It Came From Behind The Shelf No.7

Great Britain, Observatory

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.

9 comments on “It Came From Behind The Shelf No.7”

  1. BangBang!! says:

    I think the farthing had a picture of a wren not a robin, admin.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I have a lot of old foreign coins in a drawer in the bedroom, including a pocket-bottom full of British coinage. (See comment to immediately-prior post; reading back, not forward) Some biggish G.B. folding money, too. Can one still use it or exchange it? Not worth much, I’d guess. {Perhaps I’ll just stick it in a clay jar from the basement, seal it with wax, dig a hole in the backyard, and contemplate some future archaeologist being called in, if it’s found.

  3. BangBang!! says:

    I’m afraid you’re stuck with it Dan! It can’t be used or exchanged though you’re plan to fuse future archaeologists sounds good Tito me!

  4. Helen Martin says:

    The coffee shop behind the main Vancouver library (Gutenburg’s)has a container on the counter asking for a sample of coin from “your home country” and they’re getting quite a collection. I read somewhere about an organization that collects at airports in the outbound lounge. You’re not going to use those coins in your pocket so why not donate them to us? Seems like a good idea. I remember those big sheets of paper from the films and also remember bank tellers being asked who had recently withdrawn 5lb notes. I could never figure out how they could remember, unless they only had 4 or 5 customers in a day.

  5. amber says:

    it was definitely a wren. most charities can use such outdated currency, so why not approach some good cause that you think is deserving.

  6. snowy says:

    Hmmm, there were 12d [old pennies] to the shilling and 20 shillings to a pound, so there were 240d to the pound.

    The 98/- solution was correct however. Ah! I see where you ‘sourced’ that, naughty, naughty ;-) .

    Pay attention class, we are going to talk numbers.

    [George, don’t do that!]

    Modern counting systems are decimal or base ten, with factors, 1, 2, 5, and 10.

    Older counting systems are sexagesimal or base sixty with factors, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, 60.

    If no-one has invented the ‘.’ and all you have is the ‘/’ it does make sense.

    [Why am I having a flashback to Victor Borge? Oh I remember now.]

    Don’t blame me, some mouldy Babylonians, sorry, Sumerians came up with it first.

  7. John Howard says:

    Thank you Joyce, sorry, snowy for that lesson. The one coin I miss is the threepenny bit. It just felt great and at one time could buy a whole mars bar. (That was of course when they tasted better). As for the half crown, when I had one of those I felt like Mr Moneybags and thought I could buy most of the world. Well at least the important stuff like sweets and comics. As for the crown I don’t think I ever saw on of those.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I certainly understood the pennies/shillings/pounds and even guineas but all those florins and other things seemed beyond me. It was before the computer, of course, so I’d have had to go to the library to research the connections. Instead, I shut my mind to the whole thing. I can still add a column of costs in old money, though. Now there is a waste of mental resources.

  9. glasgow1975 says:

    I’m just wondering how pre-decimal coins got stuck behind bookshelves in your post-decimal glass penthouse?

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