Money, money, money

Originally published by Julia Mosman, 21 January 2014.

The most recognized English monetary system (which ended in 1971, technically) was based on the penny, shilling, and the pound. A penny was a large copper coin; its written symbol is d. The plural of penny is pence. The shilling was a silver coin worth 12 pence; the written symbol was s. The pound was equal to 20 shillings, or 240 pence; its written symbol is £.

The pound coin, made of gold, was referred to as a sovereign. There were other coins for the following amounts:

  • Farthing, one-fourth of a penny
  • Halfpenny
  • Twopence
  • Threepence
  • Groat or 4 pence
  • Sixpence
  • Florin, or 2 shillings
  • Double florin or 4 shillings
  • Half crown or 2 shillings and sixpence
  • Crown, 5 shillings
  • Half sovereign, 10 shillings, or one-half of a pound.

The guinea coin, worth 21 shillings, was not minted after 1813. The word remained in use – especially when involved with the sale of luxury goods. A rich person would not care if something were priced at 20 guineas, although that would make the price 21 pounds.

Almost all money circulated in the form of coins. The government did not print paper money. Paper ‘bank notes’ were issued by individual banks. If the bank failed – and many did – its bank notes became worthless. Five-pound notes were the smallest ones issued. Careful people insisted on using gold coins even for very large amounts. Checks were not commonly accepted. (When accepted, they were most often discounted, based on the reliability of the issuer.) Merchants used other complicated means of transferring large sums of money. There were newspaper reports in the 1840s where the thieves did not know what the slips of paper in the bags they stole represented, and they were caught when they gave the pretty papers to various ladies, who then asked more educated people what they might be. Inevitably, the police (which were newly formed) heard of the matter.

The amount of money families had did not, for the most part, determine social class, but a “certain income” was needed to maintain a particular style of living. Should a middle-class man wish to marry and live an appropriate life (educating his children, maintaining a home, etc.) he would need an income of approximately £ 300 pounds a year during the Victorian period. It would have enabled his household to employ a nurse, and one all-purpose maid. Had the income been £ 500, the family could afford to add a cook; at £ 750, there would be a cook and a boy added; the woman of the house wouldn’t be expected to do household work, but would supervise. At £ 1,000 a year, the family would be expected to employ four women (a cook,2  housemaids, and a nursemaid), plus a coachman and stable boy – which meant they would keep one or two horses and a carriage, and not depend on public transport.

In contrast, miners during the 1840’s earned 12s a week. Children who worked in the mines, starting at age 8 or 9, earned 8s a week, but could earn less, depending on the nature of the work. They worked sunup to sundown – about 12 hours a day. (Then they had to climb handmade ladders to exit the mine, and walk to their homes.) Many children fell to their deaths climbing the ladders.

Miners, for the most part, earned more than agricultural labourers. Most had small plots of land in which they raised crops; they could also fish, or obtain ‘rough’ fish inexpensively – which meant they lived a more comfortable life than urban poor. Soldiers averaged £ 25 a year, while sailors made £ 45. Shop Assistants, domestic servants, and needleworkers (all women) earned £ 12 to 20. 

According to Stephen Budiansky,  “Equating the value of money between two very different eras is strictly speaking impossible, since along with overall inflation the relative worth of different items alters considerably from one era to another.  In 16th century England, for instance, a printed book like Foxe’s “Acts and Monuments” could cost as much as a good horse.”

In Elizabethan times, a “farm labourer earned £5 per year; a school headmaster or a shipmaster £20; and large landholding lord, or a lawyer at the pinnacle of his profession, £1,000. A pound could buy a cow, a plain cloth coat, or a gun; £150 kept the young Earl of Oxford, and extravagant fop, supplied with clothing for a year; £10,000 bought a great London mansion.”

“A crown was an English silver coin worth a quarter of a pound; more loosely, the term could refer to any of a number of similar continental coins that had about the same value as an English crown. A mark was a unit of account equal to two-thirds of a pound.”

For more on the topic, see “Daily Life In Victorian England”, Sally Mitchell, 1996,ISBN 0-313-29467-4; Greenwood Press  –   $46.36 at EBay//sections available on Google books for free viewing
“Her Majesty’s Spymaster” by Stephen Budiansky, 2005, Plume Publishing
ISBN 978-0-452-28747-1//available on Library e-books


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