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Money and Class

 The Fic Writer's Guide To Britain

Dosh, dough, lolly, moolah, readies - everyone needs money. This installment in the series should cover all your money related fic writing needs from the Victorian era to the present day, in addition to providing a very brief introduction to the class system.

Old Money

Because background never hurt anyone.

The pound, as a unit of currency, dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. It was equal to 240 silver pennies, or one pound weight of silver. As time progressed it retained the value of 240 pennies, but the weight fluctuated as the amount of silver being used to make pennies fell. Henry II was using 92.5% silver in his coins in 1158, by 1544 Henry VIII's pennies were only 33.3% silver. What mattered was the denomination, not the intrinsic value of the coin.

The pound was also equal to 20 shillings. A shilling, in turn, was equal to 12 pennies.

1956 shilling
1956 shilling showing English and Scottish reverses.

1860 Victorian Penny
1860 Victorian Penny.

Money was counted in pounds, shillings and pence - £sd (or L.s.d. in reference to the Latin currency denominations librae, solidi and denarii). So if something cost, say three pounds, two shillings and eight pence, you would write: £3.2s.8d. You would say that: three pounds, two and eight. If something cost you four shillings and seven pence, you would write: 4/7 and say: four and seven [pence]. 'Bob' was slang for a shilling, so if something cost you five shillings (5/-) you might say it cost you five bob. You might also refer to specific amounts in terms of particular coin denominations, check out the other coins in circulation below.

1956 Farthing
Farthing. (1/4d) The name came from 'fourthing', or a quarter of a penny.

1953 halfpenny
Halfpenny. (1/2d) Half a penny, colloquially written and pronounced 'ha'penny'.

1943 threepence coin
Threepence AKA Threepenny Bit. (3d) Threepences were first produced by Edward VI, and were in common circulation from the eighteenth century until decimilisation.

1956 Sixpence
Sixpence AKA Tanner. (6d) Sixpences are traditionally seen as lucky - they would be put in Christmas puddings, or in a bride's show to bring luck and prosperity to the finder / wearer.

1940 Florin
Florin AKA Two Bob Bit. (2s) The florin, worth two shillings, was issued from 1849 until 1967.

1958 Half Crown
Half Crown. (2s6d) The half crown was worth two and half shillings, or thirty pence.

1937 crown
Crown. (5s) The crown came into being in 1707, merging the English crown and the Scottish dollar in the same way the two nations had come together under the Act of Union. It was worth five shillings.

1915 Half Sovereign
Half Sovereign. Equal to half of one pound sterling, i.e. 10 shillings or 120 pennies.

1901 sovereign
Sovereign. Equal to one pound sterling, the sovereign was minted between 1817 and 1917, again in 1925, and from 1957 until decimilisation. Like the half sovereign, the sovereign was commonly used as a bullion coin.

Guinea. Minted between 1663 and 1814. It was originally worth 20 shillings, though that rose throughout the eighteenth century, until its value was fixed at 21 shillings in 1816. Though it no longer existed as a coin, the word continued to be used to indicate that amount of money until decimilisation, particularly in reference to luxury goods.

(Note: Groat. Groats were minted for UK circulation until 1856 and the coin was worth four pence. Although long gone by the 20th century, the groat lived on in the popular imagination and children's literature.)

Banking in the UK began back in the seventeenth century, when credit notes became an acceptable part of the king's business dealings. The Bank of England was founded in 1694, and in 1778 the Royal Bank of Scotland invented the overdraft. Small banks sprung up all over the country, reflecting the industrial revolution and the expansion of overseas trade. In 1826 the first joint stock bank was founded, and in 1844 the Bank Charter Act was passed to regulate the issuing of bank notes. After the banking collapses of 1866 and 1878 the vogue for small banks gave way to the huge organisations that make up banks today. By the outbreak of WWI the UK banking sector was dominated by the 'Big Five' - Westminster, National Provincial, Barclays, Lloyds, and Midlands. They became the Big Four in the 1960s when Westminster and National Provincial merged to become the NatWest.


The first real drive to decimilise UK currency came as far back as 1824, when Lord Wrottesley cited the example of the recently decimalised French Franc. Unsurprisingly, given historical French-English relations, Parliament was unconvinced. In 1841 The Decimal Association was established, and in 1862 the Select Committee on Weights and Measures undoubtedly shocked their loved ones by coming out in favour of the switch. In fandom, decimilisation's greatest advocate was Plantagenet Palliser who bored anyone and everyone silly with talk of how he would revise the system so a shilling would be worth ten pence instead of twelve.

