In the phrase bang went sixpence, or bang goes sixpence, the stem of the verb bang is used adverbially with the verb go to denote abruptness.
Based on the stereotype of Scots being thrifty, and even miserly, this phrase originated in the story of the Scotsman who complained that, on a visit to London, he had to spend sixpence, a small sum which he regarded as a large amount of money.
The earliest mention that I have found of this story is from Our Paris Letter, published in The Hereford Times (Hereford, Herefordshire, England) of 16th November 1867—Sandy, shortened form of the name Alexander, was used as a nickname for a Scotsman:
There is a good story told of a worthy Scotchman who went to London and wrote home to a friend complaining of the high prices of things “in general.” “Would ye believe it, mon?” exclaimed Sandy, in this precious epistle, “I had na been here twenty-four hours before bang went a sixpence!”
The story was then mentioned in The Islington Gazette (Islington, Middlesex, England) of 10th November 1868:
Scotchmen are not generally lavish. One of them is said to have gone home from London—though we confess this lends improbability to our story, saying—“I never was in such a toun. I had na’ been there a day before bang went saxpence.”
But it was the English artist and illustrator Charles Samuel Keene (1823-1891) who popularised the phrase in the caption to the following cartoon, titled Thrift, published in Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England) of 5th December 1868—Peebles is the county town of Peeblesshire, in southern Scotland:
Peebles Body (to Townsman who was supposed to be in London on a visit). “E—eh, Mac! Ye’re sune Hame again!”
Mac. “E—eh, it’s just a ruinous Place, that! Mun, a had na’ been the-erre abune Twa Hoours when—Bang—went Saxpence!!!”
Several British newspapers quoted the caption to this cartoon in December 1868. And, five years later, the cartoon was still mentioned, especially with reference to the World Exhibition held in the Austro-Hungarian capital Vienna—for example in The Tamworth Herald (Tamworth, Staffordshire, England) of 24th May 1873:
There was a caricature in Punch some years since, in which a Scotchman was represented as saying that he had been only 10 minutes in the town, and “bang went saxpence.” Change sixpence into a florin, and that represents the expense incurred in Vienna in Exhibition year for everything. The prices are enormous.
As late as 7th July 1877, The Derbyshire Times (Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England) mentioned:
The Peebles man who declared that he had not been two hours in London before “bang went saxpence.”
From Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser (Ulverston, Lancashire, England) of 11th August 1881, the following refers to the story of the Scotsman who complained about the level of prices in London—one shilling = twelve pence:
“Bang Went Saxpence.”—The canny Scot who had not been in London many hours before “bang went saxpence,” is an historic character, and his race does not seem likely to die out. The other day a firm of merchants in this city found a stray overcoat on their premises, and as it was evidently almost new, and probably worth some £3 or £4, they advertised the find in the newspapers. One day shortly afterwards a canny Scot came to them and proclaimed himself the owner. He had heard of the advertisement, and had come to claim the coat, which he proceeded forthwith to identify. It was handed over to him, and with a profuse “guid day t’ ye,” he was about to depart, when the merchant said, “By the way, there is the advertisement. It cost us a shilling, and perhaps you would not object to pay the amount.” This was too much for the Scot. “Pay the advertisement! Nay, nay, my man; I didn’t order any advertisement.” “Well, I know you didn’t,” replied the merchant; “but as it has been the means of your finding your coat, I thought you would probably not object.” “Object! Of course I object; I ordered na advertisement, and nane’ll be paid for by me. Guid day tull ye.” Away the canny Northerner departed from the office with the coat over his arm, leaving the amazed merchant standing alone, reflecting upon national characteristics. Suddenly, however, the Scot re-appeared at the door with a coin in his hand, and exclaiming, “I’ll tell ye what I’ll do; I’ll gang halfers [= I’ll go half-share] aboot that advertisement,” threw sixpence down, and departed.—Carlisle Journal.]
EARLY OCCURRENCES OF BANG WENT, OR GOES, SIXPENCE USED AS A PHRASE
The earliest occurrence that I have found—which refers to thriftiness and is used attributively—is from Turf Jottings, published in The Daily Telegraph (London, England) of 17th October 1870—Kelso is a town in southern Scotland:
The Border folks, at all events, do not follow up the “bang-went-saxpence” principle in racing matters, and much liberality is displayed in their programmes, particularly at Kelso, the bill for Tuesday and Wednesday evincing enterprise and even munificence in its compilation.
On the contrary, the second-earliest occurrence that I have found refers to wastefulness—it is from Black Mail, a description of “the robberies practised by hangers-on at Turf meetings”, published in The Sporting Times, A Review of Racing, Literature, and the Drama (London, England) of 28th June 1873:
At Ascot we had to pay 1s. 6d. for a brandy and soda (so called) in which the flavour of the Cognac was scarcely perceptible. But we do not grumble. “Hope you’ve won your money, Captain,” shriek the gutter snipes, as you return, fagged and dispirited, and the more dispirited you are the less you like to show it, so you fling a copper and pass on. “Backed the favourite, Sir?” says the guard. “Shall I lock the door, Sir?” with a touch of his cap, and “bang goes saxpence,” as the Scotchman said.
Again with reference to wastefulness, and together with a variant, the phrase then occurs in an article about the Scottish-Canadian politician Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892), who served as Prime Minister of Canada from 1873 to 1878—article published in the Daily Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) of 26th March 1874:
[Alexander Mackenzie,] like the canny Scotchman who visited London, finds Ottawa an unco’ extravagant place to live in, as he hadn’t been here more than a month when “bang went a saxpence,” and next month “bang went a dollar” at a bazaar.
In a speech that he delivered during the forty-fourth meeting of the Royal United Service Institution—as transcribed in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of 9th March 1875—the Earl of Pembroke mentioned:
The cry which is always raised on the part of economists of “Here is a Conservative Government that has only been in for a year 1, and bang goes sixpence.”
1 The British Conservative statesman Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) had served as Prime Minister since 20th February 1874.
The following from The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of 11th March 1875 seems to indicate that the phrase quoted by the Earl of Pembroke referred to the Conservative Government’s abundant spending:
Although the impossibility of pleasing everybody is generally admitted, it is rather surprising that a portion of the Liberal press should be so greatly exercised at the fact of Mr. Ward Hunt 2 not having brought forward largely-increased Navy Estimates. Perhaps here is a feeling of soreness at being deprived of the wonted cry which, as the Earl of Pembroke recently remarked, amounts to “Here’s the Conservative Government in for a year, and bang goes sixpence.”
2 The Conservative statesman George Ward Hunt (1825-1877) served as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1874 until his death.
Finally, the phrase occurs in a letter that a Scotsman signing himself ‘Scotty’ wrote from Lanark, in Scotland, on 17th February 1877—letter published in the Volunteer Service Gazette (London, England) of 24th February 1877:
The storage of rifles at Wimbledon, though apparently a small matter, is one that much affects the comfort and convenience of Volunteers, and when I say that “bang went a saxpence” every time I contracted for a night’s lodging for my rifle, I think even my liberal English brethren will admit it was a shade salt.