The Pound Sterling (symbol: £; ISO code: GBP), subdivided into 100 pence (singular: penny), is the currency of the United Kingdom, its Crown dependencies (the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) and the British Overseas Territories of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, British Antarctic Territory and British Indian Ocean Territory.
This article covers the history of sterling and the issues of sterling in England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. For other associated issues see Manx pound, Jersey pound and Guernsey pound. The Gibraltar pound, Falkland Islands pound and Saint Helena pound are separate currencies, pegged to the pound sterling.
Sterling currently makes up the third-largest portion of global currency reserves, after the US dollar and the euro. The pound sterling is the fourth-most-traded currency in the foreign exchange market after the US dollar, the euro, and the Japanese yen.
There is some uncertainty as to the origin of the term pound sterling. Some sources say it dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when coins called sterlings were minted from silver; 240 of these sterlings weighed one pound, and large payments came to be made in "pounds of sterlings". Other references, including the Oxford English Dictionary, say a sterling was a silver penny used in England by the Normans, and date the term to around 1300. For more discussion of the etymology of "sterling" see Sterling silver.
The currency sign is the pound sign, originally ₤ with two cross-bars, then later more commonly £ with a single cross-bar. The pound sign derives from the blackletter "L", an abbreviation of Librae in Roman £sd units (librae, solidi, denarii) used for pounds, shillings and pence in the British pre-decimal duodecimal currency system. Libra was the basic Roman unit of weight, derived from the Latin word for scales or balance.
The ISO 4217 currency code is GBP (Great Britain pound). Occasionally, the abbreviation UKP is used but this is incorrect. The Crown dependencies use their own (non-ISO) codes: GGP (Guernsey pound), JEP (Jersey pound) and IMP (Isle of Man pound). Stocks are often traded in pence, so traders may refer to pence sterling, GBX (sometimes GBp), when listing stock prices.
Since decimalisation in 1971, the pound has been subdivided into 100 pence (until 1981 described on the coinage as "new pence"). The symbol for the penny is "p"; hence an amount such as 50p (£0.50) is usually pronounced "fifty pee" rather than "fifty pence". This also helped to distinguish between new and old pence amounts during the changeover to the decimal system.
Prior to decimalisation, the pound was divided into 20 shillings and each shilling into 12 pence, making 240 pence to the pound. The symbol for the shilling was "s" — not from the first letter of the word, but from the Latin solidus. The symbol for the penny was "d", from the French denier, from the Latin denarius (the solidus and denarius were Roman coins). A mixed sum of shillings and pence such as 3 shillings and 6 pence was written as "3/6" or "3s 6d" and spoken as "three and six". 5 shillings was written as "5s" or, more commonly, "5/-".
Various coin denominations had, and in some cases continue to have, special names — such as "crown", "farthing", "sovereign" and "guinea". See Coins of the pound sterling and List of British coins and banknotes for details.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many other countries adopted the gold standard. As a consequence, conversion rates between different currencies could be determined simply from the respective gold standards. The pound sterling was equal to 4.85 U.S. dollars, 4.89 Canadian dollars, 25.22 French francs (or equivalent currencies in the Latin Monetary Union), 20.43 German Marks or 24.02 Austro-Hungarian Krones. Discussions took place following the 1865 International Monetary Conference in Paris concerning the possibility of the UK joining the Latin Monetary Union and a Royal Commission on International Coinage examined the issues, resulting in a decision against joining monetary union.
The gold standard was suspended at the outbreak of the war, with Bank of England and Treasury notes becoming legal tender. Prior to World War I, the United Kingdom had one of the world's strongest economies, holding 40% of the world's overseas investments. However, by the end of the war the country owed £850 million, mostly to the United States, with interest costing the country some 40% of all government spending. In an attempt to resume stability, a variation on the gold standard was reintroduced in 1925, under which the currency was fixed to gold at its pre-war peg, although people were only able to exchange their currency for gold bullion, rather than for coins. This was abandoned on 21 September 1931, during the Great Depression, and sterling suffered an initial devaluation of some 25%.
