How often have you used a £50 note?
My guess is “not very often”. In fact, I’ve got one at home at the moment, and am not too sure what to do with it. The only time I’ve used them was an occasion when I needed to pay a cash deposit, and £50 notes was the easiest way to carry it.
My mother visited the UK recently and she brought currency in the form of £50 notes for similar reasons. More often than not, when she used one in a shop, the assistant would have to check with a supervisor that it was valid – the design changed in April 2014, and they don’t see them often enough to recognise whether or not it is the new issue.
To me, £50 seems a lot of money to carry in a single bank note – far more than two £20 and one £10 note. Yet its value today is a fraction of what it was when it was introduced in 1981. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, £50 in 1981 was worth £15.50 in 2012 (the latest year the calculator runs to).
I first saw a £50 note in 1988 when I was working as a shop assistant (£50 in 1988 was worth £22.01 in 2012). A customer wanted to pay for a less-than-£5 purchase with one. I had to refuse as there wasn’t enough cash in the till to provide change. In 2014 one shop refused my mother’s £50 for the same reason (even though her purchases came to £20 rather than £5).
Old money; new pence
Older readers will remember “old money”. Slightly younger readers will have a vague recollection that there was something before “new pence”. Even younger readers probably don’t realise that there was once 240 pence in a pound, and have never seen the need to qualify “pence” with “new”, or “currency” with “decimal”.
I was born in the pre-decimal era, but don’t remember it. I was the age where I understand that you exchanged coins for goods but was too young to understand the value of either. Because decimalisation was imminent, my parents didn’t teach me how to recognise and count the old coins.
At infant school we had cards on which we placed plastic coins, as part of our education about money. If we peeled off the “1p” stickers, we could see “1d” underneath. I now suspect that these cards originally held twelve pennies to make one shilling, and that the bottom two positions had been removed to make them hold ten pence.
The introduction of decimal currency
The introduction of decimal currency to the UK on 15 February 1971 was, by all accounts, pretty much a non-event. Not a lot changed. The fifty-pence coin had been around for a few years (replacing the ten-shilling note). The new five and ten pence coins were the same size and value as the old one and two shillings (and remained valid until the five and ten pence coins were redesigned in the early 1990s – and is there a more annoyingly-sized coin than the current five pence?). The sixpence coin – now worth two-and-a-half pence (pronounced “tuppence ha’p’ny”) – remained in circulation until 1980 (and no one found it strange that a coin known as a “sixpence” was worth 2 ½ pence).
When I was seven or eight my mum sent me to the village shop for some groceries. When I opened the purse she had given me the money in I was horrified to see that she had given me an old coin – it had the king’s head on it. “How am I going to pay?” I wondered, and carefully passed the coin over head-side down, hoping that they wouldn’t notice. That’s when I learned that the old coins were still valid currency – even coins that were so old that they had shown the king’s head.
The latest coins feature the royal coat of arms – in full on the pound coin, and split as a jigsaw pattern across the others.
It is the coat of arms of the English crown. I wonder whether Scotland has coins showing the Scottish royal coat of arms. Or maybe that is something that is waiting for the result of September’s referendum.