It wasn't until the 1960s, inspired by South Africa's successful switch to the decimal system, that the UK really began to seriously consider the possibility. The new system was approved by Parliament in the 1969 Decimal Day Currency Act, with 15th February 1971 set as 'Decimal Day'. Huge amounts of preparation were needed to get the British public ready for the switch - the UK didn't even use metric measurements at the time so the new system would mean entirely re-educating people. Shops were requested to price everything in decimal and 'old money', and a public information campaign was launched via the media. My personal favourite is the ITV short 'Granny Gets The Point', starring Doris Hare who played 'Mum' in the wildly popular ITV sitcom, On the Buses.

The new 50p piece - use it just like a 10/ note
decimal conversion guide
Handy conversion guides issued in the run up to 'D-Day'. You could say new pence or new 'pee'.

The transition period lasted until August 1971, with old coins slowly being withdrawn completely, bar the old shilling and florin which remained legal tender as five new pence and ten new pence, respectively, until the 1990s. This is the reason that old people will come out with ludicrous statements like 'I could buy [half the sweet shop] for a shilling, that's the same as 5p today' as though inflation is an imaginary concept.

decimal guide

It was increasing inflation which lead to the introduction of the twenty pence coin in 1982, while the halfpenny became practically worthless, and was eventually withdrawn from circulation in 1984. That same year the UK said goodbye to the one pound ('quid') note in place of the pound coin. The five pence piece was made smaller in 1990, meaning the older coins (and the last of the old shillings) were removed from circulation. The same thing happened to the ten pence coin in 1992. The fifty pence coin was reduced in size in 1997, proving beyond doubt that pockets were much less sturdy than they had been in the 1970s. Finally, the two pound coin was introduced in 1998.

Money Today

Okay, so first things first, let's recap on what coins and notes are currently in circulation, and what they look like.

one new penny coin

Penny. (1p) Old and new (2008) design one pence coin, both are in circulation. These days it is almost impossible to buy anything for just one pence, and some commentators believe the coin's days are numbered.


Two Pence. (2p) Old and new design two pence coins. For 2p you might be able to buy a penny chew sweet or have a go at an arcade 2p 'coin pusher' machine.

five pence coinnew five pence coin

Five Pence. (5p) Old and new design five pence pieces. For 5p you can buy a plastic carrier bag at the supermarket.

Ten Pence. (10p) Old and new design ten pence pieces. For 10p you can buy, well, almost nothing actually.

Twenty Pence. (20p) Old and new design twenty pence pieces. For 20p you can buy a Freddo bar or a packet of Space Raiders crisps.

Fifty Pence. (50p) Old and new design fifty pence pieces. There are lots of other variations of the 50p coin in regular circulation, making the denomination a favourite with collectors. For 50p you can buy a packet of polo mints, you lucky thing.

One Pound. (£1) One pound coin, often known as a 'quid', designs used between 1983 and 2003. You can see the full range of designs HERE. A new pound coin, based on the design of the old threepenny bit, is due to go into circulation in 2017. For one pound you can hire a shopping trolley at your local supermarket or buy any item on sale at popular UK budget shopping destination, Poundland. (Note: £1 = c. $1.70)

Two Pound. (£2) There are a number of other two pound coin variations in circulation, check out the full list at the Royal Mint's website HERE. For two pound you can buy a McDonalds' Happy Meal. (Note: You can say two 'pound' or two 'pounds'. It's mostly a matter of personal choice.)

Five Pound. (£5) Front and back of a £5 note - Elizabeth Fry, famous prison reformer, has featured on the note since 2002. In 2016 she will be replaced by former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, coinciding with the planned introduction of plastic banknotes. For £5 you can buy a KFC 3 piece meal deal.

Ten Pound. (£10) The ten pound note currently features Charles Darwin, he of the evolutionary theory, but he is due to be replaced by Jane Austen in 2017. For £10 you can buy a cinema ticket and a small portion of popcorn. Just.

Twenty Pound. (£20) Adam Smith, Scottish philosopher and father of modern economics, has been on the £20 note since replacing composer Edward Elgar in 2007. For £20, or thereabouts, you can buy a Megarider (i.e. week) ticket for Stagecoach, one of the main bus operators in the UK.

Fifty Pound. (£50) Those dudes are Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who introduced the steam engine to English factories and helped kickstart the Industrial Revolution. They replaced John Houblon, the first governor of the Bank of England, in 2012. The £50 note was withdrawn from circulation in 1996 and only reintroduced in 2011, and the reason the design was changed so quickly was that the notes proved easy to fake and businesses were refusing to accept them. £50 won't buy you all that much these days, but £57.35 is the basic weekly unemployment benefit for young people (or 'layabout scroungers' as the government prefers to call them).

