What Does It Mean?


by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

If you lived in Britain in the 16th Century, what would you do with a groat, or a testoon, or a crown? Could you use a moidore or a thaler?

What is an ob?

What do these mean?

The basic units in British coinage were pounds, shillings and pence. The original pound was a gold coin, with which you could buy one pound weight of silver. Its symbol was a script capital L, from the Latin libra, meaning pound weight. A silver coin containing one-twentieth of a pound of silver was known as a shilling, symbol s, from the German-Dutch schilling, a similar coin. The smallest silver coin was a penny which was one-twelfth in weight of a shilling. Its symbol d was derived from the old Roman coin of similar value, the denarius. Thus L.s.d.

Henry VII in 1486 introduced a new and relatively modern coinage, showing the monarch’s actual portrait and Royal Arms for the first time. The Penny the hapenny or half-penny, and the farthing or quarter-penny were produced, as were the groat (four pence) and half-groat (two pence). The gold ryal (ten shillings), half-ryal (five shillings) and quarter- ryal (two shillings six pence) were also produced. In 1489, the gold sovereign (one pound) and the silver shilling or testoon were added.

There were also coins produced for accounting purposes rather than daily use, the angel (six shillings eight pence, one third of a pound) and half-angel. The angel was given by the king to people suffering from scrofula (the King’s Evil) that his touch was thought to cure. And how many pins can you fit on the head of an angel?

You may also see reference to a coin called the noble. This was worth the same as an angel until 1465, when it was raised to the value of a ryal Financial records refer to a person’s wealth in marks, which were not actual coins. A mark was an accounting term meaning two-thirds of a pound, or 13 shillings four pence. Whenever you see figures like L9 6s 8d or L6 13s 4d, this is a dead giveaway that the original was expressed in marks. Convert the total into pounds, in this case 9 1/3 and 6 2/3, then divide by 2/3, giving 14 marks and 10 marks respectively. Most countries have devalued their currency over time. Where once it cost 240 pence to buy a pound of silver, by 1340 it cost 450 pence to buy the same. So the coin pound was devalued by almost half. Henry VIII almost ruined the currency estab-lished by his father by devaluing it, and his daughter Elizabeth spent most of her long reign trying to restore the currency’s value.

In 1551, the half-ryal was renamed the crown and the quarter–ryal the half-crown, There was also a two-shilling coin known as the florin, similar in value to the Netherlands guilder. By this time, coins were often a mixture of metals, so that they were not usually worth their weight in gold or silver. The difference was kept by the King to increase his wealth.

Prior to 1662, coins were made by hammering. They were irregular in shape, which encouraged people to pare off bits of silver and gold, to be collected and sold separately. From 1662 onwards, coins were struck from dies, with raised and milled edges and an even thickness. A mutilated coin is now easy to spot.

From 1663 to 1813, a gold coin worth one pound one shilling, called a guinea was in circulation. Professionals liked to be paid in guineas, and some still quote their fees in guineas, even though guineas haven’t existed for almost 200 years. The ob is an amount often seen on tax records. A person is shown as owing 2 shillings ob. this is the abbreviation of the Latin word obolus, a coin worth half a denarius. An ob is therefore a hapenny.

But Britain was also a great trading nation, as well as the home of many pirates. Francis Drake and his colleagues captured many Spanish pesos and Portuguese gold moidores. The huge wool trade with the Flemish brought guilders and thalers and other coins from several countries. Even merchants at village fairs dealt as easily with foreign currencies as with their own.

The thaler is most interesting for us. In 1516, there was a huge silver strike at Joachimsthal in Austria. The silver was used to mint coins, which were first known as Joachimsthalers. This mouthful was abbreviated to thaler. It was later anglicised to our familiar dollar.

To convert values from 1450 to 1995, multiply by 234. If an item cost one penny in 1450, it should cost just over a pound today if it has not changed in value. A loaf of bread is cheaper today than in 1450. The change in value from 1914 to 1995 is a factor of 50. If Henry Ford’s Model T cost $750. In 1914, the equivalent should cost about $37,500 today.

A labourer’s wages in 1640 was about 3 shillings per week. By 1850, male factory workers were making about 30 shillings per week, and coal miners similar amounts, though their wages rose and fell with the demand for coal. An agricultural labourer was making about 10 shillings per week in 1850. That, and the fact that women and children could earn factory wages for the family too, was why huge segments of the population shifted from farming to factory work, despite the terrible living conditions, Money was the language of the Industrial Revolution. Those ancestors built the foundations of our family wealth today.

This article first appeared in the November 1999 newsletter, Volume 15 - Number 2