Money and Coinage in Victorian – and twentieth century

Pounds, shillings, and pence
The coinage used in Victorian Britain had been much the same for three hundred years and was based on a system which had existed for more than a millennium. It lasted until 1971 when the currency was finally decimalised and the pound was divided into 100 smaller units. Similar changes were made to the currency in Ireland and several Commonwealth countries which still used Britain’s ancient coinage system.

In Britain the pound Sterling was (and is) the central unit of money. Prior to decimalization the pound was divided into twenty shillings and each shilling was divided into twelve pennies or pence. Although those divisions may seem odd, in fact having a pound divided into 240 equal parts does mean it can be exactly divided into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, eighths, tenths, twelfths, fifteenths, sixteenths, twentieths, twenty-fourths, thirtieths, fortieths, forty-eightieths, sixtieths, eightieths, and one-hundred-and-twentieths. A decimal system allows precise division only into halves, quarters, fifths, tenths, twentieths, twenty-fifths, and fiftieths.

Amounts of money were written in various ways. The pound was represented, as it still is, by a £ sign, the shilling by a ‘s’ and the penny by a ‘d’ (for ‘denarius’, a Roman silver coin which was also used as the name for the English silver penny). So the meaning of £3-4s-6d is fairly obvious. But amounts below a pound were also written 12/6 meaning 12s-6d or 10/- or sometimes 10/= meaning ten shillings. An amount such as 12/6 would be pronounced ‘twelve and six’ as a more casual form of ‘twelve shillings and sixpence’. From the late eighteenth century a shilling was popularly called a ‘bob’ as in ‘it cost three bob’. But you would only use that for whole shillings so it would be ‘three bob’ or ‘three and eight’ but never ‘three bob and six’. From the early 19th century a five shilling piece or crown was sometimes called a dollar, probably because its appearance was similar to the Spanish dollar or peso – sometimes called a piece of eight. This expression gained currency again in the 1940s when US troops came to the UK during World War II. At the time a US dollar was worth exactly 5s. In the post-war period right up to the 1960s the phrase ‘half a dollar’ meaning 2/6 was also used.

The guinea
A guinea was £1-1s-0d (which is £1.05) and could be written as ‘1g’ or ‘1gn’ or, in the plural, ‘3gs’ or ‘3gns’. It was considered a more gentlemanly amount than £1. You paid a tradesman, such as a carpenter, in pounds but a gentleman, perhaps an artist, in guineas. It was a tradition in the legal profession that a barrister was paid in guineas but kept only the pounds, giving his clerk the shillings (they were all men then).

In the 1850s and 60s the standard rate paid by Dickens for contributions to his weekly periodicals Household Words and All The Year Round was half a guinea a column or a guinea a page. His staff members were generally paid five guineas a week. In the early 1850s, before he worked for Dickens, Wilkie Collins was paid five-eighths of a guinea a page for his work in Bentley’s Miscellany. That odd amount was worked out from the rate of ten guineas for a printed sheet of sixteen pages. Per word, both amounts were similar.

Like the pound, the guinea could also be divided exactly into many different amounts – halves, thirds, quarters, sixths, sevenths, ninths, fourteenths, twenty-firsts, twenty-eighths, thirty-sixths, forty-seconds, sixty-thirds, eighty-fourths, and one-hundred-and-twenty-sixths. One useful factor was that a third of a guinea was exactly seven shillings.

The coinage reflected the principal divisions of the money and added some of its own. A gold coin worth £1 was called a sovereign and the half sovereign, also in gold, was worth ten shillings. These coins were first minted in 1817 as a response to the rather uncertain value of earlier gold coins. Both were current throughout Victoria’s reign. A crown was a silver coin worth 5s – though much more common was the half-crown worth 2/6 or exactly one eighth of a pound. The shilling was also a silver coin as were the sixpence and the threepence. That coin was usually pronounced – and sometimes spelt – ‘thruppence’ and in conversation, the coin was sometimes called ‘a thrupp’ny bit’. Silver coins called groats and worth four pence were also minted and were sometimes called Joeys. That term  was also used for threepenny bits from 1937 when they were no longer small silver coins but were reissued in a yellowy nickel brass metal with 12 sides. Half-groats and silver pennies were not in circulation in the Victorian era but were still minted for a tradition known as Maundy Money where the Monarch gave poor people in a parish a groat, a threepence, a half groat and a penny. The number of poor people favoured in this way was the same as the number of the monarch’s years. 

