Old Money & LSD

British Ten Shilling Note

British Ten Shilling Note

If you’ve concluded from the title of this post that I’m going to discuss illegal psychedelic drugs, then you may be in for a disappointment! What I’m actually going to discuss is the old British currency system, which has now vanished, but was still in use for much of my childhood.

The image above shows the front of the old “ten shilling note”. Until I scanned this image, I hadn’t handled one of these notes since they were withdrawn in 1969!

As a result of the arcane symbols used for its 3 denominations (explained below), the pre-decimal British currency came to be known as the LSD System.

In a previous post on my professional blog, I discussed some of the illogical and inconsistent spelling conventions of the English language. The old British currency system seemed equally illogical and arcane! Some have even suggested that whoever concocted the LSD System must have done so after taking a significant dose of some psychedelic drug!

By the time that I was born, in 1960, this system had been in use for many hundreds of years, so that acquiring fluency in it was accepted as a necessary and natural part of our education.

The LSD System

Under the LSD System, the primary unit of currency was the pound, but one pound was subdivided into twenty shillings, and each shilling was further divided into twelve pence.

1 Pound = 20 Shillings

1 Shilling = 12 Pence (Pennies)

There was a half-penny coin (called a ha’penny, and pronounced hayp-ny), and a quarter-penny coin (called a farthing) had been withdrawn only in 1960.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, in view of the actual names of the 3 currency denominations, the currency system would have been known as the “PSP System”, but that would have been far too obvious! Instead, obscure non-English terms were used, as follows.

LSD = Livra, Solidus, Denarius


The symbol used for the pound was “£”, which (my father assured me) was in fact an upper-case letter “L” with a cross through it!

One might have been forgiven for expecting that the symbol for pound would be some variation on the letter “P”, but that would have been too obvious. Why use pedestrian English, when there are so many other languages from which words may be borrowed? In this case, the “L” was derived from the Latin word livra, meaning “pound”.


The symbol used for “shilling” was the refreshingly straightforward “s”, although it would be naïve to jump to the conclusion that the symbol was merely the initial letter of that word.

On the contrary, the “s” was the first letter of the Latin word solidus, which had been a Roman coin denomination, worth 1/72nd of one pound of gold.


The symbol used for penny, or pence, was “d”. Why so?

If you think back approximately two thousand years, to the period when what is now England was a province of the Roman Empire, you may just recall that the Romans minted a silver coin that they called a denarius. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the kingdoms that sprang up to fill the power vacuum continued to mint denarii of their own.

Around the year 755, King Offa of Mercia (a kingdom that later became part of England) introduced a new silver coin, the penny, as an equivalent to the Frankish denier.

British pennies ceased to be minted from silver after 1795, but the “d” symbol stuck.

LSD Arithmetic

The arithmetic of the LSD system involved carrying twelves from the pennies to the shillings column, and carrying twenties from the shillings to the pounds column.

As students, we accepted the difficulties associated with working with bases of twelve and twenty, if only because we had already been taught time computations, which did, and still do, involve base-sixty and modulo twelve calculations.

The Cryptic Codes

Having learned the cryptic symbols used to identify the currency denominations, we might have expected that an amount such as, for example, one pound nine shillings and six pence would be written as ‘£1 9s 6d.’

Such a representation was acceptable, but there were also many other possible configurations. The same amount could also be written as £1-9-6 or £1/9/6.

In certain price lists, to save space, there was no ‘pounds’ column, so the same amount would be written 29/6. See the Dinky Toys catalog example below.

For amounts less than one pound (such as the prices of groceries), it was usual to write, for example, one shilling and nine pence as 1/9, read as “one and nine”.

In cases where the price was an exact number of shillings, a further quirk was deployed. Instead of writing, for example, 3/0, the accepted formulation was 3/-.

Needless to say, it took me as a child some considerable time to master these peculiar shorthand forms.

Dinky Toys 1966 Price List

Dinky Toys 1966 Price List

The image above shows part of the price list from the 1966 Dinky Toys catalog. The conventions used for displaying prices in shillings and pence can be seen on the right. Note that for items costing more than £1, the price is still shown in shillings and pence only. For example, the “Holiday Gift Set” costs “37/6”, which is actually £1/17/6.

Strange Names

The colloquial name for a pound was a quid, and you can still use that term for the modern pound today.

Most British coins had acquired names (either officially, or as slang) in addition to their values. I’ve already mentioned the ha’penny and farthing (whose name was derived from “fourthing”), but there were many other colorful epithets.

Tanners, Bobs & Florins

The slang term for the sixpence coin was a tanner; that for a one shilling coin was a bob; while the two shilling coin was officially named the florin (because it had originally displayed a floral design). In fact, the florin was a rather late introduction, having been created during Queen Victoria’s reign (in 1849), ostensibly as a first step towards decimalization (the florin being worth one tenth of a pound). If indeed it was the first step towards decimalization, then it was also the last during Victoria’s reign!

The Last British Florin Design

The Last British Florin Design

Thruppenny Bit

There was also a three pence coin, which was colloquially referred to by the relatively obvious name of thruppenny bit. The inconveniently small silver thruppenny bit was withdrawn in 1942, and replaced by a twelve-sided nickel-brass coin.

This enforced a change in Christmas tradition. It had been the practice to cook a silver thruppence in each Christmas pudding, the lucky finder of which kept this small treasure trove. However, the new nickel-brass coin reacted with the pudding’s ingredients, to produce an unpleasant taste. Therefore, inflation took its effect, such that it was now necessary to cook a silver sixpence in Christmas puddings!


Moving on up the value scale, the half crown coin was worth two shillings and six pence. There had, in earlier days, been a crown coin, worth five shillings, but, by the time that I came into the world, the crown was no longer in general circulation, and was minted only for special occasions. (The occasion of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral, in 1965, was the first time that I saw one.)


During my lifetime, there was no pre-decimal coin in circulation having a higher value than the half crown. The denominations of bank notes were ten shillings, one pound, five pounds, and so on upwards.

When first introduced (in 1489), the pound had been a gold coin, called a sovereign (because its design depicted the King—in the person of Henry VII—at the time). Gold sovereigns are still minted today, but, if anyone should offer to sell you one of these for a pound, don’t expect it to be real!


As if all the above were not sufficiently complex, the British managed to add a further layer of intricacy by adding elements of the class system to the currency system!

Minted alongside the pound, there had, for centuries, been a gold coin called a guinea (primarily because the coins had originally been minted, in 1663, using gold obtained from “Guinea” by the West Africa Company). Because of its intrinsic value, the equivalent in shillings of a guinea varied over the years, from twenty shillings when first introduced, up to thirty shillings in the 1690s, and then finally settling at twenty-one shillings.

By the twentieth century, however, the guinea coin had been long withdrawn, and the guinea was not an official currency denomination. Nonetheless, an attitude had developed among the upper classes that dealing in mere pounds was the grubby necessity of those who must work for a living. The leisured classes should never be seen to debase themselves with such proletarian considerations! Therefore, those who considered themselves as belonging to the “professional” class, or higher, always dealt in guineas (one guinea being worth twenty-one shillings), rather than in pounds.

A satirical example of this practice appears in Lewis Carroll’s tale: Through the Looking Glass. One character in the story, the Mad Hatter, always wears a top hat, in the brim of which is affixed a label stating; “In this style: 10/6”. The ‘10/6’ is the price—ten shillings and sixpence, or half a guinea, indicating—via the additional sixpence—that the hat is intended for a “professional” clientele.

The class distinction implied by the use of the guinea was satirized for perhaps the last time in the 1960s television show The Avengers.

In the episode entitled The Morning After, the hero, Steed, has captured a double agent called Jimmy Merlin. As they walk along, handcuffed together, Merlin decides to try to buy Steed off.

Merlin: “Any chance of making a deal?”

Steed: “I shouldn’t have thought so, but keep talking.”

Merlin: “Twenty thousand, in a Swiss bank account? No names; no strings?”

Steed: “Pounds?”

Merlin: “Yes.”

Steed: “Very sorry, old chap, only deal in guineas.”

Winds of Change

That was the way things were, and they had been that way for centuries. But no sooner had I learned the arithmetic of the LSD system, when, during the mid-1960s, someone announced: “You know that money system that we’ve been using for hundreds of years? Well, we’re not going to do that any more!”

Between 1968 and 1971, adjustments were made to the existing coinage, to bring it more closely into alignment with the planned decimal system.

In 1968, the minting of shilling and florin coins was terminated, and instead were minted, respectively, five new pence and ten new pence coins. The replacement coins were of the same size, shape and weight as their predecessors, but displayed the new values. During the next few years, various withdrawals occurred of denominations that would not convert conveniently to decimal values.


Then came “D-Day” (the “D” standing, in this case, for “decimalization”). On February 15, 1971, the entire nation changed over from the official usage of one currency to the other, literally overnight.

On ‘D-Day’, all the surviving old coin denominations were called in, and the half new pence, new penny, and two new pence coins were issued for the first time. This vast changeover was achieved efficiently, by the expedient of placing the burden of the conversion upon sellers!

Sellers were to display their prices in the decimal currency as from D-Day, and, when purchasers wished to pay using the old currency, the seller would have to convert the amount for them. The seller accepted the old currency equivalent, paid back any change in the new currency, and then turned in the old coinage to their bank in the normal course of events.

The Chaos Caused by New P

In the decimal system, the pound was retained, with the same nominal value as the LSD pound.

There were to be one hundred new pence to one pound, with no denomination equivalent to the shilling. This implied that one new penny would be equivalent to 2.4 old pennies. The symbol for the decimal pound was retained as “£” (the crossed “L”), since this would cause no confusion, but the symbol for the new penny was to be “p”. This led to the practice of referring to, say, ten new pence as “ten pee”, to avoid the ambiguity that would arise from the use of the phrase “ten pence”.

Nonetheless, the requirement to specify ‘new pence’ played havoc with the colloquial terminology that had been commonplace until then.

The half new penny coin, for example, was never referred to as a “new ha’penny”, but initially as a “half new pence,” and later, when the word ‘new’ was dropped, a “halfpence.”

The nation’s Boy Scouts, who had traditionally undertaken their annual “Bob a Job” week, whereby they offered to perform chores for payment of one shilling, now found themselves forced to offer the less linguistically satisfying “Five New Pence a Job” week.

Goodbye to Ten Bob

As I mentioned above, the ‘ten bob note’ was withdrawn, and replaced with the seven-sided fifty new pence coin, in 1969.

Other than that, however, no changes were made to the paper money denominations as part of the decimalization plan.

Sing a Song of Two Sixpences Only, Please

I have not mentioned the withdrawal of the pre-decimal sixpence coin, because, in fact, this survived in use for some years following decimalization, but under the extremely quaint constraint that these coins be used only in pairs!

It was acceptable to pay an amount of five new pence using two sixpence coins, but it was illegal to use one sixpence coin to pay two and a half new pence!

Fading Memories

For those Britons who did not live through the decimalization era, the details of the LSD system described above fall very firmly into the category of rapidly receding ‘ancient history’.

That fact was brought home to me when my nephew, on seeing a reproduction of a 1930s travel advertisement stating, “Return Fare: 1/9,” asked me, “What does it mean: ‘Return Fare: one-ninth’?”

Yorkshire Day

Mulberry Hall, Stonegate, York, 2010

Mulberry Hall, Stonegate, York, 2010

Tomorrow (August 1st) is Yorkshire Day. The photo above shows Mulberry Hall, which is a medieval building on Stonegate in the center of York.

In the background of the photo you can just see part of York Minster, covered in scaffolding at the time of my 2010 visit.

Mulberry Hall was built in 1434, as attested by the date above its front door, although the building has been extended and refurbished several times since then.

For many decades, the building contained a china and glassware shop (which was also called Mulberry Hall). My wife and I always made of point of visiting that shop when we visited York, and we also had gifts sent from there to friends and family in Britain. Sadly, the business closed in 2016, but the building remains, and hopefully will one day again house a prestigious merchant.

York: Two Thousand Years of Adaptation

I was born in Yorkshire, and, during the period 1979-81, I lived in Scarborough but visited York (by train) nearly every Saturday. I can’t think of any other city where there’s so much to do and see, packed into such a compact space. (There are larger cities with many attractions, but they’re more difficult to walk around.) That’s partly because York is a relatively small city that has fulfilled so many roles for the past 2000 years. The earliest recorded settlement was a Roman fort, which eventually became a town. In medieval times the city became a wool trading center and the northern archbishopric of the Church of England. During the nineteenth century, the coming of railways transformed York into a major rail hub and manufacturing center. While still retaining remnants of all those former roles, the city is now a world-class tourist attraction.

If you’re in the area, York is definitely worth visiting, but you’d probably have to spend many months there to see and do everything that is available!

Ye Olde Misspelling

In my photo above, further down Stonegate, you can see a sign over the street advertising Ye Olde Starre Inne. The Starre Inne is almost as old as Mulberry Hall, dating back to 1644, but what’s interesting about the sign is that includes a corrupted Old English letter. The word “Ye” in this context actually means “the”, and is pronounced “the” (although even many Britons are unaware of that).

As I mentioned in a post on my professional blog, prior to the Norman Invasion in 1066, English used two special letters to represent the language’s “th” sound. One of the letters was called thorn (þ), and that letter was sometimes misinterpreted (and mispronounced) as a “y”. Hence, “þe” is often misspelled as “ye”, as in the sign over Stonegate. I doubt that the Inn’s owners will want to change it, however, because you can imagine the difficulties associated with telling customers that they must type “Þe Olde Starre Inne” in their Google searches!

French Place Names


Notre Dame on a Rainy Evening, 2014

Notre Dame on a Rainy Evening, 2014

Happy Bastille Day (for the 14th)!

I took the photo above in Paris, one rainy evening in October, 2014. As most of you will probably be aware, it shows the cathedral of Notre Dame, on the Île de la Cité. Mary and I were staying nearby on the Île Saint-Louis at the time, and I was out for an evening stroll after the rain.

I just learned that the father of the current French President, Emmanuel Macron, is an expert on cat sneezing! During our visit, we spotted this Parisian resident, not sneezing, but gazing out over the River Seine from a balcony on the Rue Chanoinesse.

Cat on a Ledge, Paris 2014

Cat on a Ledge, Paris 2014

On that occasion, we visited not only Paris (unlike President Trump’s seemingly imaginary friend Jim), but also southwestern France, and stayed for a while in the Dordogne, which is a beautiful and fascinating region that I’d never previously seen.

We stayed in the village of Bézenac, and visited several nearby locations. One of the best known of those is perhaps Beynac, which has been nominated as one of the world’s most beautiful villages. Perched on a cliff high above the village is the Château de Beynac, as shown in my photo below.

Beynac from below, 2014

Beynac from below, 2014

The opposite view, shown below, shows the scene from the walls of the Château de Beynac, looking down towards the Dordogne River. Incidentally, at one time in the Middle Ages, the near side of the river was in France while the far side was English territory!

Beynac from above, 2014

Beynac from above, 2014

Langue d’Oc & Langue d’Oïl

The South of France is often referred to as the “Languedoc”, and the origin of that name is linguistic. In medieval times, there were two major dialects of French, which were named according to their respective words for “Yes”.

  • In the North, the Latin expression for “yes”—hoc ille—had evolved into “oïl”.
  • In the South, the same Latin expression had become “oc”, hence the language was the “Langue d’Oc”.

All Those “Acs”

I was naturally curious as to why so many of the place names in the Languedoc end in “ac”. I assumed that it must refer to some characteristic of the settlements so-named, as for similar recurring endings in British place names, such as “ham”, “thorpe”, etc.

After we returned home, I bought a copy of a book that explains the origins of place names in that region: Origine des noms de villes et villages de la Dordogne (Cassagne, Korsak).


