Saturday, June 5, 2010

Old money

I was speaking with a friend the other day and the subject of the old monetary system in the UK came up. I wonder if anyone still remembers the days of the shilling. Your old money was always unfathomable to me as an American when I read about it in books by Charles Dickens and Anna Sewell.

Mostly pounds and shillings. I thought 12 shillings to the pound but was corrected. (The 12 that stuck in my mind was the number of pence in a shilling; there were 20 shillings to the pound.)

Which reminds me, oddly, of Enid Blyton saying the dog's tail was wagging 19 to the dozen. I don't know why I always remember that, or what it has to do with the number of shillings to the pound. But if you have followed BritishSpeak since its inception, you know why an American is familiar with a British children's author. Back to money.

Anyway, the real questions I had were about what other money names meant, including slang. For example, Sherlock Holmes and H.G. Wells spoke of gold sovereigns, which I don't have a clue as to the value. I finally figured out what a quid was, but still don't know what a bob is or was or where the word came from. Ebenezer Scrooge gave the prize turkey boy half a crown for returning with the poulterer in less than five minutes, says Charles Dickens. I don't know what a crown is, money wise. If I did, I could surely figure out what half a crown was.

Let's not forget guineas. Nobody knows what those were.

I was force-fed a song in grade school about someone who had six-pence and seemed happy to have it.

The song "A Soalin'" (don't get me started on soul cake or carved turnips, please) mentioned a ha' penny. And my friend claimed to still have a farthing. What IS this stuff? What WAS that stuff, I mean.

We all agree that bobbies are named after Robert Peel, but I don't think bob the money is related. Whatever a bob is. Not my uncle, that's for sure.

I give up. I doubt if anyone remembers anyway.

The Telegraph, June 6, 2010: "Enid Blyton beats Roald Dahl and JK Rowling to be voted Britain's best-loved author." The children's authors were ahead of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. Another children's author, Beatrix Potter, also appeared in the top ten. I think all but Rowling and Shakespeare were paid in the old money at one time or another. Maybe Shakespeare, too; I haven't researched Elizbethan lucre.


  1. By now I expect someone else has given you the answers you are looking for, but just in case:

    A gold sovereign was the forerunner of the pound and worth 20 shillings.
    A guinea's values was linked to the value of gold and used to vary until it was set at 21 shillings. It was considered a genteel and elegant currency.
    Shakespeare would have used shillings and pence, but not pounds. It would have been sovereigns in those days.
    A crown was five shillings and so a half crown was... 2/6, "two and six", two shillings and six pence.

    This subject brings back the horrors to me. Picture a little girl from somewhere strange, new to school in this country, having to recite times tables.

    "two fives are ten"
    "two sixes are twelve"
    "two sevens are fourteen"

    Pence! Pence! Pence! insisted the teacher. All eyes were on me. I had no idea what she meant.

    Whether it was common practice or a peculiarity of the school I don't know, but the amount had to be converted to shillings and pence as we went.

    "Seven eights are fifty six pence four and eight", said without pause and little idea of the meaning.

    Half crowns were a similar struggle and the words "mental arithmetic" still have the power to bring me out in a cold sweat. "What's your change from half a crown if you spend one and eight? NOW!"

  2. Nobody is ever going to explain bob to me, are they?

  3. A strange little girl in a new place. I see. :)

  4. Bob.

    "The origin of the word 'bob' meaning Shilling is not known for sure, although the usage certainly dates back to the late 1700s. My favourite is suggested in Brewer's 1870 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in that 'bob' could be derived from 'Bawbee', which was 16-19th century slang for a half-penny, in turn derived from: French 'bas billon', meaning debased copper money (coins were commonly cut to make change); and/or the Laird of Sillabawby, a 16th century mintmaster. Perhaps there is also a connection with the church or bell-ringing since 'bob' meant a set of changes rung on the bells. This would be consistent with one of the possible origins and associations of the root of the word Shilling, (from Proto-Germanic 'skell' meaning to sound or ring). Also perhaps a connection with a plumb-bob; (the association with another heavy piece of metal), made of lead and used to mark a vertical position in certain trades, notably masons. 'Bob a nob', in the early 1800s meant 'a shilling a head', when estimating costs of meals, etc. In the 18th century 'bobstick' was a shillings-worth of gin."

    From because I had no idea.

  5. "A strange little girl in a new place. I see. :)"

    Very restrained, if I may say so. :)

  6. And the Boy Scouts used to have a fund-raising week, during which they (and, indeed, I) would knock upon doors and offer to do jobs, such as lawn mowing, shoe polishing, driveway sweeping etc, for a shilling per job. On completion, you got a yellow sticker to display in your window, which said "Job Done"...
    That was "Bob a Job Week.

  7. Answer to A's half-crown dilemma is tenpence.

  8. Horses, traditionally are sold in guineas.

    The Thousand Guineas is a horse-race on a one mile course at Newmarket, open only to three-year-old fillies.
    The prize is eponymous.

  9. you have strayed into a subject upon which I could expound at length.

    Funny that you, champion of the dry bushel, are so confused by the old british monetary system, and being afeared of all things metric, otherwise, are ina counrty with metric coinage and extremely dull bank-notes.

