Saturday, 5 February 2011

Spare a Tanner Gov'nor?

Decimalisation came to the UK in February 1971. Our old pounds, shillings and pence (L.S.D. - librae, solidi, denarii) disappeared although some of the coins remained for a time and in instead of 240 pennies to the pound, in came 100 'new pence' to the pound.

Going metric wasn't new to the Commonwealth with Canada and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa going metric long before the UK. I collected coins as a kid, nothing serious, just foreign coins that people brought home from holiday, that sort of thing, but I did collect one or two nice British pre-decimal coins which I still have today. I was often given the gift of a Crown (five shillings) for birthdays

The school I was at at the time refused to 'teach' us about decimalisation. That was something we had to take on on our own. So when the transition period came along moving to the new system, shop keepers and the retail trade took advantage and raised their prices at the same time conning the public out of millions.

There is still today a lot of nostalgia over old style coinage and I've often wondered why. I think today, I might have had a flash and I think it's to do with language. Even to this day, both my mother (in her seventies) and me still use the phrase 'ten bob' which is the modern 50 pence. There were twenty shillings in the pound and 'bob' was slang for a shilling. It seems that the slang 'bob' might have come from a French 14th century coin of a similar size called a 'bobe,' although no-one is sure.

The BBC today have put some common used phrases on their website, which I will unashamedly 'pinch' that have their history in old coinage. Here are a few examples and I would be interested if you good readers from outside the UK have similar phrases to do with your coinage:

'Spend a penny' - it used to cost (usually women) a penny to put in the slot to use a public toilet.

'Bob-a-job week' - Boy Scouts (I don't know if Girl Guides did this - enlighten me) used to go from door to door in their neighbourhood and charge a shilling ('bob') to do small household jobs, particularly for the elderly.

'You look like you've lost half a crown and found a sixpence' - to look fed up or depressed. Clearly losing half a crown, (two shillings and sixpence), and finding a sixpence (half a shilling or slang 'tanner'*) is not in anyones best interest.

'Take the King's Shilling' - When recruiting in the 18th and 19th centuries, sailors and soldiers were offered a shilling to sign up, a sort of immediate binding contract.

'It can turn on a sixpence' - to turn quickly in a small space - relates to the small nature of a sixpence coin.

'A penny for your thoughts' - someone in deep meaningful thought. The phrase is often used to snap them out of it and an invitation to share those thoughts.

'To coin a phrase' - coining in its old meaning means creating money, so when you created a new phrase or use a particularly clever phrase for the situation, you would 'coin a phrase.'

'The other side of the coin' - the coin has two different sides, the obverse (where the head is) and the reverse - so it was said to be an alternative argument or point of view.

The western history of coins and then the start of organised money goes back to around 700BC and began in the Greek Islands.

What would we do without coins? A huge and fascinating subject.

I have enough money to last me to the end of my life - unless I actually have to buy anything!

Chat soon


Thanks to Wikipedia and BBC News On-line for some of the material today and the photo of the 'tanner' is from Wikipedia.
*Slang for a sixpence - a tanner, is from the designer of George ll coins, John Sigismund Tanner


  1. Cheers for that RLS, I often wondered where the word 'tanner' came from.

    I still convert back and forth between old and new. Comes in handy on pocket money day. "You want to pay 15 bob for a Cola?" or "5 and 6? Five and 6?"

    Love it! Doesn't half wind her up. I've got my teen so confused she now asks for £2.50 less than she's supposed to. Nice :)

  2. I enjoyed reading this because coincidentally I had been thinking about predecimal coinage earlier today for some reason. If we were given a penny by someone when we were kids we thought we were rich - it would buy a gob-stopper, or a bad of sherbet (remember sucker and dabs) or something from Woollies. Now any gift of less than a pound coin to a child would be frowned upon I suspect.

  3. To see an old sixpence... That is what my gran use to give me as pocket money on a Saturday. It brings back such good memories. Thank you.

  4. Hi Wheelie
    Very clever, you weren't a shopkeeper in 1971 were you?

    Hi Weaver
    You can still get Sherbet Dabs but they are about 65 pence! I used to buy four Fruit Salads for a penny or mix them with Black Jacks which were also four for a penny.

    Hi Jarmara
    You are very welcome - I always thought the sixpence was an elegant little coin.