Christmases of Yore

Natural History Museum, London, at Christmas, 1981

Natural History Museum, London, at Christmas, 1981

This rather dark and blurry photo may look like the interior of some European cathedral, but in fact it’s the foyer of the Natural History Museum in London. I took the photo during my first Christmas in London, while a student there in 1981.

On the right, you can just see the dark outline of part of the huge Diplodocus skeleton (Dippy) that was a permanent fixture in the museum’s foyer in those days. You would be unlikely to see such a thing in any church!

Unlike most students, I didn’t go home to my family during the Christmas break from university, but instead stayed in the student dorms (paying rent, of course), and worked as a Sales Assistant at Selfridges on Oxford Street. (During Christmas of 1982, I worked at Harrods, but I found Selfridges to be the better employer.)

I knew that, if I were to go back to my home town of Scarborough for the Christmas break, my only employment opportunity was likely to be as a waiter at one of the town’s hotels. While still at Scarborough Sixth Form College, and then after returning from my first term at Warwick University, I’d worked as a waiter at the Red Lea Hotel over Christmas, and that was not pleasant work. The pay was very low and the hours were unsociable. Not only that, but, since I didn’t own a car, I had to walk there and back, or wait in the cold for infrequent buses. Working in London, at Selfridges, was considerably pleasanter, and I was able to take the relatively cozy London Underground tube between my lodgings and my work.

In the Thick of It

At that age, I really enjoyed spending the Christmas holiday in bustling London, where it felt like it was “all happening”. In retrospect, I must admit that I just remember the place as being noisy, dirty, cold, and dangerous, but I didn’t mind all that at the time.

It really was quite dangerous. There was always the threat of an IRA bomb (which did actually happen outside Harrods in December 1983). Apart from that, simply negotiating the traffic could be hazardous, as I discovered one evening when leaving Selfridges. As I was crossing Oxford Street, the heel of one of my shoes broke, causing me to fall backwards. My head landed only about six inches from the wheel of a passing taxi.

I also took the photo below during Christmas 1981, showing traffic crawling along near Piccadilly Circus.

Traffic in Piccadilly, London, Christmas 1981

Traffic in Piccadilly, London, Christmas 1981

Looking at this photo again now, I can almost hear the noise and smell the diesel fumes!

My reflections in this article should not be mistaken for nostalgia. Although I preferred Christmas in London to Christmas in Scarborough, I don’t miss those days! The Yuletide season for me now, here in California, is much happier than it ever was in Britain.

Monochrome Film Photography

 

St. Mary's Church, Castlegate, York, in 1977I took the photo above, showing the church of St. Mary’s, Castlegate, York, during 1977. It was taken with Ilford FP4 film.

At that time, most of my photographs were taken with monochrome 35mm film, which I developed and printed myself. Most of them were taken for record purposes, without any serious attempt to produce high-quality or artistic results. Nonetheless, the photo above turned out to be one of the best, in terms of composition and tonal balance.

Thinking back now on those days, in this age of ubiquitous digital photography, the concerns and challenges of film photography seem like part of an alien world. Everything seemed more complex, and it was also quite an expensive pursuit. There was no instant feedback; you had to wait for a photograph to be developed before you could assess the quality, which led to much waste, increasing the effective cost of the photographs that ended up being usable.

The Accidental Photographer

During the 1960s my father became a keen amateur photographer. He owned several cameras, plus a complete suite of darkroom equipment, including two enlargers. He was a member of the Scarborough Camera Club, and regularly exhibited his work at their shows. He used a variety of film formats, from 35mm monochrome, through to much larger negative formats in color or monochrome. He developed and printed monochrome film images himself, and although he experimented with developing and printing color images, he found that too complex and expensive to be worthwhile.

By the mid-1970s, my father’s health had deteriorated to the point that he no longer took an active interest in photography, so I found myself “inheriting” all his equipment. At the same time, I was developing an interest in local history, and was soon to begin my Advanced-Level Art study of architecture, so I was able to make perfect use of his equipment. Nonetheless, I had to make tradeoffs regarding cost and quality.

Predicting Digital Photography

In 1983, during my final year as an undergraduate electronic engineering student at Imperial College, London, we were required to prepare a group report on a relevant topic. My group chose to write a report on possible future developments in telecommunications.

One of the future technologies that we predicted was the development of digital cameras. Our prediction wasn’t really too much of a stretch, because digital framestores already existed, and low-resolution framestores were already used in computer monitors.

