Making “Cents”, Plus A Giveaway!

Making “Cents”, Plus A Giveaway!

When I first started reading Jane Austen, I paid little attention to the references to money found in her books. I knew that Bingley was rich, Darcy was richer, and Wickham was bribed into marrying Lydia with a small fortune. That was about it. References to shillings, guineas and crowns went completely over my very modern American head.

Then I started writing JAFF and in the second book I wrote, The Taming of Lydia Bennet, our dear Lydia is given a set amount of pin money by her husband (not Wickham!). For the first time ever, she has to learn how to budget. Which meant I had to understand the old English currency.

Have you ever tried to understand old English currency? Here’s a little advice: don’t.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. It’s tricky but it’s not that difficult. With a little patience and persistence it’s easy to understand the value of a sixpence or a shilling, or to decipher cryptic writing like 5s 3d.
You see, old English currency wasn’t based on the decimal system like it is today. It was more like the system of measurement we still use for cooking in the United States, and for a non-Brit, it takes some getting used to.

Let’s start with the smallest coin: a farthing, which was worth one fourth of a penny. I’m not sure why they even bothered with a farthing but there it is. In Regency times a farthing might get you a slice of bread, but that was about it. Two farthings equaled a halfpenny. Three pennies equaled a threepenny (cleverly nicknamed a thrupenny) and, of course, two of these threepence would then equal a sixpence. (Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye . . . ) Ten pence would probably be enough to buy a loaf of bread.

Are you with me so far? Good, because now it starts to get more confusing.

Twelve pennies equaled a shilling. A shilling was a decent amount of money for an average person.Two or three shillings, for instance, might be the weekly wages for a skilled tradesman.

Twenty shillings (240 pence) equaled a pound, and now we’re beginning to talk about substantial sums of money. A gentry family in Jane Austen’s day would need at least 200 pounds a year to maintain their lifestyle, and very likely more. Most people, of course, lived on much less.

In addition to shillings and pounds there was an array of other coins, including florins, crowns, and guineas.

They weren’t used as much as shillings, pounds and pence, but a student of Regency times still needs to know how they worked. Two shillings equaled a florin, five shillings equaled a crown, and, for some odd reason, 21 shillings equaled a guinea. (In Pride and Prejudice, you will remember, Mr. Bennet refuses to advance even a guinea to buy wedding clothes for the wayward Lydia.) There were also sovereigns, half sovereigns, half crowns and groats; but pounds, shillings and pence were the principal units used in everyday exchanges.

Now that you know the basics, here’s a quick quiz: knowing that 240 pennies were in a pound, 20 shillings were in a pound, and 12 pennies were in a shilling, how would you express the sum of 369 pennies?

Answer: Let’s work from the largest unit down. First, divide 369 by 240 to get the number of pounds. (Leave the remainder as a whole number, not a decimal.) You get 1£ with a remainder of 129 pennies. Divide the 129 pennies by 12 to arrive at the number of schillings, which is 6. You will have 9 pennies or pence left over, so the answer is one pound, ten shillings and nine pennies. This is expressed as 1£, 10 s, 9 d. (Shillings could be abbreviated as either “s” or “/-“. Pennies were abbreviated as “d”.)

Clear as mud, right?

Remember, this system is no harder than our measuring system of gallons, quarts, pints, cups. tablespoons, etc. If you can convert gallons into tablespoons you can totally handle old English currency.

OK, maybe that wasn’t the best example. 🙁

Let’s make this fun instead. We’ll use a real life example and give out prizes for the right answer!

On a visit home, Lydia Wickham receives 1£ of pocket money from her overly indulgent mother. When she goes back to Newcastle she gives 5 shillings to her husband and spends one florin on a new dress. Wickham promptly loses his five shillings in a game of chance. How much do Mr. and Mrs. Wickham have to live on until Jane or Elizabeth bail them out again?

Give your answer as a comment below. If you get it right, you’ll be entered into a drawing to win an electronic copy of one of my books. Three winners will be chosen. Comments will close at midnight EST on Thursday, June 1st. Good luck!

51 Responses to Making “Cents”, Plus A Giveaway!

  1. Although it is quite confusing, I managed to get 13 shillings after I write it down. Thanks for explaining Regency currency to us in laymen terms, Elaine.

  2. That made sense to me. I would have to write down all the values if I ever wanted to do it again since I’m not sure I’ll completely remember it but thats normal for me. The answer is 13 shillings by the way and thanks for the little math refresher =)

  3. I had to put pen to paper and use your guide to add and subtract–and came up with 13 shillings! Thanks for sharing your research. It was very helpful and interesting!

  4. I will take your word for it! Math has never been nor ever will be my forte! I still can’t do metric conversions either up here…37 years later! LOL!

  5. I’m going to question one statement in your otherwise excellent article.

    “Two or three shillings, for instance, might be the weekly wages for a skilled tradesman.”

    Three shillings a week means 3 X 52 = 156 shillings a year. That is less than eight pounds a year. I believe you could hire a housemaid for that money, but not a manservant. I presume a skilled tradesman would earn more.

    However, if you meant two or three shillings a DAY rather than a week, that would be 365 X 3 = 1095 shillings, which is almost 55 pounds. That seems more reasonable.

    Considering everything, I suspect this was a typo.

