British stamp denominations: £, 1/-, d and p

Apr 26, 2004, 12 PM

By Rick Miller

Throughout most of the past, human beings have primarily counted by tens and by twelves.

The reasons for this are fairly obvious when you think about it.

Human beings have two sets of 10 digits on which to count: 10 fingers and 10 toes. That explains why we often use base 10.

Another way of looking at it is that human beings have 10 fingers and two feet on which to count. That accounts for our use of base 12, which is the system used for some of the stamps in our collections.

Other counting systems have been used. The ancient Maya, for example, counted in base 20 (fingers and toes again).

In early history, base 12 was probably more widely used than base 10. For example the Babylonians and other ancient peoples of Mesopotamia counted in base 12 or in multiples of base 12, such as base 60. They were great architects, calendar makers and astronomers.

The Mesopotamian use of base 12 explains why there are 12 signs in the zodiac, 12 months in a year, 12 hours in a day and 12 hours in a night, 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute, and 360 degrees in a circle.

It also explains why 12 is a significant number in numerology and in some religions. For examples, think of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the Twelve Apostles and the Twelve Days of Christmas.

While base 12 had an early head start, it has largely been replaced in human affairs by base 10, or the decimal system.

Probably the greatest incentive to the use of base 10 came when the Arabs, who counted in the decimal system, invented the concept of and symbol for zero. This vastly enhanced the ability to write mathematical notations and solve math problems.

Other cultures independently invented the concept of zero, for example the Babylonians, Chinese and Mayans, but it was the Arabs who spread the invention to the West to and the rest of the world.

Even though most of us now think and count in the decimal system, there are still some vestiges of base 12 in our daily lives, aside from those previously mentioned.

For example, we still buy eggs, roses and doughnuts by the dozen. Also, in many languages, the first 12 numbers all have distinct names, and all higher numbers are made by combining the name of a unit of 10 with the name of a number less than 10.

"Eleven" and "twelve" are distinct names. "Thirteen" is formed by combing the names of "three" and "ten."

One of the lingering vestiges of base 12 was swept aside Feb. 15, 1971, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland converted its currency to the decimal system. The previous system of British currency made use of the base 12 system.

Because Britain was an imperial power, the British currency system was in use in many places throughout the globe for much of modern history. Stamp collectors will find stamps denominated in British currency from a score or more British colonies.

When the United States became independent from Great Britain, it adopted a decimal system of currency in which one dollar comprises 100 cents.

Americans still often refer colloquially to an American 1¢ coin as a penny, reflecting the British heritage.

In reality, the penny hasn't been a medium of exchange in the United States since the country became independent.

Because most American collectors aren't familiar with the predecimal British currency system or with counting and notation in base 12, the denominations of British and British colonial stamps can often seem mysterious.

The smallest unit of British coinage in use during the stamp-issuing period was the farthing. A farthing is a quarter-penny. It is written in monetary notation as "¼d."

The ¼-penny slate and carmine Badge of Colony stamp, Barbados Scott 70, shown in Figure 1, has the denomination spelled out. Other farthing stamps of the same colony, however, show the denomination in notation.

The relative insignificance of the coin is preserved in the idiomatic saying that something or someone is "not worth a brass farthing."

Next in size comes the halfpenny, often pronounced "ha'penny." The notation for halfpenny, "½d" follows the same pattern as for the farthing. A ½d yellow-green St. Ursula With Sheaf of Lilies stamp, Virgin Islands Scott 21, is shown in Figure 2.

Next is the penny, written "1d" in notation. The world's first adhesive postage stamp was a 1-penny stamp. This stamp, the Penny Black, Great Britain Scott 1, is shown in Figure 3. The stamp reads "One Penny."

The penny is a very old currency unit, having been in use in England since the reign of King Offa, circa 757.

Why is the name of a coin that starts with the letter "p" abbreviated as "d"? There are various explanations, but it is most probably because a penny is one-twelfth (duodecimus in Latin) of a shilling, which brings us back to base 12.