It took some time for digital image technology to eclipse film, but for all practical purposes we have now reached that point. Perhaps surprisingly, given my professional contributions to digital video technology, even when digital cameras first became available, I continued to use 35mm film (albeit sometimes output to Kodak Photo CD format), on the grounds that digital images were not of comparable quality.

Eventually, however, the digital technology caught up, and the image quality now available even from some phone cameras now surpasses that possible with 35mm film. (Using 35mm film involved so many variables that the ideally-achievable quality was almost never achieved in reality.)

Return to Castlegate

Some 22 years later, in 1999, my wife and I stayed in the Stakis Hotel (now the Hilton) in York, which was constructed later on the site of the brick building in the left foreground of the 1977 photo above.

The present-day Google Streetview version of the same York location can be seen here.

“Such a Vision of the Street”

In his beautiful poem Preludes, written more than a century ago, T S Eliot masterfully evoked the dingy ambience of a rainy urban street.

I was also inspired by night-time photographs of urban settings by other photographers, and I realized that my monochrome film was fast enough to be used at night, if the camera was on a tripod.

One rainy evening, I took my father’s heavy wooden tripod with me to the Odeon roundabout in Scarborough, next to the railway station, and set it up to take some experimental shots. Not all of the photos came out well, but some were quite effective.

The photo below shows the entrance to the Odeon Cinema (now the Stephen Joseph Theatre), when passengers had just alighted from a United 101 service bus. The reflection of light from the wet road surface was particularly effective in this shot.

Scarborough Odeon at night, 1977

Scarborough Odeon at night, 1977

You can see that the Odeon was showing the movie The Pink Panther Strikes Again, which, on another night, I did actually go to see at that cinema.

In those photographs, I was trying to capture the atmosphere of that rainy evening, as eloquently described in Eliot’s poem:

The conscience of a blackened street

Impatient to assume the world.

Goodbye to All That

When I went away to university at the end of 1978, I couldn’t take my father’s processing equipment with me. I continued to take photographs for many more years using Kodachrome transparency film, but that transition marked the end of my brief “career” as a film photographer who processed his own images.

California Confusin’

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunset

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunset

The photo above shows one of California’s most iconic views; the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. I had a reasonably accurate preconception of this location before moving here, but I also had many other conceptions of California that were much less accurate.

In my earlier post describing the events of thirty years ago, by which I came to California, initially temporarily and then permanently, I described how I made a (literally) flying visit to my prospective new employer for interview, then returned to my job in Britain, and was eventually offered the position in California. I finally emigrated in November, 1987.

Reminiscences Interrupted

I’d planned to continue the series with this post, but was of course interrupted by the terrible wildfires that started here on October 9th. In view of that, I felt it more important to post items about my immediate experiences than to reminisce about the events of thirty years ago.

My reasons for choosing to move to California did not include the expectation of a “quiet life”, and indeed it has not been so! (If I had sought that, then staying in my birth town of Scarborough would probably have been the best option!) The fires were not even my “first disaster” in California, since I lived through the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.

A Distorted View

Like most people who’ve never visited the US, and California in particular, I had formed most of my ideas about the place from American movies, TV shows and music. This provided a highly distorted view of American life, and led to considerable confusion and several misconceptions on my part.

The song California Dreamin’ was played regularly on the radio in those days, relaying the message that California was, if nothing else, warm. Of course, the song fails to distinguish Northern California from Southern California, and I was completely ignorant of any distinction between the two.

My parents’ views of the US were informed mostly by my father’s experience during World War II. His only contact with Americans had been a few servicemen that he met while on military service during the war. As a wireless officer in the Royal Air Force, he had flown a variety of British and American aircraft types, the American types being those supplied under Lend-Lease. I formed the conclusion that he admired, but was somewhat jealous of, the perceived wealth and modernity of Americans. (I recall that he had many negative things to say about some British aircraft types—particularly the Bristol Blenheim—but I never heard him say anything negative about any American aircraft type.)

Time to Live the Dream?

In October 1987, having received the offer of a job in Northern California, I quickly had to make the momentous decision as to whether to accept it, which of course would involve moving myself and all my possessions some 5,500 miles to a different continent.

It had been easy enough to dream about some day getting away from the miseries and frustrations of life in Britain, and jetting away to a great job in some far-off country, but now I was actually faced with the prospect of having to do it!

In the back of my mind, I had been assuming that my new employer wouldn’t be expecting me to start working for them before the beginning of 1988, so it was somewhat shocking when they told me that they’d like me to move and start working for them before Christmas.

Trafalgar Square, London, at Christmas

Trafalgar Square, London, at Christmas

As it turned out, 1986 was to be my last Christmas in Britain. The photo above shows Trafalgar Square in London, decorated for the holidays, while I was a student there during the early 1980s.

You’ll Live to Regret It!

I naturally couldn’t talk to my work colleagues about my situation, but I did discuss it with my mother and some non-work friends. Some people cautioned me that such a major move could be a huge mistake, which I’d live to regret. It was bound to be very expensive and disruptive (they said), and I’d find myself pining for the comforts of life in Britain soon after I left.

My response to that argument was that, if I tried it and failed, then I could always come back to Britain, and live the rest of my life wiser for my experience. On the other hand, if I passed up the opportunity, there was a real chance that I’d spend the rest of my life regretting what might have been. I could foresee that, every time something bad happened to me in Britain thereafter, I’d have been thinking: “If only I’d taken that job in the US”.

As it turned out, coming to California changed my life for the better in ways that I couldn’t even have imagined when I was making that decision, but I’ll save those details for a future post.

Footloose & Fancy-Free

It is true that, if you’re thinking of starting a new life in a foreign continent, then doing so when you’re young and relatively unencumbered is likely to be easier than making a similar move later on in life.

In my case, I was single—I didn’t even have a girlfriend—and the other surviving members of my small family already lived about 200 miles away from me. Thus there was nobody who was going to miss having me around on a day-to-day basis. I also didn’t have to worry about all the complications of moving a wife and children along with me.

I was living in furnished rented accommodation, so I didn’t have all the hassle of having to sell or rent out a home. I also didn’t have a lot of furniture to have to sell or move with me. The only large item of furniture that I owned was a bookcase, which held much of my large book collection. I discovered that all those items could be shipped to California fairly cheaply by sea.

Living in the Badlands

As I said above, I had obtained all my impressions of California from American TV shows, movies and music. As such, I was quite convinced that the whole of California was a desert, presumably irrigated artificially from somewhere further North.

While I was a student in London, French winemakers were releasing the first quality wines from their California vineyards, such as Mumm Napa. In my mind’s eye, I imagined that the Napa Valley must be an arid desert, with a few straggly vines baking in the unrelenting sun! (In reality it’s more akin to the South of France, but then in those days I’d never visited France either!)

Château of Domaine Carneros, Napa

Château of Domaine Carneros, Napa

Decision Made

There were various other differences to consider, such as the electricity supply, and learning to drive on the other side of the road, but none of those seemed to be insoluble problems.

I gave it all a great deal of thought, based on the information available to me (there being no World Wide Web in those days), and decided that there weren’t really any insurmountable obstacles that would prevent me from going.

As I mentioned above, I felt that, if it didn’t work out well, I could just come back to Britain, and at least I’d have the “experience” to look back on. On the other hand, if I didn’t try, I’d always regret it.

So, I told my prospective employer I was accepting their offer. The first task was to obtain a visa that would allow me to live and work in the country, for which I would once again have to visit the US Embassy in London. Once I’d got that, my new employer would arrange temporary accommodation for me in California, and I’d be ready to make my arrangements to move there.

I contacted Pickfords, to have the contents of my small apartment picked up and packed into a container for shipment to San Francisco. It would take about 3 months for the container to make the journey, so I had to be sure not to let them pack away anything that I would need urgently on arrival.

In the next installment of this series of blog posts, I’ll discuss the surprises that awaited me after I moved to California.

It was Thirty Years Ago Today

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

It was almost exactly thirty years ago today—on Friday 9th October, 1987—that I first set foot in California.

On that occasion, I had come to the US only as a temporary visitor, to attend a job interview. It was a truly “temporary” visit, lasting only 4 days.

Until then, I had been anything but an experienced international traveler. I’d never been to any part of the USA before, and in fact I’d only been out of Britain three times during my life (and one of those trips was to Guernsey).

Broadening My Horizons

Ever since my undergraduate days, the idea of “working abroad” had been floating in the background as a vague possibility.

In 1986, I even went to Munich for a day, for a job interview with Siemens, but, even though they seemed keen to hire me, I did not pursue that possibility further.

Certainly, the idea that I might one day find myself living and working within sight of the Pacific Ocean never entered my head. It wasn’t until after I’d already moved here that I remembered that we had spent an entire term studying the state as part of our high school Geography course! I had basically ignored the course because it seemed to have no possible relevance to my life.

The Lure of the Dollar

As an Imperial College undergraduate, I began to hear stories of graduates who were obtaining what seemed like spectacular jobs in the USA, straight out of college. The starting salaries for these US jobs were apparently many times those that were offered to even the best British graduates. The figures seemed even more impressive because the dollar and pound were close to parity at that time. Nonetheless, the jobs I was told about were all on the US East Coast; in New York or Maryland.

My goal in getting an EE degree had been specifically to obtain a job with the BBC, which I did on graduating, so initially I felt that the die was cast and I’d already achieved my ambition.

However, my subsequent experience with the BBC and other British engineering employers was a huge disappointment. It seemed that not only were graduate salaries low, but conditions were poor and employers were either inefficient or unstable. I began to think once again of those tantalizing tales I’d been told about the wonderful jobs that were supposedly available in other countries!

The Window Opens

In 1987, I was working as a video systems hardware design engineer for a small company in Berkshire. One of my employer’s competitors was an American company, but had a European operation based in Reading. Word got around that I was looking for new employment, and the competitor contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in working for them in Reading.

I declined to consider working for them in Reading, at which point they asked whether I might instead be interested in a job in California. Ah, now it’s getting interesting

Following several international phone calls, I managed to arrange an interview appointment at the company’s offices in Northern California. I had to obtain a B-1/B-2 visitor visa just to enter the USA, which meant that I also had to make a trip to the US Embassy in London before departing the UK.

San Francisco or Suffolk?

The plan was that I would arrive in San Francisco on a Friday evening, then have the weekend to do some sightseeing and recover from jet lag. My formal interview would be on Monday, then on Tuesday I’d fly back to Heathrow.

I would obviously have to take some vacation time from my job, but I felt that my current employer would not believe that I was going to California for a holiday just for the weekend! Therefore, I decided to tell them that I was going to visit the US air base at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk. My mother had an American friend who was a teacher on the air base, and I’d visited her there previously, so it wouldn’t seem out-of-the-ordinary.

It was important to bear in mind that there was no guarantee that the company in California would actually offer me a job. I needed a plausible cover for my actions, so as not to jeopardize my existing position.

Offered the Job

To cut a long story short, I was offered the job in California within a few weeks following my interview. Somewhat to my surprise, my new employer was eager for me to start work there before Christmas, so I began the process of arranging to move myself and all my worldly possessions some 5500 miles.

Nonetheless, I would only be working in the US on a temporary, three-year E-2 visa, so there was always the possibility that I would choose to return to Britain (or might have to do so when the visa expired).

Way Out West. The Pacific Ocean from Pillar Point

Way Out West. Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from near Pillar Point

Return to a Hurricane!

I arrived back in the UK on Tuesday, 13th October, and went back to work the following morning as though nothing unusual had happened. Later that same week, however, the Great Storm of 1987 occurred.

On the night of October 15th, I didn’t hear the weather forecast, so the first I knew of the severity of the storm was when I set off on my 40-mile commute from Andover the following morning, and began noticing that tree branches were down everywhere, even blocking some roads.

[Update: On 15th October, the London Evening Standard published this article about the storm.]

Devastation in Brighton

In those days I was the Treasurer of the Southern Centre of the Royal Television Society, and, prior to my jaunt to California, I had volunteered to help out at the Society’s booth at that year’s International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), which was always held in Brighton. I traveled to Brighton the week after the storm, to see that many of the city’s trees had fallen, and a massive cleanup operation was underway.

It made me think that perhaps the country I’d been born in was itself becoming unrecognizable, so my life was going to change anyway, whether or not I emigrated.

Autumn Then & Now

 

Autumn in Hackness, Yorkshire, 1966

Autumn in Hackness, Yorkshire, 1966

My father took the color transparency above, in Hackness, Yorkshire, during one Autumn in the mid-1960s. It’s a good example of an annual event that we always looked forward to: the “Turning of the Leaves” on deciduous trees. In the photograph, you can see my mother and my brother strolling through “Autumn’s golden gown” on the right.

Growing up in England, the onset of each Autumn brought a variety of both welcome and unwelcome events.

The school year always started in September, and, given that I always hated school, that was definitely not a joyous event. On the other hand, when I was at Primary School, our teachers would often organize some kind of Harvest Festival celebration, which I did enjoy. Given that the North Riding of Yorkshire had a heavily agriculture-dependent economy, harvest time was far from being just a symbolic event.

While out in the countryside admiring the foliage colors, we also quite often stopped to pick wild blackberries (brambles) from roadside hedges, where berries were in abundant free supply. It was also sometimes possible to find and pick bilberries in similar locations. I participated in that, but I must admit that I enjoyed the results much more than the actual task! The traffic levels on country roads in those days were generally light, so it was usually no problem to pull the car over to the side of the road wherever we spotted some fruit, as shown below, where my father had parked our Humber Super Snipe to let my mother sample some likely-looking brambles.

Picking Blackberries in Hackness, 1966

Picking Blackberries in Hackness, 1966

Other autumnal events that I welcomed with glee included Guy Fawkes Night (aka Bonfire Night) each 5th November. At that time, Guy Fawkes was the only regular event in Britain at which fireworks were let off (the tradition of fireworks at New Year didn’t start until much later). Fireworks were sold to the general public because, given the damp climate and the time of year, there was little fire danger.

I also looked forward to the arrival of the Winter Catalogues. In those days there were few large stores in or near Scarborough, so my mother did much of her shopping via mail-order “catalogues”, such as Kays, Grattans or John Moores. There were two editions of each catalogue each year: for Summer and Winter. I eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Winter editions in September or October, because those editions included larger selections of toys, and I had Christmas and a birthday coming up for which to make my choices (or at least to dream about them!).

Excerpt from Grattan Catalogue, 1966

Excerpt from Grattan Catalogue, 1966

The image above is part of a page from the Winter 1966-67 Grattan catalogue. The pre-decimal prices shown are explained in my previous post: Old Money.

Fall in California Wine Country

The seasons in California are less pronounced than in England, but we do have noticeable autumnal changes.

A Laughlin Road Vineyard, Sonoma County

A Laughlin Road Vineyard, Sonoma County

I took the photograph above last weekend of a vineyard at Laughlin Road, Santa Rosa, just near Sonoma County Airport.

Unlike similar species in Britain, California native oaks are “live”, meaning that they do not shed their leaves during the winter (as shown in the photo). Nonetheless, the leaves of the (non-native) vines do change color, and you can just see that process beginning in the photo above.

Once the leaves have changed color, they tend to stay on the trees longer in California than in Britain (probably because California is less windy). The photograph below was taken in Moraga a few years ago, in mid-December. (The photograph is marred only by the bus stop sign in the foreground!)

Autumn Leaves in Moraga

Autumn Leaves in Moraga

I plan to write further posts about Autumn in California, as the season progresses.

You Can Call Me Al(phonse)

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

The image above is somewhat adapted from an ink-and-brush poster that I designed for a 1982 lecture on Hypnosis, presented by Imperial College’s H G Wells Society.

Like many artists, I have drawn much inspiration from the work of others. Some have said that no art exists in a cultural vacuum; all art is in some way derived from that of previous works. For this poster, I was strongly inspired by a poster created by the great Czech Art Nouveau illustrator, Alphonse Mucha.

At that time, while trying to generate ideas for the design of the Hypnosis lecture poster, I’d just bought the book Alphonse Mucha: the Graphic Works (cover shown below) from the nearby Victoria & Albert Museum.

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

One work that was reproduced in the book, and which particularly appealed to me, was a poster produced by Mucha for a 1921 exhibition of his own work at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I borrowed ideas not only from Mucha, but also from other artists; in fact, the line technique that I used for the hair was inspired by the work of the British illustrator, Robin Jacques.

The Poster

Frankly, my poster design was a bit of a muddle (to put it mildly), because, although it was a striking design that achieved its purpose of attracting attendees to the lecture, I’d completely lost sight of the Art Nouveau style of Mucha’s composition.

For that reason, I decided that I didn’t want to reproduce the original poster here, so the illustration above is an adaptation of my original painting, with some of the most incongruous aspects covered over or redrawn!

My design is monochrome-only, for reasons that I explained in a recent post on my professional blog. The Student Union’s printing equipment was not capable of printing in full color, so, for speed and simplicity, all my poster designs were monochrome.

The Lecture

The lecture on hypnosis that my poster advertised was presented by Martin S Taylor, who soon thereafter went on to become the Editor of the Imperial College Student newspaper, Felix (which traces its ancestry back to the founding of the Science Schools Journal by H G Wells).

I recall Martin’s lecture (and accompanying demonstration) as being utterly fascinating, as indeed were most of the H G Wells Society’s presentations at that time.

Martin’s successor as Felix editor was Pallab Ghosh, whom I’ve already mentioned in a previous post.

Martin was an IC student at the time of the lecture, but apparently he went on to make something of a career of hypnosis, as described on his own web site: http://www.hypnotism.co.uk/

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

Livra

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”.

Solidus

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.

Denarius

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!

Half-Crown

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.)

Sovereign

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!

Guinea

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.

D-Day

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’?”