Please note that Scotland issues its own notes, as does Northern Ireland. Although they are not technically legal tender, in practice most businesses will accept them (often after assurance that they are not, in fact, 'foreign'). Some businesses in the UK will also accept Euros, though the exchange rate tends to be much worse than the official rate.

People carry their money in their pockets, their wallets (men), or their purses (women). A purse in the UK refers to a coin purse, a purse as Americans know it is commonly referred to as a handbag. They might also be carrying credit cards, debit cards, store loyalty cards and money-off vouchers or coupons. Sadly most UK shops have strict rules surrounding the use of vouchers, so extreme couponing is more difficult. The banking industry did announce that they were going to do away with payment by cheque (i.e. check) but later changed their mind after complaints from the public, so some people may well be carrying their cheque book.

To get your money, you can go to the cashpoint. ATMs were first introduced to the UK in 1967, and can now be found in even the most out of the way towns and (some) villages. The main retail banks are the HSBC (in the UK since 1991), Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland Group (including the NatWest), and Barclays. In 2008 the Westminster government put together a rescue package for some UK banks, buying large numbers of shares to stop them from going under as a result of the global financial crisis.

Here are some averages for UK spending: The average UK wage is £26,500 ($45,000) per annum, though there is huge variation across the country, with about 18% of the working population earning minimum wage. The average UK rent is £9,780 ($16,650) p.a., plus an average annual utility bill of £1,264 ($2,150). The average spend on commuting to and from work is £1,932 ($3,300) p.a., and the average food shop is supposed to be around £50 per person per week, adding up to some £3,100 ($5,280) per person per year. We spend an average of £439 ($750) a year on our mobile phones (i.e. cell phones) and £192 ($327) on home phone, TV and broadband internet packages.

If you're more interested in historical purchasing power, try this website.


Of course, money and socio-economic class are closely related, but don't be fooled into thinking that's all there is to it. Class in the UK is a sensitive and complicated issue. Class is a state of mind, a way of life, and remains one of the most common ways British people make sense of themselves and the world around them.

Officially class is measured using NRS social grading, a system of demographic classification that is based on the occupation of the head of the household. It runs from E - non-working to A - higher managerial, administrative or professional. Unofficially class is based much more on your upbringing and social background, what your parents did, than what you are doing. You could be penniless but if your dad was an Earl, you are definitely a member of the upper classes. Similarly, you personally might be in band A - head of a university department, for instance - but if your dad was a miner chances are you still consider yourself lower middle (taking into account your personal rise) or even working class.

The other thing to be aware of is that the working, middle and upper class are not homogeneous groups, though British people might well talk about them that way. There's an instinctive understanding that 'working class', for example, is actually the 'working classes'. At the bottom there are those who are out of work, claiming unemployment benefits. In the middle there are those in work, getting by. Then there are those who are relatively well off, skilled labourers perhaps, and then there is the aspiring middle class who are working to be accepted into a whole new class world, going to wine bars and taking out private health insurance.

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the classic class sketch.
John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett's classic 'class sketch'.
Barker: I look up to him [Cleese] because he is upper class, but I look down on him [Corbett] because he is lower class.
Corbett: I know my place.

Over half the population of the UK considers themselves to be working class, but it's fairly true to say that the political focus of the UK is solidly middle class. The so-called 'Squeezed Middle' are the target voters of both the main political parties, the Labour and Conservative parties, but it is not this group which has particularly suffered during the recession. The problem is that the working classes tend to be less well educated, less involved in the political process and, if you're reading a history book, 'fatalistic'. Today that's more likely to be described as apathetic or lacking aspiration.

In 2013 a nationwide survey found that the Brits considered there to be seven social classes in the UK. You can read more about that HERE. The populations of Scotland, Wales, and 'Up North' (Northern England) tend to have less obvious divisions of social class than the south of England, with less variation in income. The people themselves will be well aware of all the small differences though, you can count on that!


  1. My dad was a coin collector, so I grew up knowing a lot about currency. This was a nice refresher though. A great post.

    1. Thanks :) I had a mini collection as a kid - it used to make me feel so rich!

  2. What an interesting post and love reading about the history of British coins. I remember halfpennies (and buying halfpenny sweets as a small child) and pound notes and shillings and florins still being in circulation. Decimalisation happened a few years before I was born but I can imagine that it must have taken quite some getting used to.

    1. Definitely, I can't even remember to use the right name when a supermarket changes or something. I've always wanted to have pound notes - you'd feel so rich with a huge wad of £1 notes!

  3. Wow this is really interesting I didn't know half of this stuff about currency, a different type of blog post but I really enjoyed reading it - thanks :)

    1. Glad it's proving interesting! I've got another two in this series, one on UK food and one on schools :)


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