The Sixpence and the Shilling: Coins, History, and Traditions

Updated on January 18, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton grew up in Britain and loves to visit the country. She is very interested in its natural history, culture, and history.

Finding a sixpence in a Christmas pudding is a sign of good luck.
Finding a sixpence in a Christmas pudding is a sign of good luck. | Source

Pre-Decimal Coins That Are Not Forgotten

The sixpence and the shilling are coins with a long and interesting history in the United Kingdom. The sixpence was demonetized and replaced by decimal currency in 1980 and the shilling in 1990. The coins are still present in personal and public collections, however, and the traditions involving them are still valued by many people, including me.

Entire books could be written about historical events related to the sixpence and the shilling. In this article I describe the historical background of the coins, their role in the UK's pre-decimal currency, and a few of their interesting traditions.

Numismatics is the study of currency. Some people think that it refers only to the collection of coins, but the study also involves an exploration of the history and culture related to coins and notes (bills). A person involved in these activities is sometimes called a numismatist.

The coloured areas represent the United Kingdom. The grey area to the south of Northern Ireland is the Republic of Ireland.
The coloured areas represent the United Kingdom. The grey area to the south of Northern Ireland is the Republic of Ireland. | Source

Pre-Decimal Currency in the United Kingdom

I lived in Britain as a child but left shortly before “Decimal Day” (February 15th, 1971). I’ve used the decimal currency, but most of my memories of Britain are associated with the pre-decimal coins and notes. The currency was used throughout the United Kingdom. "Britain" refers to England, Wales, and Scotland. "United Kingdom" refers to Britain plus Northern Ireland.

The pre-decimal money had some strange names compared to today's coins. All of the old coins were silver in colour, except for the brown halfpennies and pennies and the golden-brown threepence. I've listed the names and values of the coins below. The pronunciations that I've described were very common, but since many dialects are spoken in the UK they weren't followed everywhere.

  • Two halfpennies (pronounced hay-p'nees) made a penny.
  • Twelve pennies (or pence when referring to a quantity of money instead of individual coins) made a shilling.
  • Twenty shillings made a pound (which was a note instead of a coin).

Additional coins were in circulation.

  • The threepence (pronounced thru (as in thrust) p'nce) was worth the same as three pennies. It was also known as a threepenny bit and had twelve sides.
  • The sixpence (pronounced sixp'nce) was worth the same as six pennies.
  • The florin was worth two shillings.
  • The half crown was worth two shillings and six pence.

A crown (five shillings) existed, but it was rare and used only for ceremonial purposes. I don’t remember ever seeing one. Another coin that I never saw was the farthing, which was worth one quarter of a penny. It stopped being legal currency at the end of 1960 but was rarely used for some time before this date. A ten-shilling note and notes of higher denominations than one pound were available.

The mad hatter's hat cost ten and six.
The mad hatter's hat cost ten and six. | Source

Symbols of the Coins

The abbreviation for penny was d. A sixpence was represented by 6d. The use of d as an abbreviation for penny used to puzzle me as a child. I eventually discovered that it came from the denarius, a coin used in Ancient Rome. The abbreviation for shilling was s or /-.

The abbreviation for pound was £, which is an ornate L. The symbol comes from the Latin term "libra pondo", which means pound weight. Although the libra part of the expression refers to the balance or scales used to measure the weight, it gave rise to the symbol for a pound in currency. The pound still exists, though it's now a coin instead of a note and has a different value from the old pound. The £ symbol is still used as well.

Prices weren't spoken as they were written. £5 4s 6d was pronounced "Five pounds four and six", for example.

The decimal currency system is certainly simpler to understand and use than the pre-decimal one. The old system had character, though.

A Vintage Collection of British Coins

Value and Purchasing Power

For a while after decimalization (or decimalisation as it's spelled in the UK), the penny was referred to as a "new penny" to avoid confusion with the old currency. The new penny was worth more than the old one. The word "new" was officially dropped in 1982. The abbreviation for penny is now p instead of d.