The tradition still goes on although now the number of people honoured is as many men and as many women as the monarch’s years and they each get the same number of pence as years in the monarch’s years – that is one more than her age. For example, on Maundy Thursday 28 March 2002 the 75-year-old Queen Elizabeth II – who is therefore in her 76th year – gave out 76 pence (seven and a half sets of a fourpence, a threepence, a twopence and a penny) of Maundy money to each of 76 men and 76 women in Canterbury Cathedral. The sets come in a white leather purse. The recipients also get a second, red purse containing £5.50 in more ordinary money. Since 1971 the coins have been decimalised and are worth 4p, 3p, 2p, and 1p. The portrait of the Queen is the early one which was used from 1953 to decimalisation.

Lower value coins were made of copper (bronze from 1860). The penny was accompanied by the halfpenny (pronounced hape-nee and sometimes written ha’penny) and the farthing, worth a quarter of a penny. Half farthings were also minted for some of Victoria’s reign but were unpopular because of their small size. Smaller coins – one third and one quarter farthings – were minted mainly for use in some British colonies. For most people the penny was still the central coin of their currency and was used in words like ‘penn’orth’ meaning a penny-worth of something as in ‘I’ll take a penn’orth of tobacco’ and also as in ‘it’s a good penn’orth, sir’ meaning it is good value for your penny. These coins were referred to as ‘coppers’ as in ‘It cost a few coppers’. Not to be confused with the slang meaning of ‘a copper’ from the early Victorian period of ‘a policeman’.

Although all this can seem very confusing to people brought up with purely decimal coinage – like dollars and cents or euro and cent (the official spelling of the European currency in English takes no ‘s’ for the plural though in popular use it almost always does) or the present day currency of almost every major country in the world – it became second nature to most people. Money calculations were part of a basic education along with the alphabet and multiplication tables. In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the young Pip is subject to endless mental arithmetic tests by Mr Pumblechook. One of them involves money.

“First (to get our thoughts in order) : Forty-three pence?”
I calculated the consequences of replying “Four Hundred Pounds,” and, finding them against me, went as near the answer as I could — which was about eightpence off. Mr. Pumblechook then put me through my pence-table from “twelve pence make one shilling,” up to “forty pence make three and fourpence,” and then triumphantly demanded, as if he had done for me, “Now! How much is forty-three pence?” To which I replied, after a long interval of reflection, “I don’t know.” And I was so aggravated that I almost doubt if I did know.

Mr. Pumblechook worked his head like a screw to screw it out of me, and said, “Is forty-three pence seven and sixpence three fardens, for instance?”

“Yes!” said I. And although my sister instantly boxed my ears, it was highly gratifying to me to see that the answer spoilt his joke, and brought him to a dead stop.

(Great Expectations, chapter IX)

Forty-three pence is, of course, three shillings and sevenpence. And a ‘farden’ is a farthing.

Even more obscure for anyone not familiar with the peculiarities of pre-decimal English coinage is this passage from Dickens’s Bleak House where the total price of a meal for three people is rapidly assessed by one of the diners for the benefit of the waitress, Polly.

Mr. Smallweed, compelling the attendance of the waitress with one hitch of his eyelash, instantly replies as follows: “Four veals and hams is three, and four potatoes is three and four, and one summer cabbage is three and six, and three marrows is four and six, and six breads is five, and three Cheshires is five and three, and four half-pints of half-and-half is six and three, and four small rums is eight and three, and three Pollys is eight and six. Eight and six in half a sovereign, Polly, and eighteenpence out!”

Not at all excited by these stupendous calculations, Smallweed dismisses his friends with a cool nod and remains behind to take a little admiring notice of Polly, as opportunity may serve, and to read the daily papers, which are so very large in proportion to himself, shorn of his hat, that when he holds up the Times to run his eye over the columns, he seems to have retired for the night and to have disappeared under the bedclothes.

