Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Coins of the Victorian Era

Today I'm going to discuss on the confusing coinage of the British Victorian era. 
 Warning: pictures are not sized appropriately. Blogger doesn't allow that.

I wrote a whole section on why England had to shift to the gold standard in 1814, and then to prevent you from falling into a coma, I thoughtfully erased it. Instead, we'll just talk about the coinage available in the 19th century. But let us begin with a note of paper...

If you are rich, everything centers around the sterling pound, which was a bank note worth 240 sterling pennies. (Never mind they stopped minting silver pennies in 1660 -- you can only make a coin so small before it become ridiculous.) But not to worry, they had a second definition. The pound note must equal the equivalent of a pound of silver.

Your friends might ask you to loan them a quid or a nicker. (that would be a pound). Just hope they don't ask for a monkey (that would be a $100 pounds). 

But wasn't there a pound coin, you ask...

A pound of silver would be ungainly large, so a coin was made of gold, weighing the value of a pound of silver, which weighs considerably less than a silver coin would, given Gold is more far more valuable than silver. And of this I will say no more less I put you in a coma over the discussion of valuations of other metals during the gold standard era.

Just accept that Gold has begun its rule!
And England's renewed it's gold coins:

Sovereign & it's many size options
Finally we have a 'pound' coin again.
Value: 20 Shillings making it's a 'sterling pound'.

They also minted a 2 pound and a Five pound coin.
However, the most frequently used in the Victorian era was the Half Sovereign.

These coins began being minted in 1817 because the prior gold coins (the Guineas) were inconsistent in their size/value and Britian wished to move to the gold standard, so they minted new gold coins that ruled above all. They called it 
The Sovereign.

The Sovereign (gold pound) is slightly larger than the half-sovereign and considerably thicker, so while they look similar in a blog, in real life you would have no trouble telling them apart. 
I'M Thick!
1841 Sovereign
22 centimeters in circumference 
thickness: 1.52 mm

I'm skinny
1883 Half-Sovereign
19 centimeters in circumferance
thickness: .99mm

Why they are different colors? you ask. It could  be the photography or how they were treated for the last 100 plus years. But it also could be different alloys were used in the mix (i.e. % of silver vs. copper). For a gold coin is never pure gold (it's too soft). 

The silver crown, aka, the British Crown 
Value: 5 shillings
This was a large coin, weighing about 1 ounce.  It was rarely used in the Victorian era, being too heavy and large. The were mostly acquired as commenmoratives.
1887 Crown
diameter: 38 mm

The half-crown. 
Value: 2.5 shillings or 30 pennies.
The half-crown was used far more often than the crown, being half the weight and size.

And now we enter the currency of the poor: Most of the poor will never see a paper pound or a gold sovereign in their entire lives. They live and die with small coinage. A week's pay for a laborer in the late nineties was about 4 shillings.

The Shilling 
It's the key to understanding the exchange of coinage to pounds.
12 pence to a shilling 
and 20 shillings to a pound.
Remember that and you can accurately make change.

Additional small change:
The sixpence. 
Also silver. Valued at six pennies

The groat
Silver: Valued at four pennies
nicknamed 'Joey'
England stops minting them in 1856

The Threepence aka Thruppence
Silver: Valued at three pennies

British two pence

One Penny
Pre 1860: Copper
After 1860: Bronze
Worth 1/240 of a pound

The penny was also called a 'copper' even when it was made of bronze.

And a Penny could be divided yet further and continued to be minted until 1956
This shows a full penny, a half penny aka ha'penny and a fourth of a penny, aka a farthing.
So when someone says they won't give you a farthing, it really doesn't matter because a farthing is so little it's not worth discussing.


The half groat and silver pennies were discontinued in the Victorian era. (They were losing money on minting them.) I can find no mention of a five pense aka the nickel which England does have now. So as far as I can tell, it didn't exist back then. I suppose they thought it unnecessary given lesser coinage was based on the shilling where half a shilling was a 6 pence, a third was a 4 pence, a quarter was a three pence, an eighth a 2 pence and a twelve was a 1 pence.  Absolutely no need for a 5 pence. (Yeah, wait a bit...That nickel is going to kick the shilling's shiny butt in the future!)

I hope you enjoyed this pictorial wandering through coinage. 

In my upcoming humorous Late Victorian Romantic Mystery Novel, The Troublesome Apprentice, Victor is paid the astronomical sum of a 100 pounds a month. This would probably come in ten 10 pound notes. Since notes became entirely machine-printed and payable to the bearer after 1855, Vic might have received a hundred pound note. However, it would have been very hard to find a merchant who could cash such an amount, so 10 pound notes would be better for all. 

Vic dare not wear a great deal of coinage in his pockets, for all the jingling would warn criminals of his arrival. The pup is best off with a several quids tucked in his inner vest pocket weighted by a money clip.

The Troublesome Apprentice 
will release 
August 1, 2014

Catch the tour & prize giveways 
beginning July 24th


  1. Great post - some of these coins I'd never heard of before. Shared via Pinterest

    1. Well, you know I didn't make them up, since I searched all over the internet, not just for the correct coin, but on the Victorian era. It was like a week long easter egg hunt.

  2. I scoured the web for Victorian coins of England. And wasted a great deal of time looking for a nickel. lol

  3. Having grown up with British relatives and reading British murder mysteries - a lot of this already made some semblance of sense - if there is any chance of making sense out of British money. Can you imagine trying to live on the pay of a labourer in the 1890s?????

    1. The pay of 4 shillings was for a 10 hour day, 6 days a week job. It was the lowest of all jobs. This wage is below a living wage, insufficient to support a person, rather like our current minimum wage. I expect a great deal of these workers tried their hands at criminal occupations thinking they had no reasonable alternative...other than die.

  4. I find the different coins so confusing. I'm glad I don't have to remember them! I would probably over pay for something and end up poor!

    1. I imagine there was a risk if the poor ever had the situation where they needed to pay a pound. I imagine they might have been tricked into paying 24 shillings instead of 20 (Since they were used to a currency based on 12.

  5. You always know the coolest stuff!

    1. Thank you D'Ann. I have collected tidbits about the Victorian era for over a decade. It is now the size of a novel.

  6. I enjoyed your post, Liza. Many of these coins were still familiar to me when I was growing up (with a different monarch's head on, of course). They disappeared with decimalisation in 1971.

    1. Yes, I saw a great deal of Elizabethan coins while searching for Victoria. The Edwardian coinage is interesting because England had to tighten their belt due to the wars.The sovereign gold coins were discontinued and paper was used for a great deal of the coins. At least the had the sense to do so.

  7. What a great post, Liza! Thanks for doing the research!! I tweeted and shared on FB.


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