A brief explanation of British pre-decimal money for authors

If you’re writing about British money in your historical romance, saga or historical fiction, you need to know our money has changed enormously over the years. This is about old money (which is not the same as being Old Money) from pre-decimalisation. Here’s what you need to know for your author research:

The penny has been in use since Roman times, when it was called a denarius. Because of its old name, and because Latin was used by educated people across Europe for a long time after it stopped being a living language, the penny was abbreviated to the letter d rather than p on price tags, tills etc.

The pound was brought in at some point during medieval times. This is the time period from about 400 to 1400AD, which is an enormous length of time. The earliest reference to a “pound” as a unit of currency is 775AD, during Anglo-Saxon times, when a “pound” was equivalent to 1lb of silver (which is why a pound is a unit of currency and a unit of mass). This is also why the British currency is called Pound Sterling (because Sterling silver was the British standard for silver).

Obviously 1lb of silver would now cost substantially more than £1, partly because of inflation and mostly due to the fact the Pound Sterling has been debased at least twice since Victorian times. When a currency is debased, it is untethered from the value of a physical object making it more vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Okay, so that’s pounds and pence. But what about all those other things you read about in historical novels, like farthings and shillings and thruppeny bits?

This is where it gets complicated.

The basic currency in Britain was pounds (L), shillings (S) and pence (d). These were the three main denominations. Which one you were most likely to have some of depended on your social class. A working class factory hand would likely never see a pound, and rarely see a shilling, in his life. Likewise, a Duchess would rarely buy anything she might need pence or ha’pennies for (the servants would organise the household shopping, bills etc).

One pound was 240 pence or 20 shillings. One shilling was 12 pence or 24 ha’pennies.

Coins for various denominations have come and gone as follows:

Crown:

A crown was 5 shillings, or quarter of a pound. This unit of currency was in use from 1544 until 1965, when the last crown was minted, but is still legal tender with a face value of 25p (a very bad deal, FYI). The crown was replaced at the Royal Mint by the 25p coin in 1971 (the year of decimalisation) and that was phased out in 1990. Since 1990, the Royal Mint have made commemorative one-crown coins with a face value of £5.

Half crown:

A half-crown isn’t a coin, but sometimes things are priced at this. If something costs half a crown, and you pay with a crown, you would get two and six back in change (two shillings and sixpence).

Sovereign

The sovereign is a 22-carat gold coin weighing 8 grams, whose face value is one pound (obviously these days it’s worth a lot more than that due to collectability and the price of gold bullion being so high). Note this coin was made from 1489-1603 and 1817-present. It is only really made as a collectible these days because you would have to be mad to spend a £350-worth of gold coin on something worth £1 like a Mars bar. There was a gap during which the one pound coin was the guinea. Sort of…

Guinea

The guinea was a complicated little coin. It was originally issued as a one-pound coin to replace the old sovereign but its value was unstable due to problems with the value of British currency (silver-based) comparative to gold. In the 1690s, for example, the guinea was worth 30 shillings (one and a half pounds, or one pound ten shillings). Eventually it was withdrawn and sovereigns were used again in 1817, with a

Shilling (bob)

The shilling was 1/20 of a pound, and worth twelve old pence. Conceptually, it existed from Anglo-Saxon times, as a way to add up accounts more easily, but it was only first minted as a real coin in 1503. Originally it was called a “testoon” until around the mid-sixteenth-century when it was called a shilling.

The shilling was silver until 1920. Thereafter it was 50% silver, until 1947 when it became cupronickel.

Notes are a complicated business, but there were ten shilling notes (half a pound). Older versions had been handwritten during the 18th and 19th centuries but the first properly printed ones were issued in 1928. The notes were withdrawn in 1971 in line with decimalisation, at which point the smallest English banknote was the one-pound note (withdrawn in 1988).

Multiple shillings were referred to colloquially as “bob”, for example “two bob” or a “ten bob note”.

