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Useful Notes: Old British Money

"NOTE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE AND AMERICANS: One shilling = Five Pee. It helps to understand the antique finances of the Witchfinder Army if you know the original British monetary system: Two farthings = One Ha'penny. Two ha'pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.
The British resisted decimalized currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated."

So you're reading a novel set in Victorian London and someone gives someone "three and six".

Welcome to the world of pounds, shillings and pence, money of Britain and parts of the Commonwealth before it went decimal in 1971.

The rules:
  • 12 pence (symbol d for the Latin denarius) (singular is "penny") to a shilling (s for solidus). Originally, a penny was 1/240th of a pound of sterling silvernote  - about 1.4 grams, which is worth about £1.25 as of 2011.
  • 20 shillings to the pound.
  • 240 pence to the pound (£, as a migration from the old Latin libra, or L, making this the L.s.d. (librae, solidi, denarii) system, and not much more comprehensible than the drug.)
  • A guinea is a gold coin worth one pound, one shilling (or 21s., or 252d., etc.). Named after the African country, but that was never its official name. Officially replaced by the pound coin in 1816, it was still used for pricing purposes by professionals. (The British love class: a tradesman would present his bill in pounds, a doctor or lawyer would charge you in guineas.) Today, it remains in use in the names of 'Classic' horse races the 1000 Guineas and 2000 Guineas, although their prize funds are now much higher.

The pound's full name is the "pound sterling", by which was meant that a pound was originally a gold coin (called a "sovereign") equal in value to one pound of sterling silver. It is still sometimes called a "Sov". The "shilling" was originally a unit of account referring to the value of a sheep or a cow in Kent or some such. (No, really.)

"Three and six" means three shillings and sixpence. A stroke (US "slash") was often used to indicate shillings when writing amounts of money in figures; three shillings sixpence would be written "3/6". Three shillings exactly would be "3/-". On bills from this period you will often see the @ sign used to indicate a particular item is priced "@ 3/6" or whatever: this was responsible for popularising the symbol on typewriters, then computer keyboards, and therefore ultimately why it was used in email addresses later on.

Prices over a pound, e.g. 4 pounds 3 shillings and 4 pence, were spoken as "four pounds three and four." (As the song "Boy For Sale" from Oliver! mentions, 4 pounds 3 and 4 is exactly 1000 pence.)

Then you get onto the other coins:
  • Farthing - one quarter of a penny (i.e. a "fourthing"). It was not minted after 1956, and was not legal tender after 1960. Since as you'll have noticed a penny originally had roughly the buying power of one of today's pounds, the farthing was actually quite useful for most of its history.
  • Ha'penny/Halfpenny - half a penny. Pronounced "haypnee" even when written in full. (The full version is the surname of a former EastEnders/Waterloo Road star.) The pre-decimal Ha'penny was one inch in diameter. Still existed after decimalisation, but was discontinued in 1984.
  • Tuppence - 2d
  • Threepence (pronounced something like "thruppence" or "throopunce") - 3d (As mentioned in Good Omens above, the coin itself was often called a "thrupenny bit.")
  • Groat - 4d, discontinued in the seventeenth century
  • Sixpence - 6d. This small silver coin was known as a "tanner".
  • Florin - 2/- (two shillings, or 24d; one tenth of a pound)
  • Half crown - 2/6 (two shillings sixpence, or 30d; one eighth of a pound).
    • Also called "Half a Dollar" because in the 1940's when US money arrived with the troops during "The War" this was its approximate value.
  • Crown - 5/- (five shillings; one quarter of a pound)
  • Noble - 6/8 (six shillings and eight pence, or 80d; one third of a pound)
  • Mark - 13/4 (thirteen shillings and four pence, or 160d; two thirds of a pound)
  • Triple Unite - £3 (three pounds, or sixty shillings)

The five pound note used to be pretty large by banknote standards; as recently as The Fifties, using one was roughly equivalent to using a fifty-pound note today (at least).

