The BBC have just published an article on their “On this day” series (15th February) about the year 1971 – the time of “D-Day” and the change to decimal currency from the old shillings and pence. A link to this article appears below. (Comment for Metric Views contributed by Phil Hall)
It was a well managed change and carried out with conviction on the part of those responsible. It wasn’t without its critics and there was some hostility from ordinary people. I recall it fairly well and viewing the video clip on the above web page showing news reports broadcast on the day of the changeover, reminded me of some of the difficulties people complained about. Some of the people the reporter spoke to actually admitted they couldn’t cope with checking their change and were prepared to trust the trader to get it right!
I find this quite astonishing when you consider how easy decimal coinage is compared to the old £sd. One would have expected that people used to a system with 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound would have no trouble counting up with (effectively) a scheme involving only a single number and where the conversion between pounds and pence is trivial.
However after thinking about it further, I also remember that a lot of people tended to continue to think of money in shillings and pence for some time afterwards. Whenever they encountered “new pence” they tried to convert back in an effort to assimilate it in terms they ‘understood’. This in fact is probably the mistake some shoppers were making when handling the new coinage. They assumed it was necessary to convert back before doing the arithmetic. No wonder they had trouble with it!
It was only as a result of the complete disappearance of the old penny and shilling from financial transactions that people began to think properly in the new system and forget about the old one. Only then were they in a position to fully appreciate the benefits.
This is in complete contrast to the way metrication has been handled. People are still bedevilled by a situation where they can’t let go of imperial so that they can concentrate on using metric in the manner in which it is meant to be used. As things are, metric units are just another set of measures that are used for some things but not others. The unnecessary difficulties of conversion make metrication seem to many a futile exercise undertaken for no obvious reasons and with no obvous benefits. However, in the many Commonwealth countries that have successfully completed the metric changeover few would welcome the return of imperial measures. And in Britain and Ireland, having made the successful changeover to decimal currency, few would now willingly revert to £sd.