Old English Penny

If you walk over the footbridge at Richmond Lock from the St Margarets side you will see in front of you a disused kiosk. Built into the front of it are the remains of an old fashioned turnstile. Underneath layers of paint you can still see the words “Silent Reversible Patented 1887”. Up to 1938 it cost one penny to use the footbridge and this is where they collected the money.

The one penny toll also applied a mile or so upstream at Hammerton’s Ferry that links Marble Hill Park and Ham House. The ferry celebrated its centenary last month by offering free crossing to anyone who turned up with an old penny in their pocket.
One old penny seems to have been the standing charge on ferries since mythological times. That is the toll demanded by Charon who ferried dead souls across the Styx to Hades. Those who arrived without the necessary change were obliged to wander the earth forever as ghosts! Anxious to avoid such a fate the Greeks had a penny stuck in their mouths before they were buried.

(Now just in case any of you were not sitting up and taking notice before 1971 when we changed from Imperial coinage to decimal I should explain what an old penny is. The pound (£) was divided into 240 pennies. These were grouped twelve fold into shillings or ‘bobs’. six fold into sixpences, or ‘tanners’ and three fold into three penny ‘bits’ or ‘thruppences’. Twenty-four pennies made a half-crown and a pound and a shilling made a guinea. The abbreviation for an old penny was ‘d’ from the Roman word ’ denarii’. Thus 2 pennies would be written 2d. You must admit it all makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

The old penny, or ‘copper’ was a formidable chunk of metal. It was 3 cm across (1.25 inches) and 12 of them together, that’s one shilling’s worth, weighed over 100 grams). No wonder a pocket full of loose change was referred to as ‘shrapnel’.)

A penny was a universal coin, with enough value to be worth something, but not so valuable that one felt robbed when asked to pay it. You could give it away cheerfully – for someone’s thoughts, for a child’s Guy. It was the key to many doors, the most famous of which must be the door to the public lavatory. The pay toilet with its penny lock was invented by the Victorian magician and inventor John Nevil Maskelyne and first introduced in the 1850’s at a public toilet outside the Royal Exchange in London. The expression “going to spend a penny” didn’t actually appear until 1945. By 1977 the Daily Telegraph suggested that because of inflation the expression should be “going to spend tuppence”.

Eyptian Hall with John Maskelyne

There is a distinct connection between public lavatories and St Margarets. John Maskelyne, magician and inventor, had a friend and partner George Alfred Cooke who lived in a house called ‘Glenrosa’ on St Margarets Road. Billing themselves as “Royal Illusionists and Anti Spiritualists” in 1873 they opened Maskelyne and Cooke’s Magic Show at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. It was to become the hottest ticket in town and featured many new illusions that are still crowd pleasers today. It would be very nice to say that you could go to see the show for 1d …but you couldn’t. You could use the toilets though!

Jingle, jingle, Jack, A copper down a crack.
Twenty men and all their wives, with sticks and picks and pocket knives,
Digging for their very lives to get the copper back.

— from Martyn Day