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Sunday, 11 July 2021

Pounds, Shillings and Pence

The new ‘Turing’ £50 note brings yet another change to our U.K. currency. There seem to have been so many in recent years.

They used to be rare. When my grandpa gave me this set of Queen Elizabeth II coins in 1953, their denominations and basic appearance had remained more or less unchanged for decades. In theory, some coins in circulation were over two-hundred years old. Their nicknames – tanner, bob, florin – were part of popular culture.

My dad put the Queen Elizabeth coins safe in his black metal box and took them out now and again to let me look. I liked the lady in armour with her fork and shield (“Britannia,” he told me), the elaborate sailing ship (“The Golden Hind”), the different lions of the English and Scottish shillings, and the young Queen on the ‘heads’ sides. The penny and half-crown were biggest, but my favourite was one of the smallest, the tiny farthing with a “robin” on the back [as pointed out in the comments, it is a wren, and a sixty-eight year old misconception].

They were shiny bronze and silver then, but, like me, they have tarnished. Those whose packaging has also failed to preserve them will tell you there were twelve pennies to the shilling and twenty shillings, 240 pennies, to the pound. We can still, in our heads (Weaver?), do things like add 14s 10d to 11s 8d to get £1  6s 6d (i.e. fourteen shillings and ten pence to eleven shillings and eight pence, often written 14/10 and 11/8). It was a great way to bamboozle foreigners.

The only recent change to the coinage had been the introduction of the twelve-sided yellow threepenny bit in 1937 in place of a smaller, round, silver coin that was discontinued in 1945. The last significant change before that had been almost a century earlier with the introduction of the two-shilling piece in 1849. As one-tenth of a pound, it had been created with decimalisation in mind – a rare example of a government planning well ahead.

Since 1953, the only thing not to have changed is the Queen. Changes were slow at first but since then most coins have changed twice. First to go was the farthing which became so insignificant that none were minted after 1956. They were removed from circulation in 1961. The halfpenny (‘aipny as we called it) followed in 1969, and the half-crown in 1970, although that was to prepare for decimalisation in 1971, fifty years ago.

Decimalisation put paid to most of the rest. Pennies (‘d’) were superseded by New Pence (‘p’). One New Pence was worth roughly two and a half old pennies. Five new coins came in (½p, 1p, 5p, 10p and 50p) and the old ones were gradually withdrawn.  For six and a half months we used the old and the new side-by-side and became adept at switching between. That’s why we’re mentally nimble. One pound six shillings and sixpence? Easy! £1.32½. Some of the old coins had exact decimal equivalents, the lowest common factor being 6d which was worth 2½p, so provided you used the old coins in sixpenny clusters you were fine.

What came next? It’s nigh impossible to remember but I’m one of those sad people who look things up and make lists. 

  • The old sixpence, shilling and two shilling coins remained in use after decimalisation as 2½p, 5p and 10p coins. In fact, the new 5p and 10p coins were identical in size and weight to their older counterparts and had been introduced in 1968 to get us used to the idea. The sixpence lasted until 1980, and the shilling and two shillings until the early 1990s.
  • Also in 1968, a seven-sided 50p coin had replaced the paper ‘ten-bob note’.
  • In 1982, the inscription ‘NEW PENCE’ was changed on all coins to show the denomination, e.g. ‘TEN PENCE’. 
  • A seven-sided 20p coin was introduced 1982 and a round £1 coin in 1983.  
  • The ½p coin was withdrawn in 1984 and the paper £1 note in 1988. 
  • Three of the original decimal coins were replaced by smaller versions: the 5p in 1990, the 10p in 1992, and the 50p in 1997. 
  • A £2 coin was introduced in 1998, the first bi-metallic coin in Britain since the 1692 tin farthing. 
  • The original round £1 coin was replaced by a twelve-sided bi-metallic coin in 2017. It looks like the old threepenny bit and doesn’t seem to buy very much more.
  • There have also been several changes in the physical size and design of banknotes over these years, most recently between 2016 and 2021 when paper banknotes were replaced by polymer ones which slither and slide restlessly in your pocket and refuse to stay folded.

My grandfather probably thought the 1953 set of Elizabeth II coins would be a good investment. Not so. Even if the packaging had preserved them in mint uncirculated condition, which it hasn’t, despite not being opened in sixty-eight years, you would do well to get back the inflation adjusted equivalent of their face value: £9.50 for 7s 4¾d (seven shillings, four and three farthings).