Sixpence

A sixpence (aka a tanner) is worth half a shilling (six pennies). In the olden days these were made of real silver. They were first minted in 1551 and in use until 1971 when decimalisation decided that an old sixpence was only worth 2.5 new pence. The sixpence was real silver until 1947, thereafter it was cupronickel.

Groat (fourpence)

A groat was worth four pennies or 1/3 of a shilling. They were introduced to England (the historic England also included Wales) in 1271, to Scotland in the 1330s, and to Ireland (which historically included Ulster) in 1425.

The groat was minted until 1855 when the three pence piece overtook it in popularity and convenience.

Three pence piece

Widely known as the thrupenny bit, this was worth three pennies. Three pence was often abbreviated to thruppence. A thrupenny bit is worth quarter of a shilling, and therefore 1/80 of an old pound. They were minted from 1547 to 1970. They were made of silver until 1937, then they were made of a nickel-brass alloy.

Fun fact: no three pence coins were minted during the reign of Mary I because at the time, the public preferred the groat (fourpence).

Two pence (tuppenny coin)

Usually called a tuppence or a tuppeny coin. In writing you would usually call the coin itself a tuppeny and use “tuppence” to describe the price of something, but someone with poor grammar might use “tuppence” to refer to the coin, too.

Mary Poppins is historically misleading. Historically, these weren’t generally a thing except in Maundy Money, which is a topic of its own. Copper two pence coins were first made in 1797, then again in 1817-1820. After that, they were next made for general circulation in 1971. They were nowhere near as widely-recognised or used as inaccurate historical fantssies would have us believe.

Penny

The penny has an extensive history. As mentioned above, it was abbreviated to “d” as a reference to the Roman denarius. The earliest use of the word penny for a coin was in Anglo-Saxon Britain. These were silver coins whose value directly matched their weight in silver.

The origins of the coin were from local village leaders paying protection money to the Vikings to get them to go away (the Danegeld). A standardised silver coin was of more use in this situation than an item e.g. chickens.

The penny was a large silver coin until the reign of Elizabeth I when it became a small silver coin about 12mm in diameter. By 1730 there was a huge shortage of silver at the Royal Mint and they didn’t have enough to make all the coins needed for circulation so very few pennies were made each year. As a result, pennies became rare until copper pennies were introduced in 1797. During this time people used two ha’pennies or four farthings if they needed to pay a penny, and this explains why 2d and 3d (tuppenny and thrupenny) coins were also popular. The first copper pennies were nicknamed “cartwheels” for their 1.4-inch size and the coin’s thick rim.

Pennies were nicknamed “bun pennies” during the early part of Victoria’s reign as she was depicted on the coin with her hair in a bun.

They remained the same size until 1971 when the small New Pence came in with decimalisation.

Half penny

Widely known as a ha’penny, the first ones are believed to have been introduced during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), but an exact date is unknown. Prior to that, the half-penny was what is known as a “cut coin” which means it was one half of a silver penny that had been cut in half (so would have been semi-circular before the actual coin was introduced).

The first ha’pennies were silver, this continued until 1673 when the first copper ha’pennies were introduced. They were briefly tin with copper hammered into the middle, from James II to William and Mary, with the aim of bolstering the ailing British tin industry, but these coins corroded very quickly and few survive. In 1694, these coins were replaced by copper ones again.

Farthing

The smallest coin in Britain, but not in the Colonies, was the Farthing, which was worth quarter of an old penny. It was in use from 1207 to 1961, by which point inflation had rendered it too small to be of much use to anyone. Farthings were originally one piece of a silver penny that had been cut into four. Then they were silver coins until 1553. After that, they were copper. Counterfeit farthings were easy to produce by the eighteenth century, therefore a lot were in circulation.

That’s an overview, you can dig into this topic and learn quite a lot more, as is often the way with historical research, but I hope this overview has given you a good starting point.

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