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Tuesday, 7 February 2012


For anyone not familiar with the peculiarities of pre-decimal English coinage this passage from Dickens's Bleak House is almost impenetrable. The meal is over. Guppy will pay and he asks Mr Smallweed what it comes to. 'Small' rapidly assess the total price of a meal for three people for the benefit of the waitress, Polly.
"Then I'll pay," says Mr. Guppy, "and we'll go and see him. Small, what will it be?"
Mr. Smallweed, compelling the attendance of the waitress with one hitch of his eyelash, instantly replies as follows: "Four veals and hams is three, and four potatoes is three and four, and one summer cabbage is three and six, and three marrows is four and six, and six breads is five, and three Cheshires is five and three, and four half-pints of half-and-half is six and three, and four small rums is eight and three, and three Pollys is eight and six. Eight and six in half a sovereign, Polly, and eighteenpence out!"
Bleak House Chapter XX
From this initially difficult paragraph we can deduce the price of everything on the menu which the three men - Jobling, Guppy, and Smallweed - ate. Smallweed adds up the amounts in his head and keeps a running total of the bill as he does so.

The three of them ate four helpings of veal and ham with french beans - Jobling had two. The total, Smallweed says, "is three" or three shillings. Three shillings is 36d so each veal and ham was 9d.

Such calculations, knowing that four ninepences were three shillings, would have been second nature to most Victorians. Jobling also had double potatoes, so four helpings make the total "three and four". So potatoes are a penny a portion bringing the total to 3s 4d.

Jobling's summer cabbage - no-one else ate that - adds another 2d - total now 3s 6d or "three and six".

After that came a helping each of marrow pudding taking the bill from "three and six" to "four and six" in other words adding a shilling. So each helping must have been 4d as there are twelve pennies in a shilling.

Six helpings of bread (two for each diner) at 1d each adds 6d making 5/- "is five".

A portion of Cheshire cheese is also 1d, add three of those to get to 5s 3d (five and three). Four half pints of half and half - a drink comprising equal measures of ale and stout - add a shilling taking the total from "five and three" to "six and three" or 6s 3d. Jobling had drunk two and so they are 3d each.

Four small rums are clearly 6d each, four of them come to 24d or 2/- , bringing the total to 8s 3d "eight and three".

Finally, Polly's waitressing service for three people is 1d each adding threepence to make a final total of 8s 6d. Smallweed gives Polly half a sovereign, which is ten shillings, leaving 1s 6d change or, as Mr Smallweed puts it, "and eighteenpence out!"