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!