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Overview of the British Sterling System

posted Dec 7, 2011, 7:13 AM by OC Coin Club   [ updated Mar 17, 2013, 6:01 PM ]
David Schwager, November 2011

Most nations use a decimal system of currency where one major unit, such as the dollar, peso, or franc, is divided into 100 minor units, such as cents, centavos, or centimes.  In the coin shop or in literature, we may encounter the less-obvious British sterling system with its confusing farthings, florins, guineas and other denominations.  Because the British Empire spread its system around the world, understanding this coinage scheme is useful for world coin collectors.

The sterling system is also known as “pounds – shillings – pence” after its key parts.  The pound served as the major unit.  Each pound was divided into 20 shillings, which was further divided into 12 pence (The singular of “pence” is “penny”).  Each, pound, therefore, contained 12 X 20 = 240 pence.  Amounts were written and calculated using all three units, such as “one pound, seventeen shillings, and nine pence.”  Before 1971, the abbreviation for pence was “d,” so you may see a sixpence, for example, cataloged as a “6d.”

Several coins made up the sterling system.  Although sizes, meanings, names, and metals changed with time, and this is not an exhaustive list, these are the 19th and 20th century issues collectors will most often encounter.

Farthing (Great Britain)

Halfpenny (Australia)

Penny (Great Britain)

Threepence (New Zealand)

  •  Farthing:  A small copper coin equal to one-fourth of a penny.  Some bear an image of a small bird or birds because of the Bible passage (Matthew 10:29) which in some translations refers to two sparrows sold for a farthing.
  • Halfpenny:  A copper coin similar to an American large cent.
  • Penny:  A large diameter but thin copper coin usually showing a seated Britannia, an allegorical figure representing Great Britain.
  • Threepence:  A very small silver coin, or later, a larger 12-sided nickel piece.
  • Sixpence:  A silver coin about the size of a US nickel.  Some people believe that a sixpence in a bride’s shoe brings prosperity to the marriage.
  •  Shilling:  Worth twelve pence, this is the basic unit of silver coinage.  The United States quarter was based on the shilling and “shilling” was a slang term for a quarter until the mid-1800s.
  • Florin:  A silver piece valued at two shillings.   It may have the legend “one florin” or “two shillings.”
  • Half Crown:  Usually referred to in writing as “half a crown,” this silver coin equaled two and a half shillings or 30 pence.  Although this may seem an odd denomination, half crowns circulated widely, possibly because they were a convenient one-eighth of a pound.
  • Crown:  A large silver coin valued at five shillings, crowns were often non-circulating commemoratives.  Collectors also use the term “crown” to refer to a large silver coin of any nation.
  • Sovereign:  A small gold coin worth one pound.  In some years, worn sovereign obverse dies were used to make farthings.
  • Guinea:  This gold coin, worth 21 shillings or one pound and one shilling, was last minted in 1813.  The amount, however, was used well into the 20th century in some fields, such as medicine and horse racing.

Sixpence (Great Britain)

Shilling (Great Britain)

Florin (Great Britain)