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
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
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
1lb Butter 8d 1lb Candles
1lb Cheese 4d to 6d 1lb Tobacco 4/-
1lb Sugar 10d 1lb Snuff 4/-
1lb Beef 6d 1lb Green Tea
1lb Mutton 5d
25 Apples 6d
Corduroy Breeches 8/- 1 yard Calico 2/6d
Cotton Gown 15/- 1 yard Muslin 4/-
Cloth Cloak 15/- 1 yard Lace 8/6d
Pair of Stockings 1/8d HOUSEHOLD GOODS
Man’s Hat 2/- Leather trunk
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
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.