Remembrance of Things Past

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


[86] Four, Five, Six …


I am going to talk about computers. This may seem strange after [67] One, Two, Three, which showed some of our primitive calculating methods back in the fifties. Computers had originated in the Second World War but even by the 60s had not developed beyond specialist scientific ones used in universities and government organizations. No computer then was as powerful as the microchips in today’s calculators and mobile telephones.

Most of the pictures will come from my visit to Bletchley Park and I will start with three pictures from there to illustrate the earlier blog about calculators. As always, click on a picture to see it enlarged.


I thought my explanation of logarithms might be difficult. It’s all made clear in this display at Bletchley. (Possibly not.)


A larger than life slide-rule.


And a Facit, an early device for multiplication. You can’t see the working – cog wheels inside, operated by turning the handle.


Early History

I need to say at this point that from the seventies I worked at GCHQ, where we had more powerful computers than almost anywhere else and knowledge about the history of computers than was then not public. Recently this has changed and it is now known that the history of computers started at Bletchley Park during the war with machines built solely to solely to decode the German ‘Enigma’ machines.


The picture is a very old machine using valves. It could do simple addition and multiplication and not much else.

Back in the fifties there were virtually no computers – just in some universities, some large businesses and some major government departments, such as GCHQ and the Meteorological Office – weather forecasting was not easy. I’m not sure than any establishment actually had two computers!

So we had none of the phenomena associated with automated processing – no telephone banking; no bar-codes, no automatic washing machines, no spreadsheets, no mobile phones, no itemized till receipts, no e-mail, no Power Point presentations, no Internet newsgroups or chat rooms, no credit cards, no tablets or even laptops, no games consoles, …

Paper Tape and Cards

The simplest job on a computer could take hours and was a complex process, starting with the generation of a paper tape or punched cards and ending with a crude printed output. A lot of what follows comes from my experiences with computers, dating from the late sixties.


Punched paper tape, shown in the picture above, was a continuous stream of paper about an inch wide. Each row of dots across the paper represented a single character – a letter, number, special character or space – and the tape would have been produced in something a bit like a typewriter. The picture above shows a paper-tape reader made by International Computers Limited (ICL) – a UK company, now part of Fujitsu.

Creating and reading paper-tape were both quite slow processes and paper could be torn with unfortunate results. If you ran a test program with paper-tape there were almost always mistakes – so it had to be corrected. The only way you can correct a paper tape is to create a copy! For a minor change, such as adding a comma (a very common correction) you might get away with a fairly straightforward copy with editing but for much more you could end up just rewriting it!


In some ways, punched cards were similar. Each column of holes represents a single character so each card is an 80 character line of code or data. The card below has the single FORTAN statement:

Z(1) + Y + W(1)

With PROJ1039 as a program name in the field at the end.


[I won’t go into details but oldies will remember FORTRAN (from FORMula TRANslation) as a programming language for mathematical and scientific work. At the time, perhaps, COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) was more common. Others such as BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) came later.]

Cards were easier because you might need to just change one card rather than rewrite the whole tape.


Above is an early hand operated machine to make punched cards. Pressing an appropriate selection of tabs simultaneously would create a single character and advance to the next. (You had to know which holes represented which letters!) You can see it was difficult, long-winded and liable to mistakes – one mistake and you would have to start again. I did see machines like this in the early seventies but by then we had progressed to what is shown in the next picture:


These were more like electric typewriters. You used the keys like a typewriter and cards were punched and stacked. A typical program might take 500 to 1000 cards, generally stored in open metal boxes that held 2000 cards.

Computers in the 60s and 70s

I have several memories of computers in the late sixties, starting with half a year working at the Ford Motor Company tractor factory at Basildon. As you have read in [67] One, Two, Three. Ford was a large multi-national company. I think it had one computer, which tried to handle finances, tracking production and parts and other things. It did this, more or less, by running a series of programs once a day. In the morning we would have new printouts – large stacks of paper showing what was where. Whatever we did, there would be no update until the next day.