The book explains that the “ac” ending refers to the existence of a villa at the location during Gallo-Roman times. The Gallic names for such places ended in “acos”, which the Romans Latinized as “acum”. For example, the village we stayed in, Bézenac, was originally Bisenacum (the “villa of Bisenus”).

However, the Latin “acum” place name ending morphed into a modern ending differently, according to the region. For example, in parts of the North, “ac” became “ai”, such as in Cambrai, while in areas near Paris it became “y”, such as in Orly.

In a previous post, I described how the Roman name Eboracum evolved via several contortions into the modern place name York, in Northern England.

Perhaps I should have spotted that all those “ac” place names in Languedoc were really just that same “acum” ending that I’d already encountered in Yorkshire as a child!

Poem: The Ruin

Fictitious Temple in Silchester, c.500 CE

Fictitious Temple in Silchester, c.500 CE

In previous posts, I’ve published some of my own efforts at poetry. This time, I’m publishing a poem by someone else, called “The Ruin”. However, I’m not worried about copyright infringement issues, because not only is the work very long out of copyright, but in fact nobody knows who wrote it!

My watercolor painting above, showing the ruins of a fictitious Roman temple in what’s now England, was partially inspired by the poem. However, the poem I’m discussing here is thought to refer to the city of Bath, while, for various reasons, my ruin was supposed to be in Silchester.

Before discussing the history of the poem, and some thoughts on Roman ruins in Britain, here is the poem itself in the original Old English. (In a previous post on my professional blog, I discussed some of the letters used in Old English, and which appear here.)

Of course, English has changed so much during the past thousand years that no speaker of Modern English can read this without treating it as a foreign language. Nonetheless, the original poem has a beautiful flow and structure, which can be appreciated even if you don’t understand what it actually says.

Unfortunately, the surviving manuscript of the poem is damaged, such that some of the text is either unreadable or missing. In the rendering below, the ellipses show where text is illegible. The punctuation is modern.

The Ruin (Old English)

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;

burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.

Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,


scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,

ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað

waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,

heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea

werþeoda gewitan. Oft þæs wag gebad


ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,

ofstonden under stormum; steap geap gedreas.

Wonað giet se …num geheapen,

fel on …

grimme gegrunden …


scan heo…

…g orþonc ærsceaft

…g lamrindum beag

mod mo… …yne swiftne gebrægd

hwætred in hringas, hygerof gebond


weallwalan wirum wundrum togædre.

Beorht wæron burgræced, burnsele monige,

heah horngestreon, heresweg micel,

meodoheall monig mondreama full,

oþþæt þæt onwende wyrd seo swiþe.


Crungon walo wide, cwoman woldagas,

swylt eall fornom secgrofra wera;

wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,

brosnade burgsteall. Betend crungon

hergas to hrusan. Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,


ond þæs teaforgeapa tigelum sceadeð

hrostbeages hrof. Hryre wong gecrong

gebrocen to beorgum, þær iu beorn monig

glædmod ond goldbeorht gleoma gefrætwed,

wlonc ond wingal wighyrstum scan;


seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,

on ead, on æht, on eorcanstan,

on þas beorhtan burg bradan rices.

Stanhofu stodan, stream hate wearp

widan wylme; weal eall befeng


beorhtan bosme, þær þa baþu wæron,

hat on hreþre. þæt wæs hyðelic.

Leton þonne geotan …

ofer harne stan hate streamas



…þþæt hringmere hate

…þær þa baþu wæron.

þonne is …

…re; þæt is cynelic þing,

huse… burg…

The Waters of Sul

As I mentioned above, it is frequently suggested that the poem describes the remains of the City of Aquae Sulis (“the Waters of Sul”) — the modern City of Bathbut that’s simply an educated guess. The manuscript provides no helpful footnotes nor explanatory detail, so the actual subject of the poem will probably never be known for sure.

Aquae Sulis probably succumbed to a similar fate to that of other conurbations, falling into disrepair some time soon after the empire’s legions were withdrawn from Britannia in 410 CE. After the Roman engineers departed, their Anglo-Saxon replacements were either unable or unwilling to maintain the complex stone buildings, and so either left them to disintegrate, or else removed the materials for other uses. Very little is known regarding the process of this decay, during the period called (for that very reason) the “Dark Ages”, so the existence of this poem offers a rare insight into the conditions of that time.

The Exeter Book

The book containing the only surviving manuscript of the poem is so-called, not because it was written in or about the City of Exeter, but because it forms part of the collection of Exeter Cathedral. The book consists of a sequence of unrelated literary works, including everything from epic poetry to risqué riddles. Its contents appear to have been copied out, by a single scribe, in about 975 CE, although most, if not all, the works contained in the book seem to have been created at earlier dates.

It is known that the book was owned by Bishop Leofric of Exeter until 1070, when he donated it to the cathedral’s library. However, there’s no evidence that the book was held in particularly high regard. Indeed, there is evidence that its front cover was used, at various times, as a cutting board and a beer mat! Some folios are missing, and the fourteen surviving pages nearest to the back have been burned.

The folio containing the poem itself is damaged, which has rendered portions of the middle and end of the poem illegible. Nonetheless, the remaining text provides an extraordinary description of the awe in which the Anglo-Saxon community must have held the crumbling remains of the Roman cities around them.

The Structure of the Poem

The poem exhibits characteristics typical of Old English verse, which distinguish such works from later poetry.

Perhaps the most obvious feature is the caesura in the center of each line (marked by commas or periods above), which imposes a syntactical structure leading to the enjambment of many of the lines.

Another typical feature is the lack of the use of rhyme, which is ironic when one considers that, due to its inflected nature, it was much easier to find rhyming pairs in Old English than in its modern equivalent.

Conversely, very heavy use was made of alliteration (e.g., “weallwalan wīrum” for “iron bonds”), although it is almost impossible to retain this feature in any modern translation.

It’s a real stroke of luck that this remarkable example of historic literary description has survived for us to read, although it makes you wonder how much similarly wonderful literature must have been lost.

Modern English Translation

Although there are no copyright concerns regarding the original Old English version of the poem, most modern translations of it are, of course, subject to copyright restrictions. However, the Wikipedia article about the poem offers one translation:


Stumbling on Silchester

At the time that I first learned about this poem, I was living in Andover, UK, and commuted to my job in Wokingham, about 40 miles away. I took several circuitous rural routes between the two locations, depending on traffic and weather conditions. One such route took me past what is now a tiny hamlet called Silchester.

Unlike Bath, Silchester was never repopulated as a city after the post-Roman abandonment. At Silchester, the only remains above ground are portions of the huge city walls, which now surround an empty field. I plan to say more about Silchester in future posts.

Sketching the Great Comedian

The Great Comedian, 1986

The Great Comedian, 1986

Back in the days when I used public transport to get to work, I found myself with a substantial amount of “down time”, spent waiting for transport or traveling on transport. I wanted to do something useful with that time, so, one summer, I decided to try to teach myself Classical Greek.

I had learned French (which was mandatory) and German (optional) at high school, but Greek wasn’t even offered at my school. I was inspired to try to learn the language by having read some of the surviving works of classical authors (in English). Unfortunately, many people seem to assume that all those works are heavy tomes of philosophy, or else harrowing tragedies, because that is frequently the false impression given in pop culture. In fact the range of surviving work is much greater.

They Really Are Old Jokes

I was most impressed by the surviving comedies of Aristophanes, who wrote his plays at around the time of the fall of Athens. Naturally, the theme of many of his plays involves the Peloponnesian War, and possible ways to bring it to an honorable end. Nonetheless, many aspects of his plays seem astonishingly modern, and even include the first recorded instances of what would now elicit groans as “old jokes”.

Isn’t it a Whimsical Francis?

Living in Britain in those days, the plays of Aristophanes naturally reminded me of the recent bawdy television comedy series, Up Pompeii, starring Frankie Howerd.

The basic premise of Up Pompeii, that of a cheeky Roman slave who managed the intrigues of his masters, had been inspired by an earlier stage play (which was later made into a movie), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That play in its turn was derived from the Roman plays of Plautus.

