Friday, October 29, 2010

"Informative But Useless"

I once wrote a joke at the end of a variety show, where a voice-over announcer intoned:

“This program has been brought to you by Desoto, the car they don’t make anymore.”

I love that joke. It’s informative yet useless. That’s the funny part. Unless you don’t think it’s funny, in which case there is no funny part.

Today, in the tradition, of that joke, I bring you:

“Shillings and Pence”

The coinage system they don’t use anymore.

Is there anybody still out there?

The British “shillings and pence” coinage system was done away with in 1971. Unfortunately, I was a teacher at St. John ‘s Church of England Infants and Junior School in 1967. Consequently, in keeping with the curriculum, I was responsible for instructing my students in monetary transactions involving “shillings and pence.”

It was a nightmare.

The kids could do it better than I could. The majority of them couldn’t read, but they ran rings around me when it came to making change. When I’d go shopping, I’d just hold out my hand with a bunch of coins piled in it, and the salespeople would take what they wanted.

Since 1971, the British coinage system is of the “decimal” variety. A pound is a hundred pence. And coin values advance in multiples of ten.

That’s easy.

Before 1971, however, a pound was two hundred and forty pence. Why? Some reason dating back to Henry the Second (1154-1189). Back then, the penny was literally one “pennyweight” of silver. Two hundred and forty pence equaled exactly one pound sterling. Or so they said. Who’s going to argue with Henry the Second?

Two hundred and forty pennies in a pound.

That’s where the trouble begins.

The pound was then broken down into shillings, of which there were, not ten, as might have dearly be wished, but twenty… shillings to the pound. That means each shilling, rather than being worth ten of anything, was instead – two hundred and forty, divided by twenty – worth twelve.

There were twelve pennies in a shilling.


The odd thing was that, in terms of size, the penny was the largest of all the coins. Bragging rights for the poor, I suppose.

“I have four pence (pennies).”

“That’s nothing.”

“I know. But look how big they are!”

At one time, there was a coin of a smaller denomination than a penny called a farthing. A farthing was worth one quarter of a penny. (One seven hundred and sixtieth of a pound.) The problem with the farthing was that, as prices advanced from the Middle Ages, nothing cost a quarter of a cent anymore.

I don’t know what ever could have. Air, maybe. But apparently, “air” went up, and the farthing disappeared. In my time, there was still a hay’p’ny, or half penny coin, but I don’t recall that buying much of anything either. You tossed them in fountains.

There were other coins – the half-shilling coin (also known as sixpence, or a “tanner”), the shilling (called a “bob”), the two-shilling piece (the “florin”), and the “half-crown” (worth “two-and-six”, meaning two shillings and sixpence.)

My personal favorite was the “thrup’ny bit” (worth three pence.) The “thrup’ny bit” was brass colored, it was thicker than the other coins, and it had either hexagonal or octagonal edges, I don’t exactly remember which. Life is too short to spend it counting the edges of a coin.

Primary benefactors of the “shillings and pence” system were the belt manufacturers. Without a sturdy belt, a pocketful of “tanners”, “bobs”, “florins” and “thrup’ny bits” could send trousers plummeting to the ground. Reinforced coin purses were also in demand.

Okay, enough stalling. It’s Math Time.

As a general rule, it’s not a good thing for your students to know more than you do. The “Respect Factor” can be seriously damaged. But reality is what it is. You’re working through a “shillings and pence” computation on the blackboard, and it’s pretty transparent that you don’t know what you’re doing.

“Okay, here we go. Three pounds, four shillings and sixpence minus one pound, six shillings and eight pence equals, you start from the right, so, eight from sixteen is…”

“That’s wrong, Suh.” They called me, “Sir”, but it came out “Suh.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you ‘borrow’ a shilling, you don’t borrow ten, you borrow twelve.”


“Because it’s twelve pence to a shilling.”

“That’s correct. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.” (Though I never said anything as clever as that. It was usually more, “I really don’t get this.”)

“Okay, then. Eight from eighteen is ten. The four in the ‘shillings column’ becomes a three, and six from thirteen…”

“That’s wrong too, Suh.”

“It is?”

“There ein’t ten shillings in a pound. There’s twen’y.”

“Don’t say ‘ein’t.’ And thank you.”

It was really sad. There was no way they’d accept “Don’t say ein’t” from a guy who was so hopeless with the money.

Though I’ll tell ya something. It’s not that easy. Here. Try one.

Seven pounds, two shillings and….

You know, just thinking about this, I feel like one of those guys who had malaria, and every so often, the chills and the sweats come back.

Steady on, Pomerantz!

I’m fine.

Okay. Seven pounds, two shillings and four pence minus five pounds, seven shillings and nine pence…

Write in your answer. But don’t expect me to tell you if you’re right.

Without the kids helping me, I have absolutely no idea.


Mark Caldwell said...

I was born just after Decimalisation so I never had to live with that system (phew!). When I was first at school there was a newsagents that sold a Half Penny Mix, a Penny Mix and a Two Penny Mix (bags of mixed sweets). Then one day they went up in price but the names didn't. So a Half Penny Mix cost 1p, a Penny Mix 2p and a Two Penny Mix 4p.

Penny mixes went out of fashion but when Woolworths, who were famous for pick and mix sweets went to the wall last year they suddenly reappeared. I saw one shop doing a "Traditional Penny Mix" - Price £1.

Greg Morrow said...

It is surely the case that a farthing (quarter-penny) comes 4 * 240 = 960 to the pound. Math!

Greg Morrow said...

To the tune of "New Math":

You can't take ninepence from fourpence, four is less than nine, so you look to the shillings place and subtract one, adding twelve pence to the four to make sixteen, subtract nine, and that leaves seven.

Now you look in the shillings place, and you can't take seven from one, which was two before you borrowed one for the pence place, so you look to the left and subtract one, adding twenty shillings to the one to make twenty-one, subtract seven, and that leaves fourteen.

Now you look in the pounds place, where you have six, which is to say seven before you borrowed one for the shillings place and you subtract five and that leaves two. Well, one, but it's more important to know what you're doing than to get the right answer.

So, one guinea, five florin, one crown, one bob, one ha'penny, one farthing, and one farthing left over for some air.

Max Clarke said...

De Soto is very funny, sounds like the kind of thing you'd hear on Laugh-In.

Congratulations on making it a year after the robot surgery. The 27th is also the birthday of Dylan Thomas, that's how I remember it. His last words were, "I've had 18 straight whiskies......I think that's the record." And then he slipped into a coma.