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I've been listening to the BBC Radio show Hancock's Half Hour which was set in working class 50s/60s Britain before we decimalised our currency, and being in a very lower-class cockney London setting it's full of slang terms for currency such as bob, knicker and tanner, but one term I'm having trouble translating is "half a dollar", as in "The Chef That Died Of Shame" (around 4:49) in which Tony is running a horse-drawn hot pie stall.

What would "half a dollar" mean in real money at the time? Where did the term come from?

Tony Hancock (the character shared the name with the actor) was always depicted as an old and old-fashioned character too, so it may be a lot earlier than the broadcast dates, any time from the 1900s to 1945 based on the standard age of the references in the show.

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    Two and sixpence; half a crown. 'Equivalent' (ignoring the rapid inflation after decimalisation) to 12.5p. See the Hemyockcastle.co.uk/money site. Apr 19, 2017 at 22:57
  • @EdwinAshworth - I thought a crown was 5s and 1s = 12d So half a crown was 2/6 or 30p.
    – Jim
    Nov 25, 2020 at 0:42
  • @Jim There were 20 shillings to £1, so 2 shillings was 10p. There were 12 (old) pence to the shilling, so sixpence was half a shilling or 2.5p. So two and six was 12.5p as Edwin said. You are right in saying that a crown was 5 shillings.
    – Rosie F
    Nov 25, 2020 at 7:43
  • @RosieF - So is my misunderstanding because p and d are not the same? d is old pence and p is something else?
    – Jim
    Nov 25, 2020 at 9:24
  • ... Yes. '12d' = '1s or 1 shilling' = 5p. (pre-decimal currency in scare quotes). Nov 25, 2020 at 11:57

3 Answers 3

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Half-a-dollar:

Collins Dictionary

Half-crown

Half-crown:

  • a former silver or cupronickel coin of Great Britain equal to two shillings and sixpence: use phased out after decimalization in 1971.

(Dictionary.com)

The origin appears to derive from the following historical facts:

It goes back to the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was short of gold and silver coinage because most of it was used to finance the War abroad. Spanish dollars were imported to fill the gap and given the nominal value of 5 shillings, although, despite being about the same size they were actually worth a little less in terms of silver content. Hence, 5/- was a dollar and 2/6 as a half-dollar.

(Oman's History of the Peninsular War)

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When I was a kid in the 1950s, $4 = £1 - therefore, ‘alf-a-dollar’ = 2s6d pre-decimalisation. I can’t say I’ve heard that expression nor ‘dollar’ (£0.25 decimal) for a very long time.

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  • That must have been the 1940s. (I know what it is like - the decades merge.) The Stafford Cripps 1949 devaluation (under the Bretton Woods agreement) moved the pound from $4.03 to $2.80. The pound remained at $2.80 until Harold Wilson devalued it to $2.40 in 1967. It didn't begin to float until Edward Heath's government.
    – WS2
    Nov 19, 2021 at 8:00
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Taken from a book I have in my possession entitled "Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942” (ISBN 1-85124-085-3) there is a page on monetary conversion between £Pound versus $USDollar. £1 is listed as $4, and 5 shillings (being a quarter of a £1 and also known as a crown) is listed as $1. A common coin in circulation was the half-crown (known as ‘2 and 6’ or ‘2 shillings and sixpence’, and written as 2/6) was therefore also referred to as half a dollar. QED.

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    So you're giving the same answer as the accepted answer? Nov 17, 2021 at 18:24
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    It's a little unclear, but I think you're asserting that the Napoleonic origin cited in the accepted answer is incorrect. It doesn't offer primary-source proof that the term emerged that early, but Oman's History of the Peninsular War was published between 1902 and 1930, so the very fact that it addresses the term would seem to disprove a theory that it emerged in WWII. And I'm not sure what "InterNerd" is meant to suggest, but it doesn't seem helpful here. Nov 17, 2021 at 19:27

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