Collection of old pre-decimal coins from during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Collection of old pre-decimal coins from during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

As a collector of Maryland colonial currency, I was reading about the differences with exchange rates and the problems the colonies faced when they started to issue paper currency. While reading the references, the amounts did not make sense until I figured out the old British monetary system. Once that was figured out, it was easier to understand the disagreements between the colonies about the values each was expecting their currencies to maintain.

A very short, simplistic, and incomplete history begins with the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror. His invasion of England from Normandy on the northern shores of what is France today in September of 1066 and coronation on December 25, 1066, marks the birth of what would become England.

During the next nearly 50 years, William I (1066-87), William II (1087-1100), and Henry I (1100-35), most of the emphasis has been to finish the conquest and consolidate the ruling under the single crown. The Treaty of Alton (1102) and the subsequent conquest of Normandy (1106) was capable of consolidating power and allowed Henry to attempt to create a sustainable government. Insurgencies from Whales, Rebellion of 1115-20 and the crisis of succession, where is his wife Matilda had not conceived a child, did not allow Henry to finish his work by his death in 1135.

£sd Symbolism

The pound symbol is a fancied “L” based on the Latin librae for weight or balance. It was intended that the 240 pence could be placed on a balance to weigh one pound sterling. The shilling, adapted from the Latin solidus, for solid, was the primary coin of commerce represented with an “s.” For the pence, it used the “d” from the Latin denarius, the smallest Roman coin. Multiple denominations are separated with a slash. For example, 1 shilling can be written as “1/-” while 2 shilling and 3 pence might be written as “2/3d.”

Henry I was succeeded by Stephen, the grandson of William I, with much contention. The problem was that Stephen’s younger brother, Henry of Blois, was embraced by Henry I and subsequently by the Normans. The subsequent civil war lead to a period called “The Anarchy” (1135-1154). During that time Stephen tried to continue with Henry’s reforms but was not able to hold on to the control of the government. Toward the end of his reign, Stephen recognized Henry as the heir to the throne.

With a peace treaty negotiated by Stephen, there was a new peace during the coronation of Henry II in 1154. During the peace, Henry II continued to consolidate power of Norman and Anjou (today this is northern France) and reconstructed the English government.

As part of his reconstruction, Henry II decided to base the currency on the troy pound. The troy pound was based on the Roman libra, which was the basis of weight that England accustomed with. In order to make the money more acceptable, it was divided into 20 units which were originally called testoons. Later, it was renamed as the shilling. As an attempt to make the testoon (shilling) the major unit of currency which corresponded to the Roman solidus. As the solidus was divided into 12 denarii, the testoon was divided further into 12 units with one called a penny and multiples called pence. This was to keep current with the current standard that a pound sterling weight 240 pennyweights.

Early on, it was clear that pence was not small enough of a denomination and was further divided into four parts, two halfpennies or four farthings (quarter pennies). This division was used because the one pennyweight coin representing a penny could not be cut further to represent smaller denominations. Farthings were further divided into smaller denominations using tokes until coins were first used in the 17th century.

To understand this system, I came up with the following table.

Denomination Years struck Equivalents Relative to a Pound Nicknames
Quarter farthing 1839-1853, 1868 1/16 d (16 = 1 penny) 1/3840 pound  
Third farthing 1827-1913 1/12 d (12 = 1 penny) 1/2880 pound  
Half farthing a 1828-1856 1/8 d (8 = 1 penny) 1/1920 pound  
Farthing 1860-1956 1/4 d (4 = 1 penny) 1/960 pound  
Halfpenny 1672-1860 1/2 d (2 = 1 penny) 1/480 pound  ha’penny
Penny 1707-1970 1d 240 pence = 1 pound  
Three halfpence 1834-43, 1860-62 11/2 d 1/160 pound  
Twopence 1797 2d 1/120 pound  
Threepence b 1547-1970 3d 1/80 pound  
Groat 1836-1855, 1888 4d 1/60 pound  joey, sixpenny bit
Sixpence 1551-1970 6d 1/40 pound  tanner
Shilling 1503-1970 1/- (12 pence) 1/20 pound  bob
Florin 1849-1970 2/- (24 pence) 1/10 pound  two bob bit
Half crown 1707-1970 2/6p (26 pence) 1/8 pound  
Double florin 1887-1890 4/- (52 pence) 1/5 pound  
Crown 1707-1965 5/- (60 pence) 1/4 pound  
Sovereign (pound) c 1817-1917, 1925, 1957- 240 pence 10 Shillings  
Half guinea 1699-1816 10/6d 1/8 ounce of gold  
Guinea d 1663-1814 21/- 1/4 ounce of gold  
Notes:

  1. Half farthing was originally made for Ceylon
  2. Three halfpence produced for circulation in the British colonies, mainly in Ceylon and the West Indies
  3. A one pound coin made of gold was called a Sovereign
  4. The guinea came into English after the Guinea region of West Africa was discovered by the British and mined its gold
  5. Not listed is “quid,” the nickname of a one-pound paper note

This was the system until Decimalization Day on February 15, 1971.

Today, British coins are divided into 100 pence to one pound. The coins struck for circulation by the Royal Mint are 1 Penny, 2 Pence, 5 Pence, 10 Pence, 20 Pence, 50 Pence or Half-Pound, £1 (pound), and £2. Paper currency is issued for denominations of £5 and greater.

United Kingdom modern decimalization redesign of 2014 resembles a shield.

United Kingdom modern decimalization redesign of 2014 resembles a shield.

Credits

  • Image of pre-decimalization coins courtesy of Coincraft
  • Image of 2014 United Kingdom shield set courtesy of the Royal Mint

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