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Pre-decimalisation coins and currency
1965 Churchill Crown and  1 pound note

Currency    Metrication   Pathe Decimalisation Newsreel 1970


(source - Wikipedia)

Old English versions of the word 'penny' are 'penig', 'pening', 'penning' and 'pending'. The word appears in German as 'pfennig', in Dutch and Swedish (often shortened to 'peng') as 'penning' and in West Frisian as 'peinje' or 'penje'.
In Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, the most common words for money are 'pengar', 'penger' and 'penge' respectively. These words are thought by some to have common roots with the English word 'pawn', German 'pfand', and Dutch 'pand', all words which mean 'a pledge or token'.

A Brief History

The English 'penny' was derived from a silver coin (the sceat of 20 grains weight) which was in general circulation in Europe during the Middle Ages. The weight of this coin was originally 20 grains but had reached 24 grains by the time of King Alfred (AD 871 – 899) or 1/240th of a troy pound, a weight known as a pennyweight—around 1.555 grams. The coinage reform of 1816 set up a weight/value ratio and physical sizes for silver coins which remained constant in the UK until decimalisation.

Located on Tower Hill, London, work began on a purpose-built Royal Mint in 1805, with machinery being supplied by Matthew Boulton; the first silver coins went into circulation in 1816. The following year a gold coinage was issued based on the sovereign (one pound) rather than the guinea (21 shillings or one pound and one shilling), which had been the principal gold unit since 1663. Interestingly, there was a failed attempt to introduce a decimal coinage as early as 1849.

With the passing of the Bank Notes Act 1833, Bank of England notes over £5 in value were first given 'legal tender' status in England and Wales, guaranteeing the worth of the Bank's notes and ensuring public confidence in the notes in times of crisis or war. The Currency and Bank Notes Act 1954 extended the definition of 'legal tender' to ten shilling and £1 notes. The 1833 act had not been applied to Scotland, today leaving a legal curiosity in Scots law whereby there is no paper legal tender in Scotland as the £1 (withdrawn 12th November 1984) and ten shilling notes (withdrawn 20th November 1970) have been removed from circulation.
Old Halfpenny
Old Penny
Florin - Two Shillings
Half Crown
Half Crown
n.b. the above images are not to scale

Notes were fully printed (as opposed to some previous hand-written 'promissory' notes) from 1855 and, until 1928, all notes were 'white notes', printed in black and with a blank reverse. During the 20th century white notes were issued in denominations between £5 and £1000, but in the 18th and 19th centuries there were also notes in £1 and £2 denominations.

In 1921 the Bank of England gained the legal monopoly on issue of banknotes in England and Wales, a process that started with the Bank Charter Act of 1844, restricting the ability of other banks to issue notes. Following this, the Bank of England's first issue of ten shilling and £1 notes was on 22nd November 1928 when it took over responsibility for these denominations from the Treasury, who had issued the notes three days after the 1914 declaration of war in order to remove the sovereign and half sovereign gold coins from circulation. The 1928 notes were the first coloured banknotes and the first to be printed on both sides.
World War II actually saw a reversal of this practice when, in order to combat forgery, higher denomination notes (up to as high as £1,000) were removed from circulation.

During World War II the German 'operation Bernhard' attempted to counterfeit various notes between £5 and £50 in 1943, producing some 500,000 notes a month. Although most of these ended in Allied hands at the end of the war, forgeries appeared frequently for long afterwards, leading to denominations of banknotes above £5 being removed from circulation.

5 shilling 'crown' coins were once in circulation, but since the 19th century they have only really been issued as 'commemorative' coins on special occasions, with varying values. The most recent ones being of £5 value.
Gold coins were not reintroduced into general circulation, but gold 'sovereigns' and 'half sovereigns' were still being minted, with their value dependent on the current gold exchange rate rather than any denomination.
One term still in common use, but long since (1813) unsupported by an actual coin, was 'guinea', a value of 21 shillings, again discontinued because gold content was worth much more.

Ten shilling note                 One pound note                 Five pound note                 White five pound note                 1813 Golden Guinea

Until 1971, when the British coinage was converted to decimalisation, British currency was calculated in pounds, shillings and pence, based on the Latin names Librae, Solidii and Denarii or £. s. d.
The shilling was also denoted by the slash symbol /, which is also called a solidus for this reason e.g. 1 shilling and six pence would be commonly stated as 1/6d and this sum would be spoken as 'one and six'. One shilling (i.e. one shilling and no pence) would be commonly stated as 1/-.
The British Pound was divided into 240 pennies (or pence) rather than 100, and sums were expressed in terms of pounds, shillings and pence where: £1=20 shillings (20s) 1 shilling=12 pence (12d) Thus: £1=240 pence.

The penny was further sub-divided at various times, though these divisions gradually vanished as inflation made them irrelevant: 1 penny = 2 halfpennies and (earlier) 4 farthings (half-farthing, third-farthing, and quarter-farthing coins were actually minted in the late 1800s but circulated only in certain British colonies and not in the UK itself ). The farthing (31st December 1960) and halfpenny (31st July 1969) were the only sub-divisions surviving into the Sixties.

£1 and 10 shilling denominations were notes rather than coins. Causing further confusion, there were different names for different denominations of money in common 'slang' use. Perhaps the best-known of these were 'bob' for a shilling, and 'quid' for a pound. A farthing was a 'mag', a silver threepence was a 'joey' and the later cupro-nickel threepence coin was called a threepenny (pronounced 'threpny') bit, a sixpence was a 'tanner' , a shilling was a 'bob', the two-shilling coin was 'two bob' or a 'florin' and the 2/6d coin, or half-crown, was 'half a dollar'.

The pre-decimalisation coins with exact decimal equivalent values continued in use after 1971 alongside the new coins, albeit with new names, with the shilling becoming the 5p coin and the two shilling florin equating to 10p. The others were withdrawn almost immediately, with the exception of the old sixpence (2.5p) which lasted until 1980.


British industry has, historically, been opposed to metrication using the argument that the bulk of their exports were shipped to countries that were using imperial measurement systems. However, by the Sixties fairly significant changes in trade patterns, and the adoption of metrication by other countries, weakened their case to the point where, in 1965, the Federation of British Industry (now CBI) implemented the changeover to the metric system, albeit on a 'voluntary' basis.

Before the Metrication Board was set up in 1969, the initiative was overseen by the BSI (British Standards Institution) and The Royal Society who carried out much of the necessary background work with the transport and engineering sectors. Metric compliance continued to be handled on a 'voluntary' basis until 1973, when Britain joined the EEC and inherited an obligation to adapt British law to comply with existing EEC directives. Although road signs have evolved to be more consistent with European standards they have never been subject to specific metrication.

Prior to the 1970s metrication, distances on the UK's rail network were stated in miles and chains, with speed limits quoted in miles per hour. These units were retained by British Rail but London Transport recalculated their Underground network in kilometres, measured using Ongar as point zero. The metrication of admiralty charts began in 1967 but the Royal Navy showed no inclination to fully adopt metrication, preferring to state both measurements i.e. miles/cables and metres for distance and fathoms and metres for depth.

The most bizarre imperial/metric occurrence is probably that imperial units were used in the design of the supersonic BAC Bristol 198. Due to costs, BAC ended up entering into a joint venture with Sud-Aviation of France that culminated with the production of Concorde. The sections designed by the British company were done in imperial measurements and those by the French in metric - amazing that it ever got off the ground!

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