The History Of Sterling

Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:09

In the huge landscape of Europe, there are just a handful of countries that are standing firm in their resolve not to join the mighty Euro, which has single handedly swept away many of Europe's longest standing currencies, making them nothing but a distant memory now.

One of the few countries who still hold their original currency is the United Kingdom.  The pound has a 'sterling' history to uphold so it isn't surprising that the people of Britain aren't particularly eager to get rid of it anytime soon.  It has changed a little over the years of course, much like any currency would.  Most notably was the change caused by decimalisation back in 1971.  Prior to that the pound was made up from two hundred and forty pence, and while that may seem like an odd figure, it was actually derived from the fact that this amount of pennies actually weighed one pound in weight.

Decimalisation certainly made the British currency far easier to understand and use (once people got used to it) but the pound had already been around for nearly three hundred years by this time, having been adopted for use way back in 1694.  Mind you, you cannot even use this as the official starting point for the currency, since sterling itself dates back to a far earlier time.

The Anglo-Saxons were the true pioneers of the currency we use today; they actually came up with the concept of two hundred and forty pennies to the pound – probably having no idea of just how long that concept would last.  The pennies in those long distant days were also made of solid silver – sterling silver, in fact – which is why the currency is now known as pounds sterling, in memory of the times hundreds of years ago when the currency first came into being.

The History Of Sterling

However it was King Henry II who decided that the pound would be used as currency in England way back in 1158.  It can be seen from even just this one example that the pounds and pennies we know today have been around in one form or another for a good many centuries, although their exact nature changed depending on who was in power and what the times were like.

One of the most notable changes was in the actual content of the coins, and it reflected changes which happened in many other currencies around the world at similar times too.  The pound sterling may have got its name from the fact that the early coins were indeed made of sterling silver, but as time went on the amount of silver in the coins was reduced and it eventually got to the stage where the currency became a simple means of exchange, because it wasn't worth the same as its face value.

There were also other forms of using the currency in centuries gone by that we would think very odd today.  For example, if someone paid for goods with a penny coin and they needed to be given change, it wasn't unusual for the trader to actually break the coin into pieces and give the customer a portion of their coin back!  It seems that our ancestors may actually have welcomed the tiny halfpenny coin that we so hated back in the Eighties.

Over the years some coins have ceased to be made – even since the time of decimalisation.  The most notable example is the half penny; a tiny coin which really had no weight at all and as such wasn't particularly popular with the British public.  As it was the unending march of inflation really did away with it in the end (even though very few people were still using it since it was so small and annoying, as anyone who is old enough to remember it will testify.)  It disappeared in 1984.

Other coins have also appeared in the range since decimalisation took place.  The most popular example is probably the one pound coin, which was just about as popular to begin with as the much maligned halfpenny.  In fact the pound coin made its debut at the same time as the halfpenny finally disappeared.  The British people loved their pound notes, the design of which had changed greatly over the century and a half that they had been in use, but they couldn't hang onto them once the pound coin came into circulation.

Nowadays of course the pound coin is regularly used and doesn't seem to be hated as much as it was to begin with.  Perhaps it was simply the thought of having to give up the note that got it off to a bad start.

There have been a couple of other notable arrivals to the British currency since decimalisation as well.  The first was the twenty pence coin, which like the larger fifty pence coin has seven sides, and it was introduced in 1982.  Sixteen years later the two pound coin came into use, and was most notable for the fact that it was made of two metals, giving it a gold and silver look and thus a more valuable appearance.
The British pound sterling still stands today as one of the world's most recognised currencies, and is holding firm against the newly introduced Euro.  The country has an opt out which allows it to keep the pound as its currency of choice, so it may be that Britain never adopts the Euro at any time in the future.  It may depend on who is in power and whether the British public's extremely lukewarm opinion towards the Euro ever changes; otherwise the British pound could be here for a long time yet.

Its long history certainly seems to be a factor in the British public's desire to keep using it.  After all, once the decision is made to jettison the currency in favour of the Euro, the pound will be gone forever – there is no turning back.



  1. This was really interesting! There were things here I didn’t know before and it definitely makes me look at the currency in a different way. I particularly like the history of some coins disappearing while others make their entrance. I suppose this will happen with many currencies but it is nice to read about it with relation to your own currency. The history of the pound can be more interesting at times than what happens today!

    — JamieK · Feb 28, 11:02 am · #

  2. I agree with Jamie. I’m a little too young to remember decimalisation but I wasn’t aware of all the other changes that have taken place at various times. It’s hard to believe the pound has been around for such a long time. It probably explains why we all take it for granted, although having said that I think some people will be less apt to do so since the Euro came along. I think most people would rather keep all the history and hang onto our own currency.

    — Kate · Mar 19, 09:24 am · #