Home Features Golden Sundering: Valentine’s Day massacre for Britain’s ancient coinage

Golden Sundering: Valentine’s Day massacre for Britain’s ancient coinage

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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.

Nostalgia

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.

In early 1971 your change pocket could be revealing. Top row, left to right: Florins or two-shilling coins from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth. Middle row, left to right: Old pennies, from the young Victoria, old Victoria (who had acquired an Ind.Imp, or Empress of India, along the way), Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth. It’s interesting that there’s a missing monarch, which is obvious from the way they are looking. It’s traditional for an incoming monarch to face in the opposite direction to his or her predecessor. Hence, Edward VII was looking to the right, George V to the left, George VI to the left also because Edward VIII had run off with Mrs Simpson and not many of his pennies were minted. Bottom row, left to right: The Irish Republic had the same monetary system and it was always annoying to find an Irish penny in your pocket. Couldn’t be spent. Next is the twelve-sided three-penny bit from 1937 and two sixpenny bits, one from George V and one from Elizabeth II

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…

18 COMMENTS

  1. I too regret the loss of the old currency, and still use “pence” etc. Decimalisation did have some advantages for me in that year.
    I was a trainee in a major London advertising agency, and part of that was to work in the Accounts department. Every space booking in any print medium had a Space Order, with copies for file, account, voucher and one which was the client’s invoice. For some clients, we used a procedure called “grossing up”, to give us 15% commission on ads which gave only 10% (most of the press apart from national newspapers). Calculation was gross less 10% (to net of commission) plus 17.65%, which produced a figure from which 15% deducted would give our net payable. If you see what I mean! All this had to be done by hand and the calculation written on every single client invoice copy, and when I say that we used to run a winter campaign for Exide batteries of lineage ads in just about every local paper listed in BRAD, that alone was thousands of bills every month.
    Anyway, doing this with something that cost for example, £2:11s:6d gross, was a real PITA. Decimalisation was therefore a blessing, although I soon finished my trainee stint in Accounts and went to work on the Watneys “Red Revolution” campaign. At the same time, the company got the IBM 360/50 working, and everything settled down, and eventually someone ran off a useable ready-reckoner print, with every figure from 1s to £100, with every possible grossing for all the pounds, shillings and pence figures in that range. The only glitch was when the odd publication sent in an invoice in guineas, but that wasn’t often.
    It all got complicated again after Heath pitched us into the Common Market, when VAT first appeared. The first rate was 10%, which was fine, although entirely new format VAT invoices were then needed, but the drop down to 8% wasn’t too clever, even with decimalisation, but not a problem to change now that almost everything was computerised.
    When I lived in London, there were a few places that stood out against decimalisation. Coming to mind were a couple of fruit and vegetable traders on Inverness Street market, along with a haberdashery (sort of) called Apostals in Upper Street, where all the price tickets were defiantly marked with large LSD.
    When I occasionally go through the usual detritus of paper “ephemera” which a person of my jackdaw tendencies amasses, I come across ticket stubs, membership cards and other things in LSD, and naturally the first inclination is to render the values into today’s decimal currency, and the wonder at the chasm.
    For some reason I have kept a large jar of pennies and halfpennys, and when I mentioned this to someone who was looking for something suitable to use for a childrens’ Treasure Trail or similar, I was offered pounds for each; very tempting. The deal was off when I discovered that the coinage was to be defaced, indeed, debased, by being spray-painted in gold.
    Happy days, but I have to pinch myself when I’m reminded that it was half a century ago.

    • BRAD! I’d forgotten all about that. British Rate and Data, wasn’t it? Does it still exist? That 8%, which seemed very reasonable, lost no time in going up to the current exorbitant 20% and it’s even higher in some more enlightened European countries.

    • Ah, an IBM 360! ..I took a ‘short-term’ (3 months?) job with an insurance agency which had just installed an IBM 360, and had punched all its insurance business for the previous two years into 80-column IBM 360 cards, to run that business through the room-filling multi-cabinet computer, and then compare the results with what business they’d ACTUALLY done in those two years ..that was a check to see if the two versions of the business matched, and so to see if they could reliably move over to a computer-based – rather than handwritten paper-based – business.

