diamond geezer

 Monday, January 19, 2004

You owe me five farthings

Quick history lesson for those under the age of 35 or living outside the UK: There didn't used to be 100 pence in a pound. Before 1971 there were 240 pennies in a pound, 12 pennies in a shilling, and maths lessons were a lot more difficult. Then there was the small change, which wasn't all small - the silver sixpence, the chunky brass threepenny bit with twelve sides and the giant copper penny with a picture of Britannia on the reverse. And then, worth less but by no means worthless, the halfpenny and (go back far enough) the quarter penny too, commonly known as the farthing. Here's a picture of the full set. And I remember all of them, just, except the farthing.

Quick history lesson number two: Farthings were first minted in the 13th century, originally in silver, although in very small quantities because even then they cost more to make than they were worth. Later copper was used, then tin, and finally bronze. In the time of Samuel Pepys one farthing was worth roughly the same as a 10p coin would be today (you can compare monetary values since 1264 here). From the reign of George VI onwards this tiny coin depicted Britain's tiniest bird - the wren - right up until the farthing left circulation in 1960. Quarter of a penny just wasn't worth anything any more.

Quick history lesson number three: Five farthings made a penny farthing, one very big coin and one very small one. Two wheels on a bicycle, one very big and one very small, also made a penny farthing. In the late 19th century these were a popular means of transport, more comfortable than the old boneshakers but still very difficult to ride. The big wheel could be anything up to 60 inches in diameter, and if you leant too far over whilst riding you could take a nasty tumble. Nevertheless, these ridiculous-looking bicycles could reach a top speed of about 20mph.

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