One thing that niggled me about Jo Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy (which I read recently) was the title of the third volume. After Farthing and Ha’penny came Half a Crown.
Now, a farthing was the smallest pre-decimal British coin value – at least until it was phased out due to inflation rendering it all but useless – and a ha’penny was next up; but half a crown was a large enough sum almost not to be counted as being small change. Walton does use farthing as a pun and the “Half a Crown” is indicative of the levers of power not resting with the monarch and in any case with her being at risk in a coup d’état, but some lovely gradations were missing.
Before decimalisation the British Pound Sterling (£1) was divided up into twenty shillings (20/-) and each shilling into twelve pennies (twelve pence; written as 12d – the d I believe from the old Roman denarius.) In addition there was the halfpenny (ha’penny, ½d) and the farthing (“fourthing”, worth a quarter of a penny, ¼d.)
This seemingly odd arrangement was in fact very versatile as £1 could be divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 into whole values of shillings or pennies; respectively 10 shillings (10/-), six shillings and eight pence (six and eight, 6/8d), a crown (or five shillings, 5/-), three shillings and four pence (three and four, 3/4d), half a crown (two shillings and sixpence, 2/6d), two shillings (2/-).
All coins had the head of the monarch at their time of minting on the obverse. There were three types of coin known as coppers from their colour and perhaps the original metal used in their minting. The farthing was a lovely coin with a depiction of a wren on the reverse. The larger ha’penny had a ship (Drake’s the Golden Hind.) The still larger penny showed a seated Britannia and shield.
Next in value was the dodecagonal in profile and dirty-goldish coloured three pence coin (known as a thruppenny bit) with Prince of Wales feathers or a portcullis representing the Houses of Parliament on the reverse though earlier silver thruppennies were still in circulation in the 1960s.
The larger value coins were all silver. The sixpence coin was very small in circumference and called a tanner with latterly a floral design; the shilling (or “bob”) had various designs – with a Scottish version, the two shilling (a “florin” or “two bob”) similarly varied in design and the half crown (“two and six” but sometimes nicknamed half a dollar) also varied. There was – and still is – a crown worth five shillings (now 25p) but these were very rare and today’s issues are mainly for collectors but are I believe still legal tender.
The ten shilling denomination of the currency was actually a paper note (known as a ten bob note.)
Only “coppers” were likely to be considered “small” change.
Walton’s sequence, then, goes awry after ha’penny as the next price point was ¾d, three farthings, and the next coinage value was 1d, a penny.
As far as prices were concerned they followed the order:-
¼d – a farthing
½d – a ha’penny
¾d – three farthings
1d – a penny
1¼d – a penny farthing
1½d – three ha’pence (or a penny ha’penny)
1¾d – a penny three farthings
2d – tuppence
2¼d – tuppence farthing
2½d – tuppence ha’penny
2¾d – tuppence three farthings
3d – thruppence
3¼d – thruppence farthing
3½d – thruppence ha’penny, etc etc up to a shilling.
After a shilling there were usages like-
1/3d (one and three; one shilling, three pence)
2/7d (two and seven; two shillings, seven pence)
Any ha’pennies or farthings were added on as in 1/2½d (one and tuppence ha’penny) 7/4¾d (seven and fourpence three farthings.)
Nobody ever asked for a crown. It was always referred to as five shillings.
Wonderful stuff – but I believe it confused foreigners, including visitors from the US, no end.