In the mid-1960s, the pound came under renewed pressure since the exchange rate against the dollar was considered too high. In the summer of 1966, with the value of the pound falling in the currency markets, exchange controls were tightened by the Wilson government. Among the measures, tourists were banned from taking more than £50 out of the country, until the restriction was lifted in 1979. The pound was eventually devalued by 14.3% to $2.40 on 18 November 1967.
A further crisis followed in 1976, when it was apparently leaked that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) thought that the pound should be set at $1.50, and as a result the pound fell to $1.57, and the government decided it had to borrow £2.3 billion from the IMF. In the early 1980s the pound moved above the $2 level as interest rates rose in response to the monetarist policy of targeting money supply and a high exchange rate was widely blamed for the deep recession of 1981. At its lowest, the pound stood at just $1.05 in February 1985, before returning to the US$2 level in the early 1990s.
Black Wednesday saw interest rates jump from 10% to 15% in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the pound from falling below the ERM limits. The exchange rate fell to DM2.20. Proponents of a lower GBP/DM exchange rate were vindicated as the cheaper pound encouraged exports and contributed to the economic prosperity of the 1990s. Since early 2005, the £/€ rate has returned to an average of about £1.00:€1.46, which is equivalent to DM2.85.
The government of former Prime Minister Tony Blair had pledged to hold a public referendum for deciding membership should "five economic tests" be met to ensure that adoption of the euro would be in the national interest. In addition to this own internal (national) criteria, the UK has to meet the EU's economic convergence criteria (Maastricht criteria), before being allowed to adopt the euro. Currently, the UK's annual government deficit to the GDP is above the defined threshold. In February 2005, 55% of British citizens were against adopting the currency, with 30% in favour. The idea of replacing the pound with the euro has been controversial with the British public because of its identity as a symbol of British sovereignty and because it would, according to critics, lead to suboptimal interest rates, harming the British economy.
The pound did not join the Second European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II) after the euro was created. Denmark and the UK have unique opt-outs from entry to the euro. Technically, every other EU nation must eventually sign up.
The Scottish Conservative Party claims that there is an issue in Scotland that the adoption of the euro would mean the end of regionally distinctive banknotes, as the European Central Bank do not permit national or sub-national designs of the banknotes. The Scottish National Party does not see this as a significant issue, since an independent Scotland would have nationally distinctive coins, and its party policy includes entry into the single currency.
The reign of Henry VII saw the introduction of two important coins, the shilling (known as the testoon) in 1487 and the pound (known as the sovereign) in 1489. In 1526, several new denominations of gold coins were added, including the crown and half crown worth 5/- and 2/6. Henry VIII's reign (1509-1547) saw a high level of debasement which continued into the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553). However, this debasement was halted in 1552 and a new silver coinage was introduced, including coins for 1d, 2d, 3d, 4d and 6d, 1/-, 2/6 and 5/-. The reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) saw the addition of silver ¾d and 1½d coins, although these denominations did not last. Gold coins included the half crown, crown, angel, half sovereign and sovereign. Elizabeth's reign also saw the introduction of the horse-drawn screw press to produce the first "milled" coins.
Following the succession of the Scottish King James VI to the English throne, a new gold coinage was introduced, including the spur ryal (15/-), the unite (20/-) and the rose ryal (30/-). The laurel, worth 20/-, followed in 1619. The first base metal coins were also introduced, tin and copper farthings. Copper halfpenny coins followed in the reign of Charles I During the English Civil War, a number of siege coinages were produced, often in unusual denominations.