A rather odd, half-hearted attempt at decimalisation was introduced in Victorian times when a large number of florins (two-bob bits) were minted, officially as tenths of a pound. The design was hugely controversial, as, on the front, the queen's picture was accompanied by the words Victoria Regina (Queen Victoria) rather than the conventional Victoria Dei Gratia Regina (Victoria, Queen by the Grace of God). The "Godless Florins" were denounced by clergymen in much the same way that US dollars without "In God We Trust" would be today, even though that motto is Newer Than They Think. Modern coins carry the inscription ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR, (usually abbreviated to ELIZABETH II D G REG F D on most coins, thought the £2 has more space, so there it's ELIZABETH II DEI GRA REG FID DEF), meaning "Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith".

Books and television programmes referencing pre-decimalisation currency will often say that a shilling was worth 5 pence. This is because when the changeover was effected, one old pound had to equal one new pound despite the former having 240 pence and the latter 100. This is because Sterling was, and to an extent still is, a major reserve currency; messing with its value would have been too much of a headache for central banks.note  Therefore, all smaller denominations had to be converted in proportion to the pound. One old shilling (12 old pence) was converted to 5 new pencenote  and therefore remained one-twentieth of a pound – post-decimalisation, the old coins continued to be used for many years as 5p, alongside their physically matching decimal replacement; likewise, florins did for 10p. 'How many pence made up a shilling?' is therefore a common trick question in quizzes and the like. The old coins finally went out of circulation when the size of 5p and 10p coins was reduced.

It's a general rule that anyone who was around before decimalisation will always insist that Old Money was far superior. This is partly attributable to Nostalgia Filter and association with the fact that the pound was much stronger then (for unrelated economic reasons) and bought more, but the case can be made that people were better at mental arithmetic when they had to wrestle with £.s.d. every day.note 

New Money

Great Britain switched to decimal currency in 1971. This was shortly after it began to (reluctantly) switch over to the metric system; despite this, their unit of currency was not changed from the Pound to the Kilogram. (Rimshot)

British coins always have the current monarch's head in profile on the "heads" side – traditionally facing in the opposite direction to that of their predecessor. The design of the "tails" side varies depending on when the coin was minted. Bank notes have the Queen's portrait on one side and a building or person of historical significance on the other (as well as a metal "counterfeit strip" embedded to prevent forgeries).

As of 2008 the tails sides of the one, two, five, ten, 20, and 50p coins each feature a different segment of the "Royal Shield" (the escutcheon of the royal coat of arms); you can get a full view of the Shield by placing a full set of coins together. The £1 has the whole Shield on it, while the £2 has some odd ringy-design. More detailed descriptions of the coins can be found on The Other Wiki.

For those that are interested the coins and notes used in the modern, decimal system of currency (pounds and pence) are:

  • Coppers: Copper-coloured coins made from... well... copper... alloys. More recent issues are made of iron plated with copper alloy, when the cost of making a solid copper coin began to exceed the actual value of the coin – new coppers can be distinguished from old coppers by the fact that they're magnetic. Both are round with smooth edges.
    • 1p - 18mm in diameter.
    • 2p - 25mm in diameter.
    • There was originally a 1/2p coin but it was withdrawn in 1984.
      • While the ha'penny always read "HALF PENNY", the 1p and 2p issued in 1971 (and several subsequent batches) bore the legend "NEW PENNY" and "NEW PENCE", before being changed in the 1990s for "ONE PENNY" and "TWO PENCE".
      • Actually, all the decimal coins said "New Pence" up until 1982, but the 1p and 2p are the only ones from that era that remain in circulation – the higher-denomination coins have all changed their size since, so older ones are no longer around.
    • Coppers are often used as weights for dealing drugs, as their weights match the convention of selling drugs in power-of-two fractions of an ounce: a 2p coin weighs 7g (1/4oz), a 1p coin weighs 3.5g (1/8oz). The 1/2p coin weighed 1.75g (1/16 oz) and the accuracy of this size deal suffered when the coin was withdrawn and dealers moved to using digital scales which only indicated down to tenths of a gramme.

