COLUMN: The penny and the farthing

I don’t usually offer an opinion about the finer points of either a provincial or a federal budget.

by Pauline Buck, Contributor

I don’t usually offer an opinion about the finer points of either a provincial or a federal budget. And this year was no exception until I heard a coin collector being interviewed about the negative side of the loss of the penny.

When he said generations in the future won’t know what a penny is, or will have difficulty figuring out that a nickel is five pennies… five what? …. my ears perked up.  I was reminded of my first trip to London in 1965 and the challenges their currency presented. Pounds, shillings, half pennies (oh sorry – haypennies) and if I remember correctly it all worked on a denomination of 6.  This was before Britain switched to a decimal system that is at least a bit easier to calculate even if they did retain their pounds, shillings, pence etc .

In 1965 I was the ripe old age of 18 and travelling in Europe on what I love to say was on my parents’ honeymoon! In March of that year my mother had re-married to a wonderful Scotsman who had been a confirmed bachelor before “we” came along.  Not only had George never been married, he was completely inexperienced (OK – naïve) in the wily ways of teenage girls.

It took me no time at all to convince him and my mother that it would be much better for them if instead of going to Europe for a honeymoon as planned, they stayed home and I went.

They could have the run of the apartment uninhibited by me, and it would be way more economical. (I sure knew how to get to a Scottish heart!).  So I won that round. (But not many more. George wised up pretty quickly.)

That July I jetted off to London where I met up with the tour bus that took a load of adventurers on a trip of 40 days and 40 nights to 9 countries of Europe.  It was one of those whirlwind jaunts where “if this is Tuesday, it must be Brussels.”

And it was wonderful.  I saw fabulous sights, drank amazing beer and made a friend that I still keep in touch with.  I only had to call home for money once.

Currency issues in Europe were fairly simple.  The Euro hadn’t been created yet, but I was able to figure out each country’s coinage without too much trouble.  I could even convert it to US dollars with some degree of accuracy. But England was a whole different story.  There was no way I could figure out their money.

When we returned to London from the Continent, I instantly became like the stupid tourist.  For each purchase I made, I held out a handful of silver and asked the clerk to pick some!  I was staying at the Overseas Visitors Club in Earl’s Court and down in the bar I used to spread out my coins and ask for lessons.  Nothing sunk in.

On the second last night before leaving London I went to see the film My Fair Lady. (Probably paid double to get in!)  Part way through the movie Professor Higgins says about Eliza Doolittle something like “she isn’t worth a half a farthing.”

Well, that was the end of me.  When I got back to my room I spread out all my coins again and went looking for a farthing.  I didn’t remember having one or hearing about one, but possibly I had missed it.

Finally, it was back to the bar to ask someone to show me a farthing! After the laughter stopped, they told me farthings had been discontinued years and years ago!

Now I’m thinking about my great grandchildren.  One day they will upload to their film-watching device (whatever that may be) a period movie circa 2011 and in a meaningful moment of the story the hero will say to the heroine, “a penny for your thoughts.”


Pauline Buck is  a local blogger and columnist at