Steampunk Canada

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Socio-Economics of Steampunk

Posted by Lee A. Farruga on November 26, 2013 at 10:00 AM

This post is written by Steampunk Canada Member Steam Bob Tanner (aka Nelson Boon)

Pounds, Shillings, and Pence: The Socio-economics of Steampunk

Most people over 50 know, and many readers of Steampunk (or Agatha Christie) have learned from a dictionary, that in the glory days of Steam and Empire, the pound was divided into 20 shillings, and the shilling into 12 pence, for 240 pence to the pound. But what did people actually have in their pockets? What was it worth? How much of it did they need? Knowing the answers to these questions, even in general terms, helps to establish both the accuracy of historical (and alt-historical) fiction, and to give readers a better opportunity to understand the lives of those people we so admire or those whose lives we often ignore.

The information that follows is based on data for the year 1888, a nice, solid Victorian year. Equivalents are in Canadian dollars; the CAD was pegged to the pound sterling ($1.00 = 4/ 1 1/3d-- 4 shillings, 1 and 1/3 pence), and was generally at par or very slightly above the USD around that time, so 'dollar' can be interpreted as you wish. Amounts have been rounded for simplicity's sake.

So, what did your average costermonger or tweenie actually have in pocket or purse? Bronze coins in circulation were the farthing (= $0.005), the halfpenny-- no hyphen, and as you undoubtedly know, pronounced 'ha'penny'-- (= $0.01), and the penny (= $0.02).

Silver coins in circulation were:

3d (= $0.06), pronounced 'thrippence' or 'thruppence'
6d (= $0.12), a tanner in common speech
1/ (= $0.24), commonly called a bob
2/ (= $0.49), a florin
2/6 (= $0.61), a half-crown
4/ (= $0.97), the double florin
5/ (= $1.22), the crown

The two gold coins in common circulation were the half-sovereign, worth 10/ (= $2.43), and the sovereign, £1 (= $4.87). Although banknotes circulated for various amounts starting at £1, the average working class or lower middle class person would seldom have the need (or opportunity) to use them.




This brings us to our next question: what was it all worth? Of course I don't mean the dollar equivalents, but rather what people needed to live. Remember that in 1843 Bob Cratchit made 15 bob a week as clerk for Ebenezer Scrooge. That barely let him be considered middle class, and lower middle at that. He couldn't afford anything better than a little house in Camden Town for his family, for heaven's sake. That house probably had a kitchen, a parlour, and two or three bedrooms, unplumbed (read: outdoor privy and a community pump for water). But he and "all the assorted little Cratchits" (or most of them) survived on less than a pound a week. Prices (and wages) would certainly have been higher by 1888, but not as much as you might expect. For those who lived through the inflation of the 1970's, it may be hard to believe, but three generations of Britons lived with about the same amount of money buying the same amount of goods, all the way up to the First World War. Prices were low, but so were wages. So how much money would Tiny Tim need in 1888? While food would have cost little more than his mother would have paid, his rent might have been rather higher, especially if he wanted some of that modern, indoor plumbing that was becoming fashionable in the 1880's.

But how much did they need? Based on buying power, wages (what you buy labour with, or what you sell your labour for) and prices were very roughly 1% of what they are today. A wage of £1 a week would have been just enough to qualify as working poor, especially if you were supporting a family in 1888. To give you an idea of the gap between the poor and the better off, a physician might earn £50 a week. In Toronto today, a physician might earn only four times the income the government deems necessary for survival, but that just means the gap has narrowed, not disappeared.

To give a different perspective on relative purchasing power, look at railway fares. In the 1840's the British government stepped in to regulate the cost of railway travel. They decreed a new, lower rate of a penny a mile for third class. Do the math and Via Rail is not that expensive. But a round trip between Toronto and Montreal is still a good chunk out of most people's weekly wage.

What does this mean to me, and how does it affect my approach to Steampunk? When I began to create my steamsona, it was not a coincidence that I chose the name 'Steam' Bob Tanner. One bob bought you three squares a day, and a tanner could rent a bed for the night. Although I do love the 'Lord This' and 'Lady That', and the 'gentleman inventor' steamsonas (not to mention the übercool clothes), I'll just be Bob, with grease on my hands and sweat on my brow from building all those airships, automata, and land ironclads. How else could anyone be hardcore-- or authentic? Steampunk isn't just cos-play for me; it's about value and values.

Thanks, Nelson


Nelson is currently engaged as a schoolmaster in York, Upper Canada. He is committed to the Fabian movement, and enjoys sketching, painting, and hiking in his spare time. He hopes one day to pilot his own airship.

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