50 years of decimal currency

On 15 February 2021, we mark 50 years of decimal currency in the UK.

The Royal Mint is issuing new coins to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Decimal Day. Decimal Day was also known as D-Day. You can find details about the new Royal Mint coins at https://www.royalmint.com/decimal-day. D-Day took place on 15 February 1971 when the new decimal currency was introduced.

D Day, 15th February 1971

There were many years of planning for the decimalisation of British currency.

The Decimal Association was founded in 1841 to push for decimalisation of the UK’s currency. It took 130 years to achieve its aims. The first British decimal coin, the florin, worth one tenth of a pound, was introduced in 1849.

Inspired by the success of decimalisation in South Africa and in response to various reports, the UK government set up the Halsbury Committee in 1961 to look into decimalisation. This committee reported in 1963. Its detailed report examined 25 separate systems over 2 years and favoured the maintenance of the pound as the basic currency unit. This meant that the pound kept its old value and name but the sub-units that made up the pound changed. The big advantages of keeping the pound as the basic unit were familiarity, international recognition and reputation. Its proposals were adopted in 1966 and the Decimal Currency Board was created to manage the transition to the new decimal currency. Parliament passed the Decimal Currency Act in 1969, which paved the way for decimalisation in 1971.

The use of a decimal currency had the following major advantages:

  1. Counting in shops and banks becomes much easier and faster.
  2. Machines that use the decimal counting process are easy to use and cheap.
  3. It would make elementary arithmetic in schools a lot easier.

On 1 March 1966, James Callaghan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:

“The cost of going decimal is heavy but you recover it within a year or two and, from then on, you get a bonus all the way through; a bonus in teaching time, ease of teaching, a bonus in terms of transactions in banks and commercial counting houses, a bonus in shops, everywhere around this is a much simpler, better system and I very much regret that we are the last major country to adopt it. However, we are and I am very glad we are.”

Before D-Day, there was a huge publicity campaign to explain the changes to the general public. Small booklets were made to explain the changes for several weeks before D-Day. The government ran a media campaign, including public information films about the new decimal currency, to inform the general public and familiarise the population about the new decimal currency.

The old pre-decimal currency of £sd or Lsd was used in the UK until 1971. It had its origins in the Roman Empire. Historically, this currency system was used across much of Western Europe. The letters in this system stood for Latin unit names:

  • L = libra (plural: librae), English: pound
  • s = solidus (plural: solidi), English: shilling
  • d = denarius (plural: denarii), English: penny/pence

In the old £sd system, there were 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound or 240 pence to a pound. There were 4 farthings to a penny and 1 pound + 1 shilling made a guinea. The coins that had been in circulation in the British Isles at some time in the past up until Decimal Day, from smallest to largest denomination, were:

  • Farthing (quarter of an old penny)
  • Halfpenny (half of an old penny)
  • Penny (1 old penny)
  • Half Groat (2 old pence)
  • Brass Threepence (3 old pence)
  • Silver Threepence (3 old pence)
  • Groat (4 old pence)
  • Sixpence (6 old pence)
  • English Shilling (12 old pence)
  • Scottish Shilling (12 old pence)
  • Florin (2 shillings = 24 old pence)
  • Half Crown (2 shillings and 6 old pence = 30 old pence)
  • Crown (5 shillings = 60 old pence)
  • Half Sovereign (10 shillings = 120 old pence)
  • Half Guinea (10 shillings and 6 old pence = 126 old pence)
  • Sovereign (1 pound = 20 shillings = 240 old pence)
  • Guinea (1 pound and 1 shilling = 21 shillings = 252 old pence)

Of those coins that were not accepted as part of the decimal system, only the 1d and 3d coins were still in general circulation immediately before D-Day. In preparation for decimalisation, the halfpenny was demonetised in 1969 and half-crown was demonetised in 1970. The other coins were either not in general circulation or had already been demonetised. There was a ten shilling note but this was withdrawn before D-Day.

The old £sd pre-decimal currency was replaced by a new decimal currency system where £1 = 100 new pence. New pence was printed on the new decimal coins to distinguish the new pennies from the old pennies and avoid confusion. One new penny was equivalent to 2.4 old pennies. In the new decimal currency system, the pound remained unchanged but the coins that made up the pound changed.

In preparation for D-Day, the 5p and 10p coins were introduced in 1968 and the 50p coin was introduced in 1969. The only new decimal coins on D-Day were the 2p, 1p and ½p coins. The 20p decimal coin was introduced in 1982, 11 years after D-Day. When shoppers spent their old coins after D-Day, they were given change in new coins.

