The History Of The British Pound
This chapter explains the history of pre-decimalisation coinage with information about:
- What pre-decimal coinage was
- The coins of the pre-decimal pound sterling – farthing, halfpenny, penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin, half-crown, crown
- Other important coins in British history – the sovereign, guinea and groat
- Other demonetised sterling coins
- Why there are no nicknames for coins nowadays
A history of pre-decimal coins
Although decimalisation occurred nearly 50 years ago, the names of the old pre-decimalisation coins can be seen and heard everywhere: in old works of literature, nursery rhymes, idioms, songs and proverbs. They may have been demonetised but they’re still very much a part of British culture.
In this chapter, we look at individual pre-decimal coins and explain what they looked like, what they were worth, their composition, nicknames and explain any common expressions or idioms associated with them.
How much do you know about pre-1971 coins? Let’s explain the old system of pound sterling. Unless you were born in the early 1960s, you probably only have a vague idea of what the system was like.
What was pre-decimal coinage?
Pre-decimal currency was calculated as follows:
- 12 pennies = 1 shilling
- 20 shillings = £1
- 240 pennies = £1
Prices would be written in pounds, shillings and pennies. For example, an item which cost 9 shillings and 4 pennies would be marked 9/4 in the shops (or could be written 9s 4d). The ‘s’ stood for the Latin word ‘solidus’ and the ‘d’ represented the Latin word ‘denarius’.
Being based on multiples of 12, British schoolchildren growing up before decimalisation would be drilled on the 12 times tables – how much more convenient and easier the decimal system is!
The coins of the pre-decimal pound sterling
Before we consider the pre-decimal coins individually, let’s look at the names of the coins and their values.
- Farthing = ¼ d
- Half penny = ½ d
- Penny = 1d
- Threepence = 3d
- Sixpence = 6d
- Shilling = 1/-
- Florin = 2/-
- Half Crown = 2/6
- Crown = 5/-
Larger denominations were issued as banknotes.
From: Early 17th century
To: 1960 (although production stopped in 1956)
Pre-Decimal Appearance: small round coin, smooth edge with a wren on the reverse.
With 4 farthings to an old penny, these coins were always the smallest and were always made of base metals. Initially, tin or copper and then bronze, farthings were discontinued since inflation meant that not much could be purchased with them. Nowadays we still use the expression “He hasn’t got two farthings to rub together” to describe someone is very poor.
Do you remember the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’?
“You owe me five farthings,”
Said the bells of St. Martin’s.
He owed just over 1d and the bells of Shoreditch promised to pay “When I grow rich”!
From: Early-Mid 17th century
Pre-Decimal Appearance: small circular coin with smooth edge with the Golden Hind on the reverse.
Made of copper during the reign of Charles I, half pennies were later made of bronze and were discontinued before decimalisation because their face value was less than their scrap value.
Half pennies were made of bronze and discontinued before decimalisation because their face value was less than their scrap value.
Half pennies have been immortalised in the idiom ‘spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar’. In other words, the ‘ha’p’orth’ is a contraction of ‘half penny’s worth’ and the idiom means to ruin a job by being stingy about the details. Or how about the Christmas chant ‘Christmas is coming’?
‘If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Then God bless you!’
From: Late 18th century (but from 8th century as silver pennies)
To: 1971 (decimal coins were deliberately called pence to distinguish between them)
Pre-Decimal Appearance: Large round coin with smooth edges and Britannia on the reverse.
Copper (later bronze) pennies began to be minted during a period when there was a lack of precious metals like silver and so coins had to be made from alternative base metals.
To reflect its importance at the time, the large size of the original penny (1860) remained unchanged right up to decimalisation. The difference in size between the penny and other copper coins meant that when the first bicycles were invented with an extra large front wheel, they were nicknamed ‘penny farthings’.
There are many expressions using the penny: ‘penny for your thoughts’, something or someone is ‘ten a penny’ (i.e. very common, nothing special) or children asking ‘Penny for the guy’ before November 5th. Can you imagine what they’d say if you actually gave them one pence?
Before decimalisation, the basis of the British currency was 12 pennies (12d) to a shilling (1s) and 20 shillings to a pound.
The values of pre-decimal coinage went from ¼ d to 5 shillings and higher amounts were banknotes.
The names of the coins were (in ascending order) farthing, half penny, penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin, half crown and crown.
There are many expressions, idioms, etc. mentioning the old ‘coppers’ (farthings, half pennies and pennies).
From: 1944 (dates back to 16th century as a silver coin)
Pre-Decimal Appearance: Plain 12-sided coin with a crowned portcullis and chains on the reverse.
Although originally made of sterling silver up to 1920, the threepence was minted from nickel brass after 1944. Often called a ‘thrupny bit’ or ‘thrupence’ in spoken English, these coins were often put in Christmas puddings to be found by the luckiest person at the table. The silver threepence was often called a ‘joey’ but whether you used this nickname would have depended on what part of Great Britain you came from.
From: 16th century (as silver coin)
Pre-Decimal Appearance: Small silver-coloured coin with floral designs on reverse representing flora of the Four Nations (a rose, thistle, shamrock or leek).
