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Money in 20th century Britain
before decimalisation

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At the time of my mother's early childhood recollections, the coins of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) were still in circulation, alongside the current Edwardian 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.

Equivalent values of copper coins

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.

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Copper coins: pennies, halfpennies and farthings

Click the image for a larger one showing more detail

Copper coins in circulation in the early 1900s with a 2009 penny for scale, small

Copper coins in circulation in the early 1900s and legal currency until decimalisation in 1971..

Left: new penny, i.e. decimal currency penny for scale. (Being new at the time of being photographed, it still shines and looked salmon coloured. After circulation, copper coins become dark brown.)
Centre: coins showing dates - Edwardian penny, Victorian penny, Victorian halfpenny and Victorian farthing.
Right: the same coins turned over to show the monarch's head.

Traditionally coins have the monarch's head facing the opposite direction with each new sovereign.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Silver coins: threepenny pieces, sixpences, shillings, florins and halfcrowns

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, but also because, by then, the silver coins were made of a look-alike alloy.

Click the image for a larger one showing more detail

Edwardian silver threepenny bit, silver sixpence, silver shilling, silver two shillings and silver halfcrown.

George V copper and silver coins in circulation in the early 1900s and legal currency until decimalisation in 1971.

Left: New penny, i.e. decimal currency penny for scale.
Centre: tails of coins - Edwardian silver threepenny bit, silver sixpence, silver shilling, silver two shillings (a florin) and silver halfcrown. The copper coins are for scale.
Right: the same coins turned over to show the monarch's head..

Pounds came as notes not coins.

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.

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