One shilling was equivalent to five new pennies at the time of decimalization. Today five pence equals around seven cents in United States currency. Seven cents doesn't sound like much for the value of a shilling, but the coin represented a significant sum of money in the past and had buying power.

One example of the past value of money is the price of my favourite childhood magazine. The magazine was called Princess and was published once a week. For at least part of its existence, it cost 7d per issue. Someone could use a shilling to pay for the magazine and receive change at the same time. The shop where I got Princess also sold delicious strips of toffee for 1d a piece.

The prices of Princess and toffee sound ridiculously low by today's standards. It's hard to compare past and present prices for an item, though, for a variety of reasons. In addition, while prices were lower in the past, wages generally were as well. The cost of children's magazines and sweets sounded reasonable but not especially cheap to my family.

Sixpence obverse and reverse
Sixpence obverse and reverse | Source

The front face of a coin—the part that often shows the head of an important person—is officially called the obverse and is popularly known as the heads side. The back of the coin is known as the reverse (or tails) of the coin.

History of the Sixpence

The Royal Mint in Britain produces the UK's coins and notes and is owned by the government. According to the mint's website, the sixpence was first produced in 1551 during the reign of Edward Vl. The coin was produced during the reign of every monarch since then and became part of some popular traditions.

The sixpence was 19.41 mm (0.76 inches) in diameter, at least in the last part of its history. At first the coin was made of pure silver. The percentage of silver gradually decreased over the years. Eventually the silver disappeared altogether and the coin was made of cupronickel instead. Cupronickel consists of 75% copper and 25% nickel. The nickel gave the coin its silver colour.

The sixpence was sometimes referred to as a tanner. According to The Royal Mint, the alternate name likely dates from the 1800s and was probably derived from the Romany gypsy word "tawny", which means "small one". Other theories for the origin of the name exist, however.

Although the term "Decimal Day" implies that the currency system in UK suddenly changed on that day, the process was more gradual than this. Some new coins entered the circulation before the day and some old ones stayed in circulation after it. The sixpence wasn't demonetized until 1980. It was worth 2.5 new pence after decimalization, despite the value written on the reverse of the coin. A new halfpenny was minted until 1983, so it was possible to pay correct prices and give the correct change by using sixpences and other coins.

Sixpences From Different Time Periods

Something old, something new,

something borrowed,

something blue,

and a silver sixpence in her shoe.

— Traditional rhyme

A Wedding and Christening Tradition

The sixpence seems to have been the most loved coin and the most missed after decimalization. It's often associated with good luck and is traditionally used at weddings and christenings.

In North America, many people are probably familiar with the first three lines in the rhyme above, but there is a fourth line to the poem. In addition to the first four requirements mentioned in the poem, a sixpence must be placed in one of the bride's shoes in order to ensure a happy marriage. The tradition sometimes specifies that the shoe must be the left one. The rhyme apparently dates from nineteenth-century England. Its author is unknown, as is the case for all the rhymes in this article. A sixpence may also be given to a baby at his or her christening to ensure good luck in the future.

It might be wondered where sixpences for celebrations are found now that the coin is no longer used as currency. The Royal Mint sells sterling silver sixpences with the current year imprinted on them for events such as weddings and christenings. The coins can't be used as money, but they allow people to carry on traditions associated with the sixpence if they don't have a real coin at home. They cost far more than the equivalent of sixpence, though.

Christmas pudding and custard
Christmas pudding and custard | Source

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

— Anglican Book of Common Prayer

Stir-Up Sunday and Christmas Pudding

The sixpence is a traditional part of Stir-up Sunday. In the Anglican tradition, this is the last Sunday before the start of Advent. It's traditionally the day to make the Christmas pudding. The name "Stir-up" doesn't originate from baking, however. It comes from the collect for the day as written in the Book of Common Prayer, which is shown above. A collect is a prayer at the start of a service which is meant to help people gather their thoughts and focus on what is to come.

Adding a coin to a homemade Christmas pudding is a popular tradition. The coin is very often a sixpence but is sometimes a threepence. It's said that the person who finds the coin in their serving of pudding will receive good luck or wealth.

