Pounds, Shillings, Pence, and Guineas: Understanding British Currency Used in the 19th Century

Okay, I admit it. When it comes to understanding the British system of currency in the books I read, even I am sometimes confused. So, I set out to learn more of the currency. 

The common currency was created in 1707 by Article 16 of the Articles of Union.

Here is a guide to British currency:

Pound: This was the basic unit of currency. One could find possess a “pound” in the form of a paper note or in the form of a sovereign (a gold coin). Sometimes it was also called a “quid,” but this was more of a slang term. Another slang term found in the period was a “monkey,” which was equal to £500. Meanwhile, a “pony” was £25. The pound sign (£) represents Libra, a pound weight in Latin. “The symbol derives from a capital “L”, representing libra, the basic unit of weight in the Roman Empire, which in turn is derived from the Latin name of the same spelling for scales or a balance. The pound became an English unit of weight and was so named because it originally had the value of one tower pound (~350 grams) of fine (pure) silver.” (Pound Sign)

In 1066, after the Norman Conquest, the pound was divided into twenty shillings or 240 pennies. It was as such until the decimalization on 15 February 1971. Prior to that time, money was divided into pounds (£ or 1), shillings (s. or/-) and pennies (d.). 

lima_shilling_giiShilling: The most popular coin of the period was a shilling. It was used to purchase food, coal, soap, cloth, etc. There are 20 shillings to a pound and twelve pennies to a shilling. The symbol s. or /- came from the Latin solidus. The slang term for a shilling was “bob.”

“The word shilling comes from scilling, an accounting term that dates back to Anglo-Saxon  times, and from there back to Old Norse, where it means ‘division.’ One abbreviation for shilling is s (for solidus). Often it was informally represented by a slash, standing for a  long s or ʃ thus 1/6 would be 1 shilling and sixpence, often pronounced “one and six” (and equivalent to 18d; the shilling itself was valued at 12d). A price with no pence was written with a slash and a dash: 11/–. Quite often a triangle or (serif) apostrophe would be used to give a neater appearance, such as 1’6 or 11’–. During the Great Recoinage of 1816, the mint was instructed to coin one troy pound (weighing 5760 grains) of standard (o.925 fine) silver into 66 shillings, or its equivalent in other denominations. This effectively set the weight of the shilling, and its subsequent decimal replacement 5 new pence coin, at 87.2727 grains or 5.655 grams from 1816 to 1990, when a new smaller 5p coin was introduced.” (Shilling)

150px-Aethelred_obv2150px-Aethelred_rev2Penny: This was the smallest unit of currency. The plural of “penny” is “pence.” There were 12 pence for each shilling and 240 pence for each pound. “The earliest halfpenny and farthing (¼d.) thus found date to the reigns of Edward I and Henry III, respectively. The need for small change was also sometimes met by simply cutting a full penny into halves or quarters. In 1527, Henry VIII abolished the Tower pound of 5400 grains, replacing it with the Troy pound of 5760 grains and establishing a new pennyweight of 1.56 grams. The last silver pence for general circulation were minted during the reign of Charles II around 1660. 

Cartwheel_Penny“Throughout the 18th century, the British government did not mint pennies for general circulation, and the bullion value of the existing silver pennies caused them to be withdrawn from circulation. Merchants and mining companies began to issue their own copper tokens to fill the need for small change. Finally, amid the Napoleonic Wars, the government authorized Matthew Boulton to mint copper pennies and twopences. Typically, 1 lb. of copper produced 24 pennies. In 1860, the copper penny was replaced with a bronze one (95% copper, 4% tin, 1% zinc). Each pound of bronze was coined into 48 pennies.” (Penny)

If I have not lost you completely at this point, we must also address coins that a reader might encounter in an historical document or novel. There were also special coins that were used that spoke of “multiples” and “fractions” of shillings and pence. For example…

Guinea = one pound, one shilling (Slang word for a guinea was “yellowboy.”) You will read in historical novels where a gentleman paid for his business transactions in guineas. 

farthing_queenanneOther coins in multiples and fractions are…

Florin = 2 shillings
Crown = 5 shillings
Half-crown = 2.5 shillings
Tuppence = 2 pence
Thrupence = 3 pence
Groat = 4 pence
Tanner6 pence
Ha’penny = 1/2 of a penny
Farthing1/4 of a penny
Mite 1/8 of a penny

For a more detailed explanation visit The Proceedings of Old Bailey, which also addresses questions on wages and the cost of living at time, or British Life and Culture.

 

 

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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18 Responses to Pounds, Shillings, Pence, and Guineas: Understanding British Currency Used in the 19th Century

  1. Regina, thank you so much!!!! Although I did get “lost” here and there, this post answered so many of my monetary questions.

    • It is difficult to keep straight, La Deetda. I am always wondering how much money would someone have in his pocket, etc. The problem is that some coins such as guineas were cut, meaning a piece off of the larger coin served as payment. There was little “making change back to the customer” as we now think on it.

  2. Regina says:

    Very interesting and helpful, too! Glad to see you keep a running archive of these posts as I may need a handy reference while reading.

