The English are nuts: Monetary edition!

Posted on
Aug 17, 2010

A few weeks back Rand and I were having a conversation with our friend Rob, who happens to be from England. The exchange went something like this:

Rob: Bob’s your uncle! Codswallup! Bangers and mash! BLAH BLAH BLAH HOGWARTS.

Me: I have no idea what you’re talking about. Speak American, please.

Rob: Ahem … Did you know that up until the 1950s or 60s, the U.K. had non-decimal money? So we’d have coins for seemingly random amounts.

Me: (open-handedly slapping Rob across the face) Don’t lie to me, boy.

I swear, it happened just like that. Except for the parts that didn’t. Anyway, the important part is that Rob claimed the U.K. had non-decimal currency. Meaning that the values of coins weren’t based on the pound being divided into 100 equal parts. Instead, he explained, the pound had been divided into 240 pence.

And honestly, I kind of dismissed it along with all the other crazy things Rob says about England.

I feel like I should apologize for this. I'm not going to, but I feel like I should.

I feel like I should apologize for this. I'm not going to, but I feel like I should.

“We drive on the other side of the road! Bell peppers are called capiscums! We have national healthcare, and the government hasn’t collapsed!”

Yeah, right.

So you can imagine my skepticism when I received this email from Rob…

I seemed to remember a little disbelief when I told you that the UK had non-decimal money up until the 1950s / ’60s.

I got clarification from my parents while they’re here:

The smallest unit – then as now – was a penny. (Though I’ll contradict this shortly.)

There were twelve pence in a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound.

Therefore, a pound was 240 pence.

A shilling was often referred to as a ‘bob’, eg: people would refer to a ‘ten bob note’ (=10 shillings, half a pound, or 120 pence.)

We had a florin, which was two shillings, the coin looked like you American quarters (colloquially was called a two-bob-bit.)

We had a crown, which was a quarter of a pound, but what was much more popular was the half crown: this could be described as a an eighth of a pound, but was typically thought of as two shillings and sixpence.

We had a 6 pence coin (sixpence, though also called the tanner or half-shilling) and a 3 pence coin (threepence, but more often pronounced thrupence or threppeny-bit.)

The penny was also subdivided: we had a ha’penny coin (half a pence, we had this coin until 1984) and a farthing coin (quarter of a pence)

We also had the concept of a ‘guinea’ – which was 1 pound and one shilling (ie:21 shillings) it was used until relatively recently (still an important amount in horse racing), but we’ve not had a guinea coin for a while.

Finally, the nomenclature was to use the £ sign for pounds, s for shillings, and d for pence, so fifty bob, 3 and a half pence

would be written: £2.10s.3.1/2d

Here ends today’s lesson.

Naturally, upon reading this, I declared Rob full of crap and proceeded to slap a photo of him (as he was not nearby). But then I started doing a little research, and it would appear, as crazy as it sounds, that Rob might actually not be making this up. For years, the monetary system was outdated, and pounds were divided into 240 parts (before you start freaking out about how crazy that is, tell me how many feet are in a mile. Yeah, you have no idea, do you?) That changed on February 17, 1971, a.k.a. Decimal Day, when the monetary system switched from the old pence (worth 1/240th of a pound) to the new pence (worth 1/100th) of a pound. A few years prior, the first of the new coins made an appearance on the High Street, causing a lot of confusion, but fortunately very little rioting (The English are very polite. If this had happened in Texas, there would have been blood).

So, wow. Rob was right. He wasn’t just messing with us. I guess I can trust his postscript, too:

Did I mention that if you press the back of the 25p coin in the correct way, it plays a recorded message from the Queen of England?

Ah, the English. So like us humans, and yet, so different.

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  • This begs the question: What was “tuppence”? That old lady in Mary Poppins sold birdseed for “tuppence a bag”, and I’ve always wondered what the heck she was talking about.

  • There are 5 tomatoes in a mile. 5 two-eight-oh. 5280 feet in a mile. Yes, I only know measurement facts that have food related ways to remember them.

  • That’s madness. It is also illustrates why, when visiting any foreign country, I pay for everything with the largest note possible. Of course, I end up with a kilo of change in my pocket every day, but it’s easier than figuring out local currency.

  • Odder than non-decimal money is the fact that if you are English, your accent tells people what town you are from, in a country that is only the size of the state of Oregon. This is like if people from Everett had a different accent than people from Seattle. That has always baffeled me.

  • Everywhereist

    Lara – the Italians are the same way. While I can almost detect differences in English accents, I can’t decipher which are due to regional origins, and which are due to the fact that I’m hearing two different people speak.

    I’m a little bit better with Italian accents (I can tell who’s from the North and who’s from the south), but not by much.

  • Everywhereist

    Also, Christine – I always thought “tuppence” was short for “two pence”. (Which Wikipedia “confirms”, as much as it can confirm anything:

  • When I picture you slapping Rob, all I can think of is Pete Hornberger slapping Liz Lemon when he finds out what his salary would be if he took the promotion she offered. Whap!

  • OMG, Deanna. That. Is. Exactly. How. I. Pictured. It. Damn, girl.

  • Wow that math lesson made my head hurt, I’d hate to have visited London in the 50’s or before (that is if I was even alive and swinging then) and try to do some pub hopping then. I surely would have been lost, heck the only pence I know is the band six pence non the richer, which conveniently plays every time I walk do the stairs.

  • what I find even more peculiar and amazing is that I worked in an English Bank when we had ‘old’ money – and usually balanced at the end of the day – fast forward umpteen years similar job, easier money and I never balanced – happy days 🙂

  • Max Johnson

    £2.10s.3.1/2d …?????

    No, no, no, that’s wrong.

    It should be written £2/10/3 1/2, or £2 10s 3 1/2d would also be correct.

    Makes sense now?

    • Everywhereist

      And with that, my brain just exploded. May I just continue using my debit card, being slightly surprised whenever I see my statement? That seems to be working. 🙂

  • Pingback: » Touring Boston: Quincy Market, Faneuil Hall, The Old South, and no cupcakes. » The Everywhereist()

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