Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[56] Spending a Penny


I want to look at the money we had in the fifties, in particular the coins. I will do them in ascending order of value.



(Click on any picture to see it enlarged.)

I start with the smallest value coin, the farthing, slightly larger than a modern 5p. It was worth a quarter of an ‘old’ penny or ¼d, the equivalent of 0.1p in modern money. Of course we didn’t call them old pennies, they were just pennies, normally ‘pence.’ For this blog I will leave out ‘old.’ Remember that we used to use d for a penny (supposedly from the Latin Denarius), and p is always the new decimal version.

There were probably still some things priced to end 19s 11¾d, just a farthing short of a pound, but this practice was dying out. (They could still use 19s 11½d or 19s 11d. WE still get things ending in 99p!) There were farthing coins in use but not they were not common. They were minted up to 1956 with the Queen’s head, and in use until 1960.

I liked farthings. I had an old biscuit tin, maybe 9 inches by 9 inches and three inches deep, that I filled with farthings. I think it held about 1000 – worth just over £1. I don’t remember what happened to them.

What could you buy for a farthing?


When we bought sweets at the local sweet shop, most of them came in jars and were sold by weight. Some were sold for a penny each, or two a penny, or four a penny, so you could buy one for a farthing. I used to like ‘shrimps’, which looked something like the picture above, costing a farthing each. I think aniseed balls were just as cheap.




(Always pronounced ‘hay-pny’) This coin was ½d, similar in size to a modern 10p coin. Two farthings made a halfpenny. It was very much in common use and for most purposes the smallest amount. (Pricing in farthings had virtually disappeared.)

What could you buy for a halfpenny?

This is difficult because I didn’t buy much. I can’t remember all the sweets and their prices.

Penny   British_pre-decimal_penny_1967_obverse British_pre-decimal_penny_1967_reverse

This was quite a large coin, larger than a modern 50p. It was very common because there was no 2d coin. It was too large, really, as was the half-crown, the other common coin. I remember my father often emptying his pockets to find some money. It would be a huge pile of coins, not adding up to much – probably less than a pound.


(If you used them as weights, three pennies or five halfpennies came to one ounce. Just as now banks weighed bags of coins. The accuracy of the Big Ben clock has always been controlled by the number of 1d coins used as weights. Now it also has some later ceremonial coins but it still uses pennies.)

What could you buy for a penny?

Gobstoppers (US: Jawbreakers) were a penny. A very short bus ride was only a penny. There were probably lots of other things.


[We still use the expression, ‘spend a penny’ for a visit to the toilet. The WCs in public conveniences used to have chunky locks operated by these large coins. Wikipedia says that this expression comes from the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first major installation of public toilets – during the exhibition, 827280 visitors each paid the penny to use them. They were still a penny a hundred years later. To be honest, I suspect that the expression is only used by those old enough to remember when it still applied.]


Two pence would buy a cup of tea, or a Milky Way bar or a packet of Polos, a copy of the Beano comic, possibly a pound of potatoes (prices were seasonal).


British_threepence_1967_obverse British_threepence_1967_reverse

(Through-pntz, with first syllable sounding like could, or threp-pntz. Older people sometimes said thrup-pntz.) I think this was my favourite coin because it was so different to the others. The coin was called a three-penny bit (with three pronunciations). It was a chunky coin, thicker than the others and made of different metals, a more yellowy colour. (There was an older three-penny coin made of silver, smaller than a sixpence, still technically in circulation. I think I saw one once.)

What could you buy for threepence?

3d was just the price of a Mars bar, or chips from a Fish and Chip shop. I think stamps for letters were 3½d.

Four pence would buy a cup of coffee (not what we now know as coffee).


British_sixpence_1962_obverse British_sixpence_1962_reverse

Both the coin and the amount sixpence, but more were generally a ‘tanner.’ It was just slightly smaller than a farthing.

When we were old enough for pocket money (perhaps at about ten) it started at sixpence a week.

What could you buy for sixpence?

Lots of small things. The first time I went to Woolworths to buy anything it was Christmas shopping. I bought seven things for 3s 6d – so they were more or less 6d each – toys, kitchen tools.

A small loaf of bread was 8d.


British_shilling_1963_obverse British_shilling_1963_reverse

Like the penny and the pound, the shilling was a unit of currency, worth twelve pence. Colloquially it was often a ‘bob.’ The coin was just smaller than a halfpenny.

What could you buy for a shilling?

It could buy a loaf of bread, or a pint of milk, a pint of beer in a pub, a haircut, or a litre of petrol (which was sold in gallons).

It was not quite enough for fish and chips (more than enough for battered cod without chips).

Two Shillings

British_florin_1967_obverse British_florin_1967_reverse

Next up in size and value was the two shilling coin. Some of the older two shilling coins were marked a ‘florin’ in an early attempt at decimalization but we never called them florins. Two shillings was usually ‘two bob.’


What could you buy for two shillings?

A small, simple ball-point pen was about 2s. That price remained the same for decades.

Half a Crown

British_half_crown_1967_obverse British_half_crown_1967_reverse

The half-crown, worth 2s 6d, was the largest coin, just larger than a penny. Sometimes the amount was ‘half a dollar’ but more usually it was ‘two-and-six.’ (All amounts were like that. 6s 8d was six-and-eight, or sometimes six-and-eightpence.) Strangely the half-crown was probably more common than 2s. Without computers we worked a lot in halves and quarters. 2s 6d was a quarter of 10s. Things could be priced at 7s 6d or 12s 6d.