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye;

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing,

Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

— Traditional rhyme
A male common blackbird
A male common blackbird | Source

Sing a Song of Sixpence

"Sing a Song of Sixpence" may be a nursery rhyme with a hidden meaning. When I was a child, I learned just the first two lines of the rhyme to begin with. I remember this because I wasn't happy by the thought of the blackbirds dying. Discovering the other lines at a later date didn't made me any happier because I suspected that the "singing" might be the sound of steam escaping from the pie.

The second and third verse of the nursery rhyme talks about the king counting his money and the queen eating bread and honey. The rhyme ends with a blackbird swooping in and biting off the queen's nose.

Some researchers suspect that the "king" in the rhyme is Henry Vlll and that the activities that are mentioned are coded descriptions for events that happened during his reign. Others have produced different theories for the meaning of the song. At the moment, there is no definite proof for any interpretation, so the poem has to be taken at face value.

Pies containing live animals were once served. The pie was large and hollow. After it was baked, live animals were placed in the pie shell through the equivalent of a hidden trap door. When the shell was cut, the living animals escaped, creating an exciting surprise for the viewers.

Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song.

— Sir Tony Belch in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (Act Two, Scene Two)

John Rutter's Choral Version of Sing a Song of Sixpence

John Rutter is a popular composer, arranger, and conductor of choral music. He is especially well known for his production of Christmas Carols.

I love sixpence, pretty little sixpence,

I love sixpence better than my life;

I spent a penny of it, I spent another,

And I took fourpence home to my wife.

— Traditional rhyme

I Love Sixpence: A Traditional Nursery Rhyme

"I love sixpence" is another traditional rhyme related to the sixpence and may have been sung as a song. The writer starts by saying that he loves his sixpence and then says that he's spent two pennies from it. In the following two verses the writer says that he loves his money as he spends another two pennies. In the last verse he bemoans the fact that he has no money left to give to his wife, but then concludes that he "loves nothing better than my wife". As in most old songs, the lyrics vary slightly in the different versions that have survived.

The sixpence was connected to love in another way besides the words of the song mentioned above. It was a tradition amongst some people (presumably those who could afford it) to bend sixpences in order to create love tokens as a gift for people special to them.

History of the Shilling

The shilling coin first appeared in the sixteenth century. Its predecessor was a coin known as a testoon. The shilling as it existed at decimalization was 23.60 mm (0.93 inches) in diameter. Like the sixpence, it was made of silver in the early part of its history. In the middle of the twentieth century its composition was changed to cupronickel.

The Royal Mint says that the coin's name comes from the Old English word scilling or scillinga, which means "cutting". The mint says that a long time ago people wore armlets made of gold or silver that were cut into pieces to use as a type of coinage.

The shilling stayed in circulation until 1990, when it was demonetized. It had the same value as a 5p coin, so demonetization probably wasn't urgent. The florin, or two-shilling coin, had the same value as a 10p coin and wasn't demonetized until 1993. It was the last pre-decimal coin to disappear from circulation.

The shilling was a useful coin for everyday purchases. The sixpence seems to have been more popular in the public's imagination, though. Losing it due to decimalization was an emotional topic for some people, as the BBC article referenced below states. Nevertheless, some traditions were linked to the shilling.

Shillings from my father's coin collection
Shillings from my father's coin collection | Source

DEI GRANTIA REGINA on the obverse of the 1960 coin shown above means By the Grace of God, Queen. FID DEF on the reverse means Defender of the Faith. The D : G : BR : OMN : REX on the obverse of the 1950 coin means By the grace of God, King of all Britain. The IND IMP seen on the reverse of the shilling shown below means Emperor of India.

Bob-a-Job Week

"Bob" was a slang word for shilling. According to the Royal Mint, the origin of the word is unknown but it's been in use since the late 1700s. Bob-a-Job week was a fundraising event held by the Boy Scout organization. It often took place during the Easter holiday. Scouts and cubs performed small jobs for people, which each cost a shilling. Examples of jobs that might be done included mowing the lawn, gardening, washing a car, washing the dishes, walking the dog, shopping, and polishing shoes. The money was used to support the Scout organization. The tradition began after the Second World War and ended in 1992.