My knowledge of Classical Greek never quite rose to the level of being able to read Aristophanes in the original, but it did inspire me to draw a sketch that was intended for eventual reworking as a painting. The sketch was titled “The Great Comedian”, and was supposed to depict an author whose appearance was inspired by (but deliberately not the same as) Frankie Howerd. I’m also aware that my drawing does not accurately depict an Ancient Greek man, since, for example, all adult males wore beards. A man who did not have a beard would have been thought of as very effeminate.

Learning Sketches

When trying to draw someone with a particular appearance, I find it helpful to do some initial sketches to “get a feel” for the anatomical structure of the person. This is a motor skill, and as such is an intuitive process, which I cannot explain in process terms, any more than you can explain the steps to learning how to catch a ball.

For “The Great Comedian”, I drew some sketches of Frankie Howerd. The drawing below shows him performing in the stage version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

On Show at the IEE

The pencil sketch of the Great Comedian, and his female partner, was as far as my project ever got. Nonetheless, my drawings were exhibited at an Art Show at a very unusual location: the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), Savoy Place, London, in 1986. I was a member of the IEE at the time, but, having viewed the exhibits at the show, I was left with the feeling that they expected that the exhibits would be created by the spouses of their engineers. The notion that an engineer might himself be capable of producing competent artwork seemed never to have been considered a possibility.

Legacy of Greek

A hundred years ago or more, most British schoolboys were forced to learn Latin and Ancient Greek. (Most British girls at that time simply didn’t get any education beyond the age of twelve!) The “classics”, as they were called, were later pushed aside for subjects that were considered more modern and with more practical applications.

Personally, I felt that, even though I never became fluent in Classical Greek, learning it was a worthwhile endeavor. I learned the Greek alphabet, and came to appreciate not only the complexities of that ancient language, but also the amount that it has contributed to modern Western culture.

No Religion Please

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d had a “bellyful” of religious fairy tales from a Church of England school during my childhood, so the fact that the New Testament is written in a demotic form of Greek called koine was not a motivation for me to learn the language. Nonetheless, my knowledge of the language came in unexpectedly handy later on, when a Christian proselytizer falsely tried to claim that something in the Bible had been “mistranslated”. To his dismay, I was able to bring out a copy of the book in the original Greek, and demonstrate to him that he was either ignorant or lying!

Latin Names in Yorkshire


York from the City Walls, August 1964

There are many stereotypes of Yorkshire, with varying degrees of truthfulness, but I suspect that people rarely, if ever, associate Yorkshire with Latin. As a child, growing up in Yorkshire, however, I learned that there is a definite Latin influence in the county, at least as far as place names are concerned.

My father photographed the above view of York long ago, but you can still take the same view today, and little has changed there, except for the traffic.

I realize that the conjunction of the concepts “Yorkshire” and “Latin” may conjure up visions of a red-faced George Whitebread (Harry Enfield’s Yorkshireman character) declaring something like, “Latin? Don’t talk to me about Latin. I’ve been to Benidorm!”, but that’s not what I’m thinking of here.

In fact, there are many placenames in Yorkshire that are directly or indirectly derived from Latin words. Some of the “indirect” derivations stem from the Old French or Anglo-Norman languages, which were themselves descendants of Latin.

Roman Legacy

On reflection, the occurrence of Latin names anywhere in England shouldn’t really be surprising, since Yorkshire and the rest of what’s now England were a part of the Roman Empire for several hundred years.

Typically, where the Romans developed an existing settlement, they would name it by Latinizing its existing local name. In what’s now England, those names are typically of Celtic origin, and in many cases the Celtic meanings of the names remain unknown.

The Roman names of many English settlements are known, but in general those names are no longer in use, having been replaced by new names created by later settlers. However, there are a few cases where the Latin name has survived in a more or less obvious form.

As an example that’s not in Yorkshire, the name Lincoln is probably closest to the Latin original, which was Lindum Colonia. All you need to do is to cross out a few letters!