  • Silver: Silver-coloured coins of varying shapes. Actually contain no silver (which would make them worth a lot more than their denominations) but consist of an alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel.
    • 5p - Slightly smaller than 1p coins. They have indentations around the edge, also known as 'milled' edges.
    • 10p - Slightly smaller than 2p coins. They also have indentations.
    • 20p - Slightly larger than 1p coins, 7-sided with rounded corners and edges. (Introduced in 1982). Deliberately designed as such to be able to roll.
    • 50p - Like a 20p coin but a little larger than a 2p coin.
      • The 5p, 10p and 50p were reduced in size in the 1990s (1990, 1992, and 1997 respectively). Previously the 5p was the size of today's 10p and the 10p and 50p were huge. This is why you'll occasionally find 1p and 2p coins as old as 1971 in your change, but not the other denominations.
      • It's a shame, because it was always interesting to find old one-shilling and two-shilling coins that were used as 5p and 10p respectively post-decimalisation (they were the same size).

  • Pound Coins: Unlike USD, £1 and £2 denominations are in coin formnote . A paper £1 existed for a time, but was phased out because they were always horrendously tatty. There are still £1 notes in Scotland.
    • £1 - Round, golden (coloured) and slightly fatter than other coins. Has indentations and the phrase "Decus et Tutamen" ("An Ornament and a Safeguard") around the edge. The phrase refers to the milling, those little grooves on the edges of coins. Milling coins was introduced by then-Royal Mint director Sir Isaac Newton as both a decoration and as a defense against the then-common practice of "clipping".Explanation  Welsh-design coins use a different phrase, "Pleidiol wyf I'm Gwlad" ("True am I to my country"); Scottish-design coins, "nemo me impune lacessit" ("No-one provokes me with impunity")note . The reverse design varies from year to year, with some designs being reused. Commonly used designs are the coats of arms of the UK nations and their national plants.
      • In 2017, the pound coin is to be replaced by a dodecagonal design "inspired" by the pre-decimal thrupenny bit, like the £2 coin with a "silver" centre and "gold" ring. It is claimed that this will be more difficult to forge, with as many as 3% of pound coins in circulation allegedly being forgeries.
    • £2 - Consists of a "silver" part slightly smaller than a 1p coin and a gold "rim" which makes it about the size of a 50p, with milled edges, and the inscription standing on the shoulders of giants around the edge. This is a double reference to the fact that the standard coin depicts technological progress on the back, and that this is a quote by Newton (see above). The £2 has more limited-edition year-specific runs than any other coin and a good percentage of those in circulation at any time will have unique tail designs and edge descriptions rather than the standard one.
      • For a coin that depicts technological progress its rather odd that it depicts it with a circular gear-train with an odd number (19) of cogs, which would lock solid if they were used.
    • £5 - Usually commemorative issues, not in general circulation. Occasionally the introduction of a regular £5 coin is proposed, but so far there isn't one.

