THE BRITISH MONEY SYSTEM BEFORE DECIMALISATION


I quite often see queries on various genealogical mailing lists from people researching their British ancestors from overseas and are puzzled by some aspects of the money system. So this page is just to help in answering some of these incidental questions that arise out of our family history research - it it not a page for those for whom the coins are a primary interest.

Up till about about 1971 we used a system of pounds, shillings and pence or LSD. L was from the Roman librum and d was (I think) from Roman denarius. Old account books often use the letter L as a symbol for the pound and the familiar £ sign is just a fancy version of a letter L. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. Ten shillings would often be written as 10/- and 3 shillings and 2 pennies would be written as 3s 2d or 3/2. The higher value coins (6d up when I was a boy although when I was small they still had silver 3d pieces) were called "silver" but after about 1920 they were greatly debased with up to 50% of other metal and in 1947 silver was relaced with cupro-nickel. Before then they really were silver. People also talked about "coppers" as a term for small change but in fact they were bronze.

A guinea was sometimes used as a unit of account. It as equal to one pound and 1 shilling. At one time there was a guinea coin but this went out of use in the early 1800s. Other coins that were only notional in my youth were the crown and the sovereign. The sovereign was a gold coin with a face value of £1 (1 pound). There was also a half sovereign. For practical purposes they disappeared from circulation in 1914. Sovereigns are still minted and I think they are legal tender but as they are worth very much more than their face value they would never be used in normal transactions. They are a simple means of buying gold in the same way as krugerrands.

A crown was a quarter pound (5/- or 5 shillings). The Victorian (real) silver crowns are a wonderful coin to have. Since the war they have been minted only as commemorative coins - the Queen's Jubilee, funeral of Winston Churchill and so on. Again they are legal tender and as they worth little or no more than their face value I have seen them used for normal transactions. However the name was preserved in the half-crown coin worth 2s 6d (an eighth of a pound) which was the highest value coin when I was a boy. It took me some time to understand that it got its name from a higher value coin that I had then never then seen. It disappeared with decimalisation as 2/6 is the equivalent of £0.125 or 12.5 new pence which is not a very convenient value.

A florin was a silver coin worth 2/- (two shillings) and was very common in my youth. This was of course a tenth of a pound (twenty shillings) and was introduced when the possibility of a decimal coinage was first thought of - many years before its eventual implementation. Next came the silver shilling or the "bob" as it was known. Then the 6d coin (half-shilling although it was never called that) or tanner as it was known. Below that the 3d silver coin was replaced (also in 1947 I think) with a many-sided nickel-brass version . But the silver one was still a major ingredient of Christmas Cake. Then the bronze penny and halfpenny. It was quite common to find quite old coins in your change. Even in the reign of Elizabeth you would have pennies in your pocket from the reign of Victoria or Edward VII. And occasionally shillings from even earlier reigns.

The lowest value coin was a farthing which was a quarter penny. I have a third farthing and a half farthing coin from Victorian times but I have been told these were for use in some of our overseas possessions. The George VI farthings had a wren on the back.

A groat (or joey) was a coin worth 4d which in Victorian times was a small silver coin. but by the time I was born it had been consigned to the history books. In the years just before decimalisation some Scottish coins had slightly different designs but coins from both sides of the border were interchangeable. The situation was different with banknotes as in England all notes are issued by the Bank of England. In Scotland the banks issue their own notes.

There are also a large numbers of tokens which were used as money in local areas. They are quite interesting as part of local history. I have some pictures of some of the coins mentioned - click here. See the external links below for more information about coins.

TOP OF THIS PAGE
PICTURES OF COINS
PICTURES OF TOKENS

EXTERNAL LINKS last update 11/08/2004