Roman Column in York, which was originally part of the Basilica. It was found under York Minster, in the background

Roman Column in York, which was originally part of the Basilica. It was found under York Minster, in the background

The name of Yorkshire’s capital city, York, is of Latin origin, but less obviously so. The Latin name was Eboracum, which was probably derived from the Celtic Caer Ebruac. The Roman name was changed to the Old English Eorforwic, and then to Jorvik by the Vikings. The current name is just a modified version of Jorvik.

As a schoolchild in Yorkshire, it was drilled into me that a person from York is not referred to as a “Yorker”, or anything like that, but as an Eborian, because of the Latin name of the city.

Religious Influence

Following the Norman Conquest, England and parts of what is now France were unified under a single king, as the Angevin Empire. As a result, cultural influences from the continent began to drift into England. At that time, religious houses such as monasteries were the repositories of much learning and tradition. The language of the Western church was still Latin, so there was a natural tendency to apply Latin names to objects.

The language of the Norman court was Anglo-Norman, which was itself a derivation of vulgar Latin. French is one of several modern European languages that are derived from Latin, and are known collectively as Romance languages.

The Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, in 2008

The Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, in 2008

Usually, when a new monastery was founded, it would adopt the existing local name. However, sometimes monasteries were founded in previously-uninhabited places, so a new name had to be invented. This happened at Rievaulx, where the modern name is a corruption of the Latin Rye Vallis. The pronunciation of the name has also changed over the years; the current pronunciation is “Ree-voh”, but it seems that this was a change that occurred only after the majority of the population learned to read, and discovered how the word is spelled. Prior to that, the accepted pronunciation was apparently “Rivers”.

Latin prefixes and suffixes have also been applied to some placenames. The suffixes Magna and Parva are used in Yorkshire and in other counties. However, one Latin suffix that seems to appear only in Yorkshire applies to the neighboring villages of Low Hutton and High Hutton, which together are known as Huttons Ambo (and which was the name of their railway station). During my recent Spanish lessons, I learned that the Spanish for “both” is ambos, because of course Spanish is another of those Romance languages.

Another Old French name that appears in Yorkshire is that of the village of Grosmont. In this case, the village is named after a medieval priory that was founded at that site by a religious order based in what is now France. Scenes around Grosmont featured quite regularly in the ITV police drama Heartbeat, and the location of the fictitious town Ashfordly corresponded to that of Grosmont.

The Norman Influence: Radio Active

Writing this article reminded me of a sketch from the 1980s-vintage BBC radio comedy show Radio Active.

As part of the “God Alone Knows” show, DJ Martin Brown is interviewing church warden Clifford about the history of St. Littlebody’s Church:

Martin Brown: “This is not a new church, is it? Is it eighteenth century, Clifford?”

Clifford: “No it’s Norman in fact”

Martin Brown: “Oh I’m sorry. Erm, is it eighteenth century, Norman?”

Clifford: “The church is Norman”

Martin Brown: “Oh I’m sorry. So, Clifford, how did you come to call the church Norman?”

Clifford: “I didn’t call the church Norman”

Martin Brown: “Oh no, sorry. Silly me. It was probably called Norman hundreds of years ago, wasn’t it? Possibly by the Normans, who knows?”

You can hear this sketch in its full glory, along with the rest of the Radio Active episode “God Alone Knows”, at this site:


Digital Bayeux

ligatures_bayeux1I just completed some artwork to illustrate a forthcoming article for my professional blog, www.teklibri.com. The article discusses the use of linguistic ligatures in English, which immediately put in me in mind of the impressive artwork of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry has once again been in the news recently, because the events that it depicts took place exactly 950 years ago, in 1066. I was first introduced to that remarkable work of art when I was six years old, in 1966, that being the 900th anniversary of the events.

My graphic is loosely based on the Bayeux style, but in a considerably simplified manner. Again inspired by details in the real tapestry, I took the opportunity to include in the border a representation of two cats fighting, just like our own Ignatz and Ginger Tom!

Having analyzed the design of the illustrations in the tapestry, I now have a much finer appreciation of the quality of the original work.

The typeface used for the copyright notice in my artwork is called “King Harold”, which was itself inspired by text that appears in the tapestry. The typeface can be downloaded free in TrueType format from: