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IT HAS been said the English were the most honest of people when they had to deal with each other and their ₤ s d currency system. A recent item (www.wp.me/p2ETap-Q7) on Alcock and Brown cited prize money in guineas, another oddity of English currency.
All this changed officially in 1971, with decimalization and ₤1 equaling 100 pence. But guineas still continue.
First, pounds sterling, shillings and pence: Offa of Mercia, an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon king—in fact, the first to call himself “King of England”—introduced a silver penny (Latin denarius, the d of pence). Another Roman coin was the solidus, whence the English shilling, s. One conjecture is the shilling dates from these same Anglo-Saxon times as the value of a cow: 12 pennies. And 240 pennies weighed one pound (Latin, libra), thus the fancy L, ₤.
So, up until 1971 and Britain’s decimalization, it was 12 pence to the shilling; 20 shillings to the pound sterling. If something cost 10 shillings and 6 pence, it would be “ten and six,” written 10/6.
The guinea appeared in 1663, originally a gold coin valued at 20 shillings or one pound. It was 1 inch in diameter with an average gold purity of around 90 percent. The coin acquired its informal name “guinea” because its gold came from Guinea in Africa.
Early guinea coins contained an image of an elephant and castle below that of James II, this image verifying provenance of its gold traced to The (English-colonial-owned) Africa Company.
Today, the Elephant and Castle is a district of London, so named after an early hostelry in the neighborhood. This coaching inn got its name from the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, a guild of knifemakers. The guild adopted the elephant and castle (likely a howdah, originally) as an emblem reflecting the use of ivory in knife handles.
Back to the guinea: The values of silver and gold varied, just as they do today. Because of this, at one point the guinea’s value reached as much as 30 shillings. Then, in 1717, it was officially fixed at 21 shillings.
In 1813, the British mint produced 80,000 guineas, primarily to finance the Duke of Wellington’s campaign in the Pyrenees, where apparently only gold was accepted. After 1814, the guinea became a colloquial term only, though still recognized as representing 21 shillings.
Today, the guinea has specialized appeal in horseracing and farm stock. Out of tradition, a horserace may carry the name “1000 Guinea Handicap.” In livestock auctions, a purchaser pays in guineas, whereas the seller receives payment in an equal number of pounds. The difference—1 shilling per guinea, these days, 5 pence/guinea—is traditionally the auctioneer’s cut.
Curiously, there’s an African tradition that’s similar. The royal weights of an Asante king were heavier than those of merchants. Thus, he was granted a larger share of any deal.
Aristocratic overtones persist in England. Professional fees, prices for antique furniture, art and other luxury items may be quoted in guineas. “One pays one’s tradesman in pounds, but one’s barrister in guineas.”
I end with a personal note. Teaching mathematics in the Caribbean in the 1970s, I was describing the logic and efficiency of base-10 currency by contrasting it with the traditional English system. I said, “My purchase is ₤2 12/6 and I pay with a ₤5 note. What’s my change?”
A kid from one of the British islands—who had evidently lived in England—came back in a flash with “two quid, seven bob and a tanner, sir.”
And, of course, he was correct. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013