonable amount by modern standards.

It was a fundamentally different and indeed difficult system, centred on 12 pennies making a shilling. That was what we call ‘base 12’ in maths, divisible by four, three and two; ‘base 10’ is only divisible by two and five. Once you moved up to shillings it did change to a ‘base 10’ (or was it a base 20?) system, with 20 shillings making a pound. To be logical 12 shillings should have made a pound, but logic had little to do with it; it just evolved over the centuries. As I have intimated, it was a complex system. There were three columns to your money calculations, and the pence column could include the fractions of a quarter, a half, and three-quarters. What was really complicated was the decimalisation of £.s.d. money. Why was it a part of everyone’s maths syllabus until the introduction of decimal currency made it redundant? I can only state that it was used to price shares on the London stock exchange, although this hardly seems a good reason to have inflicted this diabolical system on every Tom Dick and Harriet in the classroom.

The pre-decimal coinage had been around for such a long time that nick-names existed which were universally understood by the public. A nicker or quid was a pound and the term ten bob referred to the ten shilling note after it was introduced in 1928. A bob was a shilling and a tanner was sixpence. The way a sum of money was expressed was complicated; take the amount of ‘one shilling and sixpence’. This was hardly ever said in full, and it was never ‘a bob and a tanner’ either, although phrase ‘one and a tanner’ was occasionally used. No sum over eleven pence was ever expressed in pence except for eighteen pence; but when written it was as 1/6d, not 18d. Why it was all so involved is a mystery, like so many other oddities of ‘old money’.

The first steps towards the introduction of a British decimal coinage were taken in 1847 with the introduction by Parliament of the florin or two-shilling piece, which later evolved into the 10p coin. To begin with this was of the same weight as the two-shilling piece, although now its size has been reduced. It took over 100 years for the process to be completed; we finally went decimal on 15 February 1971. I remember clearly getting on the bus that morning; everybody was very aware of their change as they paid the driver. It was our first opportunity to use the new coins which we had been careful to obtain in the preceding weeks. Although the government claimed that decimalisation would do nothing to increase inflation it clearly did. All small value items more than doubled in price overnight. A box of matches for example went from 1d to 1p, nearly 2½ times as much. It is true that there were half new penny coins when decimalisation was first introduced, and the price could in theory have been increased by a smaller amount to ½p, but this didn’t happen.

Another disturbing aspect of the new coinage was the disappearance of the word ‘penny’ from the vocabulary. ‘Penny’ in the singular, or even ‘pennies’ in the plural were not mentioned after Valentines Day 1971; everything was expressed in New Pence, with all the stress on the word new. Because even then there was little available that cost as little as a penny the word was ignored. If you did come across something that was really cheap (like a box of matches) you were told “That will be one New Pence please”. The word ‘new’ was officially dropped from words ‘New Pence’ in the early 1980s, but people would no doubt still be charging you “one pence” if anything remained on sale for less than a pound (even jumble sales seem to price things at a minimum of £1). This smallest coin may still have the word ‘Penny’ inscribed on it, but if anyone ever read the word it would probably puzzle them; whatever could the word ‘Penny” signify? I have masses of small change in the modern ‘p’ denominations, which is virtually useless today. I can only use it when I go to the amusement arcade, where I can still insert a ‘one pence’ coin in a gambling slot machine.





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