Saturday, 14 September 2013

Turning up like a bad penny



Turning up like a bad penny is a term that keeps its currency even though pennies are of little use anywhere now with inflation…well inflating all the time!

When I was lad we had a gas meter in the kitchen and we paid for the use of the coal gas to the cooker by inserting pennies into the meter close to the floor. It also took shillings (12 pence) as well but we could never afford to put one of those in as you could buy two loaves of bread with that and more!

It was late 1940’s in England and everything was short including me, but cash most of all. The meter reader would call every month or so to check the reading and take the cash within the meter box. There was always enough as the pennies (or shillings if my parents were foolhardy enough to put such a valuable coin in just for gas) were always sufficient to pay for the cubic feet of gas used as the Gas Board has cleverly adjusted the meters to give less than the correct value for the gas burnt in cooking the dinner and boiling the kettle.

This is because they knew about us and the rest of the poor people in the country that would put any odd piece of metal in the slot in the hope that it registered and allowed the gas to flow for a little while longer. The reader would calculate how much was owed, tot up the legal tender in the box, and take the amount owed and return the rest to mother!  She would then put the legal coins back in the meter and place the rubbish on a shelf for use later…perhaps.

You may ask what we used to get the gas flowing. The easiest piece to use was an Irish penny there were thousands of these finding their way into circulation in England. They were the identical size and weight to the British penny and if your mother didn’t check her change carefully she might find one in her purse which would then be placed near the meter for use when the gas ran out. She might try to return it to a shopkeeper but usually they were ahead in that game. We tried French francs to mimic a shilling but they were made of a very light alloy at the time and were slightly smaller than a shilling and didn’t work at all.

As time went by our stock of Irish pennies grew and each time the meter man came there was less real cash refunded. Luckily we never got to the point when the meter man would glare at mother and demand the three pence short in the meter or threaten to call the police. But we were honest folk…generally.

The electric meter was another matter it only accepted shillings. Because most meters used shillings they were often difficult to get hold of and as a precaution of not having electric light at night one shilling piece was placed on top of the meter in case the light failed and left everyone in the pitch dark. This would mean the tallest person would have to find a chair, drag it to the hall where the meter was placed high on the wall and grope in the dark to locate the shilling and insert it in the slot and turn the handle to get the meter to receive it and the light would return. That is unless you found the shilling had not been put there, or you accidentally flicked it off and it was somewhere on the floor in the darkness or it had been borrowed to use in the gas meter or Mum had used it to buy some vegetables and hoped the power wouldn’t run out before Dad came home.

Meanwhile I fumbled my way to bed as I had missed Dick Barton on the radio by this time in any case.


  1. I don't know if we ever had metered gas and electric here in the States. It's one of those things I've come across in books, but had never followed up on to learn more.

    Thanks for sharing this bit of your childhood with us. Some things, such as gas meters, are perhaps so unique to a small window of time, that more people should write about them so they aren't forgotten.

  2. Well at least you are tall now! Sadly meter systems still get a little stick (like a USB) pay £5 at the post office and charge up your meter..the world changes and it doesn't..glad to be a bad penny!

  3. What a hoot, a royal palaver, and therefore a hell of a character-building exercise! Explains why you're such a good storyteller :-D

  4. did not know about meter systems..i don't recall seeing them in India as well..
    thanks for a wonderful peek into your childhood and this look at life that shapes each of us even when we read about it..