The fundraising event was eventually stopped for several reasons. Many boys worked in their neighbourhood or for people that they or their parents knew. Some worked as a group. Some boys went from door to door asking people if they had a job that needed to be done, however, even when they didn't know the people who lived in the home. Even boys in a group sometimes worked on potentially unsafe tasks.

By 1992 there were concerns about the safety of youngsters interacting with total strangers on their own. There were also worries about group projects taking place without adult supervision. Another problem was the work load for the boys. Some jobs took longer to complete than others. People were allowed to give a scout more than a shilling, which some did. Others gave only a shilling even when a job was hard or time consuming. As time moved on, organizers realized that a shilling was too small a payment for the boys' efforts. Another concern was the feeling that expecting boys to work all week in order to raise money for the scouts organization was a form of child exploitation.

1933 shillings
1933 shillings | Source

Some Other Traditions Related to the Shilling

  • The king's (or queen's) shilling was money paid to someone who joined the armed forces. The phrase "taking the king's shilling" meant joining the armed forces.
  • "You look as though you've lost a shilling and found sixpence" is an old saying meaning that someone looks displeased or upset. Although sixpences were incorporated into many traditions, the coins weren't worth as much monetarily as shillings.
  • "The Jolly Shilling" is a rhyme that was probably a song. It follows the same general idea as "I Love Sixpence". The singer starts with a shilling instead of a sixpence and the song is longer, however. The lines aren't identical to those in the sixpence song, but the man's story of gradually losing money two pence at a time and eventually having nothing to take home to his wife, whom he loves, is the same.
  • The Republic of Ireland's present currency is based on the Euro. It once had coins with the same names and values as the pre-decimal currency in the UK. The decorations on the coins were different, though. One story links the leprechaun of folklore with the Irish shilling. The leprechaun is said to have a leather pouch containing a magic shilling. Each time the shilling is used, it reappears in the pouch to be spent again.

A 12-Sided Pound Coin Reminiscent of a Threepenny Bit

In a nod to the past, The British Mint replaced the round pound coin with a new design in 2017. The coin has twelve sides, like the pre-decimal threepenny bit. (This coin is shown in the vintage coin collection video above,) The new pound also has other features designed to reduce the production of counterfeit coins.

Learning About the Past

The decimal coins in the UK currency have a much shorter history than the pre-decimal ones. It's possible that they'll gradually develop important and lasting traditions like their older relatives. I think that it would be a shame to regard the old coins as simply relics from the past, however. It's also a shame that the number of people who actually used them are dwindling as the years pass. People's memories of the coins can tell us about life, attitudes, and experiences in recent history.

Even though I used some of the pre-decimal coins, I feel that I've lost knowledge that I could have acquired. I never used a farthing. My parents would have done so, but they've passed on. It's too late to ask them about their experiences linked to the coin. While information in the form of documents and items from the past is a valuable resource for researchers, question and answer sessions with those who remember historical events are important. The living can tell us a lot about the past.

References

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        2 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Peggy. I remember that rhyme, too. Nursery rhymes are fun and often have an interesting history. Thanks for the comment.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        This was educational and fun to read. I well remember that old rhyme:

        "Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye;

        Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

        When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing,

        Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?"

        My grandfather had fun teaching us (his grandchildren) that and so many other things as well. Thanks for bringing back that memory for me. (Smile)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit, Kenna. I use to have a stamp collection as a child, too. I've never had a coin in my shoe, except accidentally.

      • Kenna McHugh profile image

        Kenna McHugh 

        5 months ago from Northern California

        Great read! Growing up, I was interested in coins and stamps. Though, I don't know what happened to my collection. They were lost when my family moved to a new home. I have to ask...assuming you are or have been married. What did you have in your shoe?

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the kind comment, Readmikenow.

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        5 months ago

        What a fascinating article! Very well done. I enjoyed reading this. So much history behind those coins.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Larry.

