Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 16, 2019

A Farthing, a Quid, a Crown, a Florin, a Groat?

Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away
A. E. Housman

For those of us who are wont to read classics of British literature — or contemporary works set in a historical Great Britain — we’re stuck. Every few pages someone’s buying something or adding up their wealth or simply making some value judgment that might be, “Not worth a farthing,” or “Give the beggar half a crown and send him away.”

What in the heck is a farthing, a quid, a crown, a florin or a guinea? A groat? Not even the most prolific and diligent authors of their day provided an appendix to explain them to their audience outside the borders of the realm — not Dickens, Trollope, Hardy — not one.

I landed in Britain for the first time in 1971, just a few months after the advent of “decimalisation.” The Pound had been redefined. Entirely new paper bills and metal coins were the specie of the land. There were 100 pence to the pound, and I was spared having to understand the cost of something marked £1/1/6. In New Pence, I could find coins to come up with £1.25 with no problem.

Nothing had so wrenched the traditional English soul since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, requiring Britons to skip 11 days they’d never get back.

My English grandmother had explained multiple times how money worked in her homeland, but it never stuck, and I’m still clueless when I encounter those farthings, florins and groats. If you have the same struggle when you encounter these terms, here’s info you can keep by your bookshelf for your next English novel.

English Money Pre-1971

Pound. The basic unit, still in force, despite whatever else happens with the EU. Originally equal to one pound of silver: the “pound sterling.”

Shilling. There were 20 shillings in a pound.

Penny. 12 pennies in each shilling, thus 240 pennies in a pound.

This “system” makes no sense until you learn it was devised to match the Troy method of weighing precious metals. There were 240 “pennies” in a pound by weight, and an English penny contained 1/240th of a pound of silver.  I don’t think that helps one penn’orth in remembering these values, but that’s the source. Dates back to Henry II, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine, proving how smart he was.

Those three terms are NOT going to get you through your next Dickens novel. We go on.

If You Haven’t Got a Penny, a Ha’penny Will Do

There were two halfpennies (or half-pence) in each penny — actual halfpenny coins circulated. Almost all of you know that’s spelled something like “ha’p’ny” in dialog and pronounced “HAPE-nee.” My grandmother could carry that off, because she was born to it, but I sound pretentious trying it.

Farthing!

Each halfpenny can be divided into two farthings. The root of that word’s immediately obvious once you consider it: four farthings per penny. The word derives from the Old English word for four: feower, and a fourth was a feorthing.

Farthing coins were minted as late as 1956. A fourth of a penny! This is easy!

Still More

There were coins worth two pennies: tuppence.

There were threepenny coins, also called thrup’ny bits: thruppence.

There were six-penny pieces, the piece de resistance of English nomenclature, and you simply have to grow up with the language to carry off “sixpence” convincingly. Half a shilling.

My Personal Sticky Wicket: Crowns!

People in British novels are always spending or loaning or borrowing a crown or a half-crown. I can’t keep this one straight, and probably never will. A crown was five shillings, so a half crown was two shillings, sixpence, written out 2/6 but SPOKEN as “two-and-six.” Except one simply wouldn’t SAY “two-and-six,” but “half a crown.” See how simple this is?

There were crown and half-crown coins.

We’re starting to see why the rest of the world rejoiced in 1971, while at the same time we grasp how dearly the natives must’ve treasured this impenetrable maze they’d constructed. We’re not nearly finished, either.

A Guinea?

A Guinea started out as a pound, minted in gold, not silver. The gold came from the Guinea region of West Africa, hence the name. But gold climbed in value relative to the silver coins, and the worth of the coin increased. Rather than have the country’s standard denomination subject to fluctuation in value, it was eventually standardized at a value of one pound, one shilling: £1/1, or 21 shillings.

Even after the country ceased minting and circulating guineas early in the 19th century, the 21-shilling guinea maintained its cachet, often associated with aristocratic, upper-class activities like livestock auctions, horse races and the payment to tailors, caterers, etc. There are, to this day, livestock auctions and horse races valued in guineas, although no coins exist to match those amounts.

In short, a guinea is a pound-plus-a-shilling. There’s more to it than that, but enough to get you through your next novel or Bertie Wooster story.

