Tuesday, April 18, 2017

What's that in old money?

My husband is a jigsaw fan. He loves them, the harder the better. He even does those ones where the finished picture is not the same as the image on the box. Incredible if you ask me. As if life is not hard enough…

Jigsaws leave me cold, as you may have realized, but recently he received one for his birthday which intrigued me. It was a picture of sweetie memories from the 1960s – all the brands and colourful packets I used to spend my pocket money on. This gave rise to a rare wave of nostalgia as I recalled the magically seductive flavours and scents of those gorgeous confections.

It was not just the eating, though I suppose at the time that was the highlight. What sticks in my mind now though is the experience of purchasing those sweets.

As the more diligent historians will know, the currency in the UK went decimal in 1971, when I was thirteen. Consequently, though by the time I was a teenager I tended to buy my cigarettes in the new currency, most of my sweetie-purchases were made in ‘old money’. It was grand stuff, that old money, though I suppose rather weird. But it never seemed so at the time. We had pounds, shillings and pence. The old pound and the new one were the same value, but the old version was made up of twenty shillings, each of which was made up of twelve pennies. So, there were 240 old pennies in the old pound. The new currency was simpler, so they said, just pounds and pennies, and there were now 100 pennies to the pound.

The coins were sort of nice, idiosyncratic I suppose. And I think it can be no coincidence that the new pound coin introduced a few days ago bears an uncanny resemblance to the old thruppenny bit.

I remember spending endless hours at school as a small child practicing sums with pounds, shillings and pence arranged in three neat columns which I carefully added up, only to have all that work swept aside and a new system taught. I think my brain rebelled because I retained perfectly the old system and struggled for years to assimilate the decimal version. Converting from the old to the new was difficult, despite the best efforts of a succession of well-meaning and determined teachers. ‘What’s that in old money?’ was the familiar refrain in shops for years after the change, and I still find myself doing the mental arithmetic even now.

Anyway, back to those sweeties. My favourite was a Cadbury’s flake and that cost 4d in old money (old pennies always had the symbol ‘d’, don’t ask me why.) I had, usually, 2d a day to spend so had to save up for a flake. I would go to the shop along our street on my way home from school to purchase my daily ration, and spend ages studying the range of options, though it rarely changed. The fun was in the choosing, the careful weighing of one delicious possibility against another. Fruit gums were cheap, just 2d, and would last a long time. I might even have some left over by tomorrow. A bar of chocolate was expensive and would be gone in minutes. A packet of sweets would need to be shared, probably, with my younger brother but the chocolate would be just a memory by the time I got home. Chocolate usually won out.

Crisps were another possibility, always a favourite but at 3d they also involved a bit of saving up. Occasionally ice cream, though that was usually bought from a van that came around the streets playing raucous, tinny music. The ice cream van conjures up a whole new set of memories …

Not normally given to nostalgic reminiscing I was somewhat surprised at the powerful memories evoked by my husband’s jigsaw and perhaps it is telling that my impressions of the money are every bit as strong as those of the tantalizing treats I could buy. I was always a mercenary at heart … pity that writing doesn’t pay better.

At least now though I can manage to buy a packet of cheese and onion crisps without having to turn out all my coat pockets so I suppose that counts as progress.


  1. Now I'm nostalgic for the "old money" too, even though I only encountered it on a trip to England long ago. I should dig out the coins I saved (or just had left over) and reminisce. I've been to the UK a couple of times since then, but mostly encountered the new money.

  2. Changes in coinage can offer rewards to the numismatist. Obsolete coinage in great condition can sell for a premium well over face value. Best to save uncirculated examples if possible.

  3. Really interesting post! I've seen that "old money" system in books, but never understood it at all until your explanation here.

    I think memories from childhood, particularly of taste and scent, can be really powerful, so the strength of your response here makes sense to me.

  4. This post triggers my own nostalgia for the year I spent in England, June 1973 - August 1974. I loved decimal currency because it was like the currency I was used to, but It was still new, & I heard many complaints.

  5. My first visit to England was in the early 80's, so I missed the old money. I've always thought it sounded horribly confusing, but of course if you grow up with that system, I'm sure it becomes second nature.

    Your post reminds me of my own childhood, when we had what was known as "penny candy". Dozens of different sorts of sweets were available, stored in big glass jars. Each cost only one cent per piece. Like you, I recall specific types. Strips of paper arrayed with sugary dots that you scraped off with your teeth. Brilliant green gummy leaves, flavored like the spearmint they were intended to resemble. Kernels of candy corn. Hot cinnamon flavored suckers. Licorice laces both black and red.... you're right, focusing on those treats brings up all sorts of memories!