Anyone would think it just a cynical ploy by the Royal Mint to make money from making money. I hang on to them only because they are things of beauty. They still live in my dad’s black metal box. These too:

1965 set issued on the death of Sir Winston Churchill, including a rarely-used five-shilling coin, the ‘Churchill Crown’. This was the first time an image of anyone other than a monarch had appeared on a British coin, showing the extreme high regard in which Churchill was held.

Another pre-decimalisation Queen Elizabeth II set dated 1966.

Crowns (five-shilling coins) commemorating the 1951 Festival of Britain, the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the 1981 Royal Wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer.
(Obverse ‘heads’ sides above, reverse ‘tails’ sides below). 

38 comments:

  1. It is difficult to find anywhere which accepts £50 notes these days - especially since cash is being used less. I was given a few crown pieces when I was a kid. I just used them at face value like I would any coin - like half-crowns.

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    1. It's sometimes difficult to find anywhere that accepts cash! How long before there is none, and the bankers get a cut out of everything we spend, and it's all recorded for the police and President Xi Jinping to peruse?

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  2. F was 5 when NZ decimalized currency in 1967 and still remembers her Mum showing her their first 2c coin when they went shopping in Oamaru. For a 5 year old decimalization of currency was a relief. Up to then her school has been making her learn currency stuff with painted jar lids - which hadn't helped it make sense. Even so she still learned what made what in the old system because livestock was auctioned in guineas and for some bizarre reason continued to be so for some years after they were actually being paid for in dollars. It's like being able to think in metric and imperial measures - or possibly like being bi-lingual altho no one in this household could claim that skill. Regards Mr T

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    1. In Britain, most born after 1960 were never taught the old money at school at all. They just went straight into decimal currency.

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  3. Avoirdupois. Do you remember that word on the back of exercise books? Then we went to counting in 10s rather than 12s, think it was called decimalisation. All I remember of old money were the four farthings, and you could still buy one sweet with a farthing. Nowadays copper and silver is almost useless in the purse.

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    1. Avoirdupois - wasn't that weights - pounds stones and ounces? That was another good way to confuse people from other countries.

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  4. Oh yes I happily remember farthings still being used - those were the days.

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    1. But can you still add and subtract in pounds shillings and pence? What's 7s 5d minus 4s 10d?

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  5. Even I can just about remember farthings. We used them to buy loose sweets from the corner shop.

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    1. Funnily I can't remember using farthings at all. It was only through the one in the plastic packet that I knew of them.

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  6. I grew up with the old coins and still have more than a handful of them, including a sixpence that has been in the shoe of all the brides in my family. Like others, I remember when a farthing would buy you a sweet. Have a couple of sets of the decimal packets from 1971. It took me a long time to not think in terms of pounds, shillings and pence...or ten bob or thruppence. Still have books on my shelves marked with the old money price, including an old London A-Z map book--only 3s/6p.

    In January 2018 I came over for a visit and had about £8 of the round pound coins in my possession. Fortunately, though the coin had lost legal tender status in October 2017, when I explained why I hadn't been able to turn them in, Barclays exchanged them for me. Now I have about £70 in paper money on me...wonder if I will even be able to use it on my next visit.

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    1. You can't zap them with paper or plastic notes to pay contactless. Although banks will exchange currency that has ceased to be legal tender, the way things are going now it will be quite a challenge to find a bank branch to do it. They are gradually disappearing.

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  7. More than once during the 18 or so years that I have regularly been coming to Yorkshire, I found myself a little embarrassed when I was trying to pay for something in a shop in Ripon or Harrogate, only to be told that my leftover 20 pound note was not valid anymore. We always managed to find an amicable solution, but these events taught me to always make sure I had the right notes and coins before travelling to England.
    Here, we have made the transition from DM to € years ago, but many older people still think in DM.

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    1. I bet they'd vote for Dexit if offered.
      The paper notes have all gone now. Every time there has been a change I've had to go through my rucksack pockets, pots in the car and so on to make sure I've found all the old ones.

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  8. When you say there hasn't been much change in our coinage recently you are right in terms of the denominations, but not in the designs. The designs are constantly changing and are interesting too - few of look in detail at the coins on our pockets. The Royal Mint in Cardiff does fascinating tours - worth a visit if ever you're in Wales.

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    1. I was suggesting that before 1953 there hadn't been many significant changes, but even then I know there were many subtle ones such as reduction in silver content (twice) and the the H and KN letters next to the date on pennies. Now, as you say, new designs appear all the time. It would be great to visit the Royal Mint if I get chance. Do they give free samples?