In another temporary job later at Dollis Hill (The Post Office Research Centre, later relocated to Martlesham, now Adastral Park) I used an ICL machine driven by paper tape. After weeks of preparation and producing paper tape, it was a case of booking the computer, large enough to fill a large room, for an hour for its sole use.


This is part of a more modern computer, from the early seventies. You can see a magnetic tape, which was the main way of storing data – the only way to hold large amounts of permanent data. They were 2400 feet long and if you wanted the last line you had to read all the way through – and rewind back to the start before unloading!


Above is a hard disk array, called a 2314, heavy and something like two feet wide. When installed, they span at high speed and it was possible to read any location almost immediately. The SD card that you might put in a camera today holds maybe a hundred times as much data as this, is more reliable and is much faster!


Here is a line printer. It prints mechanically, line by line and would have produced hundreds of thousands of pages every day – the only form of output. Its output was the familiar fanfold sheets, stacked into piles. Simple monochrome text was the only option.

Because they were mechanical and relatively fast they were very noisy. That’s why the mechanism is enclosed in the box you can see. (It was well before the full colour inkjet printers we have now)

Apollo landing

Apollo Moon Landings

After the War, the USA and USSR were political rivals (as you know from Blog [51]) and they were very competitive in technological developments. After early Soviet success in space exploration, on 25 May 1961, President John Kennedy pledged the US to putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. With a lot of money moved to NASA, the Apollo program just managed this.

On 20 July 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon and were brought safely home. (Don’t believe conspiracy theories that say otherwise.) There were very fuzzy black and white television pictures.

The next day I started work at a site where we had among the most powerful computers in the World – still as described above using punched cards and printers as the almost the only input and output devices. I am told that computers are NASA were similar to the one we had at GCHQ. But where we managed with one they had five – four ran in parallel and the fifth checked the other four to get sufficiently reliable results.


The picture above from the ill-fated Apollo 13 Mission may look more modern but the equipment shown is not computer equipment. There are displays from technical measuring equipment, possible inked to computers. It was an impressive achievement without the aid of modern equipment.

Remote Access

The ability to access computers remotely started in the late 70s. WE had a thing called Remote Job Entry (RJE) using teletypes like the next picture.


A teletype is like a typewriter but every character is transmitted down a wire to the main computer, perhaps in another building. The computer had the ability to respond and send characters back. They were still very slow, just simple text. (Final Score on BBC television on Saturday afternoon, shows goals and final football results coming in. Some readers will remember vide-printers and, before those, a teletype. We literally waited and watched while clubs round the country sent in their results in a way that was a little bit faster than making telephone calls – via landlines, not mobile phones!)

With RJE it was also possible to send punched card data up to the main computer. The picture above has, at the left, a facility for pinched paper tape.



The next development was Conversational Remote Batch Entry (CRBE). Instead of a teletype we had a Visual Display Unit (VDU) but it was hardly a significant improvement. The display was still a line by line text machine with green text.

Modern Computers

Almost everything to do with modern computers – and modern technology in general – is much more modern.

The trend towards personal computers and home computers dates from the 80s. First PCs used text input and output only, with graphical output. Windows did not come until the late 80s. Even in the early 90s, PCs had disk space of less than a megabyte and memory size considerable less – they were less powerful than current printers (or mobile telephones).

Home computers used to be large boxes – maybe 50 by 50 cm with separate keyboards and displays. Then came laptops, notebooks and tablets.


[80] A Walk round the Park

This post will be slightly different, inspired by a visit a few weeks ago.


This is Bletchley Park, now open to the public, where UK intelligence services worked during the War to obtain information about German forces.

In the seventies I worked at GCHQ, when the existence of GCHQ was a secret known to few. GCHQ had developed from the wartime work at Bletchley, which was even more secret. Perhaps I knew then more about Bletchley but now much of it is publicly known.

The park is now set up to show things about life in the forties. Much of it is so close to the fifties and sixties that I can use it to illustrate my memories. This post will have all of its pictures from Bletchley with comments reflecting life from the forties to the seventies.


This is the main house. All the codebreaking was done in huts out of sight from the house.