  10. When I were a lad five shillings were referred to as 'a dollar!'

  11. The Girl Guides' equivalent to Bob a Job was Shilling for the Willing.

  12. I hear you, soubriquet. Isn't it odd?

    I read tons of Georgette Heyer and, when talk of money comes up, I often feel my eyes roll into my head (same with many of the fashions she expounds on in detail). Still, I thought I should learn something, so I looked it up on MW on-line. Most of this (if not all), people have covered already.

    farthing = 1/4 British penny
    halfpenny=ha'penny= 1/2 British penny
    bob=shilling=12 pence=1/20 pound sterling
    crown = 5 shillings (silver coin)
    quid=pound sterling
    guineau=1 pound 1 shilling=21 shillings
    sovereign might have changed several times in the past but it's probably ~pound sterling
    The dictionary says any of various gold coins, but a half sovereign is defined as 10 shillings (i.e. half a pound)

  13. @Soubriquet - A common mistake, confusing the decimal system with the metric system, but the two are not synonymous. The metric system is a system of weights and measures with very anal definitions used by a rather narrow-minded scientific community who thinks because it is cool to use it in their particular job, the rest of the population should change in deference to this small scientific minority.

    This same small minority is fond of saying only the U.S., Liberia (an offshoot of the U.S.) and Burma (or whatever they are calling themselves today) don't use the metric system. This isn't correct for the U.S., of course, since congress authorized use of the metric system back in 1866. The everyday citizens just don't choose to use it. Of course, the small scientific community wants it MANDATED. By God. Then we will all be up to their level.

    For the record, the U.S. is on a "soft" metric system and has been for many years, wherein my can of cola says "12 fl oz (355 mL)." If we ever get "hard", the can will read "500 mL (16.9 oz)". That's what they are fighting for, I guess, since metrics is already taught in all our schools and has been for scores of years, mainly because academia fancies itself scientific. The key word here is MANDATE. It is the job of government, after all, to choose what is best for its citizens and FORCE people to do it. Again, this weird rebelliousness against government intrusion is oddly unique to Americans, apparently.

    I am not afraid of the metric system. Like you and American football, I simply see no compelling reason to study up on it, especially since no non-scientific person I speak to in daily life would know what the hell I am talking about.

    Getting back to the American monetary system (which is in small part based on the decimal system and in no part on the metric system) it is true there are 100 cents in a dollar. It is also true there are ten dimes in a dollar. But there the metrics teachers stop using our money to show they are right. For example, our most popular coin in circulation right now is the quarter-dollar. "Nickels" equal to 5 cents are in huge circulation. As far as paper money (not only bland but practically worthless as well) we have a note that is one-twentieth of $100, one that is one-fifth of $100, and one that is one-half of $100. We also have a paper note that is worth one-fiftieth of $100, but that is in rare circulation today.

    Since the metric system has been authorized for official use by our congress (but not mandated) many U.S. corporations who compete for foreign business (such as auto companies) have made metric parts for many years now. But there has to be a reason to change, and the average American has not only not seen the need to change from a system they have been familiar with all their life, nor have they seen the need for 99% of the population to accommodate the scientific 1% who need the system in their work.

    I appreciate your comments more than you know, but I am not going to give in to the "obvious superiority" of the metric folks. I want to use metrics where it is useful and let the people who don't need it use what they want to use. I don't believe in uniformity for the sake of uniformity, nor am I afraid to be the only one who doesn't use this or that system.

  14. @Adullamite - I am still trying to figure that one out. My meager investigation has turned up the fact that you are right, but no real reason for it except that the word dollar has been in existence a very long time. Leave it to a Scot to also grit the gears. :)

  15. @Stephanie Barr - I think all that "old money" is cool. But then I guess I would, since I am such a contrarian (and I have learned that old money already, thanks to you and others.) The only thing I would add is that a quid is really slang for a pound, like bob was for a shilling, much like we use the word "buck" for a dollar.

    A buck, a fin, a sawbuck, a double sawbuck. We still have more money slang than they. :)

    Thank you for researching that. Cool.

  16. @Soubriquet - I was once in the cub scouts for a couple years when I was 8 and 9 years old. Mostly because the uniform helped me with the 4th grade chicks. :) Lost interest before Boy Scouts.

    I never did no job for a bob though.

  17. @A. - So you are saying you were willing for a shilling? I think you had better stop while you are ahead.

  18. I am not a great proponent of the metric system. I'm happy with miles, pints, foot-pounds, gallons, and sixths of a gill.
    My tools are multilingual, I can rapidly find a 21 mil socket, or a 5/16th whitworth, half inch bs, or half inch af, no problem.
    Metrication is just another system. I use both, when the tape measure indicates a nice neat number of inches, like 76 and a half, I'll use that, or I'll measure as happily in millimetres, "Cut that one at 3964!".

    I prefer celsius to fahrenheit, because, lets face it, fahrenheit is a pretty stupid scale, but I can still think in fahrenheit, I understand windspeed in knots and in metres/second, being able to use metric just gives you an extra set of tools.

  19. Well, I know that. You just happened along as I was getting ready to deliver a sermon and your comment was the lucky one. Fahrenheit ain't that bad, cept I can't spell it - thanks for writing it at the end where I could see it when I typed this.

    Tools? If there were no metric to worry about I wouldn't need any more stinking tools. Just a couple of bushel baskets and some rocket fuel. Kelvin scale, of course.

    Lord. Kelvin. Calvin Kelvin. LeRoy Kelvin...

  20. Not sure if you know this (you didnt really say), but we still use the term quid now. I've met a few Canadians and Americans who've not understood what we've meant when we've used the term quid. "Like squid?" one asked me in confusion.

    I remember seeing some half pennies around my grandmother's place when I was young. My grandparents didn't seem to mind we changed system. Yet they weren't all that sure about changing our measuring system from imperial to metric, which struck me as odd!

  21. @Creative Larceny - Yes, I knew about quid but didn't when I started this blog a few years back. I had thought it was slang for a 5-pound note or something like that -- I guess "quid" sounded like a prefix for "5" in my mind. Anyway, I learned later what it really was. I didn't know about "bob" until recently, though. Thank you for stopping by!

    (odd about your grandparents not minding the change, since they were probably used to the old system of money.)



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