Monday, February 25, 2013

2 Shillings and 6 Pence

I have been collecting coins since I was a child. A previous job had me travel to England regularly and while filling up my passport with stamps of her Majesty, I began my collection of British coins. Since that time, British coins are one of my favorites to collect. Understanding British coinage is important to making sense of the great English literature. Unfortunately, they don’t tell you this in high school. Today I am going to use the novel A Christmas Carol to explain the monetary amounts.

First we need to understand a little about British coinage. Let’s begin with the pound sterling, the official name of the British monetary system. This has its roots all the way back to Charlemagne who minted small silver pennys that had 240 to a pound, which has its basis in old Roman coinage. In later centuries in England, these were called sterlings. The fineness of silver was 92.5% which didn’t wear as much as pure silver, so 92.5% silver came to be known as sterling silver and that usage extends to today. The symbol, a fancy L with a line through it, comes from the zodiac sign of Libra, the balance or scales.

The major subdivisions of the pound prior to 1971 are the shilling, of which there are 20 in one pound; and the penny or pence of which there are 12 in one shilling, for a total of 240 pence in one pound. The symbols for these two coins, s and d, come from the Roman coins solidus and denarius. So, we can see that this system of coinage has its origins long before the English language.

If we wanted to stop here, we would be missing out on a number of important coins in the British history. For instance, two farthings equaled a halfpenny and were minted from the 1300s all the way up to 1960. This was probably one of the most common coins for everyday life in the middle ages.

The crown first appeared in the 16th century and was a coin worth 5 shillings, or a quarter pound. There was also a half crown which was worth 2 shillings and six pence. But to confuse things, in 1990, the crown was remonetized at 5 pounds. So, if you want to know how much a crown is worth, you better be sure what year of coin you are talking about.

The guinea was a gold coin first minted in the 17th century that originally was worth one pound or 20 shillings. However gold price fluctuations made its value as high as 30 shillings. In 1816 its value was fixed at 21 shillings. While no coin currently bears this name, it is used colloquially for one pound, although the exact amount 21 shillings is still used in horse racing and livestock trade.

There’s more.
The florin was equal to two shillings.
The tanner was equal to six pence.
The groat was equal to four pence.

In 1971, all of this changed. The major denomination, the pound sterling was retained and now divided into 100 new pence. The government was hoping that people would use the term "new pence" to distinguish it from the old pence, but people don’t always do what the government wants, and called the new denomination by its symbol, "p". So pence is an old penny, and p is a new penny, although some people still call the new penny, pence.

On to A Christmas Carol. This story was written in 1843 so I have used online calculators and historical British inflation rates to determine what these values would be in 2013 US dollars.

Bob Crachet is poor, how poor? He makes 15 shillings a week - $135 or $7020/yr, less than a minimum wage job today.

How punitive were the laws in England? A Tailor was fined 5 shillings for being drunk - $45, less than the $300 you’ll pay today for a public intoxication charge.

Fezziwig spent a few pounds on the Christmas Party - $900. Since the party was in his shop, there was no need to rent a hall, the band was probably employees or friends, so the $900 was spent on food for the 50 or so guests. Pretty comparable to today.

Scrooge’s nephew hoped that his good will towards his uncle would inspire Scrooge to leave Bob 50 pounds - $9000. This gives us an idea of Scrooge's wealth. His nephew talks about this amount as if it is a paltry sum of Scrooges wealth. Assuming it is just 0.1%, he and Marley amassed a fortune of $9 million dollars, in a two person shop. Impressive.

Mrs Crachet's ribbons cost sixpence - $4.50 This is also comparable to going down to the mall to buy a hairbow today.

Peter Crachet was going to make 5 shillings and six pence each week - $49.50 Far below minimum wage, although coincidentally, my first job was as a lifeguard at Boy Scout Camp, and I got paid, $49.50 per week. Of course they also provided room and board, but maybe Peter was getting that as part of the deal too!

Did the ghosts really change Scrooge’s generosity? Scrooge offers a boy half a crown for coming back in 5 minutes - $22.50. Have you ever tipped the pizza man $20. This isn’t even comparable. This is tipping the guy who took your phone order $20, because the boy was just a messenger. In the movie adaptations, he gives the actual delivery man a nice tip as well. Scrooge was definitely a changed man.

As you can see, knowing a little about foreign currency can help you bring out details in a story that millions in our country read every year, unawares. I have enjoyed coin collecting over the years, and even more so, I have enjoyed the tidbits of trivia it has given me.

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