      My job was ringing up insurance underwriters to find what had actually been insured, if the text printed, or written, on the cards had missed-out some of the details.

      But when I discovered the IBM 360 card-sorter, I’d roll in at 11am, grab several handfuls of cards, run them through the sorter, and had a whole day’s work done by 3pm! No-one could understand how I’d got through so much work in only 4 hours ..including lunch! I was offered a permanent job as a programmer ..but when I saw the dismal ranks of dozens of despondents slumped over their pages of COBOL – or was it FORTRAN? – I said “No thanks!”

      Yes ..it was “British Rate and Data” ..the ad-man’s – and woman’s – bible, listing the costs of advertising in every publication in Britain, with variable rates depending on how many insertions you booked for the inside rear cover of which publication for however many months.

      Barristers (lawyers), tailors and shoe-makers were generally paid, in the days so £sd, in ‘guineas’ (a guinea being a pound and a shilling) and if you look very carefully at the back of any barrister’s (lawyer’s) black gown you’ll find a little hidden pocket at the shoulder, where their fee was to be discreetly deposited, as actually paying cash into their hand was to be considered rather, er, unseemly, or undignified. But that’s just a remnant of tradition, like having a single policeman – as it used to be – on duty at the Houses of Parliament, or sailors wearing a black armband to commemorate the death of Admiral Lord Nelson ..or, as Michael should know.. hanging a bale of hay under the arch of any London bridge which was being repaired ..or, of course, every London taxi keeping a bale of hay in the boot ..to feed the horse!

      • If lawyers/barristers had to be paid these days via a discreet appendage they would need a tow hook and a four-wheel trailer.

        By the way, no need to hang a bale of hay under Hammersmith Bridge because it has been abandoned to its fate, never to carry a pedestrian, bicycle or London bus again…

        • Some tentative good(?) news about Hammersmith Bridge:

          “The architects Foster and Partners and engineers COWI have proposed a temporary structure, a double-decker girder that could be inserted into the existing bridge. Cars would use the upper deck, pedestrians and cyclists the lower. It would also support the old bridge such that parts could be removed for repair, which would be easier than trying to fix them in their exposed location above the river. It would get the bridge working relatively quickly – less than a year for the construction of the temporary structure, though with several months more for getting approvals and appointing contractors.”

          ..That’s from today’s Guardian/Observer newspaper at tinyurl.com/nvqvgtdx ..that would clearly look hideous, compared with the beautiful original Bazalgette (yes, him again) bridge but, obviously, don’t hold your breath!

          • Interesting and thanks. This is all a bit off message for the blog, but the Hammersmith Bridge closure has been a real pain for everyone living south of the Thames and west of Hammersmith. Traffic levels have soared along the A316 and schoolchildren on cycles are being forced to use Barnes Bridge; there’s a constant flow of cycles along the Thames path. Hammersmith Bridge has been a problem ever since the IRA tried to blow it up all those years ago. Let’s hope they can do something.

      • David, your comment about remembering the old IBM 360 brought to mind my first encounter with a Data General PDP 11/70. That was in ’82. The chap in charge of the computer room (called an EDP centre back then) was a real nervous bloke. Which prompted us to nickname the PDP as “please don’t push”.

        • I seem to remember that the Indian Rupee was based on an even more complicated duodecimal system than the British Pound. Perhaps you can explain… and, while you are at it, give us an insight into “lakhs”. Mt Apple News feed brings up a couple of Indian car magazines which I follow and I am always confused by the reference to a car costing so many lakhs. I’m sure you can enlighten us.

          Mike

          • I think you mean the anna used in British India. There were 16 annas to a rupee. But thankfully that was long gone before I arrived on this earth.

            Simply put, one lakh is 1 followed by five 0s. The difference is in the position of the comma to separate the 0s. For example,

            1 lakh is 1 followed by five 0s; 1,00,000 or 100,000 rupees.