Notations for coins and stamp denominations greater than a penny and less than a shilling generally follow the pattern established for farthings and pence.

One oddity to an American mind might be that the denomination of a 1½d stamp is often called "three half pence" rather than a penny-and-a-half. An Australian 1½d Parliament House, Canberra stamp, Scott 94, bearing the inscription "Three Half Pence" is shown in Figure 4.

British coins denominated more than a penny but less than a shilling include the 3d coin (usually pronounced "thruppence"), and the 6d coin, nicknamed a "tanner."

The 6d coin lives on in the American memory in the wedding verses about what a bride is supposed to have on her person at her wedding:

"Something old, something new,
"Something borrowed, something blue,
"And a silver sixpence in her shoe."

As previously stated, there are 12 pence in a shilling. The notation "1/-" stands for one shilling and no pence, and "1/6" stands for 1sh6d.

In this base 12 currency notation, the dash is a space holder. It performs the same function as a zero in the dollars and cents decimal currency notation system.

Although the notation for one dollar can be written with the zeroes as "$1.00" or as "$1," in the British currency notation system the pence space holder is almost never omitted.

A 1sh olive-green and black Government House stamp, Falkland Islands Scott 72, is shown in Figure 5. Its corners show the "1/-" denomination.

The nickname for shilling is "bob." When the Beatles sang that Mean Mister Mustard "keeps a 10-bob note up his nose," they meant a 10sh banknote.

In stamps denominated in shillings and pence, the number of pence takes the place of the space holder (–). A 1sh6d blue Standing Queen Victoria stamp, Victoria Scott 167, is shown in Figure 6. Note that the stamp is also inscribed "Eighteen Pence" instead of one-shilling-and-six-pence. Saying it either way is correct.

The florin is a 2sh coin, although I am not aware of any British stamp inscribed with that name.

The half crown is a British coin worth 2sh6d, or 30d. Some 2sh6d postal-fiscal and revenue stamps are inscribed "Half crown" or "Half a Crown."

A 2sh6d Queen Victoria postal fiscal stamp, Victoria Scott AR38, is shown in Figure 7. Note that the stamp is inscribed "Half a Crown."

A crown is a 5sh coin and a half sovereign is a 10sh coin, but I don't know of any stamps inscribed with these names.

There are 20 shillings, or 240 pence, in a pound sterling. The notation for one pound sterling is £1. The "£" for the pound, the "$" for the dollar and the "€" for the euro are currency symbols known and used throughout the world.

A £1 light red-brown Royal Arms stamp, Great Britain Scott 289, is shown in Figure 8.

A sovereign is a gold coin worth 20 shillings. Even though 20 shillings equals £1, it would be incorrect to call a 20sh coin a pound sterling coin. A £1 banknote is called just that, or a "pound note" for short.

The difference is that the sovereign was based on gold, while the pound sterling is based on silver.

British slang for the pound sterling is "quid," which is both singular and plural.

To sum up, if you wanted to express 5 pounds sterling, 17 shillings and 6 pence in currency notation, it would be written "£5/17/6."

This wonderfully baroque system of coinage has now passed from the scene, and the world is poorer for it.

Under the decimal currency system introduced in Britain in 1971, there are 100 new pence (now usually just called pence) to the pound, and there are no farthings, shillings, florins, half crowns, crowns or sovereigns at all.

The abbreviation for decimal pence is "p," so that currency notation for 25 pence is "25p." Because the new currency is based on the decimal system, one pound and 25 pence is written as "£1.25."

Most of Britain's former colonies preceded her in decimalization.

Many, such as Australia and New Zealand, named their new currencies "dollars." Malta retained the pound, but decimalized it to 100 cents.

The shilling lives on in some former British colonies in Africa, notably Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In these systems, a shilling is worth 100 cents.

A 200-shilling Jerry Garcia stamp, Tanzania Scott 1412, is shown in Figure 9.

Note that the currency notations for the Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan shillings retain the dash space holder even though the currency has been decimalized.

Today the values of the Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan shillings are so low that, in practice, cents are never used or expressed in the values of postage stamps.