Historic British Coinage

Historic British Coinage

All units cited here belong to the British Imperial System or are SI except where stated.

Decimalisation of the British currency occurred in Great Britain in February 1971. Decimal coins of equivalent values to the “old” money had been in circulation for some time, the most unusual at that time being the 50 (new) pence piece. The pound had 240 old pence, 100 new pence. Although the word new has been dropped for some time, for the purposes of this article it will be retained. There were twelve old pence to the shilling, and 20 shillings to the pound. There were, of course, other divisions, and these are dealt with below.

The abbreviations for the pound remains at ‘£’, for the shilling ‘s’ and for the old penny, ‘d’. The d is for denarius, the medieval English silver penny. Common expressions for the metal that coins were made from were from appearance: copper for bronze coins and silver for cupronickel. Various grades of gold were used for gold coins because of the cost of the metal.

Coin Material Slang Comment
Farthing Bronze, copper in normal parlance Wren on reverse, value a quarter of an old penny, out of use 1961.
Halfpenny or ha’penny Bronze, copper in normal parlance Value half an old penny, out of use 1971.
Penny Bronze, copper in normal parlance There are 2.4 old pennies to the new penny, out of use 1971.
Penny Ha’penny(?) Silver, probably We have one dated 1849.
Threepenny bit Originally silver, latterly nickel-brass Three old pence, silver was circular, nickel bronze (brassy colour) twelve sided. Out of use 1971.
Groat Silver Four old pence. out of use 17th Century
Sixpence Cupro-nickel, silver appearance tanner six old pence (or 2.5 new pence). Last minted 1970.
Shilling Cupro-nickel, silver appearance bob cupro-nickel, silver appearance, 12 old pennies, equivalent of five new pence.
Florin Cupro-nickel, silver appearance two bob two shillings, 10 new pence.
Half crown Cupro-nickel, silver appearance Two shillings and sixpence. Commonly the largest coin when we were growing up – useful for pocket money and the most often found coin in pre-decimal Church collections!
Double Florin The Double Florin (4/-) was one of the shortest-lived British coin denominations ever, only being produced between 1887 and 1890 (Credit Tony Lewis)
Crown Cupro-nickel, silver appearance Legal tender but rarely used, nowadays for commemorative coins (e.g. royal weddings (but not royal divorces) and D-Day etc.)
Half mark or merke Out of use in medieval times. One third of a pound, six shillings and eightpence.
Third guinea Gold, or alloyed gold. Seven shillings. Older coins have much more than their face value in gold content. Weight of 1804 George III example weighs 2.72g.
Half sovereign Gold, or alloyed gold. Ten shillings. Older coins have much more than their face value in gold content. Weight of 1913 George V example weighs 4g.
Ten Shilling Note ten bob Ten shillings, or 50 new pence.
Half Guinea Gold Ten shillings and sixpence. The Mad Hatter’s hat in Alice was valued at this price.
Mark or merke Out of use in medieval times. Two thirds of a pound, thirteen shillings and fourpence. Oft quoted in the captivity (the minstrel Blondel bit) and ransom of Richard I of 150,000 merkes. It’s about the value of the Euro when originally introduced.
Sovereign Gold, later alloyed gold. One pound sterling. Weight of 1911 George V example weighs 8g.
Pound Note quid One pound, obviously.
Guinea Gold Taken out of circulation 1813. Now found in racehorse prize money or professional fees. One pound one shilling. (£1.05). Weight of 1787 George III example 8.35g.

Representations – many variations apply

Two pounds, fourteen shillings and fivepence £2/14/5 or £2/14s/5d
Ten pounds £10/-/- or £10/0/0 or 10/0/0
Five shillings and tenpence 5s/10d or 5/10
Three pounds eight shillings 3/8/- or £3/8/- or 3/8/0
Half a guinea, ten shillings and sixpence 10/6 or 10s/6d

There were a variety of ways that prices were marked, but there was very little misunderstanding.

Table of Equivalents

Denomination £ s d £ (new) p (new)
Farthing ¼ 0.001042 0.104167
Halfpenny ½ 0.002083 0.208333
Penny 1 0.004166 0.416667
Penny Ha’penny(?) 0.00625 0.625
Threepenny bit 3 0.0125 1.25
Groat 4 0.01667 1.66667
Sixpence 6 0.025 2.5
Shilling 1 0 0.05 5
Florin 2 0 0.1 10
Half crown 2 6 0.125 12.5
Crown 5 0 0.25 25
Half Mark 6 8 0.3333 33.3333
Half-sovereign 10 0 0.5 50
Ten Shilling 10 0 0.5 50
Half Guinea 10 6 0.525 52.5
Mark 13 4 0.6667 66.6667
Sovereign 1 0 0 1 100
Pound 1 0 0 1 100
Guinea 1 1 0 1.05 105

There are no exact decimal equivalents to many pre-decimal coins, the recurring decimal being used. In accounting and summing up old mine returns we have had to revert to school-learned methods of columnar addition and carrying. It is almost impossible efficiently on a spreadsheet without this methodology.

Adding up old money

This example is taken from the account returns of the Levant Mine, for 16 weeks ending January 2nd 1904.

ASSETS £ s d
By Copper Ore Sold, and Carriage 4091 16 2
” Arsenic 1279 4 10
” Subsist Advances &c 50 0 0
” Balance in favour of Mine at Bank 962 6 10
” Bills receivable 112 1 10
TOTAL £6,495 9 8


Add up pence (d) column, divide by 12 and the remainder is the number of pence. Carry shillings into shillings column. (i.e. 32 pence, divide by 12 gives 2 shillings and eightpence).

Add up shillings (s) column including the carry of whole shillings from pence column, divide by 20 and the remainder is number of shillings (i.e. 27 plus 2 carried, 29 divide by 20 gives 1 pound and nine shillings).

Add up pounds column, include carry. That’s it.


  1. […] Historic British Coinage Posted by: John Colby | Saturday September 20 2008 […]

  2. One other for you John – The Double Florin (4/-) was one of the shortest-lived British coin denominations ever, only being produced between 1887 and 1890.

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