Pounds, shillings and pence

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Britain adopted decimal currency - 100 pennies in a pound - in 1971. Before then, our standard currency was divided according to very old principles.

  • The pound sterling (see pound for an explanation of the ambiguity of 'pound') consisted of 240 pennies. This is a large number for ill-educated people; and it represents a lot of cash to carry around. So the smaller coin the shilling was used. There were 12 (old) pence in a shilling; there were 20 shillings in a pound. The abbreviations for these, in the usual order from the most to the least important, were £ s d, derived from the Latin words for the Roman coins they most closely resembled: the librum ('pound'), solidus and denarius. Hence old people can still be heard saying "ell-ess-dee" when they mean 'money'. The £ was written before the number it referred to (as it is now); the s and the d were written after. So the full expression of '2 pounds, thirteen shillings and eightpence' was £2 13s 8d, though this was usually written as £2/13/8.
    • In recent times, the pound, before it became paper only, was a gold coin; the shilling was silver, and the penny was copper. (In practice, of course, these were no longer pure. By the twentieth century the gold in a coin was worth far more than its face value, and alloys were used for both 'silver' and 'copper'.)
  • Other coins in use at various times in history (and therefore referred to in older texts) include, in gold: the sovereign (£1) and the half sovereign (10 shillings; replaced by a note) which survived into recent times; and the noble (6/8 (i.e. six shillings and eight pence), or 1/3 of a pound) and mark (13/4 (i.e. thirteen shillings and fourpence), or 2/3 of a pound), which ceased to be current coin in the Stuart period (seventeenth century). There was also the guinea (coin), which was issued between 1663 and 1813: the word is still used a a unit of price. In silver there were, among others, the crown (5/-, 5 shillings or ¼ of a pound), half-crown (2/6) and florin (2/-) among larger denominations, and the sixpence (6d, sixpence or half a shilling, slang name a 'tanner') and threepence (3d, or ¼ shilling, often called a 'threepenny bit'). In earlier times there were also (among others) a groat, or 4d (fourpence), and an angel whose value varied: at different times it was 6/8 and 10/-. The shilling was often called a 'bob'. Copper coins included the penny, halfpenny and farthing, or ¼ penny.

See also Penny - pence - pennies for subtleties involving the singular and plural of this word, and pound for the potential confusion with the unit of weight.