Monday 15th February 1971, a day forever known to those who were there as “Decimal Day”, the day that the UK went Decimal Mad, the day when we finally joined the rest of the sane world and decided to scrap our ancient way of accounting with strange coinage and use the far more sensible decimal system as adopted by every other country in the world.
Its hard to imagine now that we ever used anything but the principle that there should be 100 pennies to one pound, or that other coinage in between should not be counted in units of ten – a ten pence, a twenty pence, a fifty pence – it just, sort of makes so much sense doesn’t it ?
And yet for centuries we British people had bartered with coinage that seemed to follow no sort of pattern at all that could be explained by means of mathematics, for instance, you had your starter unit, the one penny piece, a huge coin that actually felt like it should be worth so much more, a coin that had been in circulation in much the same design for well over a hundred years – it was not an uncommon event to find a one penny piece in your change with a picture of Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) head on it, sometimes even a young Victoria.
And so we split that coin into two other units, the halfpenny or ha’penny, and then again into two more units, the farthing, a farthing being next to useless for buying anything of any sort of intrinsic value other than a small chewy sweet known as “a chew”, four -a-penny, fruit salad or blackjack, the only thing in the world that could still be bought for a farthing in my world.
So we’ve already got three coins, lets add another, the threepenny piece, thru’penny piece, a twelve-sided coin that not surprisingly was worth three pennies, or six ha’pennies, or indeed twelve farthings, or twelve chews, I prefered to measure everything by how many chews I could buy, these sort of things are important to kids, one thru’penny piece equalled twelve chews and the thru’penny piece was the favoured coin of Great-Aunts to give to nephews when visiting, “Heres thru’pence” they’d say, “now bugger off…”
Lets move on, the sixpence comes next, yes, I know, its nothing like decimal money is it, stick with me, it gets worse. the silver sixpence, twenty four chews, you were rich with a sixpence.
After the sixpence what else could it be but the shilling ? Worth twelve pennies or forty eight chews we now have six coins of the realm, and now seven for of course we also had a two shilling coin, the florin, or two bob, blimey, thats ninety six chews and for those who are now lost in confusion, the two shilling coin was roughly the same size and certainly the same value as our current ten pence piece – I bet you can’t buy ninety six blackjacks for ten pence.
Still haven’t finished yet though, for next we had the half crown coin, worth two shillings and sixpence, or as our dad used to call it “a dollar” for which I can only assume that at some point in his history you could get eight US dollars to the pound, but we’re running away with ourselves a little.
We’ll skip the crown coin for when I was a child it had already fallen from general use, but there used to be one, for how could we have a half crown without a full crown, it would have been worth five shillings.
No more coins then, but next in line was the ten shilling note, a brown undistinguished looking note but one that was highly prized in birthday or christmas cards for ten shillings could buy an awful lot of chews, lots and lots of them, I’ve lost count now but do the maths yourself, ten shillings multiplied by twelve pennies in each shilling multiplied by four farthings in each penny – its an awful lot of chews isn’t it, I’d hate to have to carry them home from the sweetshop in my trouser pockets.
Twenty shillings got you a pound note, you were incredibly wealthy with a pound note in your birthday card, so wealthy that your mother would take it off you to pay the gas bill, promising to let you have it back at some undetermined point in the far distant future, then months later when you were nagging her for it she’d say something like “Don’t you think you get enough from me ?”
So lets recap…
You start with fours, four farthings to the penny
You then switch to twelves, twelve pennies to the shilling
And then to twenties, twenty shillings to the pound
In between you have all sorts of combinations of coinage and quaint phrases that you never hear of these days, “Give us a tanner”, or “Its two and a kick” or “Seven and three ha’pence”, and as very young children starting school at the age of five we had to learn all of this stuff in the first term.
I haven’t mentioned the Guinea, a unit of currency still in use when horse trading, its £1.1.o, that is one pound and one shilling, or twenty one shillings, we had to learn that too and no, I haven’t a clue why.