The Sixpence and the Shilling: Coins, History, and Traditions
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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" 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.
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.
- How Britain converted to decimal currency from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
- Old English money from Project Britain
- Old denominations from The Royal Mint Museum
- Coin nicknames from The Royal Mint blog
- Words of "Sing a Song of Sixpence" from the Poetry Foundation
- History of pies (including "Animated Pies") from What's Cooking America
- Words of "I love Sixpence" from Bartleby.com
- Words of "The Jolly Shilling" folk song from the Wiltshire Council
- Information about Bob-a-Job week from The Telegraph Newspaper
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton