If you have read much British literature or watched movies based on it, you have come across the shilling. It is not likely you are familiar with it or have any idea how much a shilling is worth because the coin has been out of use for a while.
Let’s get an answer to that question.
The shilling was in use as a measure of value in accounting records long before the coin was ever minted. During the Anglo-Saxon period (c. 500 – 1066), the “schilling” was an accounting term used in ledgers to represent the value of a cow in the county of Kent and that of a sheep in other parts of England. That’s how value was measured back then.
The shilling coin was first minted in the 1500’s, under the rule of Henry the VII. For centuries, the shilling held a value relative to the pound of 20 shillings to one British pound sterling, and one shilling equaled twelve pence. After the decimalization of British currency in 1971 to make it more competitive in a global economy, the shilling held a value of only five pence. It didn’t really use buying power, though, because the new system valued 100 pence to a pound. The shilling held roughly the same 1/20th value in proportion to the standard unit of currency.
From its first casting in the 16th century through the mid 20th century, the shilling was made of silver. After 1947, the coin was made of a copper-nickel alloy. The last one and two shilling coins minted for circulation were cast in 1967, though some collectors’ editions were minted through 1970. The shilling stayed in circulation until 1990.
In Dickens’ Day
One place you will find frequent references to the shilling is in the writings of Charles Dickens. When Oliver Twist removes the handkerchief from Fagin’s pocket without his feeling it, the boy is rewarded with a shilling. In Great Expectations, Pip receives a shilling wrapped in a two-pound note. When Dickens was writing in the 19th century, the shilling was a main unit of currency with a value of 20 shillings to one pound British sterling.
Most consumer transactions of the day were in shillings and pence, like that found in Bleak House, where the tab comes to “eight and six,” which means eight shillings and six pence, with eighteen pence returned in change for payment with a “half sovereign” worth 10 shillings (a shilling was worth 12 pence).
The Dickens work most of us are well familiar with is A Christmas Carol. If we have not read it, we have screened the film. We watch two versions at my house every year since we are all torn between whether George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart makes the better Scrooge.
The portrayal of Scrooge makes or breaks the film because, as you probably know, A Christmas Carol is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his dramatic transformation from miser to benefactor. Through the visits of three ghosts in one night – those of Christmas Past, Present, and Future – the miserable, self-centered man is changed overnight into a joyful paragon of generosity and goodness to his community, to his own family, and most notably toward his apprentice, Bob Cratchit.
As for the shilling in the story, we learn early of Bob Cratchit, the lone loyal and dedicated employee of the harsh and stingy Scrooge. Poor, miserable, and verbally abused by Scrooge at every opportunity, Cratchit toils away every day of his sad work life in a cold and dark accounting office for a meager 15 shillings per week.
Near the end of the tale, we again hear of the coin as a jubilant and revived Scrooge shouts out his bedroom window to a boy on the street below. He offers the boy one shilling to go tell the poulterer to bring the prize turkey hanging in the store window around to him there, and a half crown, or five shillings, if the boy returns with the merchant.
Here is a picture of the coin a young boy living in England in that day would likely receive. In 1843, the year A Christmas Carol was published, the front of the shilling bore an image of a young Queen Victoria. This coin was minted from 1838 until 1863.
You may be surprised to learn that we have a three part answer to our question today:
- The shilling of Dickens’ day sold today as silver bullion has a value of $3.38;
- A shilling in 1843, when Dickens published A Christmas Carol, had the buying power of about $6.26 today,
- And, then there is the shilling still in use today in Uganda and Tanzania, which has a value of 1/17 of one American cent.
The Modern Shilling
Shillings remain in use today in the African nations of Uganda and Tanzania. The two countries were formerly under British rule, and they border one another. The value of the shilling in both countries is approximately 1/17th of one U. S. cent but the values are not exactly equal.
There is more to the value of a unit of currency than its international exchange rate. To get an idea of the value of a modern shilling in its respective countries, I did a little research. Here is what I learned about comparative values in these two nations using a shilling-based currency today:
- In Uganda, a standard combo meal (sandwich, fries, and drink) at your local McDonald’s restaurant will cost 20,000 shillings. That is equivalent to about $6.00.
- In Tanzania, the same McDonald’s meal will cost about 18,000 shillings or $8.10.
- A gallon of milk costs around 8,000 Ugandan shillings, or $2.37, while in Tanzanian shillings the cost is about 12,000 shillings, or $5.37.
When we get a look at average monthly net salaries, we begin to understand the concept of cost of living. Prices are lower in Uganda, where the average income is about 556,000 shillings per month or $165.00, while in Tanzania it is roughly 1,950,000 shillings or $891.00 per month.
Seeing these prices, it is easy to understand why currency in these countries is denominated in bills of five, ten, twenty, or fifty or more shillings rather than one, five, or ten like American dollar or British pound notes.
What About Bob?
Now it makes more sense to us why the young boy was so excited when Ebenezer Scrooge offered him a shilling to fetch the poulterer. Six dollars is a fantastic tip for such a small chore, and he would get five times that – about thirty dollars – if he returned along with the merchant and the bird. That’s twice what poor Bob Cratchit was earning in a week!
And what about poor, put upon Bob Cratchit? How does his weekly salary of 15 shillings stand up in today’s dollars?
With the shilling worth about $6.26 and his salary being 15 shillings, we can easily calculate that Bob Cratchit was bringing home just under $95 every single week for 60 hours work. That’s about $1.60 per hour. In the United States, that was the minimum wage from 1969 to 1973, but of course those dollars had more buying power. In Cratchit’s case, we’re talking $1.60 per hour in today’s dollars.
Just like in our comparison of values between Uganda and Tanzania, the cost of living in 1843 London might make that $95 per week look a little bit better or worse, so let’s see what it was back then.
In England during the 19th century, Bob Cratchit’s 15 shilling weekly salary was just as below average as it sounds today. A family needed at least 18 shillings per week just to get by and about 25 shillings a week to be what we would call comfortable. Those figures come out to about $113 and $156 in today’s dollars. Of course, they did not have to pay for electricity, cars, cell phones, or cable television. That’s because they did not have those things. How happy are you that you live in the 21st century rather than the 19th?
That means that Bob Cratchit’s family was subsisting on about twenty percent less than a family needed just to scrape by. No wonder the children all look so thin in the movie, and poor Tiny Tim was wasting away due to malnutrition.
As the youngest, times were probably tough by the time he was born, so he could have been impacted by poor prenatal nutrition combined with a lack of food as he grew up. This would likely have compromised his immune system, hindered his growth, and could have made Tim vulnerable to a number of childhood diseases and syndromes that would manifest in his being small, weak, and otherwise unable to walk well or play with other children.
We all remember that Scrooge increased Cratchit’s salary. The book says simply that, “increased,” but some versions of the book put to film have Scrooge doubling Cratchit’s salary. That would bring him up to 30 shillings per week, which was at the high end of what a family needed to be comfortable in the day. That might be the main reason Tim’s health improved over the year: more meat and vegetables.
Still, 30 shillings a week in 1843 is only about $180 in today’s dollars, representing the after-tax pay check from about a 30 hour week at federal minimum wage. Clearly, people lived on less back then. Knowing how much the coin of the realm was actually worth back then helps us understand that, and maybe helps us to be more thankful that we are living now rather than then. What are your thoughts about that or anything we discussed in this article? Be sure to share them in the comments section. Thanks for reading!