Wait ... how many shillings in a pound?
(1787 George III shilling)
Have you read a JAFF where a character lays out 5 shillings to buy a yard of muslin, or pays off £1,000 in gambling debts, or tips a servant boy a ha’penny and wondered what does that mean? How many shillings are even in a pound? For those of us used to decimalized money, it can be a tricky concept to wrap our minds around. The United States switched to decimal currency in 1792, ten years after independence, while Decimal Day in the United Kingdom didn’t happen until 1971.
For those of us confused by non-decimal currency, what did Jane Austen mean when she wrote to her sister:
I am not without hopes of tempting Mrs. Lloyd to settle in Bath; meat is only 8d. per pound, butter 12d., and cheese 9 1/2 d.
Mr. Bent seems bent upon being very detestable, for he values the books at only 70l […] Ten shillings for Dodsley's Poems, however, please me to the quick…
Where does￡s d come from, anyway? (Pronounced ell, ess, dee, btw.) The abbreviation originates from the Latin currency denominations—established by Charlemagne—librae, solidi, and denarii. In the United Kingdom, these were referred to as pounds, shillings, and pence—pence being the British plural of penny.
pounds (£ or l )
shillings (s. or /)
So, meat is 8 pennies per pound in Bath, and Mr. Bent will buy Mr. Austen’s books for the low price of 70 shillings. A pound was divided into 20 shillings, and a shilling was divided into 12 pennies.
£1 = 20s. = 240d.
Ready for your quiz? If Darcy pays £2.8s.4d to buy a gift for Elizabeth, how much is that? Two pounds, 8 shillings, and 4 pence. Now the trickier part: what coins will Darcy use?
To make it MORE confusing for those of us with base 10 brains, standard ledger accounting systems recorded only pounds, shillings and pence, but actual minted coins represented several fractions of these. The penny alone was further subdivided into two halfpennies or four farthings (think of them as quarter pennies).
1 pound = 20 shillings
1 shilling = 12 pence
1 penny = 4 farthings
1 halfpenny = 2 farthings
Shall we make it more complicated? Yes, let’s:
3 pence = 1 thruppence
6 pence = 1 sixpence
2 shillings = 1 florin
2 shillings, 6 pence = 1 half crown
5 shillings = 1 crown
(1787 George III sixpence)
In 1817, a £1 new gold coin was minted called a sovereign to replace the gold guinea as the primary coinage, with the pound as the major unit of currency. Before this, sovereigns hadn’t been struck since 1604.
“Wait, what’s a guinea?” you ask. A guinea was worth £1.1s … which you now know means 1 pound and 1 shilling. Or 21 shillings. Even after the guinea coin ceased to circulate, the name guinea was used to indicate an amount of 21 shillings. This was a more refined way to pay someone. You paid professionals in guineas, such as solicitors or physicians, whereas everyone else was paid in pounds.
(Let’s add another coin to add into the mix: A half guinea was worth 10 shillings and 6 pence.)
With all of these coins to keep track of, why not use paper money? There was no common currency in banknotes because each bank's notes were only redeemable at the issuing bank, and forgery was a real concern. The Bank of England was the first to issue permanent banknotes and they had handwritten details on the amount and whether it was issued on deposit or as a loan. Georgian-era bank notes were more like our certified checks than today's ten pound notes. For most of this period, only in London could the banknote holder exchange a Bank of England bill for ready cash.
(1793 £5 note. The Bank of England issued receipts for deposit, then printed the words 'or the bearer' to promise to pay the depositor)
Throughout Jane Austen's life, most business transactions involved an exchange of coins, so let’s hope that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy carried large coin purses for their shopping excursions. Maybe Darcy knew 4 crowns to a pound, and to buy that £2.8s.4d gift for Elizabeth he had to carry a purse with 8 crowns …and then for the 8 shillings, maybe he has 4 florins, plus 4 more pence coins…or maybe half crowns, but then how much change does he get back ...
Maybe this explains why so many things were bought on credit and settled monthly or quarterly? It certainly explains why I need a chart next to me as I try to figure out Regency-era currency while I’m writing!