Being the oldest existing currency in the world, the British currency has seen tremendous changes in its notes, coinage, and names over time. If you enjoy collecting currency, watch a lot of English movies, or are even just planning a trip to the UK, you could use a comprehensive guide to the British currency.
A Short Introduction on British Currency
The Pound Sterling (£), or Great British Pound (GBP) as it is referred to on the foreign exchange, is presently the United Kingdom’s official national currency. It has several denominations and names for each that this blog shall cover through a comprehensive guide to the British currency and its profound history.
The modern-day British currency system as we know it began in 1971 when the pound sterling was decimalized into 100 new pence and new coins were introduced. The original symbol £ was preserved for the pound sterling and a new symbol, the letter “p” was used to denote the penny. 100 pence make up one pound.
In addition to the United Kingdom, other countries also use the pound sterling as their mainland currency. These include South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, Jersey, Guernsey, The Isle of Man, Gibraltar, The British Antarctic Territory, and Tristan de Cunha.
What Are the Symbols for British Currency?
The symbol for pound sterling is £ and the letter “p” is used to indicate the pence. On the foreign exchange, a pound is listed as GBP, short for Great British Pound.
All foreign exchange currencies are shortened to 3-letter abbreviations. For example, USD (United States Dollar) or INR (Indian Rupee). The symbol for Euro (EUR) is €, so you can tell them apart.
Old British Money
Image source: Pinterest
The British currency has a long history of over 1000 years, with its roots in the early Anglo-Saxon period, which is also when the £ symbol was first used. At the time, the value of a single pound sterling was the equivalent of 1 pound of silver.
In 928AD, it was King Athelstan who introduced the pound sterling as the national currency and created 30 mints to control the supply. This was a vast fortune in its era. A single pound could buy you 15 cows.
The term “sterling” referred to the first silver coins, about 775 of them issued in the Saxon kingdoms. There are numerous theories about the origin of the term “pound sterling.”
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the term came from measuring payments in terms of their weight, or “pounds of sterling.” This was later shortened to “pound sterling.”
The entire history of the currency system and all its changes is long enough to deserve its own book.
British Slang Terms & Expressions for Money
Can’t call this a comprehensive guide to the British currency without bringing up all the slang the United Kingdom notoriously uses for the money.
If you think the funny names for money stopped with the new system, think again. Modern British expressions for different denominations of money are still every bit as amusing and fun to say.
By far the most commonly used expression for a pound. The word “quid” doesn’t have any plural version. So, to say 5 pounds in street lingo, you can say 5 quid.
· Fivers and Tenners
These words don’t refer to the British 5 pounds or 10 pounds notes specifically, just the amounts. So, a fiver means 5 pounds and a tenner means 10 pounds.
· Other Words for Money
These terms don’t refer to any specific amounts but to cash or money in general:
• Smackers (mostly used in plural form, e.g., 200 smackers)
• Filthy Lucre (a term used for ill-acquired or illegally obtained money)
• Bangers and mash (refers to physical cash)
• Bread and honey
Different parts of Britain tend to have slightly varying vernaculars, so you can bet there are plenty more words for money.
The British Monetary System
Before the decimalization, here is how the British Pound used to be broken down:
• 1-pound equals 20 shillings
• 1-shilling equals 10 pence
If you do the math, 1 pound was made up of 240 pence.
The letter “d” was used to refer to pence, derived from the Latin “denarius,” and the letter “s” referred to shillings, also derived from the old Roman currency “denomination solidus.”
The old banknotes used to look more like cheques and each carried a tremendous amount of value. So much so that average people wouldn’t walk around with notes in their pockets like they do today.
These paper bills were referred to as notes or quids. Another form of legal tender used along with bank-issued notes was gold coins, which were called “sovereigns.”
Now this may seem quite complicated, but here is how money was further subdivided for day-to-day transactions:
• 1 penny = 2 half-pennies or 4 farthings
• 3 pence = 1 thruppence
• 6 pence = 1 tanner
• 12 pence = 1 shilling
• 2 shillings = 1 florin
• 5 shillings = 1 crown
Hopefully, it makes more sense now why they chose to simplify this into a point-based decimal system of currency.
The new system of the British currency is much easier. 1 pound sterling (£) is made up of 100 pence (p). Up until 1981, this was inscribed as the “new penny” on the coin itself. Now, it’s just a penny or pence.
In 1984, the British government issued halfpenny coins but they had to be discontinued as the cost of manufacturing the coins exceeded their face value. The lowest denominator of a coin you’ll find is a single penny or 1 penny.
List of British Coins
Coins are integral to the British economy. This is because the GBP is so valuable that small everyday items such as a beverage or the bus fare are too cheap to purchase with banknotes without incurring too much change.
For the average person in the UK, coins are something you need and use every day. You use them to pay for the bus, for public restrooms, or even for a beer at the local watering hole. The average cost of one pint is about £3.95, which is of course much easier to pay in coins. Today, there are a total of 8 coins in circulation:
• 1 penny
• 2 pence
• 5 pence
• 10 pence
• 20 pence
• 50 pence
• 1 pound
• 2 pounds
The penny and pence coins are made from nickel-plated steel and nickel-brass. The 1-pound and 2-pound coins have a bimetallic design that was made to reduce counterfeiting.
List of British Banknotes
There are 4 denominations of the Bank of England notes being used today. They are:
• 5-pound note
• 10-pound note
• 20-pound note
• 50-pound note
All British notes have a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the front and a different historical figure such as Winston Churchill on the back of each.
The latest British notes are made from polymer rather than paper, because polymer is cleaner and a lot more durable than paper although it’s harder to fold them into your wallet.
It should also be noted that the Bank of Scotland, despite not having a central bank, prints its own legal tender. But it’s of the same value as the British pound so you can still use GBP banknotes in Scotland.
Interesting Facts About the British Pound
#1. It is by far the oldest independent currency still being used. The legacy of Great Britain lives on through its notes.
#2. Although you can use the British pound in Scotland as legal tender, Scotland prints its own pound notes that go up to ₤100 in denominations. The Scottish banknotes, funnily enough, are not accepted in the rest of Great Britain.
#3. The idiom “spending a penny,” meaning going to the washroom, originated in England in the 19th century because you had to pay 1 penny to use the public washroom.
#4. GBP notes are not accepted as legal tender in Jersey, Guernsey, The Isle of Man, Gibraltar, The British Antarctic Territory, and Tristan de Cunha, or the Falkland Islands. However, since they also use the pound sterling, you can exchange your British pounds for their pounds at a fixed 1:1 rate, which means they are of equal value.
#5. Did you know there are giant and titan banknotes that are worth ₤1 million and ₤100 million, respectively? Obviously, these are not for use by the masses and are held by the banks of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
A Few Parting Words
Hopefully, you found this to be a comprehensive guide to the British currency. It’s quite easy to get a hang of the British currency since the new decimalized system.
If you’re ever touring the United Kingdom or British territories and the fare collector on the bus asks you for 2 quid, or your cab fare comes to an even fiver, now you’ll know exactly how much tender to give them.