# How would you accurately use older British currencies when writing a story?

For writing a story set in the Napoleonic Wars era, how should one use the currencies accurately? I read in novels they use currencies like shilling, pound, guinea, sovereign, four (or six-, etc) pence, etc.

What is the conversion rate between these currencies, and when would one use such currency? Also, what would be the equivalent value today?

• If the question was more 'how much do I need to know to convey historical verisimilitude?' then it might be more the sort of thing, but yes, I agree.
– One Monkey
Commented May 5, 2011 at 12:51
• If we hang on long enough, maybe we'll have a History.SE to divert this to :) Commented May 5, 2011 at 12:59
• Or research.se, but surely that's just Answers.com or similar in an se costume.
– One Monkey
Commented May 5, 2011 at 13:04
• @Standback Is there a History.SE? I could totally use one of those. Commented May 5, 2011 at 16:21
• The folks on History have agreed to take this question, so let's see if someone over there has an answer. Migrating now. Commented May 19, 2012 at 0:02

Seems like the questioner was asking for a bit more than just an idea of conversion rates, so here is some background on how the pre-decimal currency worked.

4 farthings = one penny

2 halfpennies = one penny

tuppence = colloquial two pence

thruppence = colloquial three pence

240 pence = one pound

6 pence = sixpence (aka a tanner), or half a shilling.

12 pence = one shilling

two shillings = one florin

5 shillings = one crown

two shillings and sixpence = one half-crown

One guinea was latterly (and still is in horse racing) one pound and one shilling, although earlier in its history its value varied according to the value of gold. For about the last 200 years it has only been a unit of account rather than an actual coin.

Likewise the Sovereign was a gold coin nominally valued at a pound, but its true value was whatever the value of the gold in the coin was worth that day. Bullion coins such as the Sovereigns were an investment to be stored for their own inherent value, rather than as a coin to be used when going out to buy goods.

Other common units of currency were:

The mark (merk in Scotland) — a very common unit of account, and not actually ever a coin (in England). A mark was 13 shillings and 4 pence.

The way to write prices in pre-decimal currency was generally as follows:

£10 5/- Ten pounds five shillings

£10 5/6 - Ten pounds five shillings and sixpence

£10 5s 6d was equally valid.

• This sounds about right for the nation that brought us the imperial system. Commented May 20, 2012 at 12:03
• "The British resisted decimalized currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated" T Pratchett
– none
Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 15:34

The National Archives have a converter.

But to be honest a couple of shillings was about enough to buy a decent meal, five shillings a night at an inn, a pound was quite a lot of money to be carrying around for a commoner and a penny could always buy you a bun (bread roll).

That's all anyone really needs to know for narrative purposes.

Getting into guineas, sovereigns and all that business will be too much detail for people just interested in the fiction.

• It's probably not to much details in fiction if you include foreigners puzzled by the system. For example, the following (real) dialogue is an account of a French guy trying to by a buss ticket in London, in the 1960's. — How much is it ? — Half a crown. — how much is a crown ? — It doesn't exist. Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 13:02
• It's all not too much if you deal with certain kinds of situations. For instance, doctors' bill were given in guineas, ifirc. So if the story has a doctor visiting, the writer might need to know this fact. Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 13:57
• I think addressing what money meant to people is probably what the original questioner was getting at, its value relative to modern times and this is certainly a complex question. One important point is that I think the pound was revalued by the government but more complex is the effect of inflation, GDP, etc. on value of money. I find arguments that Rockefeller was worth 200 billion or whatever somewhat flawed and these were based on GDP.
– Jeff
Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 23:28

Money's meaning changes over time; it is not a static category.

For simplicities sake, let's assume that you learn how to use Lsd (£/s/d) figures, and work out a few of the more curious word name (tuppence).

Even then, you won't know how much money was worth in that era unless you read a lot of social history.

There are time values for money converters (for example, measuring worth), but their utility is limited unless you have a concrete understanding of the social meaning and value of, for example, not being able to eat in 1790 in Manchester.
For which I recommend social history.

It would help greatly if you specified the social class you were writing about. Money's meaning for workers in the period was vastly different to money's meaning for the industrial, mercantile or landed (ie: aristocratic) bourgeoisie.

Also theese two pages might help:

Money in Victorian England

Cost of Living in Victorian England

It depends on how you refer to currency in your story. Saying pounds, shillings and pence seems fine. Generally abbreviations are frowned upon in stories. And even more so when they are historical because its going to require a footnote to explain what "£5 6s 2d" means. Unless you are going to explain what it means within the story itself. But wby would anyone explain such an obvious thing to anyone? Unless they are a child ...

• Would you prefer to see "Crown and thruppence M'Lady"? Commented Sep 22, 2022 at 0:09
• @PieterGeerkens: Never heard of it. But I have heardcof the The Threepenny Opera. Commented Sep 22, 2022 at 0:20
• You seemed to imply that "£5 6s 2d" would be an opaque reference; yet the slang common amongst gentlemen and others to refer to currency amounts would make such appear clear as crystal. For many years the currency system in Dungeons and Dragons was essentially British Pounds/Shillings/Pence simply relabeled as Gold, Silver, and Copper; with the same exchange rates of 20:1 and 12:1. Commented Sep 22, 2022 at 0:39
• @Pieter Geerkens: I expect it is amongst the urban youth today who are much more au-fait with Grime, hip-hop and rap. Not out-of-date language and quaint customs. Do you think the "craven cowards" of today have heard of "gaslighting" or used it systematically. Commented Sep 22, 2022 at 0:42