It All Comes Down to Pounds & Pence

I am very happy that Chestnut is grooving on Dancing Shoes, and Ballet Shoes, and a variety of other mid-twentieth-century British children's books. But there is, as with all things, a rub. Just lately we have entered treacherous waters.

See, I have managed for a great many years to hold within myself two contradictory conditions:

1) I have a great love for English novels

2) I have some sort of ongoing mental block that makes it impossible for me to comprehend British money, past, present and future.

I lived happily this way! I just sort of…skipped that part. Hard, especially in Moll Flanders, but I managed. But now things are catching up with me. The other morning, Chestnut came down to breakfast and said, oh so casually, "How much is sixpence worth?"

Sure, I tried to play it off with the old "Well, it's worth sixpence."

But I knew what she was asking. And I knew I had met my Waterloo. I tried: "Well, it's a little bit of money. Pence are like pennies."

Of course, it couldn't end there. "What's a pound?"

"It's like a dollar."

Pause. Furrowed brow. Contemplation (on her side).

Icky stomach feeling. Dread. Anxiety (on my side).

And then in for the kill: "What's a half-crown?"

Damn you, British writers! I have no freaking idea what a half crown is. Nor, for that matter, what a crown is. And don't get me started on shillings. I sort of think I know that a pound and a guinea are the same thing, but I wouldn't stake my life on it.

And what's worse, those names make it all so appealing! Having half a crown to spend on sweets seems so much better than having fifty cents (though it's probably in no way comparable as an amount). Though it often leads to the Land of Incomprehensible Change, where you give someone half a crown and for change you get "seven and six" or maybe "seven shillings, six pence and a farthing." What is a farthing?

This is the problem, and wonder, of having an exact child in your house. She actually wants things to make sense. While I am perfectly willing to drift along and feel like it's fine that I don't really know what is going on.

I'll be you ten pounds she's a greater economic triumph than her mother.

10 thoughts on “It All Comes Down to Pounds & Pence

  1. Let me recommend “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew,” by Daniel Pool. It explains money, aristocratic titles, types of carriages, whist, and much much more. It’s up to you whether you give it to your kids or keep it to yourself and just nonchalantly drop tidbits of your newly acquired knowledge into conversation every once in a while.


  2. I think that a pound is twenty shillings and a guinea is 21, and the upper class operated in guineas just because it proved that they could– kind of like conspicuous consumption. I forget how many pence are in a shilling, and I never knew what on earth a crown or a farthing was. Fortunately they haven’t used that monetary system since, uh, the sixties? Maybe? I am about to get myself a copy of the book recommended above!


  3. I can confirm that a 20 shillings made a pound, and 21 shillings a guinea. A shilling was 12 pence, and also known as a bob. Hence a 10 bob note would be 10 shillings or half a pound (girls in Malory Towers books always seemed to be getting postal orders for this much). A half crown was two shillings and six pence. A farthing was 1/4p. Thrupenny bits (3p pieces) also existed, and I had one as a child which I was very proud of.
    I’m English, but born post-decimalisation, so have learnt most of this from books, and sometimes interrogation of my parents in order to make sense of books. There is no way I could do any maths or give change working in this system. It is a nightmare.
    This site explains it all way clearer than me, and might be a helpful crib sheet:


  4. Someone actually explained it to me once…
    Unfortunately, my brain did not retain the knowledge.


  5. Oh and then there’s “Mr. So and So was to receive X upon his dear mamma’s death.” I can never figure out whether that is a lump sum or an annuity, never mind the pounds and guineas!
    Thanks for this post. I needed the levity, even if it’s partially at your expense (hah)!


  6. And, kk, what about when someone has to sign a note for someone? And it’s due in four weeks? Or something? And it seems very bad, but you don’t know exactly why? Is it an IOU? I love Trollope, but this always kills me.


  7. I have long had the same problem. And I also have always just “skipped over” that part. So glad to see that I’m not the only one–and that there’s actually a resource for sorting it all out!


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