It Came From Behind The Shelf No.7
Yes, it’s old money! And it was behind a stack of books! About seventeen and six altogether, minus a few halfpennies and a farthing, which had a robin on, and which I seem to have accidentally spent because it’s the same size as a modern penny. In the year I was born, a pound would have been worth £23 in today’s money. The old currency of guineas (21 shillings), pounds, ten bob notes, half crowns, crowns (florins), shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits (still rhyming slang), pennies, halfpennies and farthings went out of use in 1971. These unwieldy dinner plate-sized objects worked on multiples of twelve, so that there were 144 pennies in a pound.
But if you want to see really huge currency, check out old British movies in which someone unfolds what appears to be a bedsheet, only for it to be revealed as a five pound note. The physical weight of old money in the pocket was astonishing – you felt rich with a shilling in your jacket.
Until relatively recently, the King’s Head pub in Islington used to serve its customers still using the pounds sterling system. It was very disconcerting to have the barmaid count out your change by going, ‘That’s fourteen and fivepence halfpenny, if you give me two farthings I can give you five bob and a sixpence.’
Pounds, shillings and pence originated from the Latin words ‘librae, solidi, denarii’. A convention used in retail pricing was to list prices over one pound all in shillings, rather than in pounds and shillings; for example, £4-18-0 would be written as 98/-. Butchers’ shops and market stalls were masters of calligraphy and hand-wrote all of these prices on tickets. Lately, the boom in nostalgic pop-up shops has led to a mini-return of this kind of writing.