OLD ENGLISH COINS
As with all shops, coins are a big part of our lives here at Hungerford Arcade. We can handle hundreds in a day, sometimes taking them as payment, sometimes selling them to collectors and sometimes giving them away to our younger customers! Children who come into the Arcade to wander around with their parents are thrilled to be presented with an old English penny, halfpenny, farthing or even a sixpence to put into their treasure collection! Along with the coin there is a small leaflet explaining that you need 12 pence to a shilling and a shilling is a new 5p piece. But this doesn’t come close to a full explanation of the old monetary system that their parents and grandparents were so used to. Since I was handing out so many of these coins, and being too young to have actually used them as money (I’m just approaching the ripe old age of 28) I decided to find out a little bit more about them. So without going into too much detail, I am going to give a brief but hopefully interesting history of the origins of the pre-decimal system.
As most of you will know, the old English monetary system was split into three basic groups: pounds, shillings and pence, with pence breaking down further into halfpence and farthings, (farthings were a quarter of a penny). There were 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. Which means there had to be 240 pence in a pound! Pretty confusing for children these days!
I was always confused when I saw old price tags, maybe on an old record or a book of my Dad’s and it would say something like 2/6d. I understood that it meant 2 shillings and 6 pence, but until recently I didn’t know why a penny was indicated by a letter ‘d’. The system, sometimes referred to as the L.S.D system, is older than you might think. The abbreviation comes from the Latin names of the equivalent coins that were used in the Roman Empire: libra, solidus and denarius, which we took and renamed pounds, shillings and pence. That is where the letter ‘d’ comes from and also where the pound sign (£) comes from. It is a decorative letter L with a crossbar or two to show that it is being used as a sign, not a letter. The shilling was denoted with a forward slash / which is just a letter ‘s’ in shorthand. The denarius, derived from a word meaning “containing ten”, was a small silver coin equal to ten asses or small bronze coins. 12 denarii were equal to 1 Solidus, a gold coin, and from one Libra (pound-weight) of silver, you could cut 240 denarii. This method of coinage was popular across Europe until the fall of the western Roman Empire in around 400 AD.
Reintroduced by Charlamagne in the 8th century the system stuck and was widely used throughout much of the world for hundreds of years and right up until 1971 in Great Britain. For somebody as young as me, who has grown up on hundreds, tens and units, it is difficult to imagine having to add up prices quickly in my head while shopping using the old system, especially when there were so many different ways to express the amount of money. Do you remember what you could buy for a tanner? Or half a bar? 2 and 6 is half a crown, a shilling is a bob and 2 shillings is a florin or a 2 bob bit! 5 shillings is a crown and 20 shillings is a pound. And to make it even more confusing a guinea is 21 shillings! The guinea coin was last struck in 1799 but horses are sometimes still sold in guineas. Auctioneers would often sell an item and receive guineas and the seller would then, in turn, receive pounds, leaving the remaining shillings as commission for the auction house.
Now, almost worthless, the old English copper coinage going back a hundred or more years is what we hand out to the children that come into the Arcade everyday in the hope that they will treasure it and maybe, look it up to find out the history of the coins they hold in their hands.
Half crown, or 2 shillings and 6 pence (2/6),
Florin, or 2 shillings
(2/-), equivalent to 10p
One shilling (1/-)
became 5p in 1972
Became 2 ½ p
Threepenny Bit (3d)
About 1 ½ p
An old penny (1d)
About ½ p
A ha’penny (1/2 d)
About a quarter of a new penny
receives in the wallet with his/her coin
For news, articles and what's on see the latest copy of our monthly Newsletter at www.hungerfordarcade.co.uk