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
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.