Currency in British literature

Jacob Marley's ghost in A Christmas Carol

A few days ago my family and I went to see a stage performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. For years I’ve glossed over references to money when reading British literature but I’ve intended to figure out how it all worked before decimalization. Watching A Christmas Carol prompted me to finally do it.

Many thanks to my British friend Samuel Jack for helping me sort things out. Any errors in this post are mine and not Sam’s. If you find an error or omission below, please leave a comment.

The most basic denominations were pound, shilling, and penny. The pound and shilling had the nicknames quid and bob respectively.  (The plural of “penny” is “pence.” The terms “quid” and “bob” are both singular and plural.) A pound equaled 20 shillings and a shilling equaled 12 pence. Pound, shilling, and pence had the abbreviations “L”, “s”, and “d” which came from the Roman librae, solidi, and denarii.

A florin was two shillings and a crown was five shillings. A guinea was 21 shillings. (The reason a guinea was slightly more valuable than a pound had to do with precious metal exchange rates.)

A few more denominations were self-evident. For example,  the half crown and sixpence were worth what you’d think.

15 thoughts on “Currency in British literature

  1. I’m old enough to remember decimalisation and the excitement of “new money”. I also remember my primary school teacher thinking that 100 pence to the pound made mental arithmetic too easy, so she continued to set tests using pounds, shillings and pence. Now, I’m hoping the UK will adopt the Euro.

  2. Colloquially I also remember five shillings being referred to as a “dollar”, presumably referencing the fixed Bretton Woods rate from 1945-49 when the pound was pegged at four dollars. (Isn’t Wikipedia wonderful!)

    When I was 8 or 9, I lived for three months in Cambridge Mass., in the late 60s, by which time £1 was $2.40, so we had “penny parity”, which helped. The “five-and-dime” was still exactly that.

    Other coins we had pre-decimalisation included the Threepenny (“thrupp’ny”) “bit”, which was 12-sided, the Half-penny (“ha’penny” with a long “a”) and the Farthing (a quarter-penny) although that went out of use less than a year after I was born.

    I am by about a century too young to recall the groat (four – probably silver – pennies)

  3. Thanks for that lesson in old money :) It’s one of those things that I’ve always thought would be interesting to finally look up but it never came to the fore of the mind when I was sitting in front of a computer. One contribution that I didn’t see in the comments: tuppence was, oddly enough, two pence.

  4. The word crown was rarely used as there was no five shilling piece, but there was a coin worth two shillings and sixpence, half-a-crown (or “half-a-crack” as we used to say at school). There was a two shilling piece, but it was colloquially referred to as “two bob”, never “a florin”. Guineas were only used in shop window advertising, e.g. 10 guineas for a pair of shoes, to conceal the fact that the price was actually more than 10 pounds.
    Quiz for readers: If somebody gave you a five quid note for an item costing two pounds ten shillings and sixpence halfpenny, what would the change be?

  5. I too am old enough to remember the switch the decimal money. Our teacher took the bizarre viewpoint that decimal money was somehow more difficult, so a bunch of third-formers who has mastered long division in pounds, shillings, and pence got extra practice on what our teacher said was “rather tricky” decimal money sums. I don’t believe any of us ever let on to her what a welcome relief that was.

  6. The Wikipedia article looks accurate:

    Pennies is a perfectly valid plural for penny. In my mind, I tend to think of it as pennies pre-decimalisation and pence post. That isn’t correct as all the references to “tuppence”, “thruppence” etc. show (apart from my age!).

    The abbreviation LSD also has the visual aspect: £sd

  7. “Quid” is still used here to mean singular or plural pounds – but only for whole numbers of them, and most people will say ‘p’ (pee) when stating a number of pence. The ‘pound’ can be omitted when stating a number containing both pounds and pence.

    “five seventy four”
    “four pounds thirty two”
    “a quid”
    “three quid”
    “seventy two p”

    Incidentally, some shops in the South East of England have started taking Euros, largely because they can impose a favourable exchange rate. So we can still have a reason to do maths in our heads, except this time it’s decimal multiplication, not 12/10-base arithmetic.

  8. Pennies and pence were both plurals but had different uses. Pennies was the plural of penny as a coin, pence the plural of penny as an amount of money. Thus if something cost five pence, one might pay for it with five pennies, or, eg, with three pennies and a tuppeny bit. For a brief while one had to distinguish between old and new pence, or indeed pennies, and they became d and p, and so these entered the spoken language, pronounced dee and pee of course. The penny word was the pretty much lost. Pence lingers on, although I think p is more common, and one hears people talking about one pence.

  9. There was indeed a five shilling coin, but one rarely came a cross one. But I certainly saw them in the ’40s.
    The groat was a short lived coin 1836 – 1855 (worth four pence), Allegedly minted as a handy way of paying a cab driver his exact fare. But unpopular with cabbies as previously the handy coin was a sixpence ‘and keep the change’.

  10. Thank you for this. Just finished watching Scrooge with Albert Finney and everyone I watch any version of A Christmas Carol I always wonder what the value of a half crown was in this era. Or if 15 shillings that Scrooge paid Cratchit was indeed a very low wage. Thanks!

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