            10 lakhs is 1 followed by six 0s; 10,00,000 or 1 million rupees.

            100 lakhs make 1 crore; 1,00,00,000 or 10 million rupees.

            So, the new Tesla Model 3 that will be introduced in India sometime this year will have a base price of 60 lakhs; that is 60,00,000 or 6 million rupees. Which means I shall be holding onto my old car a while longer.

          • That’s just under £60,000 for the Model 3, so that’s not dramatically higher than the price in the UK. Still a lot of money, though.

  2. That ‘annoying’ Irish penny is by far the nicest coin there. The old Irish animal series coins can fetch more than their face value these days and some quite a bit more. As for 1971, you could always have come to Dublin to ‘spend a penny’. I’m sure that on my first few visits to London I passed on a few Irish coins. We would have seen this as payback for being stuck with similar British coins, but I have a memory of British coins being accepted here when I was young. In more recent years a lot of Irish people would ‘get rid’ of British coins before returning to Ireland as we are now in the Euro-zone and they are worth nothing here in Ireland. I have jar fulls of British coins from trips in recent years, as their value means nothing to me. I changed my last Sterling notes last year as they are useless outside of the UK and I cannot see international travel happening for quite a few years into the future and I understand that Britain is changing to all plastic notes. Many traders in Northern Ireland will happily accept Euros as they know ‘which side their bread is buttered on’.

    I have some old worn pennies with Queen Victoria on the back which my father had. I am holding onto them as another memory of him.

    William

    • I remember the ferries to Ireland – this was about 1966 – (Liverpool to Dublin, I think; I remember waking up as the ferry pulled into town at about 5:30am, and dashing like mad to Westland Row station to catch the morning train to Galway City) ..the ferries took English or Irish money on the way TO Ireland, but would take only English money on the way back to England.

      As you say, William, British money could be used in Ireland, but no-one in the UK – knowingly, anyway – would take any Irish money!

      • Thanks David. That was their problem if they would not take our money. We would use anything that came our way. I have British coins, both in date and out of date, but I cannot use them unless I enter the UK. Today, of course, I can use my Euro coins as far away as Greece.

        Thanks Mike. I recognised the usual ‘bait of hand’. You should Google the ‘Irish Pre-Decimal animal series coins’. Whatever about not being able to use them in London, they are quite beautiful.

        William

  3. Dear Mike, what a nice story! My first time in England was in 1977, with a borrowed Leica II and 5 cm Elmar f:3.5. I remember our complete confusion at the time with penny and shillings (5 pence, right?). The system was already decimal, but the names of the coins were odd. Curiously we had in Italy, long before I was born, a somewhat similar condition, because the italian lira was divided in hundredths (the centesimi) but the 5 cents coin was called a soldo (from the solidus). The cent and soldo disappeared with the post war inflation, but many words words and proverbs stayed, whose meaning became obscure. A soldier is so named because is paid in soldi, and we used to say “small as a soldo of cheese” (cheese is expensive, so you get only a small piece for a soldo).

    • ..And in my first trip to Italy, to Rome (..but with a movie camera, not a stills camera..) I kept following these signs pointing to the ‘Senso Unico’ ..I thought it must be some important church or monument..! Am I daft or what? ..I bought a picture as a memento for my parents; at first I was aghast: it was priced at £10,000..! ..But then – after a while – I realised that ‘£’ was lira, not English pounds!

    • Thanks for adding the Italian aspect which is equally fascinating. I knew from my appetite for Roman history where the word soldier came from and it’s so nice to be able to understand history (and etymology) in relation to the modern world. There are similar examples in English, although none springs to mind at the moment. But naming a person from the method of payment is seen in “pensioner” for instance. It’s the same logic as “soldier”. Sadly, such things are not taught these days. They are considered irrelevant. But without heritage we are nothing.

      Yes, a shilling (which would buy a filling meal in 1971 and now buys nothing) was translated into 5p.

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