Alan Turing, who worked here, is now more well-known and has been portrayed recently in the film, the Imitation Game. When I visited, the house contained material used in the sets for this film, some of which is shown here.


This sign, at the entrance to the house, mentions early computers. I will have more to say about computers in a later post.


As you may now know, the Enigma was a code machine. Its interception and codebreaking – at Bletchley were important to the British success in the war.



This is one of the Enigma machines. When a lettered key was pressed, its coded version appeared.


It contained a number of wheels as shown here, which were removable and interchangeable. Below is part of the ‘bombe’, the machine constructed and used at Bletchley to decode Enigma – not the real ones, reconstructions for the Imitation Game.


Radio Interception

07radio1 08Radio2

These pictures above show table, chairs and filing cabinet that could have been from the seventies, with radio equipment typical of the forties.

Below is a display from Bletchley about ‘Y’ Stations, radio intercept provided by the forces. [Click on the picture to expand it and read.] I put this in because it must be close to what my father did during the War. He served in the RAF and said very little about it, but he talked of taking down Morse intercept in Burma (now Myanmar.) It was not quite the same as English Morse – as they had extra Burmese letters.

[Most people did not talk of what they did in the War. Perhaps I should have asked him later. Dad will probably have a blog to himself later.]


Inside Bletchley Museum

A selection of pictures showing life from the forties, generally applicable to the fifties and sixties.


Here are some school desks. At ICHS they were similar to those at the front, with a place for an inkwell and a groove for pens and pencils. I think we had only single desks. Everything stayed inside the desk. We had no personal lockers.


So much here is familiar the cooker, with its plate rack, kitchen cupboard, saucepans and the sink in the background. I have done a post about kitchens.


A typical room from the fifties. Note first the flooring – mostly bare lino with a rectangular patterned carpet. Fitted carpets were unheard of. Table, tablecloth and chairs are very familiar. Basket, cups and saucers (never mugs,) and the settee with its antimacassar could have been ours.


I’m not sure how typical this is but I think the clothes could be fifties. Note the clothes horse in the middle. You could use this to dry clothes by the fire indoors when it was raining outside.


Not a good picture (taken through glass) but a simple electric fire.


A gramaphone, a little earlier that the record-players that came with pop music in the late fifties. Occasionally I remember something similar at Highlands – wound up and using clockwork!



From the house at Bletchley, showing some office equipment. The house is probably more upper class. The large wooden desk was typical of the sixties. Chairs, tables, lamps and typewriters could also be sixties.


This picture, as well as the desk, shows a waste paper basket (when they were baskets,) and the heavy telephone, firmly attached with its thick cable to the wall.


A metal filing cabinet. We had hundreds like this at GCHQ. Each drawer hold dozens of loose folders, each holding perhaps hundreds of paper documents. We only had paper documents – no computers.


This typewriter is perhaps a little early for office work in the sixties, but very similar.


Tables, chairs perhaps basic, always wooden. Note the ash tray on the desk. Smoking was very common.


A few more unrelated pictures from Bletchley:


A radiator, seen in the Gents toilet. Of course, in the fifties and sixties, central heating in houses was very rare. These chunky radiators would have been seen in offices – and in houses much later.


Sadly this telephone box at Bletchley no longer has the working telephone inside. These used to widespread and common throughout Britain.


Finally, nothing to do with the fifties or sixties but here are some pictures from around the lake.


A juvenile Moorhen (above) and a Grey Heron.

52Heron1 53Heron2

If you haven’t been to Bletchley I would recommend a visit. There is also an excellent café/ restaurant.







[67] One, Two, Three …

When I was at school we had to do Mathematics so we had some quite difficult ‘sums’ to do – without mobile phone apps and even without calculators. How did we manage? (I will get to computers later but I have to start back at school.)

I should be honest here. I like Maths. I did ‘A’ level Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at school, then ‘S’ level Mathematics, then I went to University and did a degree in Mathematics. Now I play around with spreadsheets for all sorts of things. But like everyone else, back in the fifties and sixties I had to do it the hard way. (If you read on you will see that it got easier in the seventies.)


Mental arithmetic at school was important. From very early days at school the times tables were taught by rote – from two times two is four up to twelve times twelve. We did these back in my days at Grange Hill from the age of about seven.

We used our knowledge of tables to do relatively simple sums. At junior school we learned about decimals, subtracting large numbers, long multiplication and long division, all done just by using pencil and paper methods. I won’t go into the details but before Secondary School we knew how to work out: 3456 x 789, and we knew how to find 3456 ÷ 789 as a decimal. (We didn’t do sums quite that hard but we knew the method.)

LogTables SMP%20Tables


At Ilford County High School we needed a quicker way to work out arithmetic. (Of course the same was true at all other schools.) Probably in the Third Form, we did logarithms, a relatively easy and quick way to multiply by using addition. I have considered at length whether to try to explain the way that logarithms work – and I have decided against it. It would take quite some time to do it clearly and I suspect that WordPress would fail with the mathematical notation.

I will show you an example. The oldies can sit back, reminisce and gloat – thinking: ‘Yes, I remember those books. We did that. The young generation have it too easy nowadays.’ And the youngsters can just think: ‘What! Surely no-one actually had to add up three-digit numbers!’

I will give actually give two examples.

A printed list in a little book allowed you to look up every number from 1.01, 1.02, 1.03 all the way to 9.98, 9.99, to find the logarithm of that number. Ok we will call them just Logs. (The battered SMP booklet in the picture is probably from the eighties but the numbers inside were the same!)

Here are the first ones. Log(1.01) is 0.004, Log(1.02) is 0.009, Log(1.03) is 0.013. (I have simplified it by using three figures. The tables coped with four. The Log of 1 is 0.000 and the Log of 10 is 1.000. You don’t need tables for them.)

If you wanted to know 2 x 3, you looked up 2.00 in the book of tables. It’s 0.301. Then you looked up Log(3.00), which is 0.477 (Believe me, I knew both of those. They were part of what we learned at school. I didn’t have to look them up!) Then you wrote down a little sum and added them up:

Number Logarithm
2 0.301
3 0.477
???? Total     0.778

Now we have to get the answer by looking up anti-logarithms. We want a number with a Log of 0.778, so we turn to another page in the book, look up Antilog(0.778) and the answer is – Surprise, Surprise! – 6!

So we complete the table.

Number Logarithm
2 0.301
3 0.477
6.00 Total     0.778

Because we always show our working, we write 2 x 3 = 6.00 (using logs) and put the table by the side.

That was easy. You all knew that 2 x 3 was 6, so here is just one more example, not quite so obvious.

12.34 x 567.8 = ???

Number Logarithm
12.34 1.091
567.8 2.754
7007 Total 3.845

You add the right hand column first, then look up 0.845 in the Antilog tables. So the answer is 7007. [You will either know, or will have worked out by now, that the bit before the decimal point in a logarithm tells you whether its 7.007 or 70.07 or 700.7 or 7007. It gets more complicated for 0.7007 or 0.07007!]

We did everything with those books of Log Tables. As well as multiplication (as shown above, by adding Logs) we could do division, (subtracting Logs) powers (multiplying Logs – using Logs), and sines, cosines and other trigonometry (using other tables in that little book).

It was the way calculations were done in a world without calculators.


Slide Rules

A year or two later we learned to use slide rules, which were just physical devices using the same methods as logarithms. You can see in the picture three wooden graduated rulers fitted together. The middle one slides along. In the diagram it is set up to multiply by two – so you can see how it shows that 2 x 2 = 4 and 2 x 3 = 6. For points in between you count along subdivisions, so you can also read 2 x 1.5 = 3.0 or 2 x 2.3 = 4.6 . The method was not quite as accurate as Logs but it was easier and quicker.

(It doesn’t matter if you haven’t followed the last few paragraphs. If will give you a sense of wonder at how clever we used to be.)