After 1947, sixpences were made of cupro-nickel rather than silver. Sixpences have always had the reputation for bringing good luck. In some parts of Britain brides would put a sixpence in their shoe or people would put the coin in the cork from a wine or champagne bottle. Sometimes they were used in Christmas puddings instead of threepences.
Their nickname was a ‘tanner’; it’s believed this dates back to the early 1800s and comes from the Romany gypsy word ‘tawno’ (meaning ‘small one’). There were many references to sixpences in songs, etc. including the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’.
A sixpence also used to be called a ‘bender’, probably because it’s high silver content meant it was easy to break in half. They were often given as love tokens for this reason and there are traditional stories where the man returns from a long sea voyage and is only recognised because the two halves of the broken sixpence match. From this slang word we get the expression ‘going on a bender’ because sixpence was enough to get completely drunk.
You might be surprised to learn that they weren’t demonetised until 1980. In the decimal coinage, they were only worth 2½ pence and were rarely seen. The Royal Mint has said very few were returned after demonetisation so it’s possible people kept them as souvenirs. It might be worth checking your old drawers or your attics for any sixpences you may still have.
From: 1947 (although from 15th century as a silver coin called a testoon)
Pre-Decimal Appearance: Round silver-coloured coin with milled edges and with the Coat of Arms of England/Scotland on the reverse.
Made of cupro-nickel after 1947, the shilling was worth 12d and was more commonly known as a ‘bob’. It isn’t sure where the word ‘bob’ came from although one explanation is that it comes from the word ‘bawbee’. This was a slang word for a ½ penny from the 16th century derived from the French ‘bas billion’ (debased copper money). Another theory is that bob comes from the name of a 16th century Master of the (Royal) Mint, Laird Sillabawby. Other numismatists believe that the word bob refers to the changes rung on church bells. This is because the word shilling originally came from the Old German word ‘skell’, which means ‘to ring’.
In the 18th century a ‘bobstick’ referred to a shilling’s worth of gin while in the next century ‘bob a nob’ referred to the price of a meal (per head). There are also many contemporary expressions using both shilling and bob. If someone looks disappointed, you could say “You look as if you’ve lost a shilling and found a penny”. ‘Taking the King’s shilling’ means ‘to enrol in the army’ and it comes from the days when army recruiters would frequent pubs, buy men beer and drop a shilling in their glass without them seeing. The fact that they accepted the drink was evidence they agreed to sign up. There are also many regional variations of expressions meaning ‘mad/crazy’ such as ‘a few bob short of a pound’ or ‘tuppence (= two pence) short of a bob’.
When decimalisation came in, the 5-pence coin was deliberately made the same size as the shilling to make it easier for the public to familiarise themselves with the new decimal coins.
When decimalisation came in, the 5-pence coin was deliberately made the same size as the shilling to make it easier for the public to familiarise themselves with the new decimal coins. For that reason, the shilling remained legal tender until 1990 when 5-pence coins were made smaller.
Both threepence (or thruppence) and sixpence were silver-coloured coins which were seen as good luck symbols.
Threepence coins were sometimes called ‘joeys’ while a sixpence was a tanner or a bender.
A shilling was commonly known as a bob but no one’s sure where the name came from.
There are many expressions and idioms used in English with the words bob or shilling.
From: 1947 (although from 1848 as a silver coin)
Pre-Decimal Appearance: round silver-coloured coin with milled edges and crown flanked by a thistle and shamrock on the reverse.
Also known as ‘two-bob’ or two shillings (2/-), the florin was the first decimal coin since they were worth a 1/10 of a pound. The name ‘florin’ came from the name of an early 14th century Florentine coin called a ‘floren’ (flower) because the original Victorian coin had the picture of a lily on the back. Originally made from sterling silver, they were minted in cupro-nickel after 1947.
Florins were a concession to the growing calls for decimalisation in 19th century Britain although they were quite unpopular at the start. Instead of having the inscription ‘Victoria Dei Gratia Regina’ (Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen’), they simply read ‘Victoria Regina’. Clergymen denounced them from their pulpits calling them the ‘godless florin’.
The new 10-pence coin was minted the same size as the florin in 1971 to help the public recognise it and so it remained legal tender until 10-pence coins were reduced in size.
From: 1947 ( although from early 16th century as a silver coin)
Pre-Decimal Appearance: a round silver-coloured coin with a milled edge and a crowned royal shield on the reverse.
Like other silver-coloured coins, half-crowns were originally made from sterling silver. In 1920, the silver content was reduced to 50% and the remainder was manganese. This meant all the silver coins minted in Britain 1920-47 tarnished quickly because of their composition.
From: 1947 (although there was a gold crown in the early 16th century)
To: Present day
Appearance: Crowns have commemorative designs on them.
The original crown was minted during the reign of Henry VIII and called the ‘Crown of the Double Rose’. It was changed from a gold to a silver coin in the 1660s.