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the coinage was reformed, with the ending of production of hammered coins in 1662. The guinea was introduced in 1663, soon followed by the ½, 2 and 5 guinea coins. The silver coinage consisted of denominations of 1d, 2d, 3d, 4d and 6d, 1/-, 2/6 and 5/-. Due to the widespread export of silver in the 18th century, the production of silver coins gradually came to a halt, with the half crown and crown not issued after the 1750s, the 6d pence and 1/- stopping production in the 1780s. One response was the introduction of the copper 1d and 2d coins and the gold ⅓ guinea (7/-) in 1797. The copper penny was the only one of these coins to survive long.
To alleviate the shortage of silver coins, between 1797 and 1804, the Bank of England counterstamped Spanish dollars (8 reales) and other Spanish and Spanish colonial coins for circulation. A small counterstamp of the King's head was used. Until 1800, these circulated at a rate of 4/9 for 8 reales. After 1800, a rate of 5/- for 8 reales was used. The Bank then issued silver tokens for 5/- (struck over Spanish dollars) in 1804, followed by tokens for 1/6 and 3/- between 1811 and 1816.
In 1816, a new silver coinage was introduced in denominations of 6d, 1/-, 2/6 and 5/-. The crown was only issued intermittently until 1900. It was followed by a new gold coinage in 1817 consisting of 10/- and £1 coins, known as the half sovereign and sovereign. The silver 4d coin was reintroduced in 1836, followed by the 3d in 1838, with the 4d coin issued only for colonial use after 1855. In 1848, the 2/- florin was introduced, followed by the short-lived double florin in 1887. In 1860, copper was replaced by bronze in the farthing, halfpenny and penny.
During the First World War, production of the half sovereign and sovereign was suspended and, although the gold standard was restored, the coins saw little circulation again. In 1920, the silver standard, maintained at .925 since 1552, was reduced to .500. In 1937, a nickel-brass 3d coin was introduced, with the last silver 3d coins issued seven years later. In 1947, the remaining silver coins were replaced with cupro-nickel. Inflation caused the farthing to cease production in 1956 and be demonetized in 1960. In the run up to decimalization, the halfpenny and half-crown were demonetized in 1969.
At present, the oldest circulating coins in the U.K. are the 1p and 2p copper coins introduced in 1971. Before decimalisation, change could contain coins aged one hundred years or more, with any of five different monarchs' heads on the obverse.
In 1992 the composition of the 1p and 2p was changed from bronze to copper clad steel. By 2007 the value of copper in the pre 1992 1p/2p coins (Bronze is 97% copper) exceeded the value to such an extent that melting down the coins by entrepreneurs was becoming worthwhile (with a premium of up to 11%, with smelting costs reducing this to around 4%) - although this is illegal. The new steel core coins can be sorted by use of a magnet and one assumes the Royal Mint will gradually withdraw the pure Bronze coins over time. In the meantime Britain must be one of the few countries in modern times where a large number of coins have an intrinsic value - similar to the "gold" guarantee of the old gold sovereigns.
In April 2008 an extensive redesign of the coinage was unveiled, to be issued in summer 2008. The new reverses of the 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p coins feature parts of the Royal Shield, and the new pound coin depicts the whole shield. The coins are of the same specifications as those with the old designs (which will continue to circulate). No hints have been given whether Britain will follow Australia and New Zealand and withdraw the 1p and 2p coins - or have a half way house which allows shop pricing to the penny (and payment by credit/debit card to the odd penny) but the final total to be rounded for cash purposes to the nearest 5p (or 10p).
The first sterling notes were issued by the Bank of England shortly after its foundation in 1694. Denominations were initially written on the notes at the time of issue. From 1745, the notes were printed in denominations between £20 and £1000, with any odd shillings added in hand. £10 notes were added in 1759, followed by £5 in 1793 and £1 and £2 in 1797. The lowest two denominations were withdrawn following the end of the Napoleonic wars. In 1855, the notes were converted to being entirely printed, with denominations of £5, £10, £20, £50, £100, £200, £300, £500 and £1000 issued.
