Something pretty momentous happened in Britain fifty years ago today. Valentine’s Day, of course, but it also marked the end of nearly 2,000 years of numismatic history. Based on the Roman system of the Libra, Solidus and Denarius, the ancient duodecimal system of currency was unceremoniously ditched in favour of the incontinent “new pee”.
Those of us old enough to remember, and there aren’t many of us left, still have a hankering for the old money and the ways that went with it. These days you have to be at least sixty years old to have even the faintest recollection of ellessdee, as it was known to everyone. For us older citizens, it’s a strange feeling, perhaps best expressed in the Welsh “hiraeth” or the Germany “Sehnsucht” or, less so, by the English “nostalgia”.
I have mixed views. In 1971, I was gung-ho for decimalisation. I was young and yearned for change. As it happened, we changed over just in the nick of time because computerisation was underway and handling an odd-ball duodecimal system would have been difficult and costly. It would have placed Britain at a disadvantage in the computer age.
On the other hand, many of us remain nostalgic for the old system. In the early years of the first millennium of our common era, Roman coins supplanted the old currency of the island’s original British inhabitants. The penny, or denarius, remained the primary unit of currency through to medieval times. It was a silver penny in those days, and 240 pennies weighed a pound on the scale—or Libra in Latin. That’s why the symbol for a pound of pennies is £.
There was method in this apparent madness. The advantage of the old duodecimal system is the greater ability to divide without creating fractions. The modern 10-based system is less accommodating in this respect.
Thus, divide 240 by 20, and you get a shilling or solidus. And that meant there were 12 pennies in a shilling. Apart from £ and s, the symbol for a penny, or denarius, remained “d” until 1971. It was sad, therefore, to say goodbye to all this history.
Up to fifty years ago, a typical pocketful of change could include coins from two centuries earlier. Victorian pennies or florins were commonplace, and it wasn’t unusual to find yourself spending a William IV or, even, a George III penny.
In my time, the range of coins had shrunk slightly, with the humble farthing (quarter penny) having been pensioned off some years before. The halfpenny, or ha’pny, was still around. There wasn’t a 2d coin, although tuppence was an everyday price to hear. Instead, we had the 3d (or thrup’ny bit), a twelve-sided creation introduced in the 1930s to supersede the tiny silver version.
Half a dollar
Then came the silver sixpence, shilling and two-shilling coins, with the latter being also known as the florin. The largest-denomination coin in circulation was the half-crown at 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence). The 5/- crown didn’t then exist, except in the form of commemorative issues, but it was often referred to in slang as a dollar. And the half-crown was half a dollar. This came about because, up to the Second World War, the US dollar had been worth five shillings, or four to the pound. So one crown equalled one dollar.
As you see, there’s a lot of history there in every trouser pocket, and it’s no surprise that many older Britons are somewhat nostalgic for the old system. £sd was, however, a pain in the obverse to work with. As a young bank clerk, I was adept at adding up (“casting”) massive columns of pounds shillings and pence. In my cosy little branch in Northern England, we possessed no adding machine and certainly no computer. Everything was done just as it had been done in Ebeneezer Scrooge’s counting-house. I can do it now, it’s like swimming once done, never forgotten:
- Total the halfpennies and divide by two, carry forward the pennies.
- Total the pennies, mentally divide by twelve and carry forward the shillings.
- Total the shillings, divide by 20 and carry forward the pounds
- Total the pounds. Voila.
And if the total at the bottom of the long column didn’t balance, do it all again. Computers? Who needs computers.
So it wasn’t all plane sailing with the old duodecimal system. It did, however, provide us with a tangible link to our heritage. It made sense of common expressions such as “penny for your thoughts”, “penny wise and pound foolish” or “in for a penny, in for a pound”.
Pee for a pee
Over Valentine’s nosh in 1971, young couples got used to the new-fangled system of decimal currency. Although shilling and two-shilling coins remained in circulation alongside their decimal equivalents, most of the old coins were swept away. The 3d, 6d and 2s 6d coins disappeared immediately since they couldn’t fall in with the inflexible decimal system.
The most egregious aspect of the changeover, though, was the rise of the awful “one new pee” instead of one penny. No one ever called a penny “one dee” before 1971, it was a penny, two pence (pronounced tuppence) and so on.
Gradually, the “new” bit was dropped. However, many people still say “one pee”, which is perhaps appropriate given that a penny was the usual coin to unlock the lavatory door in public conveniences. Hence the euphemism, “To spend a penny”. It’s as illogical and annoying as “two thousand and twenty-one” when common usage demands the more logical and simpler “twenty twenty-one”.
I have never given in to this brashness. I still talk about five pence, ten pence, fifty pence instead of five pee or 50 pee. It’s heritage, after all. And we should never forget our heritage. At least we’ve still clung to our old pound or libra—pity about the old solidus and denarius, though.
If you find the subject fascinating and have the odd 58 minutes to spare, you will find this garrulous YouTube presenter just up your alley. Note the picture of a Henry VIII coin. The term “heads” takes on a whole new meaning…