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The Value of Money - or, the Pound in your Pocket!

A Pattern Gold Guinea, 1813, struck at Soho


To anyone who was not brought up with it from their schooldays, understanding the pre-decimal currency of Great Britain can seem to be a little bit daunting; yet for a thousand years or so, millions of people, with very little formal education, managed their daily lives with no more problem than we do. So, however confusing it may seem at first, don’t worry; you too can master it!


Our illustration, above, shows a pattern gold Guinea produced at Soho in 1813. But this was in the nature of monnaie de luxe compared to most of Soho’s products. The millions of coins by which we principally remember the Soho Mint were farthings, halfpennies and pennies. This article will hopefully explain how the monetary system was constructed, and answer one of the more difficult questions: just what was the money worth?

The currency of Great Britain, at the time of Matthew Boulton, was officially mono-metallic based on silver.

There were three principal denominations: pounds (£) shillings (s) and pence (d)


One Pound equalled Twenty Shillings                 £1 = 20s    or    £1 = 20/-

One Shilling equalled Twelve Pence                   1s = 12d    or   1/- = 12d


The notation used at the time was much as we see here, except that occasionally the £ sign was replaced by the letter ‘l’ or ‘L’ either before or after the number, thus: L5 or 5l.

The standard notation for shillings was the letter ‘s’ or the stroke ‘/’ which is, in fact, no more than a lazy way of writing the ‘s’

The standard notation of pence, or pennies, was the letter ‘d’ which - like the ‘s’ - was only ever written after the number.

These apparently illogical symbols were derived from the ancient Roman standards of libra (pound) solidus (shilling) and denarius (penny)

Pre-revolutionary France had a somewhat similar system: 1 Livre = 20 Sols and 1 Sol = 12 deniers.


There were two subsidiary denominations: the halfpenny (½d) which is fairly self-explanatory, and the farthing (¼d) which derives its name from anglo-saxon times when it was a fourthling of a penny.


So far, so good, but the principal gold coin of the period was the Guinea, which by the time of Boulton had settled at a recognised value of twenty-one shillings, or one pound and one shilling: £1.1s.0d. The reason for this was the mono-metallic nature of the currency. The pound was defined in terms of silver. One troy pound weight of silver was worth 62s. or £3.2s.0d.


Of course, rather as today, the relative values of gold and silver varied. On its introduction in 1664, the gold guinea had been worth £1 exactly, but soon its value rose to nearly £1.10s.0d before declining again. An Act of Parliament passed in 1721 defined the guinea as being worth twenty-one shillings, making it effectively a token coin. This was, at least, the legal situation.


The actual situation was, of course, different. Traders were adept at taking the profits from arbitraging the value of silver against gold and vice versa in the Great Britain and continental bullion markets. The effect of this was to cause the value of silver in London to rise above the fixed price, which had two devastating effects. No-one would bring silver into the Mint to coin it at a loss, and the Mint itself could not buy silver because no-one would sell it at the standard price. Hence, for much of the 18th Century there was no silver coined, and what there was in circulation lost more of its value to wear.

The range of denominations, had they been available in sufficient quantities, would have served the population well.

In copper, there were farthings and halfpennies.

In silver, there were pennies, twopences, threepences, fourpences, sixpences, shillings, half-crowns and crowns. (The half-crown was two shillings and sixpence 2s.6d. or 2/6d; the crown was 5s. or a quarter of a pound.)

In gold, there were quarter guineas, half guineas, guineas, two guineas and five guineas.


However, for most of the population, who conducted their affairs in silver, life became progressively more difficult. This difficulty was compounded by a complete lack of interest by the Government in changing the standard price of silver to enable coining to restart, or in providing sufficient copper coinage to take some of the strain in everyday transactions.

And so, in the late 1780s, privately produced token coppers began to appear. First at Halsall, in Lancashire, then at Anglesey, and for the Iron Master John Wilkinson. No doubt silver tokens would have appeared, too, if it hadn’t been for the fact that imitating silver coinage was treason, with some fairly nasty penalties attached. Copper wasn’t really money, according to the authorities, so making your own was, if not actually legal, then probably not very illegal. The economy needed halfpennies, and halfpennies were what were provided - with a large helping of novel new copper pennies from Anglesey, and a few copper farthings from various places.