We come now to something I thought at first would be simple – just mention calculators. They were non-existent in the sixties; appeared in the early seventies; were cheap enough for general use by the mid-seventies; and were allowed in schools by the late eighties, replacing all that work with log tables and slide rules.

But then I realised that these cumbersome machines are now so outdated that most youngsters have never seen one and wouldn’t even recognize one! You probably have a Calculator app on your phones. The picture above shows an early calculator. It’s small strip of LED (light emitting Diodes) at the top was all you had then to show what was happening, with physical buttons to enter data.

The picture shows a scientific calculator, which could do trigonometry and other functions. Early basic models just did addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

All you really need to know that these things just didn’t exist in the early sixties. At schools we had to manage with pencil and paper methods, log tables and slide rules.


A Diversion about Tractors

Why am I talking about tractors?

Well, for about six months after I left school, in 1966, I worked in the Accounts Department of Ford Motor Company at their Tractor factory at Basildon, down the road a bit from Ilford. Looking back on that period now, it is amazing that businesses ever managed their accounts with such primitive technology. Most of the time I was sorting through bits of paper, matching invoices to delivery notes so that we only paid for goods actually received.

In theory, every invoice was matched by its proof of delivery and that happened some of the time. More often numbers and dates did not match and there were all sorts of bits of paper to split, rearrange and match. Difficult situations were referred to ‘the Auditors,’ always said with an air of trepidation. I was just a humble clerk – not even that, just a ‘temp.’

[For those who want to reminisce about tractors, there were four models then of different sizes: Dextra, Super Dextra, Major and Super Major. They were bright blue. The one shown in the picture is a Dextra, the smallest model. Every part that arrived at the factory had a part number. Most started C5NN, which meant they were painted bright blue. Engines just had a long number. Delivery notes always seemed to include part number EZE 35, wooden pallets, which were returnable and free.]


Calculating Machines

At the Ford Tractor works, I dealt mainly with internal transfers from Belgium. If I remember correctly, the turnover just for this was about a million pounds a month, a lot of money in those days. It was before the hand-held calculators shown earlier so all we had were some slow, bulky adding machines and these ‘Facit’ machines for multiplication.

You had to manually set up both numbers, then wind the handle several times to get the answer. It was entirely mechanical and so the machines were noisy. It was a miracle that accounts were published every months with figures bearing some approximation to what had actually happened.

Most people in businesses through Britain would not have ever seen something so technologically advanced as this.

They did have a computer – just one for the whole factory complex at Basildon – and I will come to that later. This was going to be blog about computers … Maybe next time.

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[59] Weights and Measures

After looking at our complex system of money and coins in [56] Spending a Penny, I have to look next at the old units that have largely disappeared. The decimalization of money was a complete change at a single point in time (Sunday 15 February 1971) whereas the later move to metric measures has been slow and hesitant, almost unnoticed by the public. For children at school, metric units are now standard. Back in the fifties we had the more complex Imperial system.

Diaries and the inside covers of exercise books used to show all the tables – including rods, poles, perches, bushels, pecks and others, all too obscure for a mention here.


For cooking ingredients and recipes, we used pounds and ounces, with sixteen ounces to a pound. (Of course we did a lot more cooking then without pre-packed ready meals.) A pound weight, written ‘lb’ was always different from a pound sterling money, written with the £ sign. Ounces were written as ‘oz’. We weighed things on our kitchen scales.


In the picture above the larger weights (black) were for 2lb, 1lb, 8oz and 4oz; smaller one were for 2oz, 1oz, ½oz and ¼oz. It was effectively a binary system as 8oz was ½lb and 4 oz was ¼lb.

Packaged goods were also sold by weight and that’s how we pictured weight. Two pounds was a bag of sugar, one pound was a jar of jam or marmalade (now 454 grammes!), half a pound was a slab of butter and a quarter of a pound was a packet of tea.

(Labelling was more imprecise in those days. There were not so many regulations about showing weight or contents. A loaf of bread was a loaf, it was never weighed. I think large loaves were always 1lb 12oz, so small loaves would have been 14oz.)

