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Updated 2 December, 2010
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martin's
Maybe your mother sang the nursery rhyme to you. Perhaps you sing it to your own children, but do you know what five farthings were worth? If you are younger than 40 the answer will not be automatic, as the British currency was decimalised in 1971. Before this time schoolchildren chanted the answers to mental arithmetic questions every morning:
What's a third of a pound?
- Six shillings and eightpence, sir (6/8d).
How many pence in three shillings?
- Thirty-six, sir.
Add fourpence and tuppence ha'penny and sevenpence three farthings. How much change do you have from half a crown?
- Umm... 1
So here is a brief explanation for those of you reading books published before that time.
'Quid' and 'knicker' are slang terms for a pound. Or you could call it a bar. If you are 'quids in', you have more money left than you expected. This is the only time that quid is used in the plural. For example you would say 'eight quid' and not 'quids'.
The basic unit was the pound sterling (£). Theoretically this was redeemable in gold but Britain came off the gold standard long before 1971 and the promise by the head of the Bank of England to pay such to the bearer 'on demand' was actually not worth the paper it was written on. Some elderly gents still had sovereigns (gold pound coins) hanging from their watch chains but they were no longer legal tender. One pound notes were green and had the Queen's head on one side; five pound notes were flimsy white paper about A4 size and didn't. These were worth so much that you often had to write your name and address on the back if you wanted to use them to pay for something. Larger denominations did exist, but were used only for payments between companies.
Bob's Your Uncle
A bob (no 's' for plural) was slang for a shilling (1/-). People say 'Bob's your Uncle' when they get quick and easy results. Some people use this phrase to mean 'a piece of cake' or 'there you are'.
The pound was divided into 20 shillings, which looked silver - and for hundreds of years had been - with the head on one side and various shields on the other. The shields depicted depended on which part of the UK they were being used in. Ten shillings (10/-) were covered by a brownish note, five (5/-) were a crown but this coin was obsolete. However, a half-crown (2/6d), another silvery coin, was a good present to get from your godmother especially as in the early 1960s you could still get a cinema ticket and a cup of coffee for half a crown.
There was a two shilling (2/-), or florin, coin also. This coin was useful for cigarette machines. There was also a notional coin, a guinea, worth one pound and one shilling in multiples of which you paid medical specialists, or art dealers or anything to do with horses.
Coppers, Tickies and Joeys
Each shilling was divided into 12 pence or pennies. Coppers, tickies and joeys were respectively pennies, thruppences, and fourpences or 1d, 3d and 4d. The largest coin was the copper penny, with the picture of Britannia on the obverse. These were needed for the slot machines to get into public toilets - hence the expression 'spend a penny'. Six of them could be exchanged for a small silvery coin (6d), known as a tanner. Real silver sixpences had been discontinued, but most families still kept some to put in their home-made Christmas puddings. Sixpences were very useful if your suspenders2 broke. You twisted one between the stocking and the suspender and your modesty was saved. Fourpenny coins had long since gone, but thick little octagonal thruppences (3d) with a picture of a thrift plant still tore holes in your pockets. These were a replacement for another small silver coin.
The penny was also divided into two (halfpenny or ha'penny) and four (fourthing or farthing) which paid for sweets.
When casting accounts or writing cheques, pounds, shillings and pence were divided by slashes in the same way as dates often are on forms. Thus 2/3/4 meant two pounds, three shillings and fourpence. It was customary to insert the £ (short for Latin Libra, which means pound) at the beginning and d (short for Latin denarius, from which penny is derived) at the end. So this would be written £2/3/4d.
Five farthings was a penny and a farthing. A penny farthing was also the name of an early bicycle with the front wheel much higher than the back.