As Marjorie Bloy points out, "In these days of decimalisation of currency, it is difficult to understand the currency used in Britain before that country 'went decimal' in 1971." It is also difficult to understand how much of the everyday culture that poeple living in Victorian and later England has been lost to us, the nicknames for coins to begin with: tanner for sixpence and bob for a shilling vanished overnight. (Older people sometimes still say: "he's not short of a bob or two" to indicate that somebody is fairly wealthy. And, for somebody who is poor: "he hasn't got three-ha'pennies to rub together.") Quid for pound is still in use. Nobody refers to low denomination money as coppers any more ("it only cost a few coppers").
Old coins like the florin and the half-crown went as well of course. There was a silver threepenny bit called a joey which I believe was last minted in 1920 but was always in demand in households with small children at Christmas time. It was hidden in the Christmas Pudding, and somehow the smallest child always found it in his or her helping. Until decimalisation the threepenny bit was a 12-sided brass-nickel coin, very heavy, too. with pictures of flowers on the obverse. The halfpenny had a sailing ship which some called a galleon, but was more likely a Medieval cog. Children used them for brass rubbings.
The old pronunciations went with decimalisation, as well. Two-pence had always been tup'nce, three-pence was thrup'nce: today people just say 2-pee and 3-pee. £.s.d comes from the Latin libra (pound), solidus (from the salt paid as wages to the Roman Army, I think) and denarius (the Roman penny). A bit of poetry died back then.
Until the early nineteenth century there was a guinea coin. Blake mentions it: he saw angels in the sun, others saw an "object the size and colour of a golden guinea." There are still two classic horse races called the One Thousand and the Two Thousand guineas, and I believe race horses are still priced in them. You could be invoiced in guineas by some professions and purveyors of luxury goods well into the 1960s. In fact, thinking about, I realize it may well have been decimalisation that ended the practice.
One final thought: coins, of course, always had the monarch's portrait on one side and, since they stayed in circulation from reign to reign, it wasn't all that uncommon in the 1950s to be given Victorian pennies in your change, plus all the kings in between. All coins were dated as well (which they aren't any longer). History was always a bit closer back then, I think.
- Wages, the Cost of Living, Contemporary Equivalents to Victorian Money
- Wages and Cost of Living in the Victorian Era
- Inflation and Contemporary Equivalents to Victorian Money
Last modified 20 June 2006