Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Forty Years On…A Penny For Your Thoughts

No, not the brilliant Alan Bennett/Eleanor Bron play

40 years on

No, today is the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, when Britain adopted Decimal Currency

decimal day

We’d had that bizarre seven sided 50p introduced about 18months before


and retail staff had all been trained to use the new stuff [Bob’s Mum brought plastic coins home from work to familiarise herself with it all. Being Belgian, she was used to a decimal system anyway]

d-day sainsburys

And everyone said it would be easy and we would soon get used to it. I guess we have, and now, people are quite flummoxed if presented with ‘old money’. But I for one adored our pre-decimal coinage. It had so much history behind it – and the words, and the maths fascinated me in a way the new stuff never could


  • The half crown – that was a big, heavy coin. You felt rich if you uncle gave you one of those!
  • The florin – two bob – the name originally came from Florence, in Italy, but we had florins in England nearly 700 years ago
  • A shilling – bob- nobody is sure about its nickname – could be ‘bawbee’ a debased copper coin, or maybe from the bellringing term, or perhaps the lead plumb-bob which workmen use to measure a true vertical. And Scouts raised funds each year with their Bob-A-Job Week.
  • Sixpence – a tanner – the lucky little silver coin which was tucked into Christmas puddings and wedding shoes
  • Threepenny bits – twelve sided, quirky little brass things –such fun to roll down a wooden ruler!
  • Pennies- ‘d’ for denarii – and that name went back 200 years before Jesus walked on earth and told all those stories involving pennies. And Britannia ruling the waves with her shield and trident [but why, I used to ponder, was she wearing her nightie and sporting a coal scuttle on her head?]
  • Half pennies – ha’pennys – with Sir Francis Drake’s ‘Golden Hind’ on them – and our teacher reminding us of that earlier Elizabethan Age. And people in pubs ‘shoving’ them!
  • And farthings…


OK, we had lost farthings ten years before – but I loved them especially. They had a little wren on the back – which many people thought was a sparrow because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 [and not two sparrows sold for a farthing?]


Grandad was Church Treasurer and we had to make sure we had 10/- [ten shillings] worth of farthings before they could be banked. So he and I would sit and make 48 little piles of 10 coins on Nana’s small round table. I was fascinated that one pound meant nearly one thousand coins!!

And this is where I rant a bit.

£1 = 100p is all very well – but £1 = 240d is so much better for maths

Think of all the factors of 240

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 16, 20, 24, 30, 40, 48, 60, 80, 120

So much of my early multiplication and division came from those money sums. And then there were guineas – still beloved of auctioneers and sellers of steeplechasers. A guinea = 21 shillings – so we could bring the 7x table into play there.

Children these days have little experience of ‘real money’. A child the other day said “But Miss, my Mum pays for everything on her card”

And the language – those crazy words to the old songs – you just cannot wax lyrical about “Forty Pee” in the same way as you can with these lines…

“Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle, that’s the way the money goes. Pop! goes the weasel!”


“Finchley Central, it’s two-and-sixpence from Golders Green on the Northern Line”

and the Noah’s Ark monologue

Now maple were Sam’s monopoly,

That means it were all his to cut

And nobody else hadn’t got none,

So he asked Noah three ha’pence a foot

The Banks Family in Mary Poppins knew what to do with tuppence


I know we cannot turn the clock back. Prices have gone up, and it is no longer true that “1001 cleans a big, big carpet, for less than half a crown”


But those fabulously descriptive phrases are being lost from our language – and being replaced by tupn’y-apen’y bits of lazy expressions  [nah mean?!]


We no longer refer to disreputable market traders as being “Bent as a nine-bob note”

Del and Rodney knew all about that!

I have ranted long enough, I have definitely “Had my two penn’rth” on the subject of our coinage.

I leave you with another clip – perhaps the best musical dealing with pre-decimal coinage, from an idea by the great writer H G Wells, expressed through the talents of the cheerful Cockney Tommy Steele…


Stick it in yer family al-bum!


  1. We do get some odd looks when we describe something as being "bent as a nine bob note"!
    I can remember the switch at school and being told that the decimal system was much easier to deal with...and it took ages for us to stop converting into old money when we saw the price of something.
    Jane x

  2. Forty Years! Eek, where did the years go? I do recall I'd just learned how to do Lsd sums when it changed and that I had a red pencil case with pictures of the 'new' coins printed on it.

    Happy days!

  3. I had a teacher (must have been in 1979) who used to refer to silly children as "daft ha'pe'ths" (pronounced "haypeths"). Unfortunately, by that point, none of us had any idea of what she was talking about! My mum really laughed when I told her about this new word I'd encountered...

  4. I remember having to introduce the new coinage to my class, and it wasnt easy. I had to keep a page ahead each day!

  5. Oh, now I feel really old...Floss, I still say "Daft Ha'pe'ths. And Jane - I notice you have stopped converting into old money. To Bob's amusement I STILL look at things and mutter "I'm not paying thirty bob just for a bottle of shampoo!"

  6. Such an education, Angela! I should print this out for when I'm reading Brit lit and have no idea what a crown or a farthing might possibly be.

    By the way, as for cleaning silk long johns, well, I haven't given that much thought, as I never take them off. Hmmmmm ... I'll look into that as soon as it gets warm!



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