Bleak House Chapter XX

From this rather impenetrable paragraph we can deduce the price of everything on the menu which the three men – Jobling, Guppy, and Smallweed – ate. Smallweed adds up the amounts in his head and keeps a running total of the bill as he does so.

The three of them ate four helpings of veal and ham with french beans – Jobling had two. The total, Smallweed says, “is three” or three shillings. Three shillings is 36d so each veal and ham was 9d. Such calculations, knowing that four ninepences were three shillings, would have been second nature to most Victorians. Jobling also had double potatoes and four helpings of potatoes make the total “three and four”. So they are a penny a portion bringing the total to 3s 4d. Jobling’s summer cabbage – no-one else ate that – adds another 2d – total now 3s 6d or “three and six”. After this came a helping each of marrow pudding taking the bill from “three and six” to “four and six” in other words adding a shilling. So each helping must have been 4d as there are twelve pennies in a shilling. Six helpings of bread (two a piece) at 1d each adds 6d making 5/- “is five”. A portion of Cheshire cheese is also 1d, add three of those to get to 5s 3d (five and three). Four half pints of half and half – a drink comprising equal measures of ale and stout, two different kinds of beer – add a shilling taking the total from “five and three” to “six and three” or 6s 3d. Jobling had drunk two and they are 3d each. Four small rums are clearly 6d each, four making 24d or 2/- , bringing the total to 8s 3d “eight and three”. And finally, Polly’s waitressing service for three people is 1d each adding threepence to make a final total of 8s 6d. Smallweed gives Polly half a sovereign, which is ten shillings, leaving 1s 6d change or, as Mr Smallweed puts it, “and eighteenpence out!” Simple!

The Florin
The Victorians introduced one new coin intended as the first step towards a decimal system of coinage. A two shilling coin, exactly a tenth of a pound, was first minted in 1849. It was called a florin (a term first used for the coin produced in the 13th century in the Italian city of Florence) and it was minted for nearly 120 years until 1968 when, in preparation for decimalisation, a coin of the same size became the new ten pence piece. A smaller 10p piece was issued in 1992 and the old florin sized coin finally disappeared on 30 June 1993. A florin was also called a ‘two shilling piece’ or a ‘two bob bit’. It did not oust the popular half a crown, usually called a half-crown, worth 2s 6d, which remained in use until 1 January 1970. Even in the 1960s auctioneers at country sales would move the bidding on in half-crowns. The bid between five and ten shillings being always ‘three half-crowns’. A double florin was minted in 1887 but was not popular. Guineas were not minted after 1813. In the eighteenth century half, third, and quarter guineas were also minted. Two and five guinea coins belonged to an earlier age.

Up to the present
The historical UK currency of pounds shillings and pence disappeared on 15 February 1971. That date – called D-Day at the time in a strange echo of the popular name for the invasion of France in World War II – saw the start of the UK’s first decimal coinage. From then on the pound was divided into 100 new pennies worth 2.4 pence. The ancient plural of ‘pence’ was retained (the two have always run in parallel, the plural for the coins usually being ‘pennies’ and for an amount being generally ‘pence’). However, the symbol for the new penny was ‘p’ rather than ‘d’ and small amounts of money were soon referred to as so many ‘pee’ – ‘twenty pee’, ’94 pee’ etc. That usage still continues. The prefix ‘new’ disappeared from the language within a few years and was dropped from the coinage in 1982.

Decimalisation of the currency had been discussed on and off for more than a century. But in 1961 a Committee of Enquiry under Lord Halsbury was appointed to examine it again. Four years later the committee reported and proposed that the UK should decimalise its currency and the decision to do so, and how it would be done, was announced on 1 March 1966. The Decimal Currency Act was passed into law in 1967. As part of the changeover the Royal Mint was moved from its historic site near Tower Bridge in London to Llantrissant in South Wales. The ten pence and five pence coins (equivalent to the two shilling and one shilling pieces) were phased in from 1968 and a new seven sided fifty pence piece was issued in October 1969 to replace the ten shilling note which ceased to be legal tender on 22 November 1970. The halfpenny disappeared on 31 July 1969 and the half crown five months later on 31 December 1969. The last farthing had already disappeared from use. The last were dated 1956 and it was withdrawn in 1961.