    • I read that statement on a couple of web sites and mulled it over for awhile. In today’s money, if a shilling equaled $115 or so (see comment below), then a “skilled tradesman” might be someone working full time at a fast food place, making $345/week or just under $18K/year. But I’m not sure somebody who flips burgers could be considered a “skilled tradesman”, It’s very, very difficult to make equivalencies in such different eras.

      • Maybe the typo wasn’t yours. 🙂

        I don’t believe a shilling was worth $115 in today’s money. A pound might be.

        In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods were living on 500 pounds a year and considered themselves to be poor. Using the conversion of 115 X 20 X 500 gives us $1.15 million.

  6. I have never liked math but one of your books is enough incentive to try to figure this out. My calculations came to 13 shillings. Great post, I have wondered how British currency worked so I found this post very informative.

  7. Interesting but no thanks. I am sure with a lot of time and trouble I could figure it out or just ask someone on the Internet but it is simply not something I want to do at this time. Good luck to the others who are trying.

  8. I was going to skip this because…..well math lol. But I decided my brain could handle the challenge today and I actually took out paper and calculated that they would have 13 shillings. I also think Lydia should have given her husband significantly less of her ill gotten gain! But she’ll learn…

    • I don’t think she should give Wickham anything! But whether she’ll ever learn better is another question. Thanks for commenting and good luck.

  9. Had to laugh when I read Deanna’s comment about “5 to useless”. But will have to agree with the comment and the left over amount. 13 shillings.

    btw… WAY to early for math. I’m on vacation.

  10. 12 pennies, or 20 pennies, equals a shilling? I’m so confused.

    But I think the answer you are looking for is 13.

    What would one of those shillings be worth in 2017 money?

  11. Lawd, this is way too early to be doing math… regardless of how fun it was. I’m just having my first cup of coffee… my brain doesn’t work this early. I attempted this anyway, despite my caffeine deprived brain. I’m OCD like that.

    First, I converted the pound to shillings. That would be 20 shillings to work from. Minus the 5 shillings she gave Wickham, that leaves 15 shillings. We then minus her florin [which equals 2 shilling] thus they would be left with 13 shillings. I had to show my work. Good luck to the winners and I really did enjoy this. After I consumed a bit more coffee the fog lifted and I saw the fun in it.

    I really did enjoy this. It shins a whole different light on the money was throw about in many of our stories. Many times someone gives a servant or a street urchin a coin and their eyes will bug out and I’ve often wondered what its value really was in respect to that their circumstances. This really helped me see what it was worth to those who received the money. I’m sure I will refer back to this in the future when I encounter money in a story. You have really given us something to help us understand our Regency stories more clearly. Thank you.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! And although I can’t comment on whether you got the answer right, you should get extra credit for showing your work! Good luck!

  12. When I first started school we did maths in this currency. It was still around for a couple of years at the time. Try doing maths with it rather than today’s decimal currency!!!! My godmother who lived in England at the time would always send me (in Ireland) a ten shilling note for my birthday. It was very big and very orange. I always used it to buy books. I’ve never forgotten those ten shilling notes.

    • What a sweet memory! I remember that in elementary school we practiced converting cups to quarts, pints, and the like. What a waste of time that turned out to be! Now I just ask Alexa! LOL!

  13. 13s would be left. And, I’m sorry to have to correct your other sum but the answer is £1. 10s. 9d. As you first said there were 12 pennies in a shilling not 20.
    I grew up with it and I used to get 3d pocket money which in those days could buy quite a lot!
    We also had ounces, pounds and stones as weight measures!!
    Thanks for this post, it brought back many good memories.

    • I’m glad you liked it! Happy to revive good memories whenever possible. 🙂

      And you were right about the answer to the practice question. I’ve gone back and edited it accordingly. Thanks!

  14. And the trains will pass each other in Cleveland! Really! A math quiz? But a brilliant reveal. One of the stunning conversions I discovered which may explain your farthing…the pricing being much lower…and so needed fractionals…went the other way. The purchasing power of money in 1811 versus today. One converter using an inflation/purchasing power algorhithm pegs an 1811 pound at about 2,350 2017 dollars. So, Darcy’s 10,000 a year was….real money!

    • A blog post could be written on converting 1811 dollars to pounds. It is not simple and it probably can’t be done by formula.

      I suspect your website actually converted 1,811 pounds into dollars, using the current exchange rate. Try putting in 2017. If your interpretation is correct, you should get the current exchange rate, or about $1.28, because the 2017 pound is worth about $1.28. If my interpretation is correct, you will get $2582.48 today, and a similar number tomorrow, depending on the current rate.

      • Yes, an entire blog post could be done just talking about how much money Darcy really had! And even then it wouldn’t give an accurate picture of his finances, because we are in a very different economy now. In Darcy’s day hiring a servant was relatively inexpensive but clothing cost much more of their income than it does ours. You would almost need to convert Darcy’s income into our dollars, adjust for inflation, and then imagine living on that income in a country that has not yet experienced most of the industrial revolution. In those economies labor is cheap but goods are high. In our economy labor is costly but many manufactured goods are inexpensive.

        • I’m actually working on a blog post, not on Darcy’s income, but on some of the things you just brought up. It isn’t easy to make the conversion. Your post inspired mine.

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