The last couple evenings, I’ve been listening to a recording of Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. (Incidentally, if you’re tired of watching Hulu, but feeling too lazy to read a book, you can listen to recordings of public domain works for free at librivox.org; the funny thing about this parenthetic comment is that I was inspired to read Pygmalion by a reference to it in one of the 30 Rock live episodes that I was watching on Hulu over the weekend).
The play is pretty funny, and extremely similar to the musical version, My Fair Lady. I’d seen the film of My Fair Lady many times growing up, but never read or saw the non-musical original.
One element of the play, however, confused me: the many references to different denominations of old British coinage. Frankly, these references have always confused me whenever they came up in any British literature or films, but this time, I finally did a little research. Let me tell you, there’s a reason I was always confused. The old British system was pretty arcane. Here’s how it breaks down:
Prior to 1971 there were 240 pence in a pound. This dates back to Henry II, who based the monetary system on the Troy system of weights, which is used to measure precious metals. There are 240 pennyweights in a Troy pound. A penny coin was made of silver, and weighed, logically, a pennyweight. Two hundred and forty of these coins then gives you one pound of silver. A Pound Sterling was a unit of money worth a pound of sterling silver. So Mr. Darcy’s income was worth 50,000 pounds of silver a year! Currently silver goes for about $25 an ounce. There are 12 troy oz. in a troy pound (vs. 16 in our usual pounds, great). So $300 per pound gives Mr. Darcy $1.5 million a year, assuming similar valuation of silver.
So far this is pretty straightforward, but Eliza, Professor Higgins, and Col. Pickering were talking about crowns, farthings, shillings, sovereigns, guineas, and ha’pennies. What’s going on?! Sometimes Higgins even says “Seven and six” with no units at all.
Well, it’s not terribly different from our system in which there are 20 nickels, 10 dimes or 4 quarters in a dollar. A shilling was a 20th of a pound, so when you hear shilling, think nickel. Two shillings make a florin, which is a tenth of a pound. A crown was a quarter pound, which I think should therefore have been called a burger, but if you hear crown, think quarter. There is a problem with this parallel, which is that a pound is worth more than a dollar, and used to be worth WAY more than todays dollars, but it’s all relative.
The biggest complication is that there are many more ways to evenly divide a pound based on 240 pence than one based on 100, and a pound was actually worth so much more than a dollar that sub-penny coins were still worth minting. So the full spectrum of coins include:
1 farthing = 1/4 penny = 1/960th of a pound. (It’s a fourth-ing of a penny).
ha’penny = half a penny = 1/480th of a pound.
penny = 1/240th of a pound.
thru’pence (3 pence) and sixpence coins also existed, plus a 4 penny coin called a groat. A silver sixpence was called a ‘tanner.’
shilling = 12 pence = 1/20th of a pound. (also, ‘bob’ is slang for shilling)
florin = 2 shillings = 1/10th of a pound.
half crown = two shillings and six pence = 1/8th of a pound
crown = 5 shillings = 60 pence= 1/4th of a pound
A sovereign was a coin worth one pound, but made of gold, and here’s something really weird, a guinea was one pound plus one shilling, or 21 shillings, or £1.05. Apparently (according to this page) guineas were considered more gentlemanly than pounds. So a tradesman like a bricklayer would be paid for his services in pounds, but a gentleman artist might more likely be paid for his services in guineas.
Prices would be given in pounds-shillings-pence format for amounts more than a pound, and shillings-pence format for amounts less than one pound. ‘s’ stands for shilling (although it comes from the Latin solidus, and ‘d’ stands for penny (from the Latin denarius, of course).
So when Higgins says “Seven and six” that would be written 7s-6d, and he means 7 shillings and six pence, which is £0.375 or three half-crowns.
People eventually figured out that this was all way more complicated than it needed to be, and they switched to decimal pounds with 100 pence per pound. This was called decimalization and took effect on “Decimal Day“, Feb 15 1971. Pounds stayed the same with the new decimal pence to be called ‘new pence,’ but as far as I can tell, everyone just calls them p (“pee”) now, as in 50p is half a pound.