  3. carolcork says:

    Regina, I remember using the farthing (withdrawn in 1961), old penny (as opposed the new one pence), thrupence, sixpence, half-crown (this was the amount of pocket money I used to get) and pound note.

    • Yes, when I am writing, I keep this list handy, Carol. As we are unwilling to admit (because of our ages), a half-crown would have gone further when we were young than in today’s market. Here is a list of price changes over the last 80+ years in the U.S.:

      Average Cost Of New Home Homes
      1930 $3,845.00 , 1940 $3,920.00, 1950 $8,450.00 , 1960 $12,700.00 ,
      1970 $23,450.00 , 1980 $68,700.00 , 1990 $123,000.00 , 2008 $238,880 , 2013 $289,500 ,
      Average Wages
      1930 $1,970.00 , 1940 $1,725.00, 1950 $3,210.00 , 1960 $5,315.00 ,
      1970 $9,400.00 , 1980 $19,500.00 , 1990 $28,960.00 , 2008 $40,523 , 2012 $44,321 ,

      Average Cost of New Car Cars
      1930 $600.00 , 1940 $850.00, 1950 $1,510.00 , 1960 $2,600.00 ,
      1970 $3,450.00 , 1980 $7,200.00 , 1990 $16,950.00 , 2008 $27,958 , 2013 $31,352 ,

      Average Cost Gallon Of Gas
      1930 10 cents , 1940 11 cents , 1950 18 cents , 1960 25 cents ,
      1970 36 cents , 1980 $1.19 , 1990 $1.34 , 2009 $2.051 , 2013 $3.80 ,

      Average Cost Loaf of Bread Food
      1930 9 cents , 1940 10 cents , 1950 12 cents , 1960 22 cents ,
      1970 25 cents , 1980 50 cents , 1990 70 cents , 2008 $2.79 , 2013 $1.98 ,

      Average Cost 1lb Hamburger Meat
      1930 12 cents , 1940 20 cents , 1950 30 cents , 1960 45 cents ,
      1970 70 cents , 1980 99 cents , 1990 89 cents , 2009 $3.99 , 2013 $4.68 ,
      Some of the above can be explained due to the inflation over 80 years , but there are also many other reasons why some prices increased dramatically ( Housing Bubbles. Middle East Wars, Weather problems causing food price inflation, Population explosion, ) it also can work the other way due to improvements in technology offering much cheaper goods for example TV’s, Calculators, Computers ETC.

  4. The English still refer to the £ as a quid, at least I still do, Pounds shillings and pence, is the right way not ”pennies”,As for halfpenny’s “Ha’penny” & farthings they were still in use when I was boy, I recall the horse drawn bakers cart pulling up outside the school and we’d buy a fresh ,still warm bread roll ( I think you yanks call them biscuits for some obscure reason unknown ) for a farthing or a small warm Vienna loaf for a ha’penny, ah for the good old days of the bakers cart that was pre 1950. 😥

    • Ginna says:

      Don’t know ~why~ we call them thus, but we can’t call rolls ‘biscuits’, because rolls are different than biscuits. I think perhaps you call rolls ‘buns’. But we do too, sometimes. And you call cookies ‘biscuits’. So there! 🙂

      • A biscuit is what Americans refer to as a cookie for some unknown reason which will forever elude me, a bread roll is precisely that and a bun in English is a sweet roll, often with cream inside sometimes strawberry or raspberry jam is added to make them even more delightful. jam is called jelly for some unfathomable reason by our American cousins, perhaps they add gelatine into their jam making, it’s the basic ingredient for jelly

  5. It’s actually pronounced as threppenny piece; my pocket money was half a crown each week for which I toiled mightily.
    I think the average wage thing is way off for 1950 at least,my father in 1950 earned less than £7 (7 quid) a week, When I started work in London in 1950 I had a very good wage of £2/10/- a week( my brother was 2 years older than me and earned less than I did. I believe that the usual exchange was 4 US dollars equaled £1. At that rate my dad got the equivalent to $1456 US and mine around $520 pa
    Hamburger meat? In 1950 we were still tightly rationed (at one time the ration was 8d yes 8 pence per week for adults and 4d for children, we didn’t enjoy much in the way of meat) especially for meat and mince (ground) beef was on the table quite often but more as the basis for a stew than hamburgers, (I never heard of them ’til I got to Australia)

  6. Pre-decimal currency was in use until 1971, so I remember it well. I think we really ought to have it back again. It was so useful for confusing the hell out of foreign visitors. Mostly, they just held out a handful of coins in a bemused way and let you take whatever you wanted. Now that would be the complete answer to all our problems with overseas debt, wouldn’t it? While we’re at it, we could throw in the groat and perhaps the mark as well.

  7. Paula says:

    Thank you, Regina, you always bring all the good info.

  8. Katherine Schmitt says:

    Regina, this is excellent! Please don’t think me ungrateful, but I would also like to know about the equivalent values of Regency period amounts in today’s U.S. dollars. What does Darcy’s £10,000 per year translate to? If you can point me to your resources, I sure would appreciate it. Thank you ever so much!

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