But while we can imagine the difficulties of living without cash, we find it harder to imagine what the cash was actually worth. There are various ways of trying to draw a comparison: we can compare average wages then with average wages now for similar jobs, we can compare the value of the gold in a guinea then and now, or we can compare the cost of a standard item, say a loaf of bread, or a bottle of beer, but these can only provide a shadow of the reality. In truth, our lives are so different, and the range of what we can buy is so much greater, that there is no real comparison. All we can do is to try to relate the cost of items then to the wages paid then, to see how valuable, relatively, items were to the people of the time.

These days, we are used to official surveys measuring the costs of living, tabulating the prices of a list of regular purchases. In Matthew Boulton’s time, such lists did not exist; we have to be a little more imaginative.


We know from various economic surveys that the wages paid to employees varied quite widely across various industries, in different parts of the country, and over relatively short periods of time. As this isn’t a scientific survey, we shall look at agricultural and industrial workers only, and the wages and prices in the 1790s and 1800s.

One interesting source for the values of a number of commodities is the transcripts of trials at the Old Bailey - the Central Criminal Court in London - where prices are attached to goods in cases of theft. The following values were used in cases during the period 1796-1804


FOODSTUFFS                                                        CONSUMABLES

1lb Butter                8d                                         1lb Candles         8d

1lb Cheese              4d to 6d                                 1lb Tobacco        4/-

1lb Sugar                10d                                        1lb Snuff            4/-

1lb Beef                   6d                                         1lb Green Tea     8/-

1lb Mutton               5d

25 Apples                6d


CLOTHING                                                           MATERIALS

Corduroy Breeches    8/-                                       1 yard Calico       2/6d

Cotton Gown            15/-                                     1 yard Muslin       4/-

Cloth Cloak              15/-                                      1 yard Lace         8/6d

Waistcoat                10/-

Pair of Stockings      1/8d                                     HOUSEHOLD GOODS

Man’s Hat                2/-                                       Leather trunk      3/-

Shirt                        6/8d                                     Knife                  1/-



Gold Seal                 15/-

Gold Ring                10/-

Silver watch            40/-

Silver watch chain    3/-


Obviously, this list takes no account of quality. Was it good beef steak, or was it scrag end of mutton? Neither does it take account of any ‘shading’ of prices which may have taken place. But taken in general, overall, the prices do reflect approximately the values of the various products.

The issue of wages is complicated by a number of external factors. Traditionally, much of the available employment in Great Britain had been in agriculture, and in many cases agricultural wages were kept down by provision of goods and housing in kind, rather than in money. Similarly, in the newly industrialising towns and cities, the hire and fire approach taken by employers, and the lack of any legal employment protection, meant that competition for jobs simply drove down the wages which would be paid. Take into account seasonal variations due to the weather, and other variations due to the incessant wars against the revolutionary government of France, and we find that wages were very volatile.


Household income was often not just the result of the efforts of the male; women were widely employed in industry, at a wage of around a half that of the men, and children as young as seven or eight would also be expected to work, at a rate about one fifth or less than that of their fathers.


If we were to say, therefore, that the average wage for a male worker in our period would be in the range of ten to twenty shillings a week, with proportionately less for other family members, we will not be too far wrong. With the wife and two children working as well, household income might well range between twenty five and thirty shillings.


It can be seen from these figures that for the vast majority of people, particularly the urban population who had no access to land on which to grow their own food, life was lived on the margins, with nothing to spare for contingencies or luxuries. Particularly to be avoided if possible was any kind of disability or illness, or political activity, which might prejudice the chances of employment. Unemployment could, quite easily, lead to hunger and homelessness, with the only possible relief being the provision of sustenance by local authorities through the institution of the workhouse. Workhouses did maintain life, but at the cost of misery and the breakup of families. In this kind of world, the institution by Matthew Boulton of the Insurance Society for the workers at Soho stood out as a beacon in the industrial landscape.

Click HERE to read more about it.

A silver shilling from the 1740s worn to the limits of identifiability. This would be quite typical of the coins in circulation at the end of the 18th Century

A crude imitation halfpenny, made to look worn and to increase confidence that it had circulated widely. ‘Evasions’ such as this were designed to resemble, but not copy, regal coins, so as to evade prosecution for forgery.

The Obverse of a Halsall Penny, the first token of the Industrial Revolution, issued at Halsall in Lancashire, in the mid 1780s.

Click HERE to read more about it.

The Halsall Penny
The Insurance Society