Pre Decimal Coinage…
We have the Farthing to start us off before moving onto the half penny, with the one penny the next inline…
two shillings and sixpence
Ever wondered why you cannot get that coin clean or it turns pink…
Sterling Silver .925
In the reign of good Queen Bess it was decided that from 1582, British silver coins would be composed of .925 fine silver… that means the coin is then made up of . 925 parts silver per 1000 parts of material, with the remaining balance being copper. resulting in a standard silver product renowned worldwide whether it is coins or artefacts as sterling silver, this .925 standard was maintained for coinage until 1919, whilst all coins issued prior to 1582 had various amounts of silver due to the economy of the time…
In 1920, two years after the Great War it was decided most British silver coins, like the half-crown, florin, & shilling were debased to .500 fine, that is it contained only 50% silver, with the rest made up with 50% copper. if you are lucky you might still find a .925 sixpence or threepence as these two denominations were struck in both alloys for 1920, after then all “silver” coins from 1921 to 1946 were minted in .500 fine silver..
Again two years after the Second World War, in 1947 onwards, all the “silver” coins were replaced & made in cupro-nickel, an alloy that although being high in content of copper, it still allowed all the silver looking coins to remain a silver colour… an alloy of copper and nickel. Cupronickel or copper-nickel (CuNi) is an alloy of copper that contains nickel and strengthening elements, such as iron and manganese. The copper content typically varies from 60 to 90 percent. (Monel metal is a nickel-copper alloy that contains a minimum of 52 percent nickel.) Despite its high copper content, cupronickel is silver in colour.
In 1921 the maundy coins, were debased to .500 fine but in 1947 were increased to sterling silver, and are still struck in this metal today….
Money in 20th century Britain
At the time of my very early childhood i recall the coins of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) were still in circulation with Edwardian, George V, right through to the modern day pre-decimel coins, ok not quite as freqent as you might think, but i remember mum and dad saying that some coins were a hindread years old
ones. In May 1910 when my mother was five years old, King Edward VII died, and the early coins of King George V were added into the circulation.
2 farthings = 1 halfpenny
4 farthings = 1 penny
2 halfpennies = 1 penny
£1 = 240 pennies, or 480 halfpennies or 960 farthings
This system was known as the ‘pounds, shillings and pence’ system, written as £-s-d and pronounced LSD.
The shortage of farthing coins
Although farthing coins were still legal tender in my childhood in Ireland, there must have been a shortage of them in circulation, because some shops used pieces of card, printed with some suitable wording to represent the farthing. So you might receive change that included a piece of card and then you could use that card towards payment for goods the next time you shopped there. Of course, they were only valid in that particular shop.
In the early 1900s, most of the coins in everyday use were what my mother referred to as ‘coppers’, i.e. pennies, halfpennies and farthings. Farthings were worth a quarter of a penny.
I started collecting coins from general circulation during the few years before decimalisation. During that time, it was not unusual to see the heads of up to five different monarchs in our change.
There were not many Victorian coins around, but it was possible to collect some if one set one’s mind to it. However, at that time, Victorian coins were over 70 years old and accordingly well-worn and a muddy brown colour, rather than the salmon pink of untarnished copper fresh from the mint. Nevertheless photographs of the old coins, even in a poor state state, do give a reasonable idea of what it was like to use them.
The weight of pre-decimal copper coins
Coppers were large and heavy compared with post-1971 decimal coins, and during the years just before decimalisation when inflation required rather a lot of coins to be carried around in order to buy anything, a general complaint was about weight. Trouser pockets quickly developed holes and purses bulged.
Buying power of pre-decimal money
The weight of the coins didn’t matter much in the early 1900s because a few coppers could buy so much. My mother spoke of going shopping for her grandmother with a halfpenny to buy butter. A halfpenny was a very small amount of money by the standards of later in the century. In 1971 when the United Kingdom went decimal, it would have taken 24 such halfpennies to buy just 5p of post-decimal money. My mother’s pocket money as a child was one of these halfpennies a week.
For more on the buying power of the old money, put inflation into the above search box.
Silver coins were the threepenny bit (also known as the threepenny piece); the sixpence; the shilling; the two shillings (also known as the florin) and the halfcrown. There is a page on how to pronounce this old money.
Values of silver coins
a threepenny bit was worth 3 pence as its name implies
a sixpence was worth 6 pence as its name implies
a shilling was worth 12 pence; there were 20 shillings to the pound
a florin was worth 2 shillings; there were 10 florins to the pound
a half crown was worth 2 shillings and six pence; there were 8 half crowns to the pound
In my mother’s time, silver coins really were silver. It was considered safe to put silver threepenny bits into Christmas puddings as a treat – and this may have been true as far as the metal was concerned, but many a person jarred their teeth on them.
By the time I grew up in the 1940s, the practice had discontinued, possibly because of the austerity in the war years of WW2, but also because, by then, the silver coins were made of a look-alike alloy.
You can see that calculations with pre-decimal money was not straightforward because the financial system was not based on tens. There were mechanical calculators, certainly in the 1950s and possibly before, although I never saw any of them.