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  9. I was glad to see that Alan Turing was honoured with a bank note. It helps to right the historical wrong of how he was treated by the British authorities after the war.

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    1. It was absolutely awful, with tragic results. Similarly years earlier with Oscar Wilde sent to prison. Still happens in some parts of the world.

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  10. The little bird on the farthing coin is a wren, not a robin.

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    1. Oh dear - so it is. A sixty eight year old misconception! I'll make a correction.

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  11. I really enjoyed this post Tasker. I am lost when it comes to the various denominations and designs of your coins since I have never been in your country. However I have always been fascinated by coins of all types, particularly the older ones. It sounds like you are a collector of coins and you certainly have a nice variety here. I have saved some older coins and some commemorative ones.
    When I bought a coffee the other day and paid cash I realized that was the first time I had paid cash for something in several months. That's a little sad and I do think we may be in the final years of even using cash.

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    1. Thank you. It's simple now it is decimal. I don't really collect coins but I have a haphazard accumulation. I wonder how long we'll have cash too. One of it's main purposes now seems to be for fiddling income tax.

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  12. Ah. MelindaJ saw that too. It was a Wren on the farthing.

    I'm old enough to remember when I started off as a trainee accountant (I tried a lot of things before I settled down) having to add up columns of Pounds, shillings and pence as if it was one column of figures. I had no problem with the duodecimal system nor with the decimal system but when I was doing computer programming and had to learn binary my brain had a massive brainfart and rebelled.

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    1. I've added a correction. I started off as a trainee accountant too in the days of £sd and can still do that. However, the 3 column comptomer machines (and their operators) were always a mystery to me. I also later learnt programming but binary had mainly gone, although I did learn machine code (subtract number from accumulator SNA etc). I then used binary a bit writing sprites for the BBC machine where it worked faster if you poked stuff straight into the screen memory and moved it directly to adjacent locations.

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    2. Tasker I understood all the words in the last sentence except 'sprites' (except as an elf or fairy etc). However the order the words were in made them unintelligible to me as a sentence.

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    3. Better phrased that I used binary to create sprites, i.e. small graphic blocks that move around on the screen - a pacman ghost would be an example. They could be moved more quickly by poking the binary representation straight into the screen memory rather than using a programming language.

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    4. Thanks for that explanation.

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  13. I was nine when Australia changed to decimal currency and it was thought there was no need to teach us how to add up pounds, shillings and pence. I could do it if I had to, very slowly and laboriously.

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    1. Yes same here. Anyone born after around 1960 was taught decimal rather than £sd at school.

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  14. Nice to have these reminders of the coins we have lived with including key dates etcetera. Sometimes, online verification procedures will ask us: Are you a robot? Would I be right in thinking that you are actually a robot as you said that you have become tarnished?

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    1. If I were to tell Bob Brague I was not a robot, do you doubt he would disbelieve me?

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  15. I left England before they changed to decimal currency, and looked back at the years we spent in school working money problems. I guess it was good for mental agility. But it's so much easier to use decimal currency here in the US. That was a change I was do happy to make

    I remember being told as a little kid that the smallest coin had to have a tiny bird, the wren.

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    1. It wasn't just that they expected us to be able to do additions of money at school, we also had to be able to subtract, divide and multiply. So if a dozen eggs costs 5s 7d, how many eggs can you buy for £3 ?

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  16. Sometimes I still think of decimal coins as a relatively recent introduction and 'old' coins as the 'real deal'. Don't remember ever being taught about the decimal system before two or three of the new coins were introduced in 1968. In fact, in 1965, our school had little boxes with cardboard versions of Lsd coins, the better to teach us about dealing with money. Even with the impending coming of the decimal system, we were still being taught about the soon-to be 'old' way of doing things.

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    1. I liked those cardboad £sd coins. There were also in post office toys etc.
      I know I joked about the Victorians planning well ahead by introducing the 2 shilling coin, but I had thought that decimal currency was well planned from around 10 years in advance, including in schools. Not everywhere it seems.

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  17. Pre-decimalisation currency is completely bewildering to me, as I'm sure it is to most non-Britons. I have enough trouble managing the variety of coins available now! (More than we have in the states, at least in ready circulation.)

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    1. As I said, it was a great way to bamboozle those who hadn't grown up with it (and some who had). Likewise stones, pounds and ounces, and feet and inches, but you're with us on weights and lengths.

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