What could you buy for half a crown?

This is getting out of my range. The things I bought were not that expensive. If you had that much spare money you might take it to the Post Office to go into your savings account.

Four shillings would buy you twenty cigarettes. (No, I didn’t smoke.)


Theoretically worth five shillings, these coins were only issued for commemorative use, for example the funeral of Churchill. They were never see in circulation. A crown was a lot of money.

(2s 6d was ‘half a dollar,’ but five shillings was never a ‘dollar.’)

In the early sixties, single records (what we now call vinyl) were 6s 8d. That was another useful amount, a third of a pound.


There were notes for ten shillings (‘ten bob’) and a pound (colloquially a ‘quid’). Both represented a lot of money. Once I found a 10s note in the street. I took it to the Police Station as lost property.

A three course meal in a restaurant would have come to between ten shillings and £1. A cheap bed and breakfast was much less than £1.

When single records, were about 6s 8d, Long Playing records, LPs (albums) were between £2 and £3.

There were also £5 notes but I never saw one. I don’t think they were used much.

A black-and-white television set (9 inch) was about £60-70. (This figure has remained virtually unchanged for 50 years.)

A semi-detached house in the suburbs of London was measured in hundreds of pounds, not thousands.


The picture above shows comparative sizes of notes and coins, and gives a better indication of the colours. ‘Copper’ coins – farthings, ½d and 1d were made of a similar material to modern 1p and 2p; ‘silver’ coins – 6d, 1s, 2s and 2s 6d were similar to 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p.

(Note that our ‘silver’ coins changed around 2014. The cupronickel had become too expensive. Now coins are steel coated with pure nickel. The nickel is shinier – and also a little poisonous, so handle with care.)


Coinage designs had changed very little so old coins lasted a long time. Back in the early reign of Queen Elizabeth, we routinely saw the heads of George VI, George V and Edward VII on coins, with different designs on the ‘tails’ side – going back to 1902.

As children we had plenty of time to study the coins. You will note that George V shown above (in Latin, Georgius) was ‘by the grace of God, King of all Britain’ (DEI GRA BRITT OMN REX) and ‘Defender of the Faith’ (FID DEF, the title earned by Henry VIII). He was also ‘Emperor of India,’ (IND IMP) as Queen Victoria had been. India, which used to include Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh, became independent in 1947.

Penny coins survived for longer and Victorian pennies were fairly common, dated within a couple of years of 1900. They were called ‘bun pennies’ because of the ‘bun’ hairstyle of the Queen.

BunPennyHead BunPenny


We coped with the system of 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. When you bought something, assistants had to work out how much change to give you – without calculators. They didn’t have to do subtraction; they used a method of constructive addition and demonstrated it to you by counting back your change.

For example, if you gave them a pound note for something worth 7s 9d, it goes like this: 7s 9d – give you 3d – 8s – give you 2s – ten shillings – give you 10s note – one pound. You have been given 12s 3d, which is correct, but neither you nor the assistant have to know this. You both follow the process of completion.


These coins continued through the fifties and sixties. After losing the farthing in 1956, the ½d coin went in 1967. The 10s note and most of the rest of the coins went with decimalization in 1971 when new coins came in for the new decimal penny. (There was an overlap period when old 2s, 1s and 6d coins could be used for 10p, 5p or 2½p. The very young will not remember that we used to have ½p as an amount and as a coin. At first new decimal coins were marked ‘new pennies,’ but now they are just ‘pennies.’) The pound note disappeared in 1984 when the pound coin arrived in circulation. The £2 coins is much more recent.

As a rough approximation, you can think of prices now being a hundred times what they used to be in the fifties, with a lot of variation. But, of course, salaries have also gone up. I remember as a child being taken to London by my father. We spoke to a postman who suggested that when I grew up I might earn as much as £1000 a year, in an unbelieving sort of way. He was right.



Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

12 thoughts on “[56] Spending a Penny

  1. The silver threepenny piece would always be seen around Christmas time as it was customary to put some in the Christmas pudding for the kids,it was considered lucky to find one in your piece of pudding.


  2. The old shop cash register’s were very large and calibrated in £ s d. (Pounds,Shillings and Pence)


  3. I remember those coins , still have the farthing , halfpenny , penny and threepenny bit or piece . I too was born in 1946 , hope that doesn’t make me a grumpy old woman , well maybe sometimes !


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  6. Very good article brings many memories back. A halfpenny bought a stick of Spanish (licorice) and in 1959 woodbines were about 2/- while Senior Service cigarettes were 2/6. Yes, That’s when I started smoking. You do us a disservice suggesting count back was the only way we knew correct change, most people had done the mental arithmetic but shopkeepers did you courtesy of using counting method. Working as a bus conductor it wasn’t hard to know your passenger needed 19/10 change for a 2d enjoyed reading your memories. Colin


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  8. Re; the Crown coin, yes they were issued as commemorative coins but they were legal tender and could be used to buy things.


    • I don’t think they were used as money. Technically sovereigns can still be used as £1 coins but that is not very sensible.


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