For larger weights then we had 14 pounds to one stone. These have stubbornly remained when weighing people but, to my knowledge, were never used for anything else. They manage without stones in the USA. Here we would say someone weighs 12 stone 5, or 18 stone 6. (12 stone 5 is 12×14+5 = 173lb, but no-one in Britain would understand 173lb) We use stones in dieting to lose weight as well. You would always say “I’ve lost two and a half stone,” never 35 pounds. None of this has changed since the fifties.

(Midwives now have to weigh new-born babies in kg, but these figures are ignored. The first thing they do is to convert into pounds and ounces for the mother and everyone else. When you announce a birth, you always have to say how much the baby weighed. Our new Princess has just been announced, with a weight of 8lb 3oz.)

For heavier weights the old tables used to say that 2 stones are a quarter and 4 quarters are one hundredweight (cwt). We never used quarters as weights. We did use hundredweights (112 pounds) for coal. It was delivered in hundredweight bags carried on the backs of the coalmen. (‘Coalmen’ may not be politically correct now but they were always men!)

Then 20cwt make one ton. We bought coal by the ton. You could count the bags to make sure that there were twenty emptied into your coal bunker. By a very nice coincidence the metric tonne (1000kg) is very close to an old ton.



The tables always showed four gills to a pint, two pints to a quart, four quarts to a gallon and a few higher units. But we only really used pints and gallons. Milk was delivered in pint bottles. Draught beer at pubs came in a pint glass or (for the really wimpy) half-pint. Petrol came by the gallon.

Other liquids in bottles just came by the bottle, not generally labelled as a specific volume. Bottles of wine were about the same size as now, between one and two pints. Bottles of beer were called ‘bottles of beer,’ in a volume somewhat less than a pint. A bottle of beer in a pub would not come in a pint glass but it was not a half-pint glass either. Cider often came in two-pint bottles. There was, of course, no such thing as a bottle of water. Water came out of taps.

(With no regulation, no-one had any idea what volume was used for ‘shorts’ in pubs – spirits such as whisky, rum and brandy. You just bought a whisky or a double whisky. When standards were introduced in 1963, pubs could sell as ¼, 1/5 or 1/6 of a gill. Now it’s metric – 25 or 35 mm.)

Unlike the USA, where all ingredients in recipes are by volume, in Britain we normally use weights. We use liquid measures for liquids. For anything below a pint we had a half-pint, quarter of a pint and then fluid ounces (fl oz) with 20 to a pint. As now, we also had tablespoons, dessert spoons and teaspoons.

[Not sure of this but I think the word ‘quarter’ for ¼ is unused in the US. They use ‘fourth’ for ¼, which would not be understood in the UK.]

While almost everything in the UK is now measured metrically, by kg or litres, draught beer by the pint in pubs remains a special circumstance. Petrol only changed from gallons to litres when it went over £1 per gallon and the machines had to be changed. It soon went over £5 a gallon!

(In another attempt to keep to what we know, fuel consumption is still always quoted as miles per gallon, even though petrol comes in litres.)



We used feet and inches, with twelve inches to a foot. (An inch is about 2½ cm and a foot is almost exactly 30 cm.) At school we had a 12-inch ruler marked in half inches, quarter inches, 1/8 and 1/16 inches – so we didn’t need decimals or mm. Rulers were, of course, made of wood. Things were sized in inches using these binary fractions – shirts were neck size 14”, 14½” etc., hats were 6”, 6 1/8. 6¼ etc.

(It’s hard to show how things were different when, for almost everything, old people like me still think in feet and inches. I know that one foot is near enough to 30 cm if I ever have to convert to metric distances. I know that schools now teach metric units so I assume that my younger readers need some explanation of our ancient ways.)

Measuring people’s height in feet and inches is like weighing them in stones and pounds. We still do it, while using metres for almost everything else.

While we might have measured floor-space in feet, anything much larger was done in yards, where a yard is three feet. (Shops that sold carpets had difficulty when metric measurement came in. They showed prices in square metres, but they used to show the price per square yard in larger figures. People assumed that the units were quite close but the figure for square yards always made it look cheaper.)