The Bank of Scotland began issuing notes in 1695. Although the pound scots was still the currency of Scotland, these notes were denominated in sterling in values up to £100. From 1727, the Royal Bank of Scotland also issued notes. Both banks issued some notes denominated in guineas as well as pounds. In the 19th century, regulations limited the smallest note issued by Scottish banks to be the £1 denomination, a note not permitted in England.
With the extension of sterling to Ireland in 1825, the Bank of Ireland began issuing sterling notes, later followed by other Irish banks. These notes included the unusual denominations of 30/- and £3. The highest denomination issued by the Irish banks was £100.
In 1826, banks at least from London were given permission to issue their own paper money. From 1844, new banks were excluded from issuing notes in England and Wales but not in Scotland and Ireland. Consequently, the number of private banknotes dwindled in England and Wales but proliferated in Scotland and Ireland. The last English private banknotes were issued in 1921.
In 1914, the Treasury introduced notes for 10/- and £1 to replace gold coins. These circulated until 1928, when they were replaced by Bank of England notes. Irish independence reduced the number of Irish banks issuing sterling notes to five operating in Northern Ireland. The Second World War had a drastic effect on the note production of the Bank of England. Fearful of mass forgery by the Nazis (see Operation Bernhard), all notes for £10 and above ceased production, leaving the bank to issue only 10/-, £1 and £5 notes. Scottish and Northern Irish issues were unaffected, with issues in denominations of £1, £5, £10, £20, £50 and £100.
The Bank of England reintroduced £10 notes in 1964. In 1969, the 10/-note was replaced by the 50p coin as part of the preparation for decimalization. £20 Bank of England notes were reintroduced in 1970, followed by £50 in 1982. Following the introduction of the £1 coin in 1983, Bank of England £1 notes were withdrawn in 1988. Scottish and Northern Irish banks followed, with only the Royal Bank of Scotland continuing to issue this denomination.
in 2007, a commemorative George Best £5 note was issued by Ulster Bank. These notes were limited edition and many were presented in frames from the Ulster Bank Head Office in Belfast. These notes are legal tender, although are rarely seen in circulation.
Throughout the U.K., £1 and £2 coins are legal tender for any amount, with the other coins being legal tender only for limited amounts. In England and Wales, Bank of England notes are also legal tender for any amount. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, no banknotes are currently legal tender, although Bank of England 10/- and £1 notes were legal tender, as were Scottish banknotes, during World War II (Currency (Defence) Act 1939; this status was withdrawn on 1 January 1946). However, the banks made deposits with the Bank of England to cover the bulk of their note issues. In the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, the local variations on the banknotes are legal tender in their respective jurisdictions.
Scottish, Northern Irish, Channel Islands and Manx notes are sometimes rejected by shops when used in England. British shopkeepers can choose to reject any payment, even if it would be legal tender in that jurisdiction, because no debt exists when the offer of payment is made at the same time as the offer of goods or services. When settling a restaurant bill after consuming the meal, or other debt the laws of legal tender do apply, but usually any reasonable method of settling the debt (such as credit card or cheque) will be accepted.
|Coin||Maximum usable as legal tender|
|£5 (post-1990 crown)||unlimited|
|25p (pre-1990 crown)||£10|
Regarding the period 1750–1914 the document states: "Although there was considerable year on year fluctuation in price levels prior to 1914 (reflecting the quality of the harvest, wars, etc.) there was not the long-term steady increase in prices associated with the period since 1945". It goes on to say that "Since 1945 prices have risen in every year with an aggregate rise of over 27 times."
The value of the index in 1750 was 5.1, increasing to a peak of 16.3 in 1813 before declining very soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars to around 10.0 and remaining in the range 8.5–10.0 at the end of the nineteenth century. The index was 9.8 in 1914 and peaked at 25.3 in 1920, before declining to 15.8 in 1933 and 1934—prices were only about three times as high as they had been 180 years earlier.
For exchange rate trends since 1990, see Economy of the United Kingdom#Exchange rates.