£sd (sometimes pronounced, and occasionally written, L.s.d.) is the popular name for the pre-decimal currencies once common throughout Europe, especially in the British Isles, and also in several countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. The abbreviation originates from the Latin currency denominations librae, solidi, and denarii. In the United Kingdom, which was one of the last to abandon the system, these were referred to as pounds, shillings, and pence (pence being the plural of penny).
This system originated in the classical Roman Empire. It was re-introduced into Western Europe by Charlemagne and was the standard for many centuries across the continent. The British form of the system was in fact used in much of the Commonwealth until the 1960s and 1970s, with Nigeria being the last to abandon it, in 1973.
Under this system, there were twelve pence in a shilling and twenty shillings, or 240 pence, in a pound. The penny was subdivided into four farthings until 31 December 1960, when they ceased to be legal tender in the UK, and until 31 July 1969 there were also two halfpennies in circulation. The advantage of such a system was its use in mental arithmetic, as it afforded many factors and hence fractions of a pound such as tenths, eighths, sixths and even sevenths if the guinea (worth 21 shillings) was used. When dealing with items in dozens, multiplication and division are straightforward; for example, if a dozen eggs cost four shillings, then each egg was priced at fourpence.
As countries of the British Empire became independent, some (like the United States) abandoned the £sd system quickly, while others retained it almost as long as Britain itself: Australia, for example, only changed to using a decimal currency on 14 February 1966. Still others, notably Ireland, decimalised only when Britain did. Britain abandoned the old penny on Decimal Day, 15 February 1971, when one pound sterling became divided into 100 new pence. (This was a change from the system used in the earlier wave of decimalisations, in Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa, in which the pound was divided into two of a new major currency called the 'dollar' or 'rand'.) The British shilling was replaced by a 5 new pence coin worth one twentieth of a pound. Nigeria continued to use £sd until the introduction of naira on 1 January 1973.
Historically, similar systems based on Roman coinage were used elsewhere; e.g. the division of the livre tournois in France and other pre-decimal currencies such as Spain, which had 20 maravedis to 1 real and 20 reals to 1 duro or 5 pesetas.
In the classical Roman Empire, standard coinage was established to facilitate business transactions. 12 denarii were rated equal to 1 gold solidus – a 4th-century Roman coin that was rare but which still circulated; and, since 240 denarii were cut from one Roman libra of silver 240 denarii, therefore, equalled one pound (livre in France, peso in Spain, etc.). Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, new currencies were introduced in Western Europe though (Eastern) Roman currencies remained popular. In the Eastern Roman Empire, the currencies gradually evolved away from the solidi and denarii.
In the 8th century Charlemagne re-introduced and refined the system by decreeing that the money of the Holy Roman Empire should be the silver denarius, containing 1.7 grams of pure silver and weighing about 1.9 grams (the exact weights are disputed[by whom?]). As in the old Roman Empire, this had the advantage that any quantity of money could then be determined by counting (telling) coins rather than by weighing silver or gold.
Different monetary systems based on units in ratio 20:1 & 12:1 (L:S & S:D) were widely used in Europe in medieval times. The English name pound is a Germanic adaptation of the Latin phrase libra pondo 'a pound weight'.
Writing conventions and pronunciations
In writing, there were several conventions for representing amounts of money in pounds, shillings and pence:
£2.3s.6d. (two pounds, three shillings and sixpence)
Unless there was cause to be punctilious, spoken: "two pound(s), three and six". Whether "pound" or "pounds" was used depended upon the speaker, varying with class, region and context.
1/- (one shilling, colloquially 'a bob' – the slash sign derives from an elongated s for 'solidus', which is also one name for the sign itself)
1½d (a penny halfpenny, three halfpence – note that the lf in halfpenny and halfpence was always silent; they were pronounced 'hayp'ny' //  and 'haypence' //  – hence the occasional spellings ha'penny and ha'pence)
2/- (two shillings, or one florin, colloquially 'two-bob bit')
2/6 (two shillings and six pence, usually said as "two and six" or "half a crown")
5/- (five shillings, one crown, five bob, a dollar)
£1.10s.- (one pound, ten shillings; one pound ten, thirty bob)
£1/19/11¾d. (one pound, nineteen shillings and elevenpence three farthings: a psychological price, one farthing under £2)
A convention frequently used in retail pricing was to list prices over one pound all in shillings, rather than in pounds and shillings; for example, £4-18-0 would be written as 98/- (£4.90 in decimal currency). This is still seen in Shilling categories of Scottish beer, such as 90/- beer.
Sometimes prices of luxury goods and furniture were expressed by merchants in guineas, even though the guinea coin had not been struck since 1799. A guinea was twenty-one shillings (£1.05 in decimal currency). Traditionally, certain professionals like lawyers and art dealers quoted prices in guineas. Historically at some auctions the purchaser would bid and pay in guineas but the seller would receive in pounds. The commission was then the same number of shillings. Tattersalls, the main auctioneer of racehorses in the United Kingdom and Ireland, continues this tradition of conducting auctions in guineas. The vendor's commission is 5%. The word "guineas" is still found in the names of some British horse races, even though their prize funds are now fixed in pounds – such as the 1,000 Guineas and 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket Racecourse.
Fourpence was often known as a 'groat', although the coin of that name was withdrawn in the 19th century.
A ten-shilling note was sometimes known as 'half a bar'.
There also existed a two-shilling piece known as a florin (an early attempt at decimalisation, being £ 1⁄10). In everyday usage it was referred to as 'two bob', a 'two-shilling bit', or a 'two-bob-bit'.
In popular culture
Lysergic acid diethylamide was sometimes called “pounds, shillings and pence” during the 1960s, because of the abbreviation LSD. The English rock group The Pretty Things released a 1966 single entitled "£.s.d." that highlighted the double entendre. The Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment called the first field trial with LSD as a chemical weapon “Moneybags” as a pun.
The score of 26 at darts (one dart in each of the top three spaces) was sometimes called "half-a-crown" as late as the 1990s, though this did start to confuse the younger players. 26 is also referred to as "Breakfast", since 2/6 or half a crown was the standard cost for breakfast pre-decimalisation.
- Pre-decimal British coinage
- Irish pre-decimal system
- Decimal Day for decimalisation in the UK and Ireland
- Decimalisation, for international decimalisation information
- Non-decimal currencies
- C. H. V. Sutherland, English Coinage 600-1900 (1973, ISBN 0-7134-0731-X), p. 10
- Walkingame, Francis (1874). The Tutor's Assistant. p. 96.
- Redish, Angela (2010). "From the Carolingian Penny to the Classical Gold Standard" (PDF). Bimetallism: An Economic and Historical Analysi. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-02893-6. Retrieved 11 November 2010.
- Peter Spuffords (1986). "Handbook of medieval exchange; Introduction".
- Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. 'pound'
- "half", The Chambers Dictionary, 1993: 755, ISBN 0550102558
- "Guide to Sales (2007 Edition)". Tattersalls Limited. Retrieved 24 July 2012. See also conditions of sale para 3.2 in the current catalogue
- Dickson, Paul (1998). Slang: The Authoritative Topic-By-Topic Dictionary of American Lingoes from All Walks of Life. Pocket Books. p. 134. ISBN 0-671-54920-0.
- http://www.theprettythings.com/disco.html The Pretty Things discography
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- UK Coins - information about British coins (from 1656 to 1952)