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Saturday 14 August 2010


I wish I had some record of the reaction of Deborah Castle’s family, her brothers and sisters, to her marriage at the age of 44 to Sir John Bowring. I know that Sir John’s family, in his case his children, were not pleased that she was replacing their mother in his affections and in their family home.

From Deborah’s point of view she was at last free to marry following the death three years earlier of her mother, whose lifelong companion she had resigned herself to being. She was 24 years younger than Sir John, whose first wife had died two years earlier. He was certainly in need of a friendly face, having just returned from a disastrous last public appointment as governor of Hong Kong (see my post about his launching the Second Opium War!).

Sir John and Lady Bowring,
photographed by Disdéri Eugène, 1864

Starting a war was not the best way to round off an illustrious career. Sir John had made his mark in many arenas – as a politician, linguist, iron magnate, hymn-writer, you name it. One of his last acts as an MP, just before his posting to Hong Kong, was to lay the foundations for Britain’s decimal currency.

The chain of events began with the fire which burnt down the old Palace of Westminster in 1834. When it was thought that the nation’s standard weights and measures had been lost in the blaze (the standard yardstick and so on) a new Royal Commission for Weights and Measures was set up. Its report in 1842 – how slowly things move in British politics! – went beyond its terms of reference in arguing the advantages of a decimal system of currency as well as of weight, volume, distance and so on.

The destruction of the Palace of Westminster
(JM Turner, 1834)

A second commission was deemed necessary, to confirm the findings of the first, which it did after only a year in 1843. A mere four years after that Sir John Bowring, a leading supporter of decimalisation, argued a proposal for it in the House of Commons.

Younger readers may not know the full extent of the madness that was Britain’s old currency: there were twenty shillings in a pound, although until 1816 the largest coin was not the pound but the guinea, worth twenty-ONE shillings. Twelve pennies made up each shilling and there were four farthings in each penny, 960 farthings to the pound. This was in the days when a farthing could still buy something and a pound was an unimaginably large sum of money for most people.

Other coins over the years included the crown (worth five shillings), the half-crown (worth two shillings and sixpence), the shilling, the sixpence, the threepence (pronounced thruppence or threppence), the penny and the halfpenny (pronounced hayp-knee). From 1816 there was for a while a coin worth one pound, called a sovereign.

British small change circa 1970

As Sir John said in 1847, Great Britain stands alone with her complicated and entangled system, so unintelligible to foreigners, and often so embarrassing to her own subjects.” He suggested a pound divided into 100 new units called Victorias, with ten Victorias making an intermediate unit called a Queen. (He also suggested retaining and revaluing the smaller coins: the farthing would become 1/1000th of a pound instead of 1/960th, the ha’penny 1/500th and the penny 1/250th, to ease the transition for the public.)

Although it was a mathematical nightmare, the old currency was much easier to work with in common fractions: 240 pennies can be divided by two, three, four, five, six, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen, sixteen, twenty and twenty-four and still leave a whole number of pennies, unlike 100 cents, centimes, centesimi, Victorias or anything else.

The principle objection to decimalisation in Britain however was not the maths but the fact that Britain’s major enemies of the past 50 years, France and America, had gone decimal with the franc and the dollar. Doing what they had done would never do! Instead the government decided to take a little time to consider the idea, and as a holding measure agreed to Sir John’s suggestion of a new coin worth one tenth of a pound (two shillings) to be called not the Queen but the florin. (Bowring later said he had wanted it to be called the dime.)

The Godless Florin of 1849,
"one tenth of a pound"

The “little time” the government took to decide in favour of full decimalisation was in fact 124 years, for most of which we lived with the madness of two almost equally valuable coins, the florin worth two shillings and the half crown worth two and a half shillings. Bowring’s florin survived the 1971 changeover to become the “ten new pence piece,” which was shrunk to its present 10p size in the bicentenary of his birth, 1992.

It is lucky to have survived at all. The first florins, appearing at last in 1849, became known as the godless florins. The design omitted the usual Latin phrase Dei Gracia Fidei Defensor” “By the grace of God, Defender of the Faith.” Queen Victoria and the general public were outraged, especially when it became known that the Master of the Mint was a Catholic. The coin was blamed for everything from economic misery to plague and pestilence, and quickly (1851, quick by British standards, at least) redesigned.

 I'm delighted to add in August 2014 that a new biography of Sir John Bowring has just been published. "Free Trade's First Missionary" is written by Sir John's descendent Philip Bowring and deals with his time in Europe and Asia. Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said of the new book: "This scholarly and very readable biography, written by one of Asia's most distinguished journalists, shows how free trade became part of Hong Kong's DNA." It's published by Hong Kong University Press and is available on Amazon as a real book and also in a Kindle edition. (And this blog is acknowledged in the introduction!)

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