  • Bank Notes - Paper money.
  • UK bank notes can be distinguished by colour, size, and whose portrait appears on the side without the Queen. (Note that the date ranges below overlap as they are the years when the notes involved were legal tender). From 2016, plastic bank notes are being introduced after a public consultation found that the majority of people were in favour of them.
    • £5 Note - Blue or green ink (depending on when they were printed and who you ask). Portrait: The Duke of Wellington (1971-1991); George Stephenson, pioneering railway engineer (1990-2003); Elizabeth Fry, campaigner responsible for reforming the prison system (2002-to date); Winston Churchill (projected from 2016). The latter, featuring Churchill, will be the first British bank note to be produced in plastic.
    • £10 - Orange ink with a portrait of: Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern nursing (1975-1994); Charles Dickens (1992-2003); Charles Darwin, Discoverer of evolution (2000-to date); Jane Austennote  (projected from 2017). As with the £5 note, the latter will mark the introduction of plastic £10 notes.
    • £20 - Purple ink with a portrait of: William Shakespeare (1970-1993); Michael Faraday, scientist (1991-2001); Edward Elgar (1999-2010); Adam Smith, father of modern economics and hater of gamers' guts (2007-to date). This tends to be the largest denomination anyone will bother with. It is also the largest you'll normally get from an ATM.
    • £50 - Red ink with a portrait of: Sir Christopher Wren, architect (1981-1996); Sir John Houblon, first governor of the Bank of England (1994-2014), Matthew Boulton and James Watt, steam engine engineers (2011-to date). Usually only issued from banks by request (typically to put in birthday cards). This is the largest denomination issued by the Bank of England - some Scottish and Northern Irish banks issue £100 notes, which are even rarer than £50s. Can be difficult to pass in some stores due to lacking in change (some expressly do not accept them because of this), and will often be subjected to additional scrutiny due to the commonness of forgeries.
      • £50 notes are also found in the pay packets of the increasingly few people who are paid in cash... or the pockets of those who for various reasons deal entirely in cash. Spend too many of them and you will attract adverse attention.
      • Also the easiest way to get a cash payout in a casino if you are lucky enough to win. Usually very large payouts can be made in bags of £2,500 made up of 50 x £50 (electronic note counters are generally set to batches of 50 to help cashiers count and balance the cash). This, too, will draw a certain amount of unwanted attention.
    • Giants and Titans, notes of £1,000,000 and £100,000,000 respectively, also exist. However they are only used between banks or to back Scottish Pounds and never enter circulation. Forging them would be a waste of time as anyone who isn't a bank who has one has to have stolen it. Apparently they resemble cheques more than regular banknotes.
    • It should also be noted that Scotland still has a few £1 notes in circulation, and has its own note designs, several for each denomination. (The three big Scottish banks – Bank of Scotland, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Clydesdale Bank – are all entitled to issue notes under Scots law. The Bank of Scotland notes have pictures of Sir Walter Scott, who petitioned for Scotland to keep its banknotes in 1826.)
      • This can lead to amusing situations such as when an Englishman took his mobile sales stand up to an event in Scotland and on being given a £1 note for a 50p item gave £4.50 change. This wasn't even his first trip to Scotland.
    • The notes can be distinguished by touch (helpful for blind people and anyone quickly rummaging in their wallet as well as giving automated note counting or deposit machines in banks something to go on) because they get progressively slightly larger as the denomination increases. This also has the helpful side effect of preventing counterfeiters from bleaching lower denomination notes to print higher ones on.

Speaking of Scottish and Northern Irish notes, they generally are accepted tender in England and Wales but some shops refuse to take them because their unfamiliarity makes it easier to pass off a forgery as genuine. The Channel Islands, The Isle of Man, Gibraltar, The Falkland Islands and other Crown Dominions also issue sterling notes and coinagenote ... which are viewed with even greater suspicion by till operators in England and Wales. The coins look similar enough to pass without comment, but good luck with the notes.

As a footnote, the plural "pence" is used to refer to a given sum of money and "pennies" to refer to a given number of individual 1p coins. "Pee" as in the letter p, as noted in the page quote, is used as a singular and a plural. Also keep in mind that five pound notes and ten pound notes are known as "fiver(s)" and "tenner(s)" respectively, but twenty and fifty pound notes are just called "twent(y/ies)" and "fift(y/ies)".

There are some money slang terms:
  • "Quid" – slang for "pound" (in the nineteenth century, confusingly, it was slang for "guinea")
  • "Pavarotti" - tenner (Because Luciano Pavarotti is a tenor, get it?)
  • "Pony" – £25
  • "Bottle" or "Tube" (of glue, to rhyme with two) - £200
  • "Monkey" – £500
  • "Bar"/"Grand" – £1000 (use varies by region)
  • The term "shrapnel" is often used to refer to loose change, especially large quantities of small-denomination coins.