After D-Day 15 February 1971 all accounting was done in decimal form. The remaining pre-decimal coinage continued to circulate but the old pennies and threepenny bits – which had no equivalent in the new system – ceased to be legal tender on 31 August 1971. The sixpence, which had an exact value of 2.5p, continued to circulate until 30 June 1980. The shillings and florins, which were identical in size to the new 5p and 10p coins, continued for much longer. In 1982 a new 20p piece, also with seven sides, appeared. The pound coin first appeared in 1983 and the one pound note disappeared on 11 March 1988, though Scottish banks continued to issue them into the 21st century. The decimal halfpenny vanished on 31 December 1984. A smaller 5p was issued in 1990 and the shilling finally disappeared on 31 December 1990 along with the original larger 5 pence coins. A similar reduction followed for the 10p in 1992 leading to the disappearance of the florin and the old 10p on 30 June 1993. From September 1992 the penny and two pence pieces were made from copper plated steel rather than bronze – though some 2p pieces were issued in bronze in 1998. The two types can be sorted with a magnet. In 1997 a £2 bimetallic coin was first issued (though special issue £2 coins to commemorate various events had been produced since since 1986). The 50p piece was reduced in size from 1997 and the larger version vanished on 28 February 1998.

Commemorative five pound pieces, silver in colour and similar in size to the old crown are also minted from time to time and although they are legal tender at face value the market is almost exclusively to collectors. The Royal Mint continues to issue gold sovereigns and a variety of other gold and silver coins to satisfy the market both for investment and for collectors. They can be bought direct from the Royal Mint or, if you want to pay more, through dealers.

Some of the Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, adopted a different approach to decimalisation, creating a new ‘dollar’ worth ten shillings which was divided into a hundred cents, each worth 1.2 old pennies. Their new currencies were introduced slightly before that of the UK. Ireland decimalised its punt at the same time as the UK, dividing it as the UK did into 100 pence. That currency was replaced on 1 January 2002 by the euro.

The first paper money was issued by the Bank of England in the 1690s. But it was not widely used or trusted. Banknotes began to be issued in quantity in 1797 when an economic crisis stopped the Bank making payments in coins for more than £1. It issued the first £1 notes in March that year. Notes for £2, £5, £10, and £15 are also known. These notes continued until 1828 and values up to £1000 were issued in small numbers. They were all very simple, hand-signed and until 1808 numbered by hand as well. From 1817, after the troubles of the wars against Napoleon and France were over, the gold sovereign became used and trusted as the common unit for £1. For most people, whose weekly wages were less than £1, the sovereign more than fulfilled their needs. Wealthy people though needed higher value currency and from 1829, when the Bank stopped issuing £1 and £2 notes, it continued with the £5 note. Higher denominations were made, though they were rarer and very few have survived. In 1853 bank officials stopped signing the notes by hand and the signature was printed. 

Throughout this period the design of the notes was simple. The ink was black, the paper white. The only decoration was the figure of Britannia in a small oval vignette at the upper left of the note. Although some details changed the design remained much the same until 1855. Then, the words Bank of England were moved to the top centre of the note in an elaborate typeface. Britannia remained top left but a new image within a new vignette was designed by the artist Daniel Maclise RA. The printing process was improved. The wording was also changed. Instead of the note promising to pay by name the Chief Cashier it promised to pay ‘the bearer on demand’ – a phrase still used on English banknotes. From this redesign onwards, the plain white note universally known from that time as ‘a fiver’, would look familiar for more than 100 years. It was eventually replaced with a more pictorial design in 1957.

During World War I the £1 note re-appeared, issued not by the Bank of England but by the Treasury. It was accompanied by a ten shilling note. Production continued after the war and five shilling and even half crown notes were also issued. These notes bore the head of the monarch, George V. In 1928 the Bank took over production of one pound and ten shilling notes in a new design – green for the pound and brown for the 10/- note. Britannia replaced the monarch’s head which did not reappear until 1960. A £10 note was first issued in the modern era in 1964 followed by a £20 note in 1970 and a £50 note in 1981.

Source: Paul Lewis