There were supposedly intermediate units like chains (22 yards) and furlongs (an eighth of a mile, only used in horse racing) but anything less than a mile was measured in hundreds of yards – unless it was half a mile or a quarter of a mile.


Athletics race tracks had a circumference of 440 yards, a quarter of a mile. The first time an athlete ran a mile in under four minutes was a dramatic occasion in the sporting world. It was four laps exactly on a track of cinders (without modern running shoes). The modern record, in very different conditions, is under 3 minutes 45 seconds. One mile remains as the only officially recognized non-metric distance for running. Modern tracks are 400 metres in circumference.

There have been some attempts to modernize distances on road signs but conversion from miles to km would be far too expensive. It would involve changing every sign. You may note that modern motorways have slip road warnings at 2/3 mile and 1/3 mile rather the generally used halves and quarters. The 2/3 mile is a km, and 1/3 mile is half a km, but they cannot say that yet!


I won’t say much about area. There is a metric unit called a hectare but for land we stick resolutely to acres. An acre was the amount one man could manage in one day with one ox. This land has a length of one furlong and a width of one chain. A furlong, or ‘’furrow long’ is the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting. The chain, invented in 1620, was a metal chain of 100 links used as a standard in surveying.


We now have the European standard for paper sizes, where the length is √2 times the width. Most common is A4 at 297 by 210 mm. (My HP printers refuse to believe this. They consistently reset it to the US standard Letter size, nominally 8.5 by 11 inches, or216 mm x 279 mm.)

I still fondly remember our old paper and our old paper size, foolscap 8½ by 11½ inches. From the Fifteenth Century, foolscap paper was made with a watermark showing a fool’s cap – like a jester or a joker in a set of playing cards. (Paper was sold in quires and reams. Now it comes packed as 500 sheets!)


Temperatures are only really used by the public for weather forecasting and in medicine. Until the late sixties we used Fahrenheit. With our half-hearted metrication we moved to Centigrade, now called Celsius, by a very slow process. For several years, television weather forecasts used both scales. I think some older people still think in Fahrenheit. Back then we used mercury thermometers to measure air temperature.


We also used them in medicine. We used to stick a fragile glass tube containing highly poisonous mercury under the tongue. (Health and Safety. Never heard of it!) Everyone knew that 98.4 F was ‘normal,’ and over 100 was feverish. Now the desired figure is 37 C as shown in the picture.

Other Units

At school, we used feet per second for speed, and feet per second per second for acceleration, and needed to convert sometimes to miles per hour. (30 mph is 44 fps) With metric units things like this are now simpler. The same was true with energy. We found the value of a calorie in terms of joules by experiment. In metric units a joule is simply a definition (a newton-metre). We had to use pounds weight instead of newtons.

There were many other units for particular situations or in scientific contexts. Some are still with us. We had horsepower for power, BThU for gas meters. (Electricity used to be KWhr as it is now.)

The legal situation in the UK is fairly complex with miles and yards retained for road signs, mph for speeds. (Units like miles, pounds, pints are now defined as a precise metric equivalent!) Draught beer is still delivered in pints. Most other things are metric – even if a 1lb jar of jam is now 454 grammes!

Horses are still measured in hands (four inches). Fonts are still given in points (1/72 inch). We still measure the weight of diamonds in carats (where 1 carat is 0.2 grammes), and the purity of gold in carats. (Different unit! 24 carats = 100% gold.) Distances at sea are still nautical miles (not quite the same as miles) with speed in knots (nm per hour). Depths at sea are not now usually measured in fathoms.

While calories are no longer used in scientific measurement they remain stubbornly in use for food labelling. We now have joules but figures for calories are also given. Perhaps this is the inertia of people knowing what the old figures meant. Perhaps the lower calorie figure sounds less fattening than lots more joules!

[US readers will be totally confused. Some of their usage is still like our old system but their gallon is different and they use hundreds of feet rather than hundreds of yards. They still keep to Fahrenheit. But then Americans have yards where we have gardens! When I come to look at language, many changes will be attributed to Americanisation.]







[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.