The old coins remained legal tender for some time after D-Day though shoppers were encouraged to use the new coins. All silver pre-decimal coins still in circulation on D-Day, remained in circulation for many years. The last remaining pre-decimal coin, the old 2s coin, was not demonetised until 1993. The only pre-decimal coins that were withdrawn from circulation immediately after D-Day were the 1d and 3d coins. Not all shops went decimal on 15 February 1971. Some shops remained as £sd shops for a few weeks while they updated cash registers and other equipment. 1d and 3d coins were only accepted in £p shops after D-Day in multiples of 6d (2.5p). Prices in shops were dual marked for a number of weeks both before and after D-Day.

In the next article on Metric Views we shall look at the lessons learned from the successful introduction of decimal currency and ask why they were not applied to the UK’s changeover to metric measures.

Further reading:

7 thoughts on “50 years of decimal currency”

  1. It’s amazing how well the introduction of decimal currency was handled and what a success it was. And that was in the days before computers and, I imagine, electronic cash registers. There are some details in the article which I had forgotten (I was young at the time of the changeover), like the old shilling and florin remaining legal tender, until 1993 in the case of the 2s coin! But I don’t think you actually saw any of those coins in circulation any more, or not much more, after D-Day. So the actual process was phased in, implemented and then bedded in over the course of about 20 years.

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  2. On 1 March 1966, James Callaghan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:
    “The cost of going decimal is heavy but you recover it within a year or two and, from then on, you get a bonus all the way through; a bonus in teaching time, ease of teaching, a bonus in terms of transactions in banks and commercial counting houses, a bonus in shops, everywhere around this is a much simpler, better system and I very much regret that we are the last major country to adopt it. However, we are and I am very glad we are.”
    With just a few tweaks, that same statement could have been used to justify the changeover to the metric system. What a wasted opportunity.

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  3. I feel that the decimalisation of British money went more smoothly than metrication because the change was not as intense or aggressive as metrication. In the decimalisation of the currency, the pound did not change, where as in other countries, the pound was replaced and given a new name, such as the dollar. With 20 shillings to a pound, the shilling in essence becomes 5 c£. So, the shilling coin works in both decimal and non-decimal.
    The rest of the smaller coins and monetary units smaller than the shilling it seems to me were due for obsolescence any way since inflation would have eaten their values away. They all were less than a cent, which even today isn’t worth much. It would have been a matter of time before some sort of reform was needed if decimalisation had not taken place when it did.
    Even though metrication is often compared to decimalisation, they aren’t even close. Metrication involves a more deeper change and a whole new way of thinking about measurement. The training would have needed to be much more and much deeper.
    Changing to metric units is more than replacing inches with millimetres, pounds with kilograms, quarts and gallons with litres, miles with kilometres. Metric or SI is a whole new way of measuring in which there is only one unit for each quantity to be measured and a set of scaling prefixes to adjust the value into a suitable range. It’s too bad and really a failure of those who should have known better for not teaching SI as the efficient system it is. Those who use metric today are in no better position than those who use imperial of US Customary as they measure and report measurements the same and don’t take advantage of the large range of possibilities SI has to offer.

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  4. Daniel@
    Good points, sir. A wonder then that metrication in the UK has progressed has much as it has. Celsius dominates temperature and citizens are warned to keep a distance of 2 metres. The sad part certainly is that, if Labour had kept the majority and finished metrication of road signs back in the 1960’s, metrication in the UK would for the most part be well and truly done and dusted by now.

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  5. Daniel wrote: “Metrication involves a more deeper change and a whole new way of thinking about measurement. The training would have needed to be much more and much deeper.”

    True as that may be, the use of metric units has been taught in schools in the UK for nearly half a century! How much training does a child need to be able to measure in metric? The problems arise outside of the school gates where the signs on the roads telling drivers to slow down will be in ‘yards’. And the speed limit will be in ‘miles per hour’. This is the problem: the disconnect between what kids learn and what they see in the world beyond their school. I think people have got well adjusted to seeing goods priced by the kg or the g, and cooking in metric measures, because that is what they see and what they get used to. Also, people are much more mobile and travel internationally much more than they did a generation or two ago. With few exceptions like the USA, the outside world is metric too. Time is wasted in schools teaching conversions from metric back to imperial units still ‘in use’ in the UK. When is the UK going to shift these resources into doing the obvious thing and completing metrication where it’s still needed, predominantly on the roads and on road signs?

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  6. metricnow@
    Best indicators of the road sign conversion boost for metrication are Ireland and Canada. Full stop! 🙂

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  7. In my view, the real reason why decimalisation succeeded but metrication has ground to a halt is that the government did not try to run both the old and the new systems of currency alongside each other. Pre-decimal coins were phased out and replaced by decimal coins as quickly as possible. In the case of metrication, the government assumed that metrication coud be achieved by ozmosis.
    In more recent years, I saw the adotion of the euro at first hand in Italy. During the first week of January 2002 I bought something in a supermarket and tendered a banknote denominated in lira. The cashier put the note into a special bag (which probably went to the bank that night). By the end of January most of the lira coins and banknotes had disappeared form circulation. This just to show that a rapid change-over can be achieved in the political will is there.

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