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British Currency

The official currency in Britain is the pound, also known as pound sterling.

If you are worried about not being able to cope with pounds, shillings and pence, fear not! Like the dollar (and the Euro and most currencies around the world) the pound is divided into 100 smaller units – there are 100 pence, or pennies, in a pound. The days of pounds, shillings and pence ended in 1971, when Britain's currency was decimalised. The pound (or pound sterling) remained the same value. However before decimalisation there were 240 'old' pence in a pound. There were 12 old pence in a shilling, and 20 shillings to a pound. The 'new' pence use the symbol 'p' to make them different from the old ones which used 'd'. The new coins were originally marked with the words NEW PENNY (for one) or NEW PENCE (plural). The word "new" was dropped after ten years when everyone had gotten used to the new coins.

Pence/pennies are often referred to just as p, pronounced 'pee' – as in, "that will be 25p change, love". Pounds are often called 'quid' (not quids) – just as dollars are 'bucks'.

The Bank of England has been issuing banknotes for over 300 years. There are currently four different denominations of Bank of England notes in circulation.

£5 – The £5 note, with a portrait of Elizabeth Fry on the back, is the lowest denomination in value and the smallest in size. It is sometimes called a 'fiver'. Elizabeth Fry was a social reformer. The main illustration shows Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners at Newgate. In recognition of her work she was awarded the key to the prison and this is used in the design of the £5 note.

£10 – Charles Darwin is pictured on the 'tenner'. As a young man Darwin was employed as the naturalist on board the ship HMS Beagle, an illustration of which is depicted on the back of the note. Also pictured are Darwin's own magnifying lens and some of the flora and fauna that he came across on his travels.

£20 – Old-style. Sir Edward Elgar, one of England's greatest classical music composers, spent most of his life in Worcester and the first performance of the full version of his famous Enigma Variations took place in Worcester Cathedral in 1899. An image of the west face of the cathedral is included in the design on the back of the note.

£20 – New-style. Adam Smith, pictures on the latest £20 note, was one of the fathers of modern economics.

£50 – Sir John Houblon was the first Governor of the Bank of England. The current £50 note was issued in 1994, the Bank's 300th anniversary. The design on the back of the note includes an image of Houblon's house in Threadneedle Street on the site of the Bank's present building.

You can find out how to check if English bank notes are real or counterfeit at the Bank of England's website at www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/kyb_lo_res.pdf

Sterling bank notes, the same value as English notes, are issued in other parts of the UK, using their own designs.

In Scotland they come from the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank. They are recognised currency in Scotland – in pure legal terms they are not technically 'legal tender', but everyone treats them as 'real'. They are generally accepted throughout the UK. However if a shopkeeper in England refuses to take them from you, it is generally not worth the trouble of arguing (although many Scots people do!) – better to change the notes for English ones at any bank or Post Office.

In Northern Ireland, bank notes are issued by the Bank of Ireland, First Trust Bank, Northern Bank and Ulster Bank. These are often not accepted in other parts of the UK as they are rarely seen there.

Sterling banknotes are also issued by The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which are legally British dependencies outside the UK.


The coins currently in circulation in Britain are (from top):
£2 (2 pounds)
£1 (1 pound)
50p (50 pence)
20p (20 pence)
10p (10 pence)
5p (5 pence)
2p (2 pence)
1p (1 penny)

You may also see a Five Pounds (£5.00) coin, but these have been released as special issues and are not in common circulation.


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