Understanding Old English Money

February 4, 2018 at 7:22 pm (diaries, history, research, World of Two Teens) (, , , )

12 pennies to the shilling (12d = 1s; also written as / ).

20 shillings (or 240 pence) to the pound. (20s = 1 l. and 240d = 1 l.)
To avoid confusion, I will typically use the modern pound sign online, £.

NB: A “guinea” was equal to 21 shillings (1 pound plus 1 shilling). Big ticket items (like a horse, for instance) might be quoted in “guineas.”

So if a letter cost 5d, then FOUR letters cost a shilling. If you had a “healthy” correspondence network, you might very well receive four letters in a DAY! (The recipient bore the cost.) Multiple deliveries in a week and that puts you up to 3 or 4 shillings a week. A heavier letter, or farther distance, and you pulled more coins from your purse.

The Smiths and Goslings frequently comment in their diaries about money spent.

What did a penny buy?

English Penny

Genuine English Penny from 1807

Even in the 1790s, evidently not much! So many items are in shillings and pence. “Pearl Needles” cost Mrs. Chute 6d. So did “a Song.” A pit-stop for the horses in the midst of a trip, for “Hay & water,” cost 6d. As did “a Glass for my watch: 6d.”

In the 1790s, Mrs. Chute’s typical generosity to a “Poor Man” or a “Poor Woman” was 2s; every once in a while it dips to a low of 6d. And sometimes hit the high of 2/6 (“2 and 6” or 2s 6d), for instance to a “Poor Sailor.” She was the most generous, in 1794, to a “poor French woman,” giving her 5 shillings.

Wages, sometimes, can be found among the costs.

The most telling:

In 1794, Mrs. Chute of The Vine notes the wages of a “Kitchenmaid” named Sally (no last name given) – “one’s year’s wages to Xmas” as 3£ 3s. She also notes “one year’s wages” to the unnamed Cook (to Michaelmas), 9£ 9s; to “Mrs. Bligh” (housekeeper; also to Christmas), 16£ 16s.

To an unnamed “kitchen girl” for an unnamed period of time: 2/6. To “the housemaid” in Albemarle Street (i.e., when on a visit), 10/6.

What goods did shillings purchase?

In Emma’s youth (1816), the Church Sacrament is typically 2/6. In the 1790s, Mrs. Chute (her aunt) would note that a “seat at church” cost 1 shilling. For the Sacrament, she gave 5s.

To put prices into perspective, some typical expenses (all from 1794):

To a letter: 8d

To Washing: 1s

To Letters: 1s

To seeing “Lord Abercorn’s house” 2s 6d

To Seeds: 3s

To 12 Tuberose roots: 3s

To a book: 3s

To a play: 6s

To “Simpson, hair dresser”: 6s

To a Week’s Washing: 6s 5d

To the opera: 12s

To “paper and pens”: 14s

A doctor’s visit: 1£ 1s; but another visit cost slightly less, 10s 6d

Five yards Muslin: 1£ 5s 0d


See Project Britain: http://projectbritain.com/moneyold.htm for slang and some history of English coins.



  1. Alan Godfrey said,

    To clarify the details at the start of the article.
    One shilling is shown as “s”, the use of the slash “/” is a divider between pounds, shillings and pence. Therefore if a letter costs 5d, four letters cost 20d or 1/8 (one shilling and eight pence); 54 letters would be £1/2/6d (one pound, two shillings and six pence)

    Coins in use at this time would include:
    farthing (one quarter of a penny)
    halfpenny (often pronounced ‘ha’penny’)
    penny (shown for short as “d” [from the Latin ‘denarius’])
    threepence (sometimes pronounced ‘threpence’)
    sixpence (colloquially known as a ‘tanner’ – after the designer in the reign of George II)
    shilling (called colloquially a ‘bob’ [derivation unknown])
    florin (two shillings) from 1849
    half crown (two shillings and sixpence)
    crown (five shillings)
    half sovereign (gold ten shillings)
    sovereign (gold pound – symbol £ = ‘L’ from the Latin ‘libra’)
    [one pound known in slang as a ‘quid’]

    more archaic coins:
    fourpence (often referred to as a ‘groat’)
    mark (thirteen shillings and four pence)
    guinea (twenty-one shillings) until 1813
    half guinea (ten shillings and six pence) until 1813

    Nearly all of these coins disappeared with the introduction of decimal currency on 15th February 1971.

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      Hi, Alan – thanks for commenting on the “slang” terms; people will possibly be familiar with the words, from old movies, say, without knowing precisely what they meant.

      I remember still finding, in 1980 (my first trip to England), some pre-decimal coins in change! You can bet I pulled those out (though the 1807 penny in the picture was a purchase, not in change), kept them, and built up my collection of pre-decimal pieces with coins my father had picked up in the 1950s and a few purchases. There used to be a local shop, as well as one in a mall area of Montreal, that I stopped to look each time I visited. But I purchased for the “holes” in my little collection, so they were not expensive coins.

      I must, though, disagree about the use of the “slash” ( / ). It may have evolved to be placed after the “pound” numeral (I don’t know), but it certainly only denoted shillings in this era.

      In writing, I’m not sure the family used it; typically, the notations were superscripted above the numeral. You have to be attentive to notice them as, in a letter, it will snuggle the line of writing above. In a diary, I’ve seen them us two periods between the three units, like £2..5..0. Depending on the “fineness” of the nib, these sometimes look like dashes, but never slashes.


  2. George Andrews said,

    If writing just shillings the slash would be followed by a dash 3/- .

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