Friday, 28 May 2010

When I were a Lad...2

When I were a Lad...
We used to have non-decimalised money, what older folks here sometimes call real money. It was an ancient currency and at least one denomination had been in use for well over a thousand years and even the most recent changes that came after George the third in the 1790s. Our coinage had remained recognisable over many successive reigns of different kings and queens and you could find coins in your pocket that bore the heads of kings and queens from out of history and several generations before you had once owned these same coins, maybe even your own great grandparents.

The last sterling coins
different coins were taken out of circulation in different years, so these are all different dates

It was often believed by foreign visitors, that these odd denominations were designed, to confuse, but the different numbers of coins that made up each denomination were a relic of the Roman’s method of defining currency and weights. Because of this only the florin, had anything to do with the number ten, since ten of these made a pound. Nonetheless it was two shillings or twenty-four pennies.
It has always struck me as strange that a country that regards many ancient traditions as something worth preserving, should have dispensed with such a long and ancient tradition as the old Pounds Shillings and Pence.
Traditions like the opening of Parliament is carried out by people dressed in ancient clothes who go through the same illogical actions that have been perpetuated for centuries and no one wants to stop that.
Decimalising our ancient currency may have seemed like a good idea at the time but in changing it so many things were lost forever.
Firstly foreigners are no longer confused which has caused a small loss of earning for some elements of our society, but more important than that, as a result of this conversion, our immediate link with history has gone. Although the portrait of our head of state featured on our present currency has been changed as she has aged, it has been the same monarch for enough generations for there to be people alive who have lived their entire lives, raised two generations and never seen a British coin outside a museum with any other monarch on it.
Finally the thing that I believe is the most significant loss is the ability of the general population to do arithmetic. Anyone who went to school after 1971 will have never been taught anything like the amount of arithmetic school kids learned before then.

As a child, I had to learn my tables from two times table up to my twelve times table, and sometimes beyond, now kids are only taught up to their ten times table and no further.
There were twelve pennies in a shilling, so knowing multiples of twelve was quite important if you did not want to be swindled when being given change.
I also had to know how many pennies made up a pound, not one hundred as today, but two hundred and forty. If your arithmetic is good enough, from this you will be able to work out that twenty shillings make up a pound, since there are twelve pennies in a shilling.
I also had to know all the other denominations, how many half drowns in a pound, how many sixpences in a shilling or a florin, or how many farthings make up a thruppenny bit and many many more odd combinations that we were expected to learn by heart.
Another thing you were expected to know instantly was what different numbers of pennies gave you in shillings and pence, for instance, what is eighteen pence or twenty one pence and so on.
Because there were twelve pennies in a shilling, you could use you r knowledge of the various numbers of pennies you were expected to memorise at school to understand the twenty-four hour clock, when you joined the armed forces to do your National Service. For instance fifteen pence is one shilling and thruppence. From this you can see that 15:00 hours is three o’clock in the afternoon. These sort of mental gymnastics are not something a modern child, or many adults can manage because all they ever had to learn was based on tens. Fifteen new pence is fifteen new pence, nothing else. There aren’t even half pennies now, let alone farthings, so knowing how many farthings there were in sixpence is never going to be a problem to people now, so they never get to learn it.
As a result of my early teaching of such a complex currency I can work out in my head what a few different items come to in the supermarket long before I reach the checkout and, if I have the correct money ready at a till the cashier is amazed or even highly suspicious, because no ‘normal’ person can add up numbers without a calculator, so something is not quite right and they seem to feel that I must be working some kind of obscure fiddle somehow.
A friend of mine once when preparing for a trip to America wanted to buy one hundred pounds sterling worth of US dollars in cash as well as some travellers cheques, and when told that the exchange rate was 1.6 dollars to the pound said ‘Good, that will give me $160 in cash’. The woman who’s job it was to dish out different currencies all day was amazed. ‘How did you do that?’ She asked him. My friend was similarly amazed at her inability to work it out. This was a woman of at least forty and she could not just shift the decimal point in a simple conversion without using a calculator.

I suppose this is part of growing old enough to be able to see the changes that occur in society. I can imagine thousands of years ago, all the old hunters would gather round the fire in the evenings and moan about these young farmers nowadays with their new fangled ideas of living in one spot and keeping animals penned up instead of running after them with a spear.
‘Just look at them, none of them know anything about tracking or spear making, how can they live with such ignorance'- head shaking all round as they despair of the modern youth of their day.
Maybe it is not important to be able to add up without a silicon chip to help you, since calculators are universal and probably never going away, maybe it is important to keep the mind working, I don’t know.


  1. Well, to be honest, Snafu, the subject of your blog reminds me of how I failed Math so miserably in school! But I will say that when I quit school at age 16, my father put me to work in the reception of the hotel he was managing. No calculators or adding machines in those days, and the ledgers must have been a good 2 feet in length. I learned how to add a 2 foot column of figures so rapidly, and that talent is still mine today -- I can add lists of numbers in my head so quickly it makes other people's heads spin!

  2. I failed math in school too until my GCE. Then after I retired I started tutoring in math --me?!! That's because one of the things I did understand was fractions and decimals, and none of the students I tutored had parents who could do these. One thing I will never understand is how I ever got to college and did not know you were supposed to MEMORIZE your times tables !! I memorized them in my first year of college. I suppose that up until that time I was just familiar with certain combinations occurring and remembered them. I do remember being amazed by one boy in the village, about 9 years old who could do mental arithmetic in a snap. I honestly thought there was some trick he was using.

    Very interesting post, Pete.

  3. When I was teachng adults computer systems, I discovered that many twenty/thirty year olds did not know how to do multiplication or division at all unless they had a calculator and many could not add or subtract. Imagine their difficulty when they needed to understand how computers did maths. Not only did they not understand the methods involved, they had to work in binary and haxadecimal!