The Idiomatic Names

This doesn’t address all our questions, because there are innumerable idiomatic names assigned to coins and values NO storyteller could resist putting into the mouths of characters. Here we go with a list, and I’m reining in my native urge to dig into etymology of some fascinating word-history.

Pound. Also “sovereign.” One might also encounter a “half-sovereign” coin worth 10 shillings.

A PAPER pound note was a “quid.” Now I know. Will I remember?

Two shillings. Also “florin.” Ah, that one’s always been a mystery.

Shilling. Also “bob.”

Penny. Also “copper.”

Sixpence/Sixpenny bit. Also “tanner.”

Four pennies/fourpence. Also “groat,” hence a tuppence or tup’ny is also a “half-groat.”

Three pennies/thruppence/threepenny bit. Also a “Joey.” Can anyone tell me why?

A Wee Bit of Etymology: Symbols and Names

The Pound symbol, £, derives from the “L” in “Libra.”

“Shilling” comes directly from Old English scilling, a silver coin, although the coin’s original name when first minted in the reign of Henry VII was the testoon, from Italian. The OE “SC” was pronounced “sh,” so it’s an ancient word, intact.

Then the puzzling one: “d” as the abbreviation for penny (singular) or plural “pence.” Even here in the States one buys 16d or 8d nails: sixteen-penny/eight-penny nails.

Here, as so often, we get to blame the Romans. The denarius was the standard silver coin of Rome from about 200 b.c.e. to 200 c.e. The abbreviation “d” was a world standard they established, and we still use, and Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Slovenian have related words for value, like dinero.

I’d like to hear from Britons who still encounter these terms. Who’s using them? Where do you hear them? Please leave a comment.

I’ll let Grandma Wharton provide our final lines in a song she loved to sing during the holidays. Sing this with a Yorkshire lilt from Hull, on the banks of the Humber, where she learned it as a girl near the end of the 19th century.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Grateful acknowledgment to ProjectBritain.com.

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Responses

  1. Another one for your list (but regional, I’m afraid, to where I grew up) is a Tickey, for a South African threepenny bit. Even though they’d long disappeared before I was born (we preempted the British decimalisation in 1961 due to the Apartheid government getting annoyed by the UK and us leaving the Commonwealth), my parents (and especially grandparents) would still talk in shillings (5c) and such. Given my name, the nickname of Sixpence was a natural nomenclature to adopt.

    Here in the UK, quid is still very common as an alternative to pound, and ‘bob’ seems to have morphed to mean the same, given that shillings don’t exist anymore. The rest of the terminology is sadly defunct.

    However, here’s a problem I encountered in a book about Lewis Carroll recently:
    A customer bought goods in a shop to the value of 7s 3d. The only money he had was a half-sovereign, a florin and a sixpence, so he wanted change. The shopman only had a crown, a shilling, and a penny. But a friend happened to come in, who had a double-florin, a half-crown, a four-penny bit, and a three-penny bit.
    Could they manage it?

    If your American readers can get the answer given your list above, I’d say they would have absorbed your post most excellently…

    Liked by 1 person

    • The mind reels. The only
      Thing missing is sound — hearing those words as they’re spoken.

      Like

    • I obviously haven’t absorbed my own lesson. I’d need to make a spreadsheet to sort that problem. It’s worth noting that Sir Isaac Newton was England’s Master of the Mint for the last 30 years of his life, oversaw significant changes in the coinage. It figures it would take mathematicians of Carroll’s or even the towering Newton’s status to figure these things out. Perhaps Tickner ranks up there with them.

      Like

      • Well, here’s something else to do with old money. Take any amount in lsd, reverse it, subtract the smaller from the greater. Reverse the answer and add: the result is always £12 18s 11d.

        Eg: start with £3 14s 9d. Subtract that from £9 14s 3d to get £5 19s 6d. Add that to £6 19s 5d and you have £12 18s 11d.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Okay, Nick, I’ve been thinking about this all day, off and on. You spend your work life with numbers, although I know that doesn’t sum up (pun!) who you are.
        There’s something about this latest bit that’s inherent in the troy 240:1 system, impenetrable to those of us who live by 60-minute/60-second clocks and decimal numeric systems, but I’m darned if I can grasp it. It’s buried somewhere in the three-part pound/shilling/pence structure, and whether one is counting goats or sheep or atomic mass, it’s always going to produce the same result. Just TELL us why this is. I think you know. So there.
        This is why certain individuals win the Nobel prize for economics and the rest of us occasionally fail to balance our checkbooks.

        Like

  2. The change over to decimalisation happened when I was at school. As a young child I remember receiving ten shilling notes (50p) inside birthday cards and feeling very rich. Mum always placed a sixpence in her Christmas pudding and the person who found it in their dish was supposed to receive lots of good fortune, it’s surprising no-one ever choked on it! My Dad had a whisky bottle in which he collected three penny bits, not sure what he saved them for, but they were an attractive coin and they all went in the bottle.

    Liked by 3 people

    • We had the coin-in-the-pudding tradition here, but all the kids found a dime (10-cent piece) under the slices served to them, rather than have the coin in the pudding. I’m not certain what coin my Grandmother would’ve grown up using in England, because there weren’t many coins of any denomination available in her beleaguered young years.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This explains farthings and a few other things I never understood! Also the gold sovereigns used in one of the James Bond movies!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved this Brad! I remember farthings and threpenny bits when I was young. Also crowns half crowns and I well remember changing to decimalization. It was hard after we had learned the old way. We couldn’t get our heads around it! Also the old pennies were so much larger than today’s. I have all these old coins. I remember dealing with guineas too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan. I’m just a bit older than you, and had the backpacking Europe summer just months after decimalization. I vividly remember being on a bus and seeing an older man look at the coins he’d been given in change, including those incredibly small new half-pence. He threw them on the floor of the bus in utter disgust. “Not my money,” he said. All the shops had prices in Old/New. It really was a mind-boggling challenge. Even as a callow 19 year-old accustomed to a decimal currency, I grasped some of the significance the change represented. Much the same thing happened as the Euro took hold on the continent, and I trust there are STILL villages a bit off the track with older populations where the shops subtly show prices in lire, francs or other original currency. I know that practice persisted in the Italian countryside for many years. Enjoy your snow!

      Like

    • Guineas might be the most mysterious of all the ways to spend. They hardly existed, but they were a real thing.

      Like

  5. What a great blog! It answered questions I didn’t even know I had.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. What the rest of us experience when you play the piano and point out things about music we didn’t know existed. Just so you know.

      Like

  6. What surprised me most is how many of my own memories are associated with such coins. For example: “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye — four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.”

    Another example is your grandmother’s Christmas song. In 1891, a traditional song associated with the practice of ‘souling’ around All Hallows’ Eve included these words:

    “The lanes are very dirty,
    My shoes are very thin,
    I’ve got a little pocket
    To put a penny in.
    If you haven’t got a penny,
    A ha’penny will do ;
    If you haven’t get a ha’penny,
    It’s God bless you.”

    Of course, this was popularized by Peter, Paul, and Mary in their version of “A-Soulin’.” In the song, the quoted verse begins at 2:40.

    I’m not about to take on the math involved here, since I’m now willing to admit that I once balanced my checkbook by changing banks. But I do have a question that may be etymological. How did ‘groats’ come to designate both a coin and a type of cereal? My grandmother often served groats for breakfast, and they didn’t clink in the bowl!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wondered something the same about groats. I’ll look into it.
      I don’t have to listen to PP&M to remember that song (or almost any of them), but maybe I will, just for fun. Thank you.

      Like

  7. Brad – Fascinating post with quite a bit of explanation. As an avid reader of Historical Romances, I come across these words frequently.
    I admit I am still baffled by the equivalent value of these coins in dollars/cents.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ha ha. I grew up with these coins and notes however I don’t recall a groat. Yes decimal is so much easier. No complicated reasons or meanings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do think the groat was dialectical/regional, and/or maybe somewhat obsolete. I’m going to look into that, because I’ve also gotten a question about the relationship between the denomination, the food, and John O’Groat’s. More to come. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My Dad tried teaching me but it didnt stick too😊 now im older and wiser. Im sharing this with my friend in the UK. Thanks you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. If your friend has any corrections or additional observations, I’ll be happy to have them.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Enjoyed this, but I think my brain is teflon tonight. Nothing is sticking

    Like

    • Good name for a band: The Teflon Quid.

      Like

  11. […] in the morning, sounds like fun and for the most part it would be, but I had gone from earning 40 quid an hour to 80 pounds a […]

    Like


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