Understanding Pre-decimal Currencies

Ever read a book or article which discusses prices in pounds and shillings? Read on to work out what they mean in the modern world.

The University of Nottingham has as very useful article and tables of all the common amounts and names. Up until 1968 Australia used the same system of currency. In 1968 Australia (the UK followed in 1971) went decimal where one pound was replaced with two dollars and each dollar is equivalent to 100 cents.

Starting from the pound:

  • There are 20 shillings in a pound…
  • and 12 pennies in a shilling.
  • So a pound is equivalent to 240 pennies.
12d12 pennies in one shilling.
1sOne shilling
5/-Five shillings and zero pence.
20s20 shillings in pound, therefore there are 240d in a pound.
Coin Amount
¼ dFarthing
½ dHalfpenny, pronounced ‘haypny’. The word often appears in print as ‘ha’penny’
¾ dThree farthings
2dTwo pennies, or ‘tuppence’
3dThree pennies. The coin was sometimes referred to as a ‘threepenny bit’. The word was often pronounced ‘thrupny’, or ‘thruppence’
4dGroat. This coin was in circulation until 1662, and was revived briefly in the mid-nineteenth century
6dSixpence, or ‘tanner’
1sShilling, or ‘bob’, equivalent to 12d.
2sTwo shillings, or ‘florin’
2s 6dHalf a crown
10sTen shillings, or ‘half sovereign’
£1One pound, or ‘sovereign’, commonly called a ‘quid’, equivalent to 20 shillings, or 240d.
£1 1sOne pound and one shilling (21 shillings), or ‘guinea’
From https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/researchguidance/weightsandmeasures/money.aspx.

Calculating Inflation

Reading an old book with prices, it’s hard to comprehend the real cost, as things seemed so cheap back then. Inflation has a significant effect on what each currency unit can buy. Inflation is mainly caused by issuing governments to print more money, thereby diluting the value.

One method is to use a standard product such as a McDonald’s Big Mac, which are sold throughout the world. The Big Mac index is useful for comparing currency value between countries and over a period of time.

Another way is to look at gold prices, but this depends not only on inflation but also on the state of the economy. When things look gloomy, gold is a safe haven and it goes up. In better times, people want to spend and gold cannot be exchanged directly for goods and services.

The Pre-Decimal Inflation Calculator from the Reserve Bank of Australia disappointingly does not use actual inflation over time but assumes an average annual inflation rate of 3.8 per cent. Also worth looking at the average wages over time, but this is hard to find.

Actual Cost of Products

The table below illustrates the problem of converting old prices to new. Some products have gone up more than inflation and others less. Train trips are over 300% above inflation and bikes are almost 80% below. Interestingly, gold and bacon have tracked inflation well.

Description1901 prices

1901 prices after inflation

actual prices
Average weekly wage, adult males4.35217.50830.00
Gold (1oz)8.50425.00460.00
Loaf of bread0.021.002.30
Flour (2kg)
Sugar (2kg)0.094.502.30
Coffee (150g)0.052.506.00
Tea (180g)
Rice (1kg)0.052.501.65
Butter (500g)0.136.502.00
Potatoes (1kg)
Onions (1kg)0.031.501.25
Rump steak (1kg)0.147.0012.50
Eggs (1 dozen)
Bacon (1kg)0.199.509.40
Jam (500g)
Milk (1 litre)0.031.501.40
Men’s cotton shirt0.8542.5053.10
Men’s trousers’0.5025.0058.50
Women’s shoes (1 pair)1.4572.5065.80
Rent on 3-bedroom house (1 week)1.3065.00250.00
Double bed, mattress, blankets and pillows12.10605.00830.00
Train trip0.603.0012.80
Whisky (1 bottle)0.3819.0026.00
Carton of beer (1 dozen 750ml bottles)0.7035.0028.00
Packet of cigarettes0.052.5011.20
Soap (600g)0.031.503.05
Cough medicine (200ml)0.2512.5014.90
Daily newspaper0.010.501.00
New release novel0.2512.5045.00
Game of football0.105.0021.70
From https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/1301.0Feature%20Article482001?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=1301.0&issue=2001&num=&view=
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