# Old Britsh money system - How difficult was it to use?

After reading numerous Charles Dickens novels, plus all of the Sherlock Homes stories
(and re-reading them more times than I can count) this American has become familiar
with the old British money system. It has always struck me as a clumsy sort of
system: four farthings to a penny, 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a
pound. Also one pound plus one shilling equals a guinea.

Imagine you’re going out shopping. Before you go out shopping you check your purse
and find that you have one pound, two florins, a half crown, a threepence and a half penny
(that’s £1 / 6s / 9½d, right?). You jump your Morris Minor auto and head to the store
stopping along the way to put in 5 gallons of petrol at 28d per gallon. At the store
you start add up the prices of the things you’re buying: Bread is 11½d, milk at 1s 4d
and a pound beef is 9s 6d. Will you have enough money left over to purchase a bottle
of aspirin for the headache you got trying to this arithmetic?

Do any of the British folk here remember using this system? How hard was it to use?

Prices used in the above paragraphs were from these websites:

I lived in England from 1947 to 1955, and in Australia from 1955. The money system was similar in both countries, but not exactly the same:
[ul][li]Britain had farthings (one quarter of a penny), while the smallest coin in Australia was the half penny.[/li][li]1 1/2 d (1.5 pence) was called “three ha’pence” in Britain and “a penny ha’penny” in Australia.[/li][li]The 3d coins were different.[/li][li]Britain had half crowns (2 shillings and 6 pence), and Australia did not.[/li][/ul]

I found the system easy enough, but I’ve always been good at mental arithmetic, and the decimal currencies of the two countries are a bit easier to use.

Well, I was nearly 11 years old when New Zealand dropped the LSD, so I didn’t have grocery store shopping to worry about. Mostly I’d be buying stuff at the local dairy (convenience store), which would be under a shilling individually, so you’d add it up and work out how many shilllings and how many pence, to see if you had enough.

Farthings had been dropped many years before, in 1935, when the British coins were removed as legal tender in NZ, so I doubt you’d find many NZers still alive who used them in everyday transactions. They were finally removed from UK circulation in 1960.

Have a look at old ledgers from the UK, Australia or New Zealand from before we all decimalised in the 60s and 70s. Long columns of £, s, and d neatly written and added at the foot. Beautiful!

By the way, are those prices based on real ones, or just plucked from the air? I found one reference indicating 4/6 a gallon in 1967 in the UK.

Can’t see anything difficult about that. Anyway you quickly become used to any system that involves you continuing to eat.
Apart from being less simplistic than the modern 100 pence = £1, nowadays you’ds have £1, 2 x 10p, 12p, 2p in coins for your example. Roughly £1.34. Still about the same weight of coins.
Thing to know is that pounds are a recent invention; for the recent centuries up to the early 20th century most people reckoned in Shillings ( well if you got £2 a week in 1900 you’d naturally think of what 40 shillings would buy, rather that how many pounds you could spend before running out ). The shilling was the basis of the economy. And before about the 17th century Pennies were the basis.

Someone ecstatic at being given 18 pennies by his employer in 1400 would not think of larger coins like Marks and Nobles, and he/she wouldn’t give a noble to a baker for a farthing loaf and expect loads of change, because rarely the peasant nor baker had so much change to hand.

Yeah, but those were the days when jolly jolly sixpence would last you all your life.

I got the prices from the webpages listed at bottom of the my post.

However, the British Kingdoms ( to put it delicately since places had different and not always compatible currencies = if you were owed 12/ English a few centuries ago and you were given 12/ Scots, you were robbed ) were not the only countries with such systems. The English £/s/d went back to Charlemagne, but so did the various… French systems, and the Dutch until the 19th century and many others etc. etc…

Similarly the Roman Denarius ( whence came d. for penny ) = 120 Uncia according to the charts on this Wiki, Roman Currency. And an Aureus, the basic gold coin, divided in 1600 Quadrans ( 1 Denarius = 40 Quadrans ).

And you don’t want to think of the Germanic Thaler ( Valley Thing ) ancestor to your dollar. Gets kinda complicated. But as I said if you eating tomorrow in an alien place depends on working out the currency, you will.
A 10 base is not that natural since although people with ten fingers can add up easily, division ( like 100p into sixths ) is not so fast.

I understand for tuppence you can get a wee bag of seed if you want to feed the birds.

Yes, decimal currency used to be the exception rather than the rule. Beyond money, think of examples like Babylonian numerals which were sexagesimal: evidently there were places and times where base 10 was not normal. It just seems so to us as a result of a long process of standardization.

The most interesting that I experienced was in India (for one day in 1955, before they decimalised in 1957). They had 12 pies to 1 anna, and 16 annas to 1 rupee.

We still have 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week…

Don’t get me started on how may drams are in a jeroboam.

I grew up in the 1960s and found it perfectly easy to use. There were no farthings by then but there were still ha’pennies although, for me, their main use was for buying cheap little sweets off the newsagent’s ha’penny tray. Or two if I had a penny! There was also a penny tray for slightly better sweets!
Everyone learned how to add up prices in primary school - our exercises included all sorts of sums for working out weights and measures of different groceries - usually eggs (sold by the dozen or half dozen) or potatoes (sod by the pound, or occasionally part of a hundredweight). So, lots of division & multiplication by 12 and, to a lesser degree, 14 or 16 for pounds and ounces.
I was good at arithmetic and it all seemed quite natural but I don’t recall anybody having any particular trouble working out prices or using the system in general.
I’d be a bit rusty, but I could probably switch back without too much effort. Especially as inflation has made the smaller coins redundant. I do, even now, occasionally buy something like a bar of chocolate and think to myself, 75p? That’s 15/- Who’d have ever thought chocolate would cost that much! But then, a friend and I did once hand a 10/- note we had found into the police. Got it back 6 months later as no one had claimed it!

In the OP, I don’t think petrol would normally have been priced at 28d, it would have been shown as 2/4d.

Adding up items on a bill would not be a major issue - carrying from the pennies to the shillings column isn’t so very different from carrying from the tens to the hundreds column.

Calculating percentages for things like tax is inherently harder. What’s 15% of £1, 9s, 3d ?

I was born in 1971 so I missed most of it. But a few of the coins were kept in circulation for a few years. It was easy to view a 1 or 2 shilling piece as a 5p or 10p coin as they were the same size. But I never understood why they kept the sixpence until 1976. It had a value of 2.5 new pence, but it clearly said 6 pence on the coin. My toddler brain struggled with that one.

With very few credit cards and no electronic banking there must have been far more coins in circulation back then. So it made sense to re-use the 1 and 2 shilling pieces for a few years. Gas and electric coin op meters would have been set up to take 1 or 2 shilling pieces. So making the new 5p and 10p the same size was sensible. But the sixpence was just odd.

At school we learned our multiplication tables up to 12, which is probably a hangover from pre decimal money. My sons had to learn up to 15 and I was no help to them with 13, 14 and 15.

That’s a fascinating question. How indeed did ordinary folks handle that mental math? I’m not suggesting it’s too hard for the poor sods; I’m asking what was the standard algorithm people used?

Here in the US, where currency has been decimal forever, we have added sales tax and added tipping. So calculating or estimating some small top-up percentage of a purchase is commonplace. Perhaps the Brits never had added sales tax or tipping and so the need almost never arose in day-to-day retail life?

I can remember seeing books with tables showing percentages on LSD amounts. You didn’t need them just to calculate sales tax: calculating interest on debts, or markups from wholesale to retail prices, would have been complex without calculators or computers.

People always tipped in restaurants ( prolly from the mid-19th century on ), however it wasn’t part of the wage system as it is in America, and no particular percentage: just whatever you chose.

It derived from vails, the amounts given to be distributed amongst the household servants when upper-class people visited each other. The Russian Czars being spectacularly generous.
Of course, for many services, like trotting your horse, sweeping roads, holding one’s garments when one engaged in a piece of fisticuffs with a villain etc. etc. there were many outstretched hands or, which was enough: the expectation along with a pained patience whilst standing as long as it took.
Sales Tax would have been uncommon here, if ever, nowadays the equivalent, VAT is pre-rolled into the price.

For some services various duties were payable, such as deeds being transferred or registered or whatnot. People had to buy stamps to affasten to the documents etc.; presumably before Rowland Hill invented stickable stamps it was a physical stamp — like a signet-ring, leaving an impression.

Prices included whatever sales tax was applicable and there wasn’t VAT at the time.
We didn’t get taught much about percentages of money, it was more about regular fractions like 1/2 or 1/4, as I remember.

For 15% of £1/9/3d, I think in school we would have converted it to pennies (240 + 108 + 3 = 351, worked out 15% and converted that number back into sterling. Four and fourpence ha’penny or thereabouts.

Heh. Wow.