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        5 months ago from Oklahoma

        Very informative!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Devika. I appreciate your visit, as always.

      • profile image

        DDE 

        5 months ago

        It is important to have such memories from childhood. Interesting and educational as usual you enlighten me of the most unique hubs.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for sharing the interesting information, Dora. Though I've heard John Rutter's version of the song before, I've never sung it. I'd love to do so.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        5 months ago from The Caribbean

        In the Caribbean, we grew up with British currency and I remember the sixpence all too well. We also sang John Rutter's song in school--not as beautifully as the choir. Good read!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment, Kari. I still remember some of the nursery rhymes that I heard as a child. I think they're interesting.

      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        5 months ago from Ohio

        I have heard of the leprechaun story before. This is a very informative article on these coins. I did not even know that they were no longer used. I did know some of the nursery rhymes. :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the kind comment, Venkatachari. I think that people should share their heritage with a younger generation, too.

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        5 months ago from Hyderabad, India

        Very rich information shared by you through this wonderful article on British old coins. People should always know about their heritage and culture and share their knowledge with their children and grandchildren. You have done a very good job. Thanks, Linda, for this nice article.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit and the comment, Bede. According to what I've read, the majority of people living in Britain at the moment want to keep their present currency system instead of switching to the European one. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

      • Bede le Venerable profile image

        Bede 

        5 months ago from Minnesota

        Thanks for sharing some interesting history of English coin usage and your childhood memories there. The sixpence and shilling may not be used as currency now, but they sure live on literature. Also, with currency so woven into British culture, it’s understandable why the Euro doesn’t hold much value for them, as it were.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Heidi. Yes, it can be a bit frustrating when currency changes within our lifetime. The TV show that you mention sounds interesting. I hope you have a great weekend.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        5 months ago from Chicago Area

        It's a wonder we can figure out how much money we have with all the changes in currency types and values over the years! :) Interesting history lesson.

        I'm enjoying the History Channel "Curse of Oak Island" series about archaeological digs in Nova Scotia. They are so thrilled when they can uncover coins similar to those you note here. It really helps them figure out who's been there and when they were there.

        Thanks, as always for your interesting and informative work here! Happy Weekend!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bill. Thank you for the comment. I think the history of coins is an interesting topic to investigate. There may be more articles about coins in my future!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        5 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Look at you, switching gears and taking us to the realm of coins. Excellent! I love coins and their history. I just hope this becomes a series and not a one-hit wonder. :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Mary. It's interesting to hear that you'll be seeing relatives from the UK today. I would love to visit Ottawa and its mint.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        5 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        This is really interesting. When we lived in Ottawa, we always went in the Mint there to enjoy the coins. Its history is more fascinating as you describe it here. Family members from the UK are coming today and this will be an interesting discussion.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Jackie. Thanks for the comment, I think most people would find the present currency system in the UK much easier to understand than the old one! The current pound equals a hundred pence, somewhat like the dollar being equal to a hundred cents.

      • Jackie Lynnley profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 

        5 months ago from The Beautiful South

        Oh, Linda, this is all just so French to me! I wish I did or could understand it. I guess we are all just about what we have grown accustomed to.

        I have heard that if and when there is a one world government we will all use the same currency and if so many of us will be forced to then. Perhaps I will not live that long. Pardon my effort at a joke!

        Always impressed at your articles though and effort put into them, no matter the subject.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Louise! I appreciate your visit and comment very much.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        5 months ago from Norfolk, England

        Oh, that was wonderful to read Linda. I don't remember the old money. I just about remember the half pence coin before it went out of circulation. I can remember the old £1 notes though. How interesting. I didn't know these coins had such a history and so many traditions.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Flourish. Some of the customs from the past are certainly unpleasant by today's standards. Like you, I hate the idea of animals trapped in a pie for entertainment. I suspect that in the future people might think that some of our customs are unpleasant, too!

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 months ago from USA

        I learned so much from this, Linda. Thank you for including the pronunciations too. I can’t imagine those live animals trapped in the pie crust for entertainment. At least they could escape unharmed.

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