From 1971 to 1981 crowns kept their old value of 5 shillings (or 25 pence) but in 1981 they were given a new face value of £5. Crowns are still recognised as legal tender. However, as commemorative coins, their value lies more in the fact that they’re minted in celebration of an important event in British history and so are never used for purchases since shops wouldn’t accept them.
Other important coins in British history
Apart from the coins which were in use right up to decimalisation in 1971, there are a number of other coins which are still remembered even though they may have been demonetised years – if not centuries – ago. Let’s look at some of them: the sovereign, the guinea and the groat.
The first sovereign was first minted in 1489 and showed Henry VII on the throne with the Royal Coat of Arms, shield and the Tudor rose on the reverse. Worth 20 shillings, it was the original £1 pound coin although the fact that it was made of gold shows you its purchasing power. Successive monarchs continued the tradition and Elizabeth I added a half sovereign. When James I ascended to the throne from Scotland (where he was known as James VI) he preferred the symbolism of calling the sovereign a ‘unite’.
The Coinage Reform of 1816 saw the re-issue of both the sovereign and the half sovereign (or 10 shillings). However, production of both coins was stopped during the 1st World War.
Both gold sovereigns and half sovereigns are still issued today by the Royal Mint but only as commemorative coins.
Supposedly given its name because its gold was minted from Guinea in Africa, the guinea was originally issued in 1663 with a value of 20 shillings (later 21) and for a time took the place of the gold sovereign. Guineas worth half a guinea, two guineas and five guineas followed a few years later. The value of the guinea was allowed to fluctuate according to the price of gold so at one point in the late 17th century, it reached a high of 30 shillings. A 1/3rd of a guinea coin followed in 1797 but it never became popular.
Even though the guinea was replaced by the sovereign in 1817, there was incredible loyalty to the guinea so that until 1971 auction houses would still quote prices in guineas even though there was no longer an equivalent coin. As a result, the guinea was traditionally represented as £1,1s and the shilling would be given as a tip or service charge.
It also gave rise to the definition of an English gentleman – someone who pays his tradesmen in pounds but his tailor in guineas.
The florin was Britain’s first decimal coin though they were initially unpopular because of the inscription on them.
Half crowns were demonetised before decimalisation but crowns are still minted as commemorative coins with a value of £5 as legal tender.
Sovereigns, dating back to 1489, were the precursor of the £1 coin (minted in gold) and are now issued as commemorative coins.
Guineas replaced sovereigns for a time and prices were still quoted in guineas up to 1971 even though they’d been demonetised in 1817.
The name of the groat comes from the Middle English/Dutch word ‘groot’ meaning ‘great’. It was given this nickname because it was so much larger than the penny. The groat was a silver four-penny coin (or 1/3rd of a shilling), which was first minted in 1279. In 1344 a half groat was also issued. The groat continued to be used up to 1855 although the last minting of the groat was for use in the British West Indies (1888) and had a crowned number 4 or a picture of Britannia on the reverse.
The groat was also nicknamed a ‘joey’. It took its name from Joseph Hume, a 19th century MP, who argued to retain the groat since it was the price of a standard hansom cab fare in London. The problem being that if cab drivers were given a sixpence, they’d pretend not to have change so they could keep the 2d as a tip. The groat is still remembered in many traditional songs and nursery rhymes.
Riddle me, riddle me ree,
A little man in a tree;
A stick in his hand,
A stone in his throat
If you’ll tell me this riddle,
I’ll give you a groat.
Answer to the riddle? A cherry
More interestingly, the groat is making something of a comeback. It’s been used as the currency in a number of books of fantasy as well as computer role-playing games. Perhaps because it sounds suitably ancient but not so well-known as other coins like the shilling or sovereign.
Other demonetised sterling coins
Have you heard of the gold Noble (worth 6s,8d)? What about the angel, spur ryal (15/-), rose ryal (30/-) or laurel (20/1)? Unless you’re a numismatist, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you hadn’t as the history of coin-making shows how much individual monarchs were able to influence the naming of new coins in Britain.
Why are There No Nicknames for Coins Nowadays?
When you read about the history of coins, one thing that probably strikes you is how much the British public developed a relationship with their coins and therefore gave them affectionate nicknames. Why doesn’t this happen nowadays? After all, decimal coins have been in use for nearly half a century.
In the early 1980s when pound coins were first introduced, in some areas of Britain they were called ‘Thatchers’ or ‘Brass Maggies’. The reason being that they were ‘brassy and thought they were a sovereign’. However, the nickname never really caught on.
Maybe the explanation is because we don’t have the same sense of familiarity with coins as people in the past. Although 40% of payments were made in cash in 2016 (according to the Payments Council), it’s not the same as labourers or workers in the early 20th century whose daily or weekly pay packets (of an average 14-17 shillings) were made up of coins.
Although groats (worth 4d) were demonetised in Britain in 1855, they’ve made a comeback in fantasy books and computer games.
Different coins were invented by previous British monarchs but many didn’t survive their reigns.
Despite nearly 50 years of decimalisation, the coins haven’t been given nicknames like previous pre-decimal coins.
Alternative forms of payment nowadays mean we don’t develop the same relationship with coins as people in the past who were paid in cash.