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 Until I scanned this image, I hadn’t handled one of these notes since they were withdrawn in 1969!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a half-penny coin (called a ha’penny, and pronounced hayp-ny), and a quarter-penny coin (called a farthing) had been withdrawn only in 1960.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 = Libra, 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 libra, meaning “pound”.
[Update 1/12/21: Thanks to commenter Chris Kaye for pointing out that the term for pound is “libra”. I’ve now fixed that error.]
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: “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!
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’?”