The Irish Free State/Irish Republic also used old money from its formation (1922) to 1971, except they used a 10-shilling coin instead of a crown (5/-), and did not have a tuppence coin either. The monarch's image was replaced with a harp, and animals or birds were pictured on the reverse side. The coins gave their value in the Irish language:

  • Ό d. – feoirling (farthing)
  • ½ d. – leath phingin (ha'penny)
  • 1 d. – pingin (penny)
  • 3 d. – leath-reul (threepence)
  • 6 d. – reul (sixpence)
  • 1 s. – scilling (shilling)
  • 2 s. – flσirνn (florin)
  • 2 s./6 d. – leath chorσin (half-crown)
  • 10 s. – deich scilling (ten shillings: issued 1966, 83.5% silver, unpopular and mostly withdrawn)

Notes were 10 s., £1, £5, £10, £20, £50, £100.

Irish New Money

The Irish decimal pound was introduced in 1971, with ½ p, 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p and 50p coins. The ha'penny was withdrawn in 1985, and the 20p issued in 1986. Notes were £1 (featuring the legendary Queen Medb), £5 (John Scotus), £10 (Jonathan Swift), £20 (William Butler Yeats), £50 (Turlough O'Carolan). The old £100 bill remained in circulation.

In 1990 a pound coinnote  was introduced, and the notes became:
  • £5 – brown – Catherine McAuley
  • £10 – green – James Joyce
  • £20 – purple – Daniel O Connell
  • £50 – grey – Douglas Hyde
  • £100 – red – Charles Stewart Parnell

On New Year's Day 2003, the Irish pound was replaced by the euro (issued as 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 cent, €1 and €2 coins, and notes of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500 (the last three note denominations are rarely circulated).

  • Metrication also began in Ireland in the 1970s, so sometimes imperial units are jokingly referred to as "old money", e.g. comparing speed limits between kilometres and miles per hour (which changed over in 2005).
    • While Britain still uses imperial for distances, this kind of jokey meaning is sometimes used there for Fahrenheit/Celsius or similar.

Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

The Southern hemisphere used old money too! When originally settled, the colonies just used British pounds, but gradually introduced their own local currencies imaginatively named the Pound which were essentially equal to the Pound Sterling. Since they weren't tied so closely with the notion of the pound, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa decided to decimalize in a different way to the UK and Ireland by making 10 shillings equal to the new currency: ten South African shillings became one rand in 14 February 1961; ten Australian shillings became one Australian dollar on 14 February 1966; and ten New Zealand shillings became one New Zealand dollar on 10 July 1967. Their values have fluctuated since, and they all have lost their 1c and 2c coins due to inflation making them nearly worthless. New Zealand also lost its 5c coin in 2006, and South Africa is phasing them out as of 2012.

Australian Coins All coins carry the image of Queen Elizabeth II on the 'heads' side

Copper The now discontinued 1 and 2 cent coins made primarily of... copper.
  • 1c: Carried the image of the feather-tailed glider
  • 2c: Carried the image of the frill necked lizard

Silver Silver coloured, hence the name but they are in fact made of an alloy that's 75% copper and 25% nickel with one notable exception
  • 5c: Carries a picture of an echidna
  • 10c: Carries a picture of a Superb Lyrebird
  • 20c: Normally carries a picture of a platypus but there are numerous special commemorative versions minted. Until New Zealand reduced the size of its 20c coin in 2006, it was easily mixed up with the New Zealand 20c coin to the point where some vending machines didn't discriminate between the two.
  • 50c: Rather than a circle it's a twelve sided shape normally stamped with the Australian coat of arms but has an even longer history of commemorative versions than the 20c coin.
    • There was a circular version of the 50c coin minted in 1966 and it's technically still legal tender. However you'd be a fool to use it as such because it's 80% silver which makes it worth about ten times its face value not even counting its limited run.

Gold In 1984 the old one dollar note was phased out and replaced by a coin made of 92% copper, 6% aluminium and 2% nickel which results in a gold coloured alloy. The same was done again with the two dollar note in 1988. Both versions have had commemorative versions made since their introduction, though only a few for the $2 coin.
  • $1: Has seven kangaroos on its default form
  • $2: The only coin to have a human on the 'tails' side: an aboriginal elder holding a spear.

Australian Notes

Originally using paper notes in 1988 a special commemorative ten dollar note for the bicentennial of the landing of the First Fleet was issued made from a form of flexible plastic and while there were some initial problems it was eventually decided to change all notes to this form. In addition to the plastic being much harder to copy they were also able to include new security features such as a transparent window. To the general public one of the more popular results of the change was that your money would no longer be reduced to a pulpy mess if it accidentally went through the wash. The colour coding from the old paper series was kept but while the old notes had gotten both taller and wider with increasing value to aid in identification by the blind the new notes were of a uniform height and only the width changed.

  • $5: Pinky/purple in colour with a bust of Queen Elizabeth II on one side and an image of Parliament house in Canberra on the other
  • $10: Blue with Banjo Patterson on one side and Dame Mary Gilmore on the other. The side with Patterson has The Man From Snowy River on the microprint in the background.
    • Fun fact: Prior to Gilmore's face being on the tenner, Francis Greenway's head was on the bill, making him the only convicted forger to be on a banknote.
  • $20: Red/Orange with Mary Reibey on one side and Reverend John Flynn on the other.
  • $50: Yellow with David Unaipon on one side and Edith Cowan on the other.
    • The $20 and $50 dollar notes are the default denominations found in AT Ms. Awkward if only need a small amount.
  • $100: Green and the highest denomination note made with Dame Nellie Melba on one side and Sir John Monash on the other

North America

Yes, the United States and Canada once had this kind of money, too. However, they got rid of it over a century before the other countries on the same standard.

When British colonists started arriving in the New World, they at first continued to use the currency of the old country – i.e. the pound sterling. However, British monetary policy and the vagaries of geography and trade meant that it was quite difficult to get your hands on British coins in North America, and the colonists started to turn elsewhere for coinage. As it happened, the Spanish had a gigantic mint in Mexico City pumping out 8-rιal coins (called "pieces of eight" for their value and the ability to cut them up into eight one-rιal "bits") of Mexican and South American silver, which were commonly used in international trade. Eventually, these "Spanish dollars" – so-called because they were made to the specifications of the Central European Joachimsthaler, or thaler for short, which were popular across Continental Europe and had been brought to Spain by the Habsburgs – became the standard currency in pre-Revolutionary British North America. As a result, the newly-independent United States adopted the dollar as its unit of currency, divided ingeniously into 100 cents from the very beginning at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson.note  These silver Spanish dollars weighed about 1.75 troy ounces while the pound sterling was, well [a gold coin equal in value to] a troy pound of sterling silver, or 12 troy ounces. You can see the reason for the (former) vast discrepancy between pounds and dollars – the dollar was closer in value to a half-crown than a pound. For further detail, see the article on American Money.

This put Canada in a bit of a bind. Since Canada was still British, the War Office (then in charge of managing Britain's colonies) wanted Canada to continue to use the pound sterling as the basis of its currency, but most Canadians, realizing the benefits of easy trade with their far more populous southern neighbour, wanted to assimilate to the American unit. For a while, a native Canadian pound was adopted, worth slightly less than the sterling for an easier-to-handle exchange rate with the dollar (interesting sidenote: the ha'penny was not issued in English-speaking Upper Canada, but it was issued in French-speaking Lower Canada, where it was known as the sounote ). However, this situation proved to be untenable, and in 1857 the Province of Canada adopted an American-based decimal currency unit, although the British gold sovereign remained legal tender at a value of $4.86 2/3 (which remained true until the mid 1990s – at which point if you took a gold sovereign at face value anyway, you were either desperate or an idiot). When Confederation occurred ten years later, it was this currency that became the Canadian dollar of today.

If you made it through all that, you have probably already realized that this is not to be confused with the other kind